Category: Dailies

Cooperstown Calling

As we count down the final days to the start to Spring Training, I’ve been wanting to take the opportunity to talk about the one other big bit of Astros-related news this winter: Jeff Bagwell and the Hall of Fame.

We already know the results of this year’s voting. Bagwell became a buzzword and an unfair scapegoat this winter for PED usage and how it affects HOF induction. I won’t argue in depth a case that’s already been argued to death, but the bottom line is that Bagwell has never, ever been connected to PED usage. I didn’t expect him to get elected this year, because he didn’t reach the magic 500-homer or 3000-hit plateaus that seem to be required for first-ballot election. But it’s absurd to label him a “marginal” candidate because of that, and even more absurd to try and exclude him from the Hall based on the possible chance that maybe he might have at some point potentially considered using PEDs during his playing days. Unless concrete evidence to the contrary suddenly emerges, the PED issue should have no effect on Bagwell’s candidacy. Period. And as for his “marginal” status – Baseball Prospectus ranks Bagwell as the fourth-greatest first baseman of all-time based on their JAWS metric, ahead of other such “marginal” candidates as Jimmie Foxx, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Rod Carew and Eddie Murray. He belongs in Cooperstown, end of discussion, and it will be a crime if he never makes it in.

Fortunately, the voting results this year actually weren’t that bad for Bagwell, so it seems now more of a question of when he gets in than if. The purpose of this post is to examine that question. To that end, let’s look at other HOF candidates who posted similar percentages in their first year on the ballot.

In the last 30 years, five other players besides Bagwell have received vote totals in the 40% range their first go round:

1993: Steve Garvey (41.6%)
1998: Gary Carter (42.3%)
2002: Andre Dawson (45.3%)
2003: Lee Smith (42.3%)
2003: Ryne Sandberg (49.2%)
2011: Jeff Bagwell (41.7%)

Of those other five, three (Carter, Dawson, Sandberg) are now enshrined in Cooperstown, one (Smith) is still on the ballot, and one (Garvey) stayed on the ballot for 15 years before he ran out of chances. Examining their cases one by one:

Steve Garvey: Garvey was a long-time Dodgers first baseman, a ten-time All-Star and the 1974 NL MVP. He racked up 2599 career hits (to Bagwell’s 2314) with a .294 career batting average (to Bagwell’s .297), so the two would at first seem comparable. Bagwell and Garvey also both won Gold Gloves and MVP awards. But Bagwell put up much better numbers in HRs (449 v. 272), RBIs (1529 v. 1308), and OPS (.948 v. .775), and that in four fewer seasons. Bagwell also ranks 57th all-time in career WAR (79.9), leading the league twice and posting top 10 finishes six times, whereas Garvey never broke the top 10 and ranks 513th all-time. Garvey was a very good player, but not a great one, and that’s reflected in that he only once ever posted a higher percentage in HOF voting (42.6% in ’95) than in his first year on the ballot.

Gary Carter: The great Expos and Mets catcher was elected to the Hall in 2003 after his sixth appearance on the ballot. After earning 42.3% of the vote on his first go, he dropped to 33.8% the next year, then gained ground every year after that (49.7%, 64.9%, 72.7%) before he finally received 78% in ’03. The Kid’s career 66.3 WAR is good for 106th all-time, but significantly lower than Bagwell’s 79.9.

Andre Dawson: The Hawk was finally a member of the HOF class last year on his 9th try. After posting 45.3% on his first ballot, he held or gained ground every year thereafter but one (50%, 50%, 52.3%, 61%, 56.7%, 65.9%, 67%) until 2010’s 77.9% pushed him over the 75% required for election. Dawson was four times in the top 10 in WAR, earning 57.0 for his career, 178th best ever.

Lee Smith: Lee Smith has had nine turns on the ballot so far, earning 42.3% on his first go round and hovering in that neighborhood ever since. Since his first year on the ballot in 2003, Smith has received 36.6%, 38.8%, 45%, 39.8%, 43.3%, 44.5%, 47.3% and 45.3% of the HOF vote. He’s #3 on the all-time career saves list and one of the pioneers of the modern “closer” role in baseball, which is what his candidacy is primarily based on. But it seems that the BBWAA is still struggling to decide what to do with relievers when it comes to the Hall of Fame. WAR has become an increasingly important stat to voters in recent years, so Smith’s ranking as 698th all-time doesn’t do him many favors (though it does put him well ahead of fellow closer and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers at 927th). He may or may not eventually make it in – he’ll get six more tries – but his situation is so different from Bagwell’s that comparisons are almost impossible.

