Tagged: jason castro

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.

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A play in three acts

As we enter the final two weeks of the 2010 regular season (and, in all likelihood, the final two weeks of the Astros’ 2010 season), many have taken the opportunity to look back at all that has happened since April 5 and analyze the season in hindsight. Much has been written about “the Astros since June 1” or “the Astros since the All-Star Break,” but either one of these views shortchanges just how far this team has come in so little time.

Every Astro fan would love to forget April and May of this year. The 2010 Astros matched the 2005 Astros’ 15-30 start, but the comparisons would never hold up. The Clemens/Pettitte-led 2005 squad went 4-2 to finish May and begin a turnaround that ended, of course, in the World Series. The 2010 edition maintained their lose-two-of-three pace to enter June at 17-34, and the infamous tombstone would have looked much more appropriate five years later. Houston was on pace for their worst-ever season by far, 2005 hero Roy Oswalt asked to be traded, and it seemed the Astros had picked up right where they left off in their abysmal ending to 2009.
From June 1 through July 28, Houston alternated stretches of continued futility with runs of improved play, and they went 25-25 over their next 50 games. They showed, as many had expected, that they were not as bad of a baseball team as their first two months seemed to indicate. At the same time, however, they also showed they were far from a first division club, as they posted a 4-15 record against contending clubs (Yankees, Rangers, Padres, Cardinals, Reds) during that stretch. The overall improvement was helped by an infusion of youth, with the callups of Chris Johnson, Jason Castro and Jason Bourgeois, and the acquisition of Angel Sanchez from Boston, but it was clear every time the club ran up against elite competition that there was still work to be done.
July 29 was a day off for Houston’s players, but not for Ed Wade and the front office. Soon came the move that had been hanging over the team since May – Roy Oswalt was traded. When the Astros returned to the field on the evening of July 30, Lance Berkman was out of the lineup too, as it turned out he had also been traded in a move that would be officially announced the next day. It may have been the darkest weekend in franchise history for Astros fans, but the blow was softened at least slightly by a weekend sweep of the Brewers. July 30 marked the beginning of the post-Berkman/Oswalt era in Houston, but it also marked the beginning of the 2010 Astros’ final act. Since that dark day in late July, Houston has gone 30-18, climbed from 5th to 3rd in the NL Central, and they’re knocking on the door of a .500 season that no one dared to fathom even eight weeks ago. Perhaps even more telling, they’re 12-4 against the elite competition (Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Reds) that gave them so much grief in June and July. Now the comparisons to 2005 would seem more appropriate, as they look like a team that could actually have a shot in October, if they hadn’t buried themselves alive in April and May.
Here’s a wild thought: if these Astros manage to win every game the rest of the way, if the Reds lose every game, and if the Cardinals only win half of their remaining schedule, then the Astros are your 2010 NL Central Division champs. Will it happen? No, it won’t. 2006 was once in a lifetime, when the Astros shaved a 9.5-game Cardinals lead to just half a game in the last two weeks of the season, but even that run ultimately fell short (and St. Louis ultimately won the World Series). The Astros could be eliminated from contention as early as tonight, if they lose to the Nationals and if Cincinnati beats Milwaukee. But the fact that they still have any chance at all on September 20, no matter how slim, is a testament to the incredible job that these young guys have done in a remarkably short period of time. Earlier this year, most would have written them off by some date in August.
The 2010 Houston Astros have gone from awful to interesting to exciting – it’s almost felt like three seasons in one. Following the big trades in July, Ed Wade and Drayton McLane refused to say that the franchise was “rebuilding,” preferring the term “retooling” instead, but I scoffed and dismissed it as PR semantics. But maybe Ed was right after all. The last time this team truly “rebuilt” was in the early ’90s before Drayton came on board. 1990 was the aging team trying unsuccessfully to hold onto past glories (1986) – see April/May 2010. 1991 was the young team that often got their butts whupped but that held promise for the future – see June/July. Then 1992 saw the youngsters growing up and clawing their way to a .500 record that no one expected – see August/September this year. 1993 brought new promise and new hope. Even if the 2010 Astros fall short of .500, the new promise and new hope for next year are already shining through. Of course it took until ’97 for McLane’s Astros to finally reach the playoffs (though we’ll never know about ’94), but at this condensed rate, that’s 2012 at worst… 2011 at best.
Encore!

Final thoughts before Friday

This afternoon, the Astros concluded a bizarre series against San Francisco in which the winner of each game would be the first team to three errors. Houston’s defense was ultimately the more awful, and so they came away with two wins out of three. Jason Castro destroyed a Matt Cain changeup for an upper-deck homer in the 2nd, and he destroyed his bat for a single to right in the 7th, so he finished the day 2-for-3 with an RBI, a walk and two runs scored. With a .300 batting average after three games, Castro the Astro is off to a great start.

