Tagged: ed wade

Carlos Lee needs to go

I’ve tried to be a Carlos Lee supporter. I don’t hate Carlos Lee. Compared to the loathing for him spewed by many Astros fans since the start of last season, I’ve been downright cuddly with the guy. But enough is enough. His time as an Astro needs to come to an end – now.

I’m more upset by the Chris Johnson/Brett Wallace demotions than I am by the Hunter Pence/Michael Bourn trades. I understand the demotions from a purely performance or playing time perspective: Chris Johnson just suffered through an awful July with a .574 OPS. Brett Wallace posted an even worse .433 OPS over the same stretch. Neither of the two is a particularly great defender (although Wallace is at least adequate), and if you can’t hit and you can’t field, you don’t belong in the big leagues. But if the Astros’ trades this month have indicated anything, it’s that they’re very clearly trying to get younger and planning for the future. Both Johnson and Wallace still have a good chance of being a part of that future. Carlos Lee, on the other hand, does not.

Wallace was sent down because J.D. Martinez was called up. I’m excited that J.D. is here. But not at Brett’s expense. I realize that the overwhelming majority of Martinez’ outfield experience is in left, and that the same is true of Carlos Lee. It wouldn’t really be fair, or wise, to call up Martinez straight from AA and then expect him to adjust to big league pitching and to a new position at the same time. But that pushes Lee out of left. The only other place you can put Lee is at first base, which pushes Wallace to the bench, and that’s not fair or wise for a young player, either. So I’d rather see Wallace play every day at AAA than ride the bench in Houston. But I’d really rather see Wallace play every day in Houston, and see Carlos Lee cut loose.

It’s true that Lee has been a better hitter than Wallace for the majority of the season. Since an awful April in which Carlos hit .194, he’s posted an .824 OPS over the next three months. Compare that to an .828 OPS for Pence this season, and an .831 OPS for Lee in his last “good” season of 2009. Minus the home run power, El Caballo seems to have regained his stroke. But he’s also 35 years old this year, and he’ll be 36 in 2012 for the final year of his contract, and there’s no way on Earth that he’ll be a part of the Astros team after that. They’re on the hook for the remainder of his salary whether he plays here or not. So if they’re really dedicated to this youth movement, if they’re really dedicated to the future, then why keep giving at bats to a guy who has no chance to be a part of that?

It may be that the Astros’ hands are genuinely tied in the matter. Even if it wasn’t for his massive contract making him undesirable, Lee has full no-trade protection, and with his cattle ranch in Houston, he’s not inclined to go anywhere. Ed Wade may have asked him to waive his no-trade clause, and Carlos may have flat out refused. That’s his right. But everyone that knows Carlos personally will talk about what a nice guy he is… so why not do something for the good of the team? Does he really want to be the only 35-year-old on a team full of 25-and-unders? A team that’s buried in the cellar this year, that probably won’t be much better next year, with no shot at the postseason before he’s forced to sign elsewhere anyway? If the Astros will eat a healthy chunk of the salary they’ll be paying regardless, there are contenders out there that would love to add a bat like Lee’s for the stretch run. His only taste of the playoffs so far was when he was a 24-year-old sophomore himself back in 2000, and his White Sox got swept in three games by Seattle. Wouldn’t he like another shot at the World Series? There’s no better time for that than now.

I realize that no team likes to pay a guy to play elsewhere. But it makes sense for the Astros to try and do just that in Lee’s case. If they’ll agree to pay two-thirds, or three-fourths, or even nine-tenths of his remaining salary, they’ll still save themselves a few million dollars and likely be able to get a prospect or two in return – guys that would have a chance to be a part of Houston’s next winner. I don’t mind Brett Wallace’s AAA exile so much if the Astros are actively shopping Lee in the meantime. There’s no safer bet to clear waivers this month than Carlos, so a trade could – and should – still happen. Maybe it will take Jim Crane’s new ownership for that to happen, but Crane should officially take over this month too. It would be better to get even long-shot prospects in return for Lee than nothing at all. But it will be better for the long-term health of this club either way to let Wallace man first base in Houston than to leave him (or J.D. Martinez) stuck behind Carlos Lee for another year. If Lee adamantly refuses a trade, then be bold and just cut him loose.

