Tagged: bud norris

Wish List for a Lost Season

“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us.” -Heinrich Heine

These are sad days to be an Astros fan. The first domino has fallen with the trade of Jeff Keppinger this week, and over the next 10 days we expect to hear of several more. I’m on board with that; our Astros, in their 50th season, appear to be worse in 2011 than they’ve ever been before. I feel like it will be a huge upset if they don’t end up beating the 1991 squad for the worst record in Houston history, if they don’t end up over 100 losses and last in the big leagues this year. Admittedly, nothing that happens the remainder of this month will likely be quite as depressing as the weekend before July 31 last year, when we learned how it would have felt to see Bagwell and Biggio in opposing uniforms. But as we wait for news about who else is leaving town, and as we wait to face nemesis Carlos Zambrano this afternoon, my mind turns to thoughts of the ways that Brad Mills & Co. can make the remainder of 2011 more exciting than a race for the #1 draft pick.

Catcher: We love Humberto Quintero. He’s not Brad Ausmus, and he’s not Tony Eusebio, but we love him nonetheless. Q paired with any available backup on hand is fine; there’s not much wrong you can do here, other than rushing Jason Castro back from his knee surgery. If Castro is legitimately ready to go by September, then I’d love to see him, as Q really shouldn’t be more than a backup. But as long as Jason gets the lion’s share of the starts in 2012, then I’ll be happy.

First Base: Brett Wallace. All the way. Let’s start seeing Brick every day regardless, and quit with this Carlos-Lee-at-1B-versus-lefties nonsense. Whether Astros management manages to trade El Caballo, releases him, benches him or just lets him play out his contract, it’s certain that Lee won’t be here beyond September 2012. Brett Wallace will. You’re not gonna win this season, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you won’t win next season either, and Brick is one of the few young talents that Houston has, so let him play and prove for himself whether he’s an everyday guy or only a platoon player.

Second Base: Jose Altuve is the brightest spot in the 2011 season so far. I certainly didn’t expect to see him before September at the soonest, or 2012, but I’m all about running him out there every day now that he’s here. I like Matt Downs a lot, but giving him or Angel Sanchez even 1/4 of the starts here would be infuriating. Let’s go, Mighty Mouse!!

Third Base: I’m a Chris Johnson kinda guy. Sure, I know that his defense is less than great, and his bat has dropped off even more than expected from last year, but his bat has also been a lot better the last several weeks than it was during a dismal start to the season, so his overall numbers are misleading. I know that Matt Downs deserves more time, too, but CJ has not (IMO) played himself out of this job yet. Let him keep it for the rest of 2011, unless he gets awful again, then let him and Downs duke it out in Kissimmee next Spring.

Shortstop: This is a tough one. As long as Clint Barmes is here, the job should be his, but I don’t see Clint in our long-term plans. He may not even be in our plans at all (hello, Milwaukee) after the next 10 days. But if/when he’s gone? Angel Sanchez is great off the bench, and I know that Matt Downs is more of a 2B/3B guy than SS, but this is where I’d be inclined to give Downs more time. If you want to give Angel the majority of the starts, that’s fine, but don’t let him take time away from Altuve and CJ. And don’t go back to Tommy Manzella. This is a stop-gap position until one of our middle infield prospects (Paredes? Villar? Mier? …Sutil?) is ready for the Show.

Outfield: No one knows what to expect here. I strongly doubt that Ed Wade will be able to send Carlos Lee anywhere, so as long as he’s here, leave him in LF. Michael Bourn is (or should be) serious trade bait, but Hunter Pence’s name is drawing a lot more attention than Michael’s, so who knows if he’ll be moved at all. I really… don’t want the Astros to trade Hunter, but reality is that he’ll likely hit free agency by the time that Houston is a legitimate contender again, and he should fetch better prospects than anyone else on the current Astros roster. So moving him might be the smartest thing that they could do, and I kind of expect now that it will happen. I’d really like to see Bourn traded, too; he’ll hit free agency – under Scott Boras – a year before Hunter, so you’ll probably get more for him now than next year, when he would be a “rental.” Jason Bourgeois is back from the DL today, so assuming that Pence and Bourn move and Lee doesn’t, I’d like to see a Lee-Bourgeois-Bogusevic outfield to finish out 2011. Though I know we’re more likely to see Jason Michaels than Bogey, but I don’t see Jason here beyond this year either, so I’ll be frustrated if they don’t give Bogey the shot. Unless they get somebody back in trade that can play outfield immediately, too. Or they put J.D. Martinez on the Altuve Express and don’t make him wait for a call until El Caballo rides off into the sunset. Summary: Whatever. But just not Michaels.