Nolan Ryan mentioned recently that he likes Houston’s affiliation with his AA Corpus Christi Hooks, but he said nothing about their Round Rock partnership. If the Astros keep up the way they’ve been going recently, they may want to consider that new Sugar Land location in order to have their AAA guys closer at hand. Houston today made their fifth call-up in a week, with Josh Banks now scheduled to start in Arlington on Saturday, as Felipe Paulino goes on the DL. Bud Norris is back too, and scheduled to start on Monday, but as Roy O’s start on Sunday remains unmoved, I don’t mind the reshuffling around him. No word yet on who’s being removed from the roster in order to make room for Banks, but I don’t expect any major surprises.
Final note: Brad Mills says that Roy Oswalt should be an All-Star this year… and really, I hope that he is. I stated before that I thought Matt Lindstrom was Houston’s most likely candidate, and I still believe that to be the case. But Roy is really their most deserving – if they can look past his 4-9 record (the result of being on a bad baseball team), he honestly, arguably has put up All-Star type numbers. At the very least, he’s put up the most All-Star like numbers of anybody on the Astros team, so based on that criteria alone, Roy should get the call. Not to take anything away from Lindstrom, as I’ll cheer on the Astros rep either way, but I’ll be both surprised and well-pleased if we see Roy in Anaheim on July 13.

Crazy Eight

After eight tries, the Astros finally beat the Giants, though a day too late for Jason Castro’s debut, but c’est la vie. Castro got his first 0-fer and first passed ball, but he did work a walk and score another run. Chris Johnson was the star rookie for Houston on this night, going 2-4 with a double, a RBI, a stolen base and a run scored. 

Bad news for the other of Houston’s rookie trio, Tommy Manzella; he broke his finger in the 9th Tuesday night, and now he’ll be out for about six weeks. Signing Adam Everett didn’t make much sense when he was DFA’d by Detroit early this month, but he’s officially a free agent now and is still available, so is it time to bring him back? It would certainly make more sense now, with Tommy out until at least August, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad move… the Astros recalled Oswaldo Navarro from Round Rock to fill Tommy’s roster spot, and of course we’ve got Geoff Blum, but neither of those two are natural shortstops. I’d love to see Edwin Maysonet get another shot in Houston, but he’s been battling injuries this year and is primarily a second baseman himself. Jeff Keppinger could slide over to short, but he earned his starting job this year at 2B, and I’d rather not muck with that. Adding Everett would solve all of those difficulties, but it would introduce another problem, in the question of what do you do with him when Manzella returns? He refused minor league assignment in Detroit, so I doubt that he’d accept it here. There is also potential for intangible benefit by bringing in Everett, as he could help mentor Manzella and other young Astros players; he was evidently valuable in that role for Detroit. But ultimately, I still don’t think it makes enough sense for a struggling and rebuilding team to go out and add veteran parts when you already have younger guys like Navarro or Maysonet who are capable of filling the role. I would smile to hear that Adam was signed, but I don’t expect it to happen.
Other thoughts: It’s rumored that Delino DeShields, Jr. (or DDJ, from henceforth) is close to signing with Houston, and I hope that’s true. The Astros have already signed their other two first rounders this year, and 28 of 52 draft picks overall; I’d like to see DDJ added to that mix sooner than later. Taken at #8, he was of course greeted with the hype of being “Houston’s highest draft pick since Phil Nevin at #1 in 1992.” Jason Castro had that same hype two years ago when he was taken #10, although Chris Burke was also drafted 10th in 2001. The hope with both Castro and DDJ is that they’ll exceed the careers of Burke (currently with AAA Louisville) and Nevin, but only time will tell. Phil did put together a few good years with San Diego, but his Houston career was a bust, and his final totals were disappointing compared against the expectations for a #1 overall draft pick. Looking back, the gem of the ’92 draft was taken #6 by the New York Yankees… I know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, and the Astros probably would have been criticized back in ’92 had they not picked Phil Nevin #1. But for a franchise whose career home run leader at shortstop is still the aforementioned Adam Everett with 35, just the possibility that Derek Jeter could have been an Astro all this time is a tantalizing “what if?” fantasy. Imagine Jeter in a Houston infield with Bagwell, Biggio and (pre-injury) Ken Caminiti… wow. I should stop now before I cry myself to sleep tonight.
Astros conclude their third Giants series this afternoon, and then they (and I) are off to Arlington for the weekend. In non-MLB news, how about that Landon Donovan? Go USA!! I was fortunate yesterday to catch both the last 25 minutes of the USA-Algeria game, and the last three innings of the TCU-Florida State CWS game, in which TCU scored 8 in the 8th to roar back from a five-run deficit and win 11-7. My (really cool) father-in-law is a TCU alum, so I’m behind the Horned Frogs all the way in Omaha. Go rally turtle!!