Ryne Sandberg: Ryno was one of my favorite non-Astros as a kid, so I was well pleased when he got elected to the Hall in 2005, his third time on the ballot. After gathering 49.2% for his initial tally, he got 61.1% in 2004, then made it in with 76.2% of the vote. Sandberg has weaker career stats than Bagwell in almost every major offensive category (though Sandberg did get 72 more hits, but in about 600 more at bats). However, Sandberg played most of his career at 2B – a traditionally weaker offensive position than 1B – so he’s rightfully regarded as one of the best offensive second basemen of all-time. He has a career WAR rank of #139, finishing in the top 10 in the league five times.

All other things being equal, it would seem that Jeff Bagwell has a stronger Hall of Fame argument than all of these other five players, three of whom are already in Cooperstown and one of whom may yet make it. One made it in three tries, one made it in six and one in nine, so there’s no clear trend in the voting history, making it hard to predict when Baggy might finally get the call, but I’ll venture a guess anyway.

Looking at the most recent two years of voting, Roberto Alomar saw a jump of 16.3% from his first year on the ballot to his second. We know that, whether justifiable or not, a certain percentage of the HOF voting body believes in the sanctity of the first ballot. This is reflected perhaps most dramatically in Alomar’s percentages, as he’s the first player ever to be elected with 90% of the vote not on the first ballot. A certain percentage of voters no doubt withheld their votes for him in 2010 based on his 1996 spitting incident involving umpire John Hirschbeck, but it’s impossible to know what that exact percentage is. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say that those 16.3% are the first ballot purists. If Bagwell were to see a similar jump in his votes next year, that would place him at 58%; if for two years, that would place him at an excruciatingly close 74.3% in 2013.

So it’s a fairly sure bet that Bagwell won’t make it in next year either, but 2013 ought to afford him his first great chance. Alomar has a career WAR total of 63.5 and a career rank of 126th (as opposed to Bagwell’s 79.9 and 57th), so it’s not unrealistic to imagine Bagwell gaining at least an equal or greater percentage each year. 2013 will be Craig Biggio’s first year on the ballot, too, and of course Biggio did reach that magic 3000 hit mark, so he’s got a great shot on his first ballot (every other 3000-hit club member since 1953 has been elected on the first ballot except for Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro). How many career teammates like Bagwell and Biggio have there been in recent years? How many people would love to see them enshrined together?

The concern about 2013 that some have expressed is the number of other stellar candidates appearing on the ballot then and soon thereafter. But this is wh
ere the PED controversy might actually help Bagwell’s chances rather than hurt him. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa and Curt Schilling will all be first-time candidates along with Craig Biggio that year. But Bonds, Clemens and Sosa all have ties to PEDs, and Bagwell should have a much stronger case – especially in his third year – than both Schilling and Piazza. With Bagwell and Biggio both clear of any PED evidence, wouldn’t the voters love to honor them in contrast?

I’ve never been to Cooperstown, but I’ve always wanted to go. Summer of 2013 will be, I expect, a once-in-a-lifetime event for all Astros fans. I’m planning a trip already.

OTHER NEWS

Joel Roza of the Corpus Christi Caller agrees with me on a Carlos Lee for Michael Young trade. Luke Truxal of MLBcenter.com also says that Lee-for-Young “makes the most sense.” At this point I still expect either 1. Colorado or 2. no one to end up acquiring Young, but we still haven’t heard an official “nay” from anyone in the Astros camp, which we have heard from pretty much every other club that has been linked to him. C’mon, Ed & Drayton!

And now we get the news that Michael Bourn has hired Scott Boras as his agent. Michael, I am disappoint. You’re still my favorite Astro these days, but I don’t expect to see you in Houston after 2012, and I won’t shed a tear when you (or your agent) is gone.

Kissimmee, Here We Come

So we’ll assume (safely enough) for the time being that Michael Young won’t be wearing brick red in 2011, that Carlos Lee will, and that the Astros’ squad as it stands is the group that will begin heading for warmer climes in Kissimmee next week. Houston enters spring training this year with likely lower expectations than this time a year ago, but with arguably a more interesting and exciting season ahead. In spite of their seemingly slim playoff chances, this will be a critical year in determining the future direction of the franchise.

