Tagged: hunter pence

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.

So… how about that 2012 Draft?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Carl’s Crawford Boxes?

crawford.catch_.jpg

Coming soon to an outfield near you?
The regular season isn’t even over yet, and already the off-season rumors are starting… which is not surprising in the least, really. But it’s drawing some attention in Houston today as the Boston Herald has linked one of the biggest names in this year’s market to the Astros.
Let me start off by saying that I will be VERY surprised if we see Carl Crawford in an Astros uniform next year. If he doesn’t stay in Tampa, I expect he’ll be lured away by the deeper pockets of the Angels or Yankees. Plus Crawford went on record recently saying that he loves the city of Houston, but “the Astros are not really winning right now,” and his friends “want to see [him] on a team that’s winning.” The Astros and their 33-18 record since July 27 can argue against that, but I’ll be surprised if their efforts are successful. I’ll be surprised, but I’ll also be surprised if they don’t at least make Crawford an offer.
The biggest barrier standing between Crawford and the Astros isn’t money; it’s Carlos Lee. Or maybe it is money, due to Lee’s contract and the difficulty that Ed Wade is certain to have in trying to get rid of it. While Lee has somewhat redeemed his season in the second half, he’s still unlikely to be worth the money he’s owed on the remainder of his contract – at least to a National League, non-DH team. His no-trade clause expires after this season, but he’ll fall into MLB’s 10/5 no-trade category if he spends next year in Houston, so it’s likely now or never if the Astros want to unload him. They’d be foolish not to try. The good news about Lee’s offensive improvement since the All-Star Break, besides the fact that he’s helped Houston win a few games, is that he’s not quite the “most untradeable player in the history of untradeable players” any longer, as Alyson Footer once put it. Some AL team ought to be willing to take a chance on him as a DH, if Houston eats a portion of his salary; I honestly suspect that his being played at 1B is an attempt by management to increase his market value, as well. Ed will still have his hands full attempting to move him, but I think it can be done.
If they can find El Caballo a happy new home, then Carl Crawford starts to make a lot more sense. Trading Lee’s -1.6 WAR for Crawford’s 4.4 instantly makes your team 6 games better. An outfield lineup of Crawford, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence would be among the best defensive trios in baseball, which would in turn make Houston’s pitching staff better (especially fly-ball lovers like J.A. Happ). Replacing Lee with Crawford would mean losing 10-15 HRs per season, which is a problem for a team that’s already last in the league in power, but Carl has actually outslugged Carlos this season – .489 v. .425 – and he helps your team win in plenty of other ways. Could you imagine the havoc wreaked on opposing pitchers with Crawford and Bourn together at the top of the lineup? Plus, of course, Crawford is a Houston native and Bourn’s (and Jason Bourgeois’) old Little League teammate. Astros fans would LOVE him.
There remains the issue of money. Crawford is likely to command a $100-million, long-term contract, or something close to it… something close to what Houston paid for Carlos Lee, come to think of it. Those kinds of contracts are rarely worth the cost in their final years, but Crawford is two years younger than Lee was when he got his six-year deal, and he’s in better physical shape to theoretically hold up longer. A few months ago, adding any kind of big name free agent this winter would have made NO sense for Houston, as the Astros seemed too far away from contending. But ESPN’s Steve Berthiaume has already predicted an NL Central title for Houston in 2011, and the amazing part is that the possibility really could be there. These Astros have been a non-losing team since June 1 and a winning team since late July, with a cast that is likely to return almost entirely next season. An entire season played at their post-May pace would put them pretty much exactly where Cincinnati is right now. Add a six-game swing like Crawford-for-Lee, and you’re looking at 97-98 wins. That’s good enough for the playoffs almost every year.
Drayton McLane likes to show the fans that he’s committed to winning. Signing Carl Crawford wouldn’t quite be like signing Roger Clemens, but it could be close. And if you’re going to spend $100 million on a player, it’s better spent on an all-around talent like Crawford than on a bat-only guy like Carlos Lee. The Astros likely wouldn’t even have to lose their 1st round draft pick next year, as they’re still sitting at #12 in the draft order right now, and all picks through #18 are protected. Those awful first two months this year may end up being the best thing that could have happened to this team.
I do have one big caveat to bringing Carl Crawford on board: J.D. Martinez. You’re not going to get Crawford on a two-year deal, which guarantees that he would still be in town by the time you expect Martinez to be ready for the majors. But consider this: Michael Bourn’s arbitration years will be up and he’ll be eligible to hit free agency following the 2012 season. I like Michael a lot, but if he continues to improve, he may price himself out of the Astros’ range by then. You figure that Martinez will start next season in Corpus, then probably move up to Oklahoma City by season’s end. He could start 2012 in OKC, or he could compete for a starting job then – making Bourn (or Hunter Pence) expendable as trade bait to fill other holes. It’s sad to think about either one of those guys leaving right now, but that’s the reason a strong farm system is so important, and that’s how good teams stay competitive for years at a time – replacing old players with new, trading surplus parts to meet needs in other areas. That’s how Houston won four NL Central titles in five years, 1997-2001.
All of that said – I still don’t expect that Crawford will sign here. I do expect that Ed Wade will try very, very hard to move Carlos Lee, if not this winter, then by July 31 next season. If that happens, and they miss out on Carl, then a guy like Pat Burrell might make a lot of sense – lower cost, would make up for most of the power lost in Lee’s departure, and likely wouldn’t still be a barrier by the time Martinez or others were ready for the bigs. I’ve been a Brian Bogusevic fan for a couple of years now, so I wouldn’t mind seeing him given a shot at the LF starting role, either. In any event, this winter is shaping up to be much more interesting than I once thought it would be…

