So the 2011 MLB non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone, and the Astros were expectedly very active. Though perhaps surprisingly less active than some/most had expected or predicted. But I don’t believe that they’re done dealing yet.
Hunter Pence is gone. Michael Bourn is gone. Jeff Keppinger is gone, too, and 9 prospects have come back in return for that trio so far, with one more yet to be named. I’m… numb. Sad. And worn out. Though less sad at this time this year than I was one year ago (Bourn & Pence don’t have nearly the Houston legacy that Oswalt & Berkman did). And maybe… more hopeful for the future now, too. Last year’s trades were a sign that the Astros recognized the need to rebuild, but other moves (like the Wandy/Myers extensions) were signs that they hadn’t yet fully embraced the idea. There’s no question that they’re in full-on rebuilding mode now. As well they should be.
It would be easy to argue that Ed Wade should have received more in return on any or all of the deals he made this month, and I might even agree with that. I’d be a good deal more enthusiastic if Domonic Brown and Mike Minor were wearing Astros pinstripes tomorrow. But regardless of what anyone – myself included – may think, reality is that the trade value for Pence & Bourn was never going to be higher than it was this week. They needed to be dealt now for the best possible return, and if this was the best than anyone else was willing to give up for them – so be it. Pull the trigger. We’ll never know if a better deal could have been had, so there’s no point in wasting further energy moaning about it now. We’ll take what we’ve got and move on. As is always true in any trade involving prospects, we won’t know for years whether these deals were honestly good ones or bad ones anyway.
What we do know now is this – the Houston farm system is notably stronger today than it was a month ago. I believe it will get stronger still this month, too, as I expect at least Wandy to find a new home before September 1, and very possibly Myers or Michaels or Barmes as well. If Myers and Wandy aren’t dealt in August, they’ll be traded over the winter, which is fine, as they don’t have the same urgency for maximum value as Bourn & Pence. Michaels and Barmes will (and should be) allowed to walk as free agents if not dealt, leaving Carlos Lee (35) as by far the elder statesman on the 2012 club. Unless by some miracle they manage to move Lee too, which would be great news for Brett Wallace and which should perhaps be the top priority for a rebuilding club. That would leave Brandon Lyon (31) as the highest paid and oldest regular on the 2012 club; I don’t expect they’ll be able to get anyone to take him on after his health & performance this season.
We also know that the Astros should officially have a new owner by the end of August. I expect we’ll have a new GM this winter, as well, and it wouldn’t shock me to see a new field manager too. Whatever else may happen, the 2012 Astros will be much younger, much less experienced… but hopefully the start of great new things. Only time will tell, but at least we know now they’re not holding onto delusions of past glories any longer. The fastest way back to success from here is to tear it down and start over.
Astros fans, want to see your team dominate atop the standings again? Then look no further: http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/reversestandings/
Maybe that’s tacky, but as bad as this season has been already, I’d feel even worse about it if they somehow put on another huge late surge and play themselves out of the #1 draft spot. Fortunately (or unfortunately, take your pick), they’ve buried themselves far enough down that it will take a huge late surge to look down on anyone else. The Mariners have lost 16 straight and still lag 10 games back of worst.
So who do you like for 2012? Mock drafts abound, though of course it’s much, much too early to consider anything even remotely concrete. It’s one of the few things Astros fans have to look forward to these days, however, so it’s fun to speculate. The consensus seems to be that there’s no consensus – no Bryce Harper or Steven Strasburg this year – but there does seem to be a lot of chatter about Lance McCullers and Mark Appel. Both are exciting prospects, I’ll grant, but I’m leery of taking any pitcher #1 overall. Sure, you’ve got David Price, but you’ve got a longer list of luminaries such as Brian Bullington, Matt Anderson, Paul Wilson, Kris Benson, Ben McDonald and Brien Taylor. Even Strasburg is still hurt, and who knows if he’ll be the same? The Astros are a team sorely lacking in power, so I’d much rather see them go after a Trey Williams or a Victor Roache. Or… I’m really starting to like this Nick Williams kid out of Galveston Ball. We shall see what we shall see…
Our other hope of a bright spot right now is Sunday’s looming trade deadline, and is it bad that I’d be most excited to see Bourn, Pence, Myers, Wandy and Barmes all wearing opposing uniforms on August 1? Not that I have anything against any of those guys – Bourn, Pence and Wandy in particular are favorites – but the 2011 Astros are truly, historically bad. Their bad-ness may be the best thing that could happen to this franchise right now, as it’s unmasked entirely the need for rebuilding, with no false hope of contention left to hide behind. For a team with this many holes, the fastest way back to contention is to trade every veteran you can for the best prospects that you can, then let the young guys grow up together (see: 1991 Astros, who laid the groundwork for the most successful decade in franchise history).
I’m as eager as anyone for the Astros to get on with the future and blow up the roster now, but I don’t expect all five of those guys to be gone by next week. But, y’know – that’s okay. With the exception of Barmes, it’s important to remember that none of the Astros’ key veterans are in line for free agency this winter. So anybody they don’t trade now, they could still move for prospects in the off-season. It could be argued that they’ll get better value in the heat of a pennant race, but that’s not always necessarily the case, so it behooves the club to find the best possible deal. No, they shouldn’t set their asking price so high now that they’ll be forced to take a lesser deal later, but neither should they trade anybody now just for the sake of offloading them immediately. It’s an inexact science, and it’s maddening, but the flexibility is ultimately better than having their hand forced by expiring contracts right now. Or it should be. I’ll be most upset if the team doesn’t look drastically different – and younger – by 2012.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!