ADDITIONS

Clint Barmes: Astros GM Ed Wade entered the off-season with a focus on upgrading the offense in the middle infield and adding another starting pitcher. To that end, his first move was trading Felipe Paulino to the Colorado Rockies for Clint Barmes. Many Houston fans have maligned this deal, likely based on the solid string of starts that Paulino put together early last year. But then he got hurt – again – and when he came back late in the year, he was fairly awful. Paulino is 27, out of options, and has yet to pitch more than 133 total innings in any professional season. (In contrast, Roy Oswalt pitched 129 innings for the Astros last year before he was traded, then went on to post another 82+ for Philadelphia.) While it’s possible that Felipe will eventually put it all together and Colorado will come up smelling like roses from this trade, reality is that Houston has several other less injury-prone, more reliable fifth starter options, so Paulino was expendable. With Clint Barmes, the club addressed their greatest weakness last season (shortstop), so I like this trade. It’s true that Barmes has only had one real standout season, but he’s a defensive improvement over Angel Sanchez, an offensive improvement over Tommy Manzella, and an all-around improvement over either one of them. Barmes may never be an All-Star, but Wade used an area of surplus to address an area of weakness, and he made the club stronger thereby, so I give him a thumbs up here.

Ryan Rowland-Smith: Wade’s second move this off-season was inking free agent lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith from Seattle. I don’t have a problem with this signing in and of itself, but as this ended up being the only starter Houston added, I’m a bit disappointed. Wade had earlier mentioned hoping to repeat the success of the Brett Myers deal from last winter, but no one will mistake this guy for Myers; it’s hard to get excited about a pitcher coming off of a 1-10 record with a 6.75 ERA. If the hyphenated wonder from Down Under turns in a year even equal to Brett Myers’ worst, Wade should be thrilled with this pickup. But, to be fair, Houston already had four starters’ spots locked up by the end of last season. Even after the Paulino/Barmes trade, they had Nelson Figueroa, Wesley Wright and Fernando Abad to compete for the #5 spot. Jordan Lyles will likely add himself to that conversation sooner or later, too. So adding one more name with big league experience to the list isn’t a bad idea, and Rowland-Smith’s numbers will almost certainly improve by his moving from the AL West to the NL Central. I still would have loved to see the Astros add Jon Garland (whom the Dodgers got on a bargain) instead, but Rowland-Smith is a low-risk signing, and if he turns out to be a dependable #5 to eat the innings until Lyles is ready to step up, then it’s a good move.

Bill Hall: Mixed feelings on this one. Like Barmes, Bill Hall has only had one real stand-out season. But he still managed to hit 18 homers for Boston last season in a part-time role, which would have ranked him #3 in Houston, and that was three times as many as Jeff Keppinger managed while playing full-time. On the other hand, Hall hit .247 to Keppinger’s .288, and Hall posted a 1.2 WAR to Kepp’s 2.5. Kepp also has an almost superhuman ability to avoid striking out, and he was Houston’s most consistent and arguably best hitter all season long. So while the HR numbers will certainly go up with Hall in the 2B1 role, and the Astros were sorely lacking in the power department last year, this is not an obvious overall improvement at the position. It could help strengthen the club overall if Keppinger is kept on in a bench role, as I think he’s one of the best utility men in baseball, but Ed Wade was reportedly trying to trade him after the Hall signing, until the news emerged that Keppinger needed surgery and would therefore miss the start of the season. I still expect they’ll try to move him after he’s healthy again, too, which I’m not thrilled about. But the bottom line is that they got Hall on a one-year deal, so it won’t hurt the team long-term, and it might end up helping them in the short-term. It could pay off, so it’s worth a shot.

SUBTRACTIONS

Geoff Blum: Not long after the off-season began, Geoff Blum jumped ship for Arizona. You can’t really blame him, as he seemed genuinely heartbroken when the Astros declined his 2011 option and told him that they wouldn’t be bringing him back. It’s unfortunate that things had to happen like that, but baseball is a business, and Houston had a surplus of infielders by the end of 2010. With younger, cheaper options available, and with the later additions of Barmes and Hill, Blum no longer had a place on this team. He may be missed more in the clubhouse than on the field.

Felipe Paulino: Sent to Colorado in the Clint Barmes trade, already discussed above. He’s shown moments of brilliance overshadowed by repeated trouble with injuries and inconsistency. The Astros needed a starting shortstop, and none of the free agent options available this winter were particularly appealing, so Ed Wade made the move he had to make. With multiple other starting pitching options, Paulino’s departure shouldn’t hurt the club.

Matt Lindstrom: The bullpen was another area of surplus for Houston last year, and Lindstrom was arbitration eligible, so he also got shipped off to Colorado for prospects in a separate deal. Lindstrom never quite turned into the closer that Houston had hoped for when they acquired him last winter, and he ultimately wasn’t even one of their most dependable bullpen options, so sending him off for prospects and salary savings made sense.