And Castro’s an Astro

So last night’s game is in the books, and now Jason Castro can officially claim the rank of big league ballplayer. Don’t hold your breath for any “Cas-mas” type holidays in Houston like “Strasmas” every fifth day in D.C., but Jason has no reason to hang his head following his debut. A hit off of Tim Lincecum in his first big league at bat, a run scored, and two baserunners caught stealing from behind the plate; maybe he didn’t quite set the world on fire, but he did his part to help the team win (even though they lost), so I’ll gladly take that any day of the week.

The game could have ended better for the Astros, having turned into another disappointing loss following another solid start by Roy Oswalt, but Roy was not the big story last night. It was almost a disastrous game for the Giants, with three errors and no runs through six innings, but a win makes any box score look better. The key play, really, came in the bottom of the third, when Lance Berkman grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and one out. That made the difference between the headlines reading “CASTRO KICKS OFF FIVE RUN OUTBURST,” rather than “CASTRO SCORES ASTROS ONLY RUN.” I’m still not entirely sure that Lance didn’t actually beat the rap, as we never got to see a replay, but if Jason Donald was safe in Detroit, then I’ll accept that Puma was out here.
Let’s look at this again (with thanks again to Alyson Footer for the photo):
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I like this lineup. Maybe more than any Astros lineup since 2007, or even longer. You know why? Because six of those nine guys are Astros farm products. Michael Bourn is a Houston native, was originally drafted by Houston, and has spent the majority of his big league career here. Within a month, Jeff Keppinger will have more experience as an Astro than anywhere else. And while Carlos Lee still has more seasons with the Chicago White Sox (six), he’s in his fourth year here, so at least we’re used to the big guy. It feels like our team, rather than an assembled collection of purchased pieces, rentals and cast-offs. Castro, Johnson and Manzella may never be the next Biggio, Ensberg and Everett, but even if the Astros lose more games now, I’d rather watch them go to battle with these guys than with Cash, Feliz and Blum.
It’s the same reason that 2005 is my favorite Astros team, even without the World Series appearance, rather than the flashier 2004 or 1998 squads. Almost every regular Houston starter in ’05 was a career Astro, excepting Brad Ausmus, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Pettitte and Clemens, like Bourn, were Houston natives, and Ausmus built his legacy here, even if he didn’t begin and won’t end an Astro. They were a Houston baseball club, through and through, and that’s something the local fans will always love. It’s the same reason that, if I was a Florida Marlins fan, I would love their 2003 championship squad more than 1997. The ’97 Marlins were the poster children for buying a World Series win, but the ’03 group was much more organically grown.
So the Jason Castro Era has begun. It may not be remembered as such years from now, as those are unrealistic expectations to place on any kid with only one game’s worth of experience, but it will be fun to watch along the way. The Ivy League-educated Ausmus blocked the backstop in Houston for a decade, with golden defense and plenty of smarts. If the Stanford-educated Castro can do the same, adding at least as much offense (and hopefully more), then we’ve got a keeper.

Strasburg who?

Brian McTaggart tweets that it’s official now – Jason Castro will make his major league debut tonight, starting and batting seventh. It’s a good thing, too; Castro’s arrival may not have nearly the hype surrounding him that Stephen Strasburg did in Washington a couple of weeks back, but this means just as much for the Houston franchise as Strasburg does for the Nats. There would likely be a number of angry fans in the stands at the Juice Box if they came to see Castro and got Humberto Quintero instead. No disrespect intended to Q, of course, but he could probably use the extra rest after getting clocked in the head on Sunday anyway.

