Five questions: Houston Astrosby Lisa Gray
March 18, 2010
The 2009 Houston Astros performed down to expectations, finishing with a 74-88 record. Drayton McLane, the owner, had ordered the general manager, Ed Wade, to "work with" Tal Smith, the president of baseball operations, to keep the team "competitive" without signing free agents to more than one-year contracts. To keep a long story short, Ed Wade's cheap free agents—Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Jason Michaels— didn't help the team win. Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman both suffered from injuries and decreased effectiveness. Carlos Lee posted a 118 OPS+, which was his lowest since 2003. Miguel Tejada's 109 OPS+ was negatively balanced by his poor defensive play.
On the bright side, Michael Bourn improved greatly, playing a dazzling center field, stealing an NL-high 61 bases and improving his OPS+ to 96 from 54; Wandy Rodriguez continued his excellent pitching, posting a 139 ERA+ over a career-high 205 innings; Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins were solid as closer and setup man; Ed Wade's proclivity for picking very good relievers off waiver wires and team discards proved itself with the emergence of Jeff Fulchino, Alberto Arias and Tim Byrdak.
The manager and pitching coach were heartily disliked by the players and the team had all the cohesion of particles in Brownian motion by the end of the year. The lackadaisical play had them losing 20 out of their last 26 games; the owner specifically instructed the manager to not play any of the young players who had been called up; the fans were bored and disappointed.
The owner did what he did two years ago when the team had a similar losing record—fired the incompetent manager. This time, he hired a man to manage who had been associated with the Red Sox instead of merely obeying Bud Selig's "suggestion" for manager. He also hired Brad Arnsberg, an experienced pitching coach with a stellar reputation, and fired every other coach with the exception of the hitting coach and replaced them with men from outside the rganization (except for third base coach Dave Clark, also very well liked by the players) instead of merely promoting from within, as usual. So far this spring, the players appear to have very positively responded to both the new manager and pitching coach. While it is quite true that one can't make chicken soup out of chicken, uh, excrement, a positive attitude, enthusiasm and confidence from the players is a change for the better.
So, what is in store for the 2010 Astros, given that few people outside of hopeful Astros fans expect to team to improve on last year's record?
Will the Astros again insist on using, um, recycled Veteran Presences or give young players a chance?
New manager Brad Mills, unlike his predecessor, is actually willing and eager to try young players, but unfortunately for him, Ed Wade is not. Although there is ostensibly a tryout for outfielders Yordany Ramirez, Alex Romero and Brian Bogusevic, Wade has already told reporters and prediction services that 30-year-old lefty Cory Sullivan and his 81 OPS+ will be the fifth-outfielder replacement for Darin Erstad and his grittiness. Cory is almost a duplicate of Erstad—slim, blond, left-handed, seldom walks, strikes out in 20 percent of his at-bats, has very little power, runs fast in center—a born Astro. There was never any doubt about ex-Phillie Jason Michaels and his weak glove and 98 OPS+ taking the fourth-outfielder spot.
Edwin Maysonet, 28 years young, really has no chance at all of replacing utility infielder Jeff Keppinger, although Maysonet is far more versatile, especially with his defense. As for the pitchers, no young pitcher has a chance of making the roster, except for Felipe Paulino, one of the very few players from the Astros minor leagues who long ago was Designated For Success by the Organization, who will give him more chances than he deserves. So, Old Guys it is again—unless, of course, one of them gets hurt and a spot, even a temporary spot, opens up. Don't expect a better record, as the New Old Guys are not an improvement on the Old Old Guys.
Will Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon effectively replace LaTroy Hawkins and Jose Valverde at setup and closer?
Valverde over the past two years was an extremely effective closer who accumulated 69 saves, 11 blown saves and one additional loss. He threw only 54 innings last year because he was injured when a batted ball struck his shin. He recovered fully without incident; he posted an ERA+ of 180. LaTroy Hawkins, picked up off the waiver wire in 2008, threw 84 innings of 1.77 ERA ball over 89 games, compiling 32 holds, 12 saves, four blown saves, three wins and four losses over that year and a half.
