Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s first Winter Meetings are in the rearview mirror, and as he leaves Nashville, it’s time to look back and see how he did with the team’s most pressing needs:
Upgrade the Bullpen
Last season, the Astros’ bullpen was in the bottom 5 in the major leagues in ERA (5th-worst), batting average against (2nd-worst), save percentage (5th-worst), WHIP (3rd-worst), and home runs against (7th-worst). Upgrading the bullpen is at or near the top of the priority list for most GMs every offseason, and this year was no different for Luhnow.
The first thing anyone notices is the trade of Wilton Lopez to Colorado, in exchange for Alex White and Alex Gillingham. You might raise your eyebrows and wonder how the bullpen will be improved through the loss of Lopez, the team’s best reliever, but it might have been. During the Winter Meetings, the Astros added several arms, including White, Gillingham, Rule 5 picks Josh Fields and Cameron Lamb, and Mickey Storey, claimed off waivers from the Yankees (who’d claimed him off waivers themselves from Houston before the Winter Meetings.)
Storey, Fields, and White should contribute immediately to the 2013 pitching staff. It’s unclear whether White is being looked at as a starter or as a reliever, but the story on him since college is that he could be a fairly dominant reliever. What’s helpful, too, is that he’s a similar-type pitcher to Lopez, but under team control longer. Fields is a power pitcher, and Storey had a very nice season in 2012, with 10.09 K/9 and a 2.80 FIP.
Maybe the best news is that Jason Stoffel, who figures to be a good bullpen arm for the Astros in 2014 if not sooner, didn’t get taken in the Rule 5 Draft. Of course, this is through no great display of skill by Houston, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Prior to the Winter Meetings, Houston had already picked up Sam Demel off waivers from the Diamondbacks.
Lamb and Gillingham won’t pitch for the big league club this season, but Storey, White, Fields, and probably Stoffel will. Without signing a single free agent or spending any real money, Luhnow & Co. at least maintained the big league bullpen, whether or not they actually strengthened it.
Improve the Starting Rotation
Before the Winter Meetings, the Astros went out and snagged Philip Humber off waivers from the White Sox. Heading into Nashville, it didn’t seem very likely that much else would be done to improve the starting rotation, which could benefit from a veteran presence that slots in either above or below Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, and Bud Norris. Figure that the competition for the final two rotation spots is currently between Jarred Cosart, Dallas Keuchel, and Alex White.
Clearly, this is an area where the Astros could use an upgrade, even if it’s just a veteran stop-gap who can hold down the fort until Cosart’s put in some time in Oklahoma City.
There are still some veteran arms I like, including Francisco Liriano, and some more that I’ll discuss later in the week. But during the Winter Meetings, unless you consider White a potential starter, Luhnow did not address the rotation.
Find a Designated Hitter
Despite reports that the Astros checked in on Lance Berkman, Travis Hafner, and Carlos Pena, no one was signed during the Winter Meetings with the express intent of playing DH for the Astros. Rule 5 selection Nate Freiman does look like someone who might be able to fill the role if no one else is signed, as he can provide pop at the plate, but I can’t even imagine that he’s Option A for anyone in the Houston front office.
Though Houston came out of the Winter Meetings arguably stronger than when they went in, there are still holes to address. Still, for Luhnow’s first go-around, it was a pretty solid effort without spending any money or making any compromises.
Last week, the Phillies and Astros very nearly came to terms on a trade that would send Wilton Lopez to Philadelphia in exchange for prospects (presumably, Tyler Cloyd and Sebastian Valle). That deal fell through, presumably because the Phillies saw something they didn’t like in Lopez’s physical.
Today, however, the Rockies and Astros came to terms on a deal that sends Wilton to Colorado. The Astros will receive Alex White and Alex Gillingham in return.
On Houston’s side, White is the “get” in this trade. A first rounder (15th overall) out of UNC-Chapel Hill by Cleveland in 2009, he was considered a top ten Indians prospect in 2011 when he was sent to Colorado as part of the Ubaldo Jimenez deal.
