Tagged: j.d. martinez

Photos from the CC Hooks’ Friday Doubleheader

Sometimes it’s tough being an Astros fan in Arkansas. Even though our local team, the Arkansas Travelers, has been the AA affiliate of the Angels for 11 years now, the entire state is still deep Cardinals country. I’ve been in this state for 12 years now myself, and I’ve met exactly two other Astros fans here. I’ve learned to love the Travs in their own way, and Minor League Baseball in general, but my heart will always remain in Houston. The one perk I get here is that the Travs play in the Texas League alongside Houston’s AA affiliate, the Corpus Christi Hooks. The Hooks typically come to town twice a year, so I always try to make it out for at least one of their games to see the Astros of the future.

We were out of town the first time that Corpus came here this year, so this past Friday was our chosen date. It turned out to be a lucky choice for me, as Thursday’s game was rained out, so our Friday night tickets became good for a Friday afternoon doubleheader. Our seats were in the front row right behind the Travs’ dugout, and I brought our camera along to document the action.

The Travelers' outfield of Chris Pettit, Mike Trout & Angel Castillo (l to r) waits for the national anthem before Game 1 of the doubleheader.

Hooks shortstop Jonathan Villar (acquired last year in the Oswalt deal) leads off the game.

New Hooks first baseman Kody Hinze takes a throw between innings, with Villar in the background.

Hooks starter Brett Oberholtzer, acquired from Atlanta in the Michael Bourn trade, prepares to pitch in the bottom of the first.

The Angels' top prospect, Mike Trout, takes the field after the first.

Kody Hinze at the plate in the second inning. He singled here and later scored the Hooks' first run.

Hooks center fielder T.J. Steele returns to the dugout after popping up.

Hooks catcher Brian Esposito prepares to hit in the second.

Oberholtzer winds up for a pitch in the bottom of the second. After two hitless innings, he gave up two runs on two hits in the third, then was pulled after a scoreless fourth, ending up with a tough loss.

This is Lance. He works for the Travs' front office now, but he's a fellow Houston native and the second of those two Astros fans I mentioned above.

Crime Dog McGruff was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the second game. Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff was nowhere to be found.

Injured Hooks infielder Jimmy Van Ostrand (#25) is seen here on the field between games. #4 is Hooks outfielder Jon Gaston.

This is Shelly, the Arkansas Travelers' mascot. He ran down a kid in left field shortly after this photo was taken.

Adam Bailey makes his Hooks debut in the first inning of the second game, after being called up from Lancaster. He struck out here, but finished the night 2-for-3 with two doubles.

And immediately following Bailey's debut, Jose Carlos Thompson likewise makes his Hooks debut.

Hooks shortstop Brandon Wikoff drives the ball to right field in the second inning of Game 2.

Hooks left fielder Brandon Barnes looks up after taking a ball in the second.

Mike Trout takes a swing in Game 2. He would walk, but wouldn't score.

Trout on first after walking. Hinze & Trout - two future MLB All-Stars?

Hinze at the plate again, in the third inning of Game 2. He flew out here, but finished 1-for-3.

Before leaving, I had to stop by the gift shop to pick up the 2011 Texas League Top Prospects baseball card set. It included these three familiar faces (though now all former Hooks).

Unfortunately for the Hooks, they lost both games this night – Game 1 4-2 in a pre-determined seven innings, and Game 2 6-2 after a sudden thunderstorm ended the game at five. Growing up with the Astrodome, this was my first live experience with a rain delay or a rainout, but it was a fun day at the ballpark regardless. Dickey-Stephens Park (named in part for Hall of Fame catcher and Arkansas native Bill Dickey) sits on the north bank of the Arkansas River, and it’s a great place to see a ballgame.

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.

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…