Castro the Astro gets the unenviable task of debuting against the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner (x2) in Tim Lincecum – but if you’re going to be the best, you have to beat the best. Lincecum faces off against Roy Oswalt (again), with Roy having lost the first two duels, but if you look past their won-loss records, their stats are eerily similar to this point. 3.11 ERA for Lincecum v. 3.12 for Roy; .224 BAA for the Wizard against .223 for the Freak. 92.2 IP for Lincecum and 92.1 for Roy O. Lincecum has the edge in strikeouts, 106 to 89, but Oswalt has walked fewer, 24 v. 37; er go, Roy has the better WHIP at 1.08, versus 1.22 for Lincecum. Even if Castro was still catching in Round Rock tonight, this would be the kind of game I’d get excited over; growing up with the Astrodome as home, I learned to love nothing more than a good pitcher’s duel. Castro’s arrival is a huge bonus, and the result is that I can’t remember a more interesting non-Opening Day game for the Astros since they were still in the playoff race late in 2008, or even since their frantic scramble ending 2006 before that. Oh, how I wish I was in Houston tonight!
My consolation is that at least I’ll get to see the Astros play in person on Sunday. Barring unforeseen circumstances or inexplicable reshuffling, Roy should be still be starting that game, and if he gets a win tonight, then he’ll be looking to tie Joe Niekro’s franchise record for career wins on Sunday night. I hope that Castro (and Chris Johnson) get to start that game too, but… I’m getting ahead of myself. Today’s excitement should be for tonight. Don’t feel any pressure, Jason – just go out and play ball.
EDIT: The full lineup for tonight, courtesy of Alyson Footer – all of your favorite Astros, available together on one handy-dandy lineup card! I would LOVE to see this same group take the field Sunday night…

Dawning of the age of…

The Astros just spent the weekend getting swept by another first place team (Texas), immediately after dropping two of three in Kansas City (really??), to finish their nine-game interleague jaunt at 1-8. And I begin to doubt myself that maybe this IS a basement-bad baseball team. But then the news following yesterday’s bitterly disappointing loss suddenly instills hope – the Astros may not necessarily be a better team when they open against San Francisco on Tuesday, but they’ll certainly be more interesting.

Kevin Cash, Cory Sullivan and Casey Daigle have all been designated for assignment, and Houston is calling up Chris Johnson, Jason Castro and Jason Bourgeois to fill their spots. Castro and Johnson will now be the primary starters at their positions, too, and suddenly Jeff Keppinger becomes one of Houston’s oldest regulars at age 30. Perhaps watching Justin Smoak burn the Astros all weekend provided the impetus; Smoak was selected by Texas with the #11 pick immediately after Houston drafted Castro #10 back in 2008. Chris Johnson will get the shot to take over 3B for Houston that perhaps he should have been given over the winter, when the club christened Tommy Manzella a starter untested but gave a vote of no confidence in CJ by signing Pedro Feliz. The Bourgeois move is interesting, seemingly in defiance of the “don’t let young guys languish on the bench” rule, but I suppose that at age 28, Bourgeois is too old to be considered a “real” prospect, so it’s considered justifiable if he’s asked to fill a bench role. Interesting too is the loss of a left-handed bat by swapping Bourgeois for Sullivan, but looking at Sullivan’s stats this season, I suppose it would be hard to convince anyone that a righty like Bourgeois couldn’t have done at least as well. So why not give it a shot.

And then there’s Jason Castro. Has any Astros prospect been so hyped from the day he was drafted since Lance Berkman in ’97, or even since Phil Nevin’s #1 overall pick in ’92? Castro has been the poster child for the organization’s re-commitment to developing farm-grown talent. He’s not here to be the savior of the 2010 season, as Ed Wade is quick to emphasize, but he does represent the beginning of a new era in Houston. Or he might. We don’t know yet, but Ed (and most of Houston) hopes that he does.
The Houston Astros franchise may not have the glorious history of the New York Yankees or St. Louis Cardinals to build fan pride, but we have been remarkably blessed to watch our most favorite sons stay rooted here, even as the team evolves (or devolves) around them. Craig Biggio made his big league debut in June of 1988; he was joined three years later by Rookie of the Year Jeff Bagwell, and the pair carried and characterized the franchise throughout the ’90s. Lance Berkman made his debut in July of ’99, then was joined in 2001 by Roy Oswalt; their stars rose as Bags’ and Bidge’s set, and they became the face of the franchise for the 2000s. Now the team is entering into their biggest rebuilding project since Bagwell’s rookie season of 1991, and Lance and Roy have both offered themselves to be traded for the good of franchise. The day seems to be fast approaching when we’ll have to stomach seeing them in uniforms other than Astros’ brick, and it’s time for the torch to be passed again. Is Jason Castro the new bearer? He’s poised to be. Will he have a cohort, as the previous cornerstones have? Jordan Lyles? Delino DeShields, Jr.? Or maybe he’s already here, if Hunter Pence or Michael Bourn survives the tear down, perhaps. Only time will tell.
Tuesday’s game is Roy Oswalt v. Tim Lincecum, Round 3 for 2010. I know that Q usually catches Roy, but I hope that “Castro the Astro” gets the start anyway. Houston’s 1991 team was officially the worst in franchise history, but I look back on them fondly anyway, because that year sowed the seeds for a new generation of stars. This year’s team is on pace to finish with roughly the same record as ’91, but if they can likewise replicate the nurturing of new talent, then the season will be a success. The future is now.