Movin’ on down

Swept by the New York Yankees. That’s a fate that has been suffered by many, many teams over the years, so there’s no special shame in it. But this is likely where you will see the 2005 and 2010 Astros part ways. In order to keep up with the 2005 pace, this 2010 edition will have to go 9-1 over their next 10 games, against Kansas City, Texas and San Francisco – unlikely. And even if they did somehow manage to pull it off, the Yankee series exposed a reality that’s been ignored each year since 2005: the Astros are not an elite-level team. Granted, that was clear this year before their visit to New York, but this series should have removed any remaining doubts from the heads of Houston management. We’re still a game and a half up from last place, and I believe that’s no temporary arrangement; this is not a basement-bad team. But they’ll struggle to climb much higher than this, and even on a hot streak, they stand no chance of competing for long against true top-tier teams. So, for the first time in two decades, it’s time that the Astros become sellers.

This NBC report yesterday is refuted by this Fort Worth Star-Telegram response, and of course no rumor should ever be taken all too seriously. But the Rangers GM didn’t explicitly deny the report, and we’ve heard GMs say “no chance” before on a deal that eventually happened (*cough*Pudge*cough*). Whether it’s the Rangers or anyone else shouldn’t ultimately matter to the Astros, as long as Roy O approves the deal and they get good prospects in return. Honestly, I hope at this point that Roy gets his wish, as I believe it’s best for all concerned. I hope that Lance continues to pick it up so that the Astros can get good value in return for him, too. I want to see Chris Johnson get a starting shot at third – he’s big league ready right now – and I want to see Jason Castro behind the plate before September. I still hope that Roy remains an Astro at least until July 1, both so that I’ll get the chance to see him, and so that he gets three more starts and the chance to match Joe Niekro atop Houston’s all-time wins list. But it’s time to tear down after that.
In brighter news, a popular topic these days is discussion of the 2010 All-Star Game, and whom the Astros’ representative should be. With the rough season that Houston has had so far, it’s unsurprising that no clear candidate exists, and indeed they might not have an All-Star this year if it wasn’t for the rule requiring that each team have at least one. It seems that most of the Houston fans I’ve seen have said that “only Bourn and Oswalt are deserving,” but… no and no. It’s true that Michael Bourn leads the National League in stolen bases again, which is Houston’s only league leader in any noteworthy statistic. But a .266 batting average will keep him off the team. And while it’s been great to see Roy pitching consistently well again, his 3.16 ERA is only good for 22nd among NL starters right now… and 4-8 starters do not make All-Star teams. Hunter Pence is a no, with a batting average still lower than Bourn’s. Alyson Footer suggested Jeff Keppinger, and I can’t say I wouldn’t love to see that – a guy who started the year as a bench player fighting his way into an everyday job, and then into his first All-Star Game? Plus his .292 batting average does look the most All-Star-y of any Astros regular. (I’ll confess I gave both him and Humberto Quintero a number of write-in votes.)
But I’m going to advocate Matt Lindstrom. Picked up from the Marlins to fill the big shoes of Jose Valverde, Lindstrom has been pretty much everything that Houston hoped so far. Pitching for a team that has been worst in the NL most of the year, his 14 saves (in 17 chances) are good for 6th in the league, behind four guys on teams in or near first place, plus league leader Matt Capps of the Nats. His 3.08 ERA is better than two of those guys, including Capps. His 82% save percentage ranks 5th among guys with at least as many save opportunities as he’s had. He hasn’t entirely been “lights out,” but he’s been reliable, and if you figure that the NL team takes six closers as they did last year, it’s not too hard to imagine Lindstrom among them. He’s been one of the bright spots of the year to date for Houston.

The Most UN-predictable Game in the World

Houston 6, Washington 4

It was the kind of play that keeps you watching even after hope is nearly lost. Your team is down in the 9th inning, two outs, and the final batter lofts a fly that’s destined for an opposing glove. For as long as the ball is in the air, you’re thinking, “Drop it! Drop it!”, even though you know that you’re hoping against hope. 99.5% of the time, it’s game over, good guys lose. But it’s that 0.5% chance, a baseball fan’s undying optimism, that keeps you watching.
Thank you, Cristian Guzman. Sorry, Nationals fans.
I think that yesterday afternoon was the first time in my 30 years of watching baseball that the opposing outfielder actually has dropped the ball with two outs in the 9th, allowing my team to go on to win. It’s even more amazing (and ironic) that Carlos Lee got the winning hit, half an inning after Guzman got the coulda-been winner following an equally embarrassing defensive gaffe by Lee. To quote Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton, it’s why “baseball is the most UN-predictable game in the world.”
Don’t look now, but Houston is 5-4 in their last 9 games. That doesn’t seem like much, but a team that manages to go 5-4 in every 9 games all season will finish with 90 wins. The last-place Astros, believe it or not, have three such 9-game stretches so far this year (two 5-4’s plus a 7-2). The problem is that they only have 3 wins in their other 27 games combined.
For now, the 2010 ‘Stros are still keeping pace with the 2005 World Series team – they matched 15-30 records, and now they’re matched again at 20-34. It’s still unrealistic to make serious comparisons between the two years, but Houston’s bugaboo all year has been the hitless heart of the order. Hunter Pence began turning that around a while ago, and now it looks like Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are finally following suit. I’d still like to see Pedro Feliz pick it up some more too (or else – Chris Johnson, anyone?), but if the Big Three keep swinging well, these Astros won’t stay in last place for long.