Brian Moehler: Moehler was a surprisingly dependable fifth starter back in 2008 (Houston’s last winning season), but he’s become slightly less dependable each year since. Like Paulino and Blum, with multiple cheaper, healthier options available to the club, Mo’s spot in Houston has been filled. Still hoping he catches on somewhere else.

Tim Byrdak, Chris Sampson: Other relievers deemed replaceable by Astros management. Byrdak took a step backwards in 2010 after a solid 2009, and Sampson has been plagued by injuries. Sampson’s situation was particularly disappointing, as it seems that it was mishandled, but it was nice to hear this week that he’ll be joining Paulino and Lindstrom in Colorado. Byrdak signed on with the Mets, so his lefty specialist role will be filled in 2011 by Fernando Abad, Wesley Wright or Gustavo Chacin.

OTHER MOVES

Wandy’s Extension: Another deal disappointingly lambasted by a majority of Astros fans, it seems. Wandy Rodriguez was arbitration eligible for the last time this winter, so instead of a one-year deal, Wade and Drayton McLane chose to lock him up for the next three years at $34 million, with an option for 2014. Critics have said that Houston overpaid for Wandy, or that this deal will retard the development of youngsters coming up, but reality is that Wandy has been one of the best lefty starters in the National League the last two years. If he was signed to another one-year deal and allowed to hit the open market after 2011, he would most likely have been the first- or second-best starter available and, given the always high demand for pitching, some team would have paid him crazy money (see: A.J. Burnett), leaving Houston with a big hole to fill. The Astros had
one of the best rotations in the league after the All-Star Break last year, and by locking up Wandy for a few years the same way they locked up Brett Myers, they’ve assured stability in the area most teams struggle hardest to fill. It’s an approach that worked well for San Francisco, allowing them to focus on improving other areas instead of constantly worrying about pitching, ultimately leading them to the World Series title. And if Houston had multiple pitching prospects knocking on the door of the majors, the criticism about blocking youngsters might have some validity, but they don’t. They have Jordan Lyles, and that’s it; Dallas Keuchel and others are at least a year or more away, and Lyles may be, too. (Remember, he’s only 20 and hasn’t pitched more than 159 innings yet.) Having this stability at the big league level gives the team time to evaluate their prospects more fully and allows them time to develop gradually, without risking injury by being rushed to the majors to fill an urgent need. It’s a smart move on Houston’s part, and Wade & McLane deserve to be commended for it.

ANALYSIS

Houston went into 2010 needing several things to go right in order for the team to be competitive, but it felt like there was a healthy chance because the NL Central looked like a relatively weak division. The season quickly went south when all three of the team’s best hitters (Berkman, Pence, Lee) along with their best pitcher (Rodriguez) from 2009 got off to slow starts simultaneously. Then Roy Oswalt requested a trade, and Berkman was traded too, and the team that ended 2010 in Houston looked completely different than the team that started the year there. It was the end of an era in Astros baseball, and the beginning of their first near-total rebuilding process in two decades.

The Reds surprised in 2010 and won the division, so they come into 2011 as the team to beat. St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee all made significant moves to try and improve themselves this winter, and suddenly the NL Central has gone from weak to strong. Looking at Houston’s moves in isolation, it seems that they should be improved in 2011 as well, but in comparison to the rest of the division, they’ve moved backwards. They had a non-losing month in June of last year, and three winning months in July through September, so they’ll be trying to build on that success if they can avoid the slow start this year that has become an Astros trademark. But realistically this team could finish anywhere from first to last.

If Brett Wallace and Jason Castro prove that they can hit at the major league level. If Chris Johnson doesn’t get sunk by the sophomore jinx. If Carlos Lee rebounds from an apparently unlucky 2010. If Hunter Pence can hit all year this year like he did after May last. If Clint Barmes and Bill Hall provide the offensive boost that they were picked up for. If the Astros’ rotation proves that their second half was not a fluke and they remain among the league’s best. If all of those things happen, this could be a very special year for Houston fans. But that’s a lot of “ifs.” It’s more likely for a mostly young club that 2012 or later will be their year. But regardless, the development of all these young guys will make 2011 a pivotal year in Astros history, much like 1991 was two decades before.

Pitchers and catchers report on Monday. It’s time for baseball. I can’t wait!

 

Lee for Young unlikely? Not so fast.

As the snow comes down here in Arkansas, rumors about Michael Young continue to swirl. Both Brian McTaggart and Richard Justice have tried to shoot down the Young-to-Houston racket, but not so fast, says I.