White pitched parts of the last two seasons in the majors. He turned 24 years old in August, and won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2015.
Though his success has been limited in the big leagues so far, White has a decent ceiling. He comes with a heavy sinker in the low 90s, a splitter, and a slider, all of which he can throw for strikes. He’s also got a changeup, which seems designed more to set up his other stuff than anything else. He’s shown some control issues, walking 3.83 batters per 9 innings in the minors while striking out just 6.45. He’ll no doubt learn to pitch to contact a little better, and his 51.4% ground ball rate should play in Minute Maid Park.
Getting out of Coors Field should have the effect of reducing his HR/9 rate, as well, which he already reduced from 2.63 in 2011 to 1.19 in 2012. In none of his five stops in the minors did he allow as many as 1 home run per nine; nor did he post an ERA over 3 at any of them until 2012 in Colorado Springs, where his walk rate spiked. It doesn’t look like an issue that can’t be controlled.
Gillingham was an 11th rounder in 2011 out of Loyola Marymount University right here in sunny Los Angeles. He’s thrown just under 185 innings between Rookie and A-ball. Though his strikeout rates aren’t impressive by themselves, he does strike out about three batters for every walk one he walks.
His 2012 looks particularly good: 123.0 IP, 6-8, 83 K, 28 BB, 5 HR, 1.22 WHIP, 3.66 ERA. For the record, that’s 0.37 home runs per 9 innings pitched. He turned 23 in October, so it’s iffy whether he’ll go straight to Corpus Christi or spend some time in Lancaster; I suspect the latter, but we’ll see.
If he can continue to keep his groundball rate high and his HR/9 low, he could be a real quality piece for the Astros.
Initial reports of this trade had Parker Frazier coming to Houston, but that idea was eliminated. Frazier is, however, available in the Rule 5 draft. So we’ll see if he ends up in Houston’s bullpen in Spring Training, anyway.
Jeff Luhnow has specifically said he’s on the lookout for starting pitching – someone to slot in ahead of Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, and Jordan Lyles. Because of the situation in which the Astros find themselves, however, going out and signing a high-priced free agent isn’t a likelihood. It’s barely a possibility. So they have to look for bargains.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Francisco Liriano could be a great fit in Houston. But today, in reading Nick Cafardo’s piece in the Boston Globe, another thought occurred to me.
I’ll quote Cafardo:
After an injury-filled season in Minnesota (a bone bruise in his right shoulder limited him to 11 starts) [Carl] Pavano was given a clean bill of health in September and has prepared for his new adventure this offseason. Agent Dave Pepe said he has received a few preliminary calls on Pavano, who turns 37 in January. Pavano could come in with a minor league deal or a one-year major league deal. He had pitched more than 220 innings the previous two seasons for the Twins and could be an interesting back-end-of-the-rotation starter.
In those 11 starts, Pavano still racked up 0.6 fWAR, which would have been good enough for 6th-best in Houston, behind Harrell, Norris, Lyles, Wandy Rodriguez, and Wilton Lopez. He would have been tied with J.A. Happ.
Pavano may be best known for his disastrous run with the New York Yankees from 2005-08. The Yankees signed him to a lucrative contract after the 2005 season, when he was an All-Star for the Marlins and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting. In parts of three seasons (he spent the entire 2006 season in the minors), he amassed just 1.1 fWAR for the Bombers.
That’s one version of Carl Pavano.
The other is a guy who has pitched parts of 11 seasons for 4 teams (Montreal, Cleveland, Florida, and Minnesota) and averaged over 2.0 fWAR. He’s a veteran presence, he doesn’t give up a ton of home runs (1.01 HR/9 over his career), he’s affordable, and he can eat innings. He has a 46.6% ground ball ratio. You’d like to see it a little higher, but I’d take it.
And what’s more, if 2012 was indeed a fluke and he’s now healthy, look at his time in Minnesota from 2010-2011, in which he averaged 3.1 fWAR and a FIP right around 4.