Pitching: Jordan Lyles is the other brightest spot for the 2011 Astros, and I’m thrilled to hear that he’s on an innings limit. If that means we get a month of Nelson Figueroa or Ryan Rowland-Smith in September, so be it; Jordan Lyles is VERY much a part of Houston’s future plans, so he needs to be protected more than the 2011 squad needs to win one or two more games. Bud Norris has been another big bright spot, better than I thought he’d be, so he should be a part of the grander plan as well. J.A. Happ has been mostly a black hole this season, but he is still young, so there’s no harm in continuing to run him out there and hope that he figures it out. Really though, we might see a lot more of Figgy or Hyphen before September, because I don’t expect Wandy or Brett Myers to be wearing Houston pinstripes after next week either. So let’s move Aneury Rodriguez back to the rotation and see what he’s got. Old or not, I’d love to see Andy Van Hekken get a shot. Then if you need a starter after those two guys, give Figgy or Hyphen a call. Of course trade acquisitions are the wild card here, too, but based on who we know we’ve got, I’ll be happy to finish the year with Aneury and Andy at the back end of the rotation.

I know that I haven’t touched on the bullpen, but that’s been so fluid for the last few years that I hesitate to name names. I like Mark Melancon a lot, and Wilton Lopez. We know that Brandon Lyon is under contract for next season – fine. He’s good when healthy. But the fundamental point of this whole exercise is to say: Give the young guys a chance. Angel Sanchez is not your savior for the future, nor is Jason Michaels. Nor is Carlos Lee at first base. If we can see more Castro, and Wallace, and Altuve, and CJ, more Bogey and Bourgeois and maybe some J.D. next year, then I’ll be excited even if we lose 100 games again. I know that even all of those guys aren’t likely the long-term answers, but they’re all a step in the right direction until the pipeline on the farm starts a steady flow again. If “these are our Astros,” then let’s make that so and stop giving time to guys that won’t be here when our future Astros arrive.

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?

Final thoughts before Friday

This afternoon, the Astros concluded a bizarre series against San Francisco in which the winner of each game would be the first team to three errors. Houston’s defense was ultimately the more awful, and so they came away with two wins out of three. Jason Castro destroyed a Matt Cain changeup for an upper-deck homer in the 2nd, and he destroyed his bat for a single to right in the 7th, so he finished the day 2-for-3 with an RBI, a walk and two runs scored. With a .300 batting average after three games, Castro the Astro is off to a great start.

Nolan Ryan mentioned recently that he likes Houston’s affiliation with his AA Corpus Christi Hooks, but he said nothing about their Round Rock partnership. If the Astros keep up the way they’ve been going recently, they may want to consider that new Sugar Land location in order to have their AAA guys closer at hand. Houston today made their fifth call-up in a week, with Josh Banks now scheduled to start in Arlington on Saturday, as Felipe Paulino goes on the DL. Bud Norris is back too, and scheduled to start on Monday, but as Roy O’s start on Sunday remains unmoved, I don’t mind the reshuffling around him. No word yet on who’s being removed from the roster in order to make room for Banks, but I don’t expect any major surprises.
Final note: Brad Mills says that Roy Oswalt should be an All-Star this year… and really, I hope that he is. I stated before that I thought Matt Lindstrom was Houston’s most likely candidate, and I still believe that to be the case. But Roy is really their most deserving – if they can look past his 4-9 record (the result of being on a bad baseball team), he honestly, arguably has put up All-Star type numbers. At the very least, he’s put up the most All-Star like numbers of anybody on the Astros team, so based on that criteria alone, Roy should get the call. Not to take anything away from Lindstrom, as I’ll cheer on the Astros rep either way, but I’ll be both surprised and well-pleased if we see Roy in Anaheim on July 13.