We know that Young has a list of eight teams he likes. We know that the Rangers are trying to work out a deal with one of those eight teams first. While Young has said that he would evaluate other possible destinations on a case-by-case basis, the most likely outcome remains that he’ll end up going to one of those eight. And if you look objectively at that list of eight teams, suddenly Young-to-Houston doesn’t seem like as much of a longshot as most are trying to claim.

Take a look at that rumors link above: Young’s list consists of the Cardinals, Yankees, Twins, Astros, Rockies, Dodgers, Angels and Padres. The Rockies seemed like the most likely destination up until now, but they’ve taken themselves out of the running. The Cardinals, Twins and Yankees are also reportedly uninterested, so that leaves Houston and the three SoCal teams. The Padres already traded Adrian Gonzalez this winter because they couldn’t afford him, so it would be shocking if they were willing to take on a contract like Young’s. The Angels could definitely use Young, but I don’t foresee Texas trading him to a division rival, and the L.A. Times says that the Angels can’t/won’t put together a satisfactory package for the Rangers anyway. That same article implies that the Dodgers would want Texas to pick up most of Young’s contract, which seems unlikely, and the Dodgers themselves have already spent a lot this winter. Their ownership situation is even more uncertain than Houston’s, with Frank McCourt’s divorce case still pending, so it wouldn’t follow that the Dodgers would be willing to open their wallet even wider.

Seven suitors down. Who does that leave?

True, under normal circumstances, the Astros would never willingly take on a contract like Young’s either. Even if the team wasn’t for sale, adding that kind of payroll wouldn’t make sense for this squad. But if Carlos Lee goes back to Texas the other way, Houston’s payroll would actually be less this year and next. The Rangers could send money to Houston with Young to offset at least part of his 2013 salary, without taking on most of his contract as any SoCal team would require, so it wouldn’t really break the Astros’ (and their new owner’s) budget either. Texas would get the power hitting DH-type that is unavailable to them on the open market now, Houston would get a much more versatile and well-rounded player in return, and both teams could be the better for it without significant new financial burden that would normally affect any team in dealing with contracts of this size.

Carlos Lee would still have to approve a trade to the Rangers, which Richard Justice claims is unlikely, but I disagree. I outlined in my post yesterday why it seems that Texas would actually be an appealing destination to Caballo, so I don’t think that would break the deal. Young’s overall stats look better than Lee’s, so Texas might ask for more than just Carlos in return, but supposedly they’d like utility infield help. Houston happens to have a surplus of reserve infielders after their moves this winter – including Jeff Keppinger, Angel Sanchez, Tommy Manzella and Matt Downs – so they could easily include any of those guys in the package. Ed Wade was reportedly shopping Kepp until he came up injured anyway, and with Kepp’s own salary likely to increase through arbitration the next couple of seasons, that could offset Young’s added salary even more. Texas would want medical assurances before accepting Keppinger, of course, but he’s one of the best all-around utility infielders in the game, in my opinion. If I was Nolan Ryan, I’d make that trade even if I knew that I’d be without him for April.

I won’t say yet that I expect the trade to happen. Several people will have to sign off on the deal before it could ever become reality. But I will say that I won’t be surprised if it happens, either, as I don’t think it’s half as unlikely as it’s been made out to be. All of the speculation against so far has been just that – speculation – so until we hear from Ed Wade or Drayton McLane or Carlos Lee directly, I’m counting nothing out.

Every other non-Pirates team in the division made significant strides forward this winter except for Houston. Looking at WAR alone, Michael Young over Carlos Lee would be a 4.3 game upswing for the Astros, based on last year’s stats. Unless Wade & McLane are completely content with hanging onto Carlos until his contract expires, they have to be exploring possibilities to move him this year, before his full no-trade clause goes into effect as a 10/5 veteran. This could be the opportunity they’ve been looking for, and they very well may not get another chance to receive back as much value as Young could provide.

One commenter on Brian McTaggart’s blog speculated this batting order for the Astros in 2011:

1. Bourn (CF)
2. Young (2B)
3. Pence (RF)
4. Wallace (1B) or Johnson (3B)
5. Hall (LF)
6. Johnson (3B) or Wallace (1B)
7. Barmes (SS)
8. Castro (C)

Does that really look so bad?

Lee-for-Young? Yes, please.

lee_young.jpgSwapping jerseys for 2011?