Neither Matt Lindstrom nor Brandon Lyon has been a particularly effective closer in the past. Lindstrom started 2009 as the Marlins' closer, and by the time he lost his job in June, he had a 6.53 ERA, 20 walks and 26 strikeouts over 31 innings pitched; in spite of his throwing hard, he has had a BB/9 rate over 4 over the past two years and his K/9 rate is 7.1, low for a power-pitching closer. Brandon Lyon was a setup man for the Tigers in 2009, pitching 78.2 innings over 65 games with a 161 ERA+ and losing five games, with an additional blown save, and posting a K/9 rate of 6.5 and a BB/9 of 3.5, a career-high figure. He had a 4.76 ERA, four losses and five blown saves at the end of August 2008, when he lost his closer's job to Chad Qualls. In 2007, he was an extremely effective setup man for Jose Valverde.
The probability is not good that either man will duplicate Valverde's success; however, Lyon has proved to be an effective setup man and may serve as a very expensive replacement for Hawkins. The real question is how long will Ed Wade allow each man to continue pitching his assigned inning if he proves ineffective before either replacing him with one of the Astros' young pitchers or, more likely, trading Astros minor leaguers for an expensive Proven Middle Reliever?
Will the much-hyped (by the Astros organization) Jason Castro be given the starting catching position to start the year?
Ed Wade has told reporters on the record that Humberto Quintero WILL be the backup catcher; his 58 OPS+ combined with his virtual refusal to walk and propensity to strike out make him the ideal backup catcher, except for his mediocre defensive skills. Castro had a .747 OPS over 239 at-bats at Double-A Corpus Christi in 2009, and he has never faced Triple-A pitching. His opponent for the starting position is 26-year-old J.R. Towles, who failed when given the job of starting catcher in 2008. However, he has an .842 OPS at Triple-A over 356 at-bats and is hitting the ball well in spring training: 11-for-20. If he continues to hit this well, he will probably be given the starting job again, and the Astros will hold Castro back until the Super Two deadline has passed. If Castro is hitting well at Triple-A and if Towles is not hitting well, Castro may be promoted even earlier. The Astros apparently think that Castro is the next Johnny Bench.
Will the monster that is Lance Berkman in even years return for an encore in 2010?
Lance Berkman had a down year (for him) last year, posting a .274/.396/.509/.907 line. He slumped badly to begin the year, posting only a .743 OPS after four weeks of play, and insisted he was not hurt. He then recovered his stroke after sitting out three days, and increased his OPS to .943 by July 22, then missed 25 games because of an injury to his right calf. He did finish with a 139 OPS+ over 136 games, not exactly a poor showing, but many point to his even years' OPS+ since 2002 of 150, 159, 163, 159 and compare them to his odd years since 2003 of 138, 143, 130, 139 and declare that this can't be normal variation, which, of course, it is. This is also his walk year on his five-year contract, and if Berkman has recovered from his minor knee arthroscopy, I would expect him to post at least the same slash line that he did last year over 160 games.
Will Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman and/or Roy Oswalt be traded for prospects?
It is not that Ed Wade refuses to try to rebuild, but that all three of those players have COMPLETE no-trade clauses. Carlos Lee has said, on the record, at least three times, that he will refuse any trade; in fact, he has so far refused three trades. Lance Berkman is in the last year of his contract and has been adamant about refusing to be traded to any team except the Rangers, who don't need a first baseman. However, if the Astros make it clear to him that they will not pick up his $15 million option for 2011, it is possible that he might agree to a trade at the deadline. Even if he has to leave Texas. Roy Oswalt has one more year on his five-year deal, and if he posts good numbers in the first half, and if the Astros are doing very poorly, and if Roy demands a trade, he may be traded at the deadline, although it is doubtful because his top two teams are the Braves and the Cardinals. Had Drayton McLane not replaced the pitching coach in the offseason, chances are excellent that Oswalt would himself have demanded a trade. However, the probability is that neither will be traded because the owner wants them both to spend their entire career in an Astros uniform, as Bagwell and Biggio did. And Drayton McLane is the most interfering owner in the majors, now that The Boss has essentially retired.
Bonus question: Will Ed Wade obtain more middle relievers before Opening Day?
Does the sun rise in the east? Is the Pope Catholic? Are the Astros thanking their lucky stars that the Pirates exist so that they won't finish last in the NL Central?
Lisa Gray is the author of Astros-holic Synonymous, a Houston Astros baseball blog. She welcomes questions and comments via email.
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