Tagged: geoff blum

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!

 

Advertisements

Wonder What’s Next

Did you see that game last night? Did you believe what you saw? If they’re aiming to ease our pain over the loss of Lance and Roy, they’re doing a dang good job of it. Stomping on the Cardinals – it’s good for what ails ya!

If nothing else, the Astros have at least been interesting to watch over the past week, which is more than can be said about most of their 2010 season so far. While Houston is riding a 7 game winning streak, the Phillies are 2-2 and the Yankees are 0-3 since acquiring our old friends. Irony much? The Astros have climbed past the Cubs into fourth place in the NL Central, 2 games back of the Brewers for third and 12 back of Cincinnati for the lead. But as fun as the recent string of wins has been, I honestly hope they don’t climb much higher than this. Because if they somehow miraculously, ridiculously began to gain serious ground on the Cards and Reds, you can bet that Drayton will be tempted to move back into “buy” mode, where he’d spent his entire 17-year ownership until last week. This team is finally moving in the right direction, after four years seemingly without one, and turning “buyer” anytime before at least 2012 would only short circuit that.
Drayton has been reluctant to say that the Astros are in rebuilding mode now, even as it looks to everyone outside of his office that they are (or certainly should be), but I sincerely hope that’s just Drayton playing spin doctor for the press, trying to make things look better than they are as he struggles to repair a damaged franchise. Following last week’s trades, my off-season wishlist for the Astros is pretty simple:
1. Eat as much salary as you have to and trade Carlos Lee anywhere. I’m not even that picky about what they get in return. I like Carlos, but the Astros have outfield depth in the minors, and Carlos isn’t what he once was, so it’s time to move on.
2. Let Brian Bogusevic and Jason Bourgeois compete to win the starting LF job, with the other in the big leagues on the bench.
3. Bring back Jason Michaels and Geoff Blum strictly for bench roles. Do NOT bring back Pedro Feliz. Possibly bring back Berkman in Blum’s place, if he’ll accept a bench job, but I don’t see that happening. Otherwise fill out the bench with youngsters.
4. Bring back pretty much everybody else.
5. Let ’em play!
In a better year, my number one off-season desire would be to sign Carl Crawford. Even if that meant Michael Bourn’s departure; Crawford is another Houston native, and he’s my favorite non-Astros player. I would LOVE to see him play here. But adding Crawford, or any other big name free agent, doesn’t make sense for this team at this time; maybe in a couple of years, if the youngsters come of age by then, but not now. Plus adding any Type A free agent would cost the Astros what is still the #9 pick in next year’s draft, and for our still-weakened farm system, giving away draft picks and prospects is the last thing this team needs to do. So let the youngsters play in 2011, and see where you are after that.
One more immediate concern: Hey, Millsie? I like Geoff Blum. I do. But please, please, please keep him on the bench most games, and let Angel Sanchez have the shortstop job. Even before last night’s 6-RBI showcase, Sanchez has proven himself everything the Astros hoped Tommy Manzella would be, and more. He’s one of only two Houston regulars (along with Chris Johnson) hitting over .300, so for a team that has struggled so much offensively all year, why would you pull the plug on him in favor of Blum’s .252? And for a team that’s seemingly trying to get younger, why would you pull the plug on 26-year-old Sanchez for 37-year-old Blum? I enjoy watching the Astros much more when the youngsters are in the lineup, even when they make mistakes.
And Ed, while I’ve got your ear – when Tommy comes back, let Pedro go. I know you’re loyal to your former Phillies, and I know you still owe Pedro a pile of cash, but he’s played himself out of a role on this team. What I expect to happen is that either Manzella will be sent to Round Rock, or else Jason Bourgeois. But they’re both more likely to help the Astros next year than Feliz is. Maybe you’ll just wait until after September 1 to activate Tommy, then you can keep both guys on the big league roster, which is okay, I suppose. But if he comes back before then, give Pedro a chance to latch on somewhere else and finish his season strong, for his own sake as much as ours. His place is just not here.
Going for sweep #2 in St. Louis tonight, with tall Mr. Happ on the hill. Four rookies in the lineup around him. please. Seven is heaven, but eight would be great!

At the midway mark

Great win for Houston last night over a great San Diego club. Given Houston’s performance against the first-place Yankees and Rangers last month (1-8), I wasn’t too optimistic going into this series, but with Roy pitching tonight, they’ve got a chance to take the first two. That is, if they can solve San Diego ace Mat Latos; the Astros haven’t done so great against opposing aces this year. Regardless, if they can pull off a split of this four-game set, I’ll be pleased.

The Astros ended up splitting the month of June at 14-14. That’s unspectacular for any team, but for a team that was 17 games under .500 by the end of May, to remain 17 games under .500 by the end of June means they’re making progress. Much has been said already about their 12-4 record against NL opponents in June, but unfortunately you can’t selectively ignore portions of the schedule, so the 2-10 in Interleague remains. That 1-8 v. NYY and Texas underscores that these Astros cannot compete with the elite, but I think that their 13-6 record against everybody else reinforces that this club is not as bad as their first two months. They may actually be set up for a pretty good July: after this weekend in San Diego, they’ve got nothing more challenging this month than one series each in Houston against the Cardinals and Reds. Who are virtually tied for first in the NL Central, granted, but the NL Central is baseball’s weakest division this year. And these Astros have already swept St. Louis once. Not that I expect another late season run – I don’t – but I don’t expect these Astros to lose 100 games any more either.
A trade! A trade! Only July 1, and Ed Wade is already dealing! Nothing of nearly the magnitude that we were (and still are) expecting, however – swapping Kevin Cash to the BoSox for AAA SS Angel Sanchez. Sanchez reportedly joined the Astros in San Diego yesterday, which implies that he’s being brought up to the big club, but no corresponding roster move has been announced yet. Zach Levine analyzed the possibilities and concluded that the unlucky victim will be either Pedro Feliz or Oswaldo Navarro, which seems logical. I doubt that Houston is ready to cut Feliz loose yet, though, especially after his recent 3-for-5 game. It’s more likely they’ve decided that Navarro’s .063 batting average isn’t likely to improve much, which is perhaps unfair after only 19 plate appearances. I would rather they give Navarro an extended trial than increase Geoff Blum’s time at shortstop. I believe this move is in response to the same problem I blogged about when discussing Adam Everett: neither Blum nor Navarro is a natural shortshop. Sanchez is, so he figures to be a stopgap until Tommy Manzella is ready to return next month, and unlike Everett, Sanchez can be expected to accept a minor league assignment later on. Cash was not going to make it back to Houston this year, so I like the move.
Tonight’s game will be #81 in the books for 2010. I know it’s been a “long year,” but are we really halfway done already?