So for the first time since that fateful weekend at the end last July, the Astros are linked to a potential high profile move. (That’s not counting one wild rumor that said Houston was in on Cliff Lee, but obviously that went nowhere if it was ever true at all.) Zach Levine and Ken Rosenthal both say that Carlos Lee-for-Michael Young is a longshot at best, and they’re likely right. But. Roy Oswalt was supposed to be a Cardinal last July, remember? Lance Berkman was supposedly going to Oakland this winter. The Dodgers were about to sign Bill Hall. And Cliff Lee was darn sure going to either the Rangers or the Yankees before he suddenly inked his name in Independence Hall. Take every rumor (including this one) with a significantly sized spoonful of salt.

I was going to offer my analysis of this potential deal, but FanGraphs has already done it better. The Crawfish Boxes also have a nice analysis. TCB’s biggest concern seems to be “the inevitable loss of power in the lineup,” but… really? Young has outslugged El Caballo each of the last two seasons, and while Lee has more homers, the difference is not huge – 50 v. 43. Add in Barmes & Hall’s plus power over Keppinger & Manzella/Sanchez, and this team would certainly hit more homers this year than last.
The biggest obstacle I foresee, besides Texas deciding whether or not they actually want Lee, is Carlos’ willingness to waive his no-trade clause to go to Arlington. But if he was to go anywhere besides Houston, there’s nowhere else in MLB closer to his ranch than Arlington. He’d be getting the chance to play for the defending AL champs, on a team that is more than likely playoff bound, instead of a team that’s rebuilding and very likely won’t see the postseason again until after his contract expires. At which point Houston almost certainly would not re-sign him and he’d be forced to go elsewhere anyway, older and with an even smaller remaining window for a World Series. Caballo’s only sniff of the playoffs so far was way back in 2000, when his White Sox got swept in the ALDS by Seattle. Unless he really cares that much about being as close as possible to his ranch, I don’t see him having any problem agreeing to Arlington.
I’ve said it before, and it’s still true – I’m not nearly as eager as most Astros fans to run Lee out of town after an ugly 2010. He’s very likely to rebound this year, and if he stays in Houston until his contract expires – fine. I like Carlos. But it’s not fine if he blocks Brett Wallace, or J.D. Martinez, or even Koby Clemens. Michael Young is under contract for a year longer, true, but his versatility would allow the Astros to move him around much more easily than Lee based on what their young guys are doing, so they wouldn’t have to block anybody that’s big-league ready.
I like the move – unless Texas demands much more than Lee in exchange. Would they take an injured Jeff Keppinger? I might be okay with that, since Wade was evidently wanting to trade Kepp anyway, though I’d rather Houston hang onto him as a super-utility guy. If the Rangers want either Manzella or Sanchez for infield depth, then fine, throw them in. But absolutely NO if they also want someone – anyone – among Houston’s prospects in return.
Lee-for-Young. Work out the details and pull the trigger, Ed. Give Astros fans something to be excited about until the young guys steal our hearts.

Special Ks

The cold days of winter are wearing on and the Hot Stove market is burning out – it’s been all but frozen in Houston since the Bill Hall signing – while Spring Training games remain a few weeks away yet, so there’s not been much to talk about in Astroland. Jeff Bagwell HOF talk has died down until next winter at least, and no significant news has emerged on the Astros’ “For Sale” front. This makes it a great time to look back, and while I’ve also got thoughts to share about Bagwell and about Houston’s moderate moves this off-season, a bit of research on another topic motivated this post.