Maybe Wallace isn’t the long-term answer at first base; maybe Kody Hinze or Jonathon Singleton is. Maybe Chris Johnson isn’t the long-term answer at third, either, and maybe Jimmy Paredes is. But we won’t know until we let them play, and Wallace and Johnson are more ready for the big leagues now than Paredes or Hinze are. Yes, Brett and CJ have had their struggles, but they’ve shown signs of something better, too. By the time that Hinze and Paredes genuinely are ready for the big leagues, we should know about Wallace and Johnson for sure. As long as there’s not anyone standing in their way. When Carlos Lee was signed to his big contract, the Astros were just one year removed from the World Series and had only missed the playoffs in 2006 on the final day of the season. They’re in a much different place now, and Lee’s place on this team no longer makes any sense.

Kudos to you, El Caballo, and thanks for some great moments. But it’s time to ride off into the Houston sunset.

Calm after the storm, or eye of the hurricane?

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.

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.

Dear Jim Crane,

We need to talk. I know that you’re not officially the owner of the Houston Astros yet (though we expected you would be by now), but that appears to be a mere formality. Our team will soon be yours. As a lifelong die-hard Astros fan, I think you’ll find my opinions on the following matters are shared by the majority of the fan base that you’re about to be introduced to. So I hope that you’ll listen and give our voice very serious consideration.

This Astros-to-the-AL thing isn’t going away. They’re saying now that you’ll probably go along with it to keep from rocking the boat in the MLB landscape in your first act as an MLB owner. But please – PLEASE – rock that boat. Capsize the damn thing if you have to. It’s been said that you’re already disliked by many or most of the other 29 owners, so you’ll want to start out by trying to make nice. But does the opinion of Bud Selig and those other 29 owners really matter more than the opinion of the fans of your own team? Do you really have a greater responsibility to them than you do to us? Remember, we’re your customers; you’re a businessman, and a very good one, so I trust that you know the importance of customers to any business. Your soon-to-be fellow owners may be your colleagues, but they’re also your competitors. As a MLB owner, it should be your ultimate goal to go out there every year and beat those other 29 teams. Why would you make a choice to please 29 rivals, and simultaneously alienate millions of potential supporters? Millions of your neighbors?

It’s unfortunate that you have to take over our once-proud franchise when they’re as low as they’ve ever been. But please don’t let anyone use that weakness as leverage against you. Have a spine. If you piss off Bud Selig & Co. by flat-out refusing to move to the AL, we’ll love you for it. It will endear you to your Astros fan base immediately, and it will go a long way towards rejuvenating the downtrodden and disillusioned populace of Astros Nation. Houston was a great baseball town until we were forced to watch our team make dumb decision after dumb decision, burying themselves alive for the last several years. The fans will come back if you give them reason to.

Whenever the team is finally yours, go ahead and make it your own. Fire Ed Wade if you must, though that’s not really fair to Ed. He’s done a good job with a bad situation, but if you can pry fellow Houstonian Andrew Friedman away from the Rays, I do believe that he’d be an upgrade. And it would be another step towards reestablishing that connection between the Astros and their Houstonian fans. Trade whomever you feel you need to in order to improve the club for the long haul (though not Hunter Pence – please not Hunter Pence). I’d keep Brad Mills around too, but go ahead and bring in George Postolos and whomever else you think will help get our team back on track. We want to believe that you’re the man who will finally deliver what Drayton McLane always talked about but never quite achieved – a championship.

Just don’t move us to the American League.

Thanks for reading, if you read this. Congrats on finally getting that MLB team that you sought for so long; I’m glad that it’s ours. Best of luck on the new venture. We’re in this together, so let’s start kicking some butt. And beat the Rangers to the first World Series championship in the State of Texas.

Sincerely,

an Astros fan

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.