This is exactly the high-upside guy that minor league contracts with Spring Training invitations were built for, and the Astros are exactly the kind of team where Pavano could sign a one- or two-year contract and actually slot into the rotation. He’s been around a long time and could help bring the youngsters along. It’s a signing that makes a ton of sense to me.
For some reason, no one seems to be throwing awards at the 2012 Houston Astros squad.
So I thought it might be fun to distribute my own awards. And, so, introducing the First Annual All-Astros Award Winners:
Rookie of the Year
In theory, this was a wide-open race. Fifteen different players took the field for the Houston Astros who qualified as rookies. On the offensive side of the ball, third baseman Matt Dominguez led the pace. A piece of the Carlos Lee deal with Miami, Dominguez had a slash line of 284/310/477, with 5 home runs and 16 RBI in 31 games as an Astro.
But Dominguez’s output was dwarfed by fellow rookie Lucas Harrell. Harrell had time on his side – he pitched 193.2 innings in 32 games, all of them starts. He was able to keep the ball inside Minute Maid Park, allowing just 13 home runs. He won double digit games (11-11), with a 3.76 ERA, and 2.8 WAR (by comparison, Dominguez had 0.5 WAR, and NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper had 4.9. Arizona’s Wade Miley paced all rookie pitchers with 4.8).
So congrats, Mr. Harrell, you are the first-ever winner of the All-Astros Rookie of the Year Award.
Most Valuable Player
It only seems prudent to divide this award between hitters and pitchers. On the offensive side, shortstop Jed Lowrie may only have played in 97 games in 2012, but his slash line of 244/331/438 is very impressive. He had the best walk rate on the team (11.1%) and a pretty decent strikeout rate, too – just 16.8%. He clubbed 16 home runs and had 42 RBI, both second only to Justin Maxwell, his primary competition for this award. But in the end, Lowrie edged out Maxwell in WAR, wOBA, and wRC+, which makes it awfully hard to pick against him.
On the pitching side, Harrell takes home his second trophy of the night. Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez were the next-best, but each fell at least a win lower than Harrell in WAR, and neither came close in ERA or wins, either. Wilton Lopez had some impressive numbers out of the bullpen, but pitched 130 innings fewer than Harrell.
Admittedly, it seems strange to go with Lopez over Harrell here, since Harrell did win the team MVP, but if we’re looking for the best pitcher, I still think the nod has to go to Lopez. He didn’t throw nearly as many innings as Harrell, so his cumulative stats are all a lot lower, but his xFIP of 2.80, a WHIP of 1.04, SIERA of 2.53, and a 20.8% strikeout rate (and 3.1% walk rate) are all miles better than Harrell. If the Astros had found themselves in more high-leverage situations, Lopez could have been called on to throw more innings. Since he didn’t, his overall value may pale next to Harrell, but compiling 1.4 WAR in just over 66 innings is nothing to scoff at.
I’m going to break this award up, as well. It’s hard to find a defensive metric where Justin Maxwell wasn’t the best in 2012, but there is one, which we’ll get to later. Maxwell more than doubled his nearest competitor (Brandon Barnes) in UZR. His ARM, RngR, and ErrR are all at the very top of the team. But there is one area where he lost out.
Brian Bixler – signed this morning by the Mets, by the way – may have played just 59 innings at the major league level last season, but he did it all over the field. Second base, third base, shortstop, and both corner outfield positions. His 73.3 UZR/150 is impressive – almost 2.5 times Maxwell’s 29.4. So he wins as the best overall defender, though Maxwell wins as the best full-timer in the field.
As mentioned above, there isn’t an offensive metric where Jed Lowrie didn’t dominate his teammates in 2012. Though Maxwell did end up providing more power (.232 ISO to .194), he simply couldn’t get on base anywhere near as often as Lowrie. Lowrie’s value comes from putting the ball in play. He led the team in wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. It’s difficult to get past Lowrie’s numbers, though Maxwell’s output can’t be denied. Still, in overall offensive capability, I have to go with Lowrie.