Namely this: It’s long been interesting to me, but any fan even casually acquainted with Astros history should be able to tell you – Houston loves the strikeout. LOVES it. From Houston pitchers, obviously, as no one loves to see their own hitters getting fanned (though Astros fans can at least take pride in last season that no other NL team’s offense struck out less). Maybe it started with J.R. Richard, maybe it started with Nolan Ryan, maybe it has much to do with the majority of the franchise’s history still tied to the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. It can’t hurt that both Ryan and Roger Clemens are Houston-area residents. So can any other franchise lay a stronger claim to legendary K-Men than the Astros?
As a kid in Houston in the ’80s, I had twin giant posters of Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan on my wall. I grew up in the shadow of Roger Clemens’ high school. My favorite regular Astrodome moment was hearing The Rifleman theme echo under the roof whenever a Houston pitcher whiffed an opponent. I was indoctrinated early on the love of the strikeout, and I’m a bigger fan of pitcher’s duels than of slugfests to this day. Thanks to the power of the Internet (and the wonderful baseball-reference.com), I’ve been able to look back at just how much the strikeout has dominated Houston baseball history.
The obvious, of course, is Houston’s tie to Nolan Ryan, who spent more seasons in an Astros uniform (nine) than that of any other team. But all three of the top all-time strikeout pitchers – Ryan, Randy Johnson, and Clemens – spent time in Houston. So did #7 (Don Sutton) and #15 (Curt Schilling) on the career K list. Of all pitchers to record at least 290 strikeouts in a season in the last 35 years, only one – Pedro Martinez – has never suited up for the Astros. Houston can lay at least some claim to all of the other six – Ryan, Johnson, Clemens, Schilling, Richard, and Scott.
If you want to protest (legitimately) than most of those big years – particularly Johnson’s and Schilling’s – occurred outside of Houston, then also consider that since Richard’s first full season in 1975, the Astros have landed at least one starter in the NL’s top 10 for strikeouts every season but six (1990, 1994, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008), and Doug Drabek’s 121 in ’94 only missed the top 10 due to a tie for 9th at 122 between Steve Avery and Denny Neagle. (I count Roy Oswalt for 2010 because he recorded 120 of his 193 Ks last year with the Astros, even though he finished the season in Philly.) The dominance doesn’t end with starters, either, as among guys with at least 500 career IP, both of the top two pitchers all-time in career SO/9 – Brad Lidge and Billy Wagner – are Houston farm products and long-time Astros.
Oswalt is gone this year, of course, but it’s still well possible that Houston’s string could continue; both Wandy Rodriguez (8th 2009) and Brett Myers (3rd 2005, 5th 2006) have been top 10 strikeout guys before. With 158 SO in 153.2 IP last season, Bud Norris is certainly capable too, if he can stay consistent in 2011.
The truly legendary, dominant strikeout pitcher was missing from baseball last year, following Randy Johnson’s retirement in 2009. The current active pitcher with the most Ks in a season is Justin Verlander, with 269 in ’09, and the active career leader is either Jamie Moyer (if he pitches this year) at #36 all-time, or else Javier Vasquez at #40. Tim Lincecum and Johan Santana are probably the poster strikeout guys now, but both recorded only (“only”) 265 in their respective best seasons so far. Santana, by the way… is of course also an Astros farm product, though he never pitched in Houston before famously being lost to Minnesota.
No real point to this post other than that – just interesting historical analysis. I’ll be very interested to see where the next 300 K guy comes from. Have we seen him yet (Strasburg?), or is he yet to come?

Bargain Basement Baseball

codyross_baseballplayer.jpg

This is what a baseball player looks like.
The regular season didn’t quite end up the way the Astros would have liked, but that takes a back seat now to the grand theater that is October baseball. The Rangers could bring only the second ever World Series to the State of Texas with a win in Arlington tonight. Astros fans, you remember the first, don’t you?
I began these playoffs cheering for Billy Wagner, Bobby Cox and the Braves, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. I was cheering for the Rangers, though I hated cheering against the Rays in what may be their last postseason for a while. I liked the underdog Reds, but Roy Oswalt was enough to persuade me and I was cheering for the Phillies. I went in expecting that Lance Berkman would do the same and I would cheer for the Yankees, but as I watched their first game, I just couldn’t do it – I found myself cheering for the Twins. Game 2, starring Puma and Pettitte, was a nice gift for Houston baseball fans, but I’m sorry, Lance – I love you no less than Roy, but I hate the Yankees more.
So only the Rangers worked out among my original four favorites, but now my loyalties are clearly defined. And those loyalees are both up 3 games to 2 with Game Sixes on the horizon. As much as I would morbidly love to see Berkman v. Oswalt in the World Series, I would only care about that series whenever Lance was batting or Roy – OUR Roy – was on the mound. I want a Giants/Rangers World Series, and I would be glued to every pitch.
The Rangers had the lowest payroll in the American League this season, and the third lowest in MLB, at $55.25 million. While it’s true that the Giants have the ninth highest payroll in baseball, their highest paid player (Barry Zito) is not even on their playoff roster. Subtract his $18.5 million, and San Francisco drops to 18th in payroll. Subtract their next two highest paid players – Aaron Rowand and Edgar Renteria, who are both bench guys – and their payroll would be $56.5 million, fifth lowest in both leagues and only just ahead of Texas. These are teams built more with brains than with banks.
It’s not all about the Benjamins, either. As a fan of a team that has never won a World Series, my loyalties (and sympathies) switch first to join fans of other teams in the same purgatory as I. With a Texas/San Francisco Series, we’d be guaranteed one city that has never experienced a MLB championship would be hosting a victory parade in November. And incidentally, AT&T Park and Rangers Ballpark are the only two active big league stadiums that I’ve visited – both this year.
I’ll be all about Colby Lewis & Co. at 7:07 Central tonight. NLCS Game 6 presents a problem, though. In my mind, I want the Giants to win Game 6. I do. I don’t want them to face a Game 7 versus Cole Hamels and potential elimination. But even as my head stayed behind the Giants when Roy O came in to close out Game 4, my heart sank when he picked up the loss. I’d have been fine with any other Phillies pitcher on the mound, even Brad Lidge, but Roy, I can’t quit you. I really do want the Giants to win Game 6, but can someone not #44 take the loss?
Two final tidbits: Watching Oswalt and Lidge warming up side by side on Wednesday night was surreal. Even moreso in Phillies uniforms. Dangit, Philadelphia, I hope you appreciate our boys. And Cody Ross – holy crap, man! He has to be the greatest waiver claim ever, like Johan Santana is the ultimate Rule 5 draftee. Oh, Santana should have been ours?
Ouch.

To market, to market

This week’s series in Washington clearly didn’t go the way Brad Mills & Co. would have liked. The Astros came into town needing to win at least three of the four games to have a realistic shot at that .500 record – and really, they should have won three of these four – but they ended up losing three of four instead. Mathematically, they’ve still got a shot at .500 and/or catching the Cardinals, but realistically, it’s time to place the emphasis on gearing up for 2011. In 10 days, there will be no more Astros baseball until February 27 of next year.

Thus begins the long five-month wait without baseball. Every baseball fan’s favorite pastime during the winter is to play armchair GM and argue about the personnel moves they believe their team should make before the next season. I’m no different, and I’ve already talked about two potential big signings in previous posts. Putting on my Ed Wade hat, I present my off-season Astros shopping list:
  1. Trade Carlos Lee. I don’t hate the guy like some do, but the Astros are in a different place now than they were when they signed him, and they have other guys that could better fill his roster spot in the final two years of his contract. They’ll probably have to eat a good portion of his salary to move him, but so be it. If they can bring back a shortstop or a healthy big league starter in return, do it!
  2. Put in an offer on Carl Crawford. After they likely lose out on him, go put in an offer on Pat Burrell. Burrell has a 2.6 WAR for San Francisco in LF this season (versus Lee’s -1.6); he should provide at least as much offense as Lee has this season, for less money, on a two-year deal with no restrictions on trading him should youngsters develop faster or better than expected. If they lose out on Burrell too, keep the money and hand Brian Bogusevic the starting job in LF.
  3. Put in an offer on Jon Garland. Houston very nearly snagged him via trade before the 2007 season, only to end up with Jason Jennings instead. (Oops.) You have four rotation spots locked up in Myers, Rodriguez, Happ and Norris, but I’m still not sold enough on Bud’s consistency to hand him the #4 spot outright. Felipe Paulino was looking great before he got hurt, but he’s yet to stay healthy through an entire big league season. Brian Moehler could be a reliable #5 guy, but he’s also old and has been hurt a lot. Nelson Figueroa looked great through his first four starts and has looked not so great through his last four. And Jordan Lyles is still very young; I’d rather give him a full season at AAA. I’m more comfortable signing another innings eater like Garland and giving the #5 spot to Bud.
  4. Resign Humberto Quintero, Geoff Blum and Jason Michaels for the bench. They’ve mixed well with Houston’s youngsters so far, so if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
  5. Lock up Wandy on a long-term deal. Brett Myers got his extension; it’s Wandy’s turn! Hunter Pence deserves a long-term deal too, but he’s not eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season, so they’ve got some time to work with him yet.
I realize that this team could use a shortstop too, but the free agent class there this year is underwhelming at best (Alex Gonzalez? Julio Lugo?), so I’d rather stick with Angel Sanchez if they can’t get a starting shortstop back in return for Lee. Given all of that, my ideal Opening Day 2011 roster would look like this:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace
2B: Jeff Keppinger
SS: trade/Angel Sanchez
3B: Chris Johnson
LF: Carl Crawford/Pat Burrell/Brian Bogusevic
CF: Michael Bourn
RF: Hunter Pence
C: Humberto Quintero
IF: Geoff Blum
IF: Angel Sanchez/Tommy Manzella
OF: Jason Michaels
OF: Brian Bogusevic (or Jason Bourgeois if Bogusevic is starting)
SP: Brett Myers
SP: Wandy Rodriguez
SP: J.A. Happ
SP: Jon Garland/Bud Norris
SP: Bud Norris (or Paulino/Figueroa/Moehler)
RP: Wilton Lopez
RP: Fernando Abad
RP: Alberto Arias
RP: Mark Melancon
RP: Jeff Fulchino/Tim Byrdak
RP: Matt Lindstrom
CP: Brandon Lyon
What say you?