2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 74 – 88 (5th NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75
2007: 73 – 89
2006: 82 – 80
2005: 89 – 73

For two straight seasons, the Astros have outperformed their stats – which is to say that their record is better than the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed.  In 2008, the Astros were 11 games over .500 despite allowing 31 runs more than they scored.  In 2009, the Astros scored and allowed the same number of runs as Pittsburgh and yet won 12 more games.  That can’t keep happening…

Season Recap:

On the heels of a ridiculously over-successful 2008, some people thought the Astros might remain competitive in 2009.  Instead, long time veterans fell off (Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman), and eventually Cecil Cooper was fired because people didn’t think he knew what he was doing.

The Astros won an extra inning game on April 7th to pull to .500 with a win and a loss.  Houston lost five in a row, and then would trade wins and losses for about a month never getting better than four games under .500 until late June.  As the month turned into July, the Astros played their best baseball, winning 18 of 26 games.  This got their record to 50 – 46 and into the the NL Central race, just two games behind St. Louis and tied with Chicago for second place.

What happened next was that the Astros ran out of mojo.  A slow slide brought them back under .500, and despite sweeping the Phillies in four games the Astros could never get closer than two games under .500.  When the clubhouse, management, and media turned on Cecil Cooper, knowing that season was over anyway, Cooper was let go.  September was spent wondering what could have been, including a nine-game losing streak that knocked Houston into fifth place.

Were they really that good?  Probably not.  The Astros scored five runs more than Pittsburgh (743 – 738) and allowed two more (770 – 768).  Houston was as lucky as Pittsburgh was unlucky – and should really have won about 67 games.

Pitching:

Wandy Rodriquez turned into an ace, winning 14 games, throwing nearly 206 innings, and saving his team about 28.5 runs over what an average starter might have given up.  Roy Oswalt, admittedly having an off season, won just eight games but was still better than league average in his 30 starts.  And that’s where it ends.

Last year, Brian Moehler got 29 starts, allowed nearly six runs per nine, and was bad enough to virtually offset Rodriguez.  Mike Hampton returned to go 7 – 10, and he was 13 runs worse than the average pitcher over 112 innings.  How many of you thought he would make 100 innings?  Felipe Paulino was atrocious – 22 innings worse than average in just shy of 100 innings.  Ouch.  Russ Ortiz got 13 brutal starts.  Yorman Bazardo went 1 – 3 and had an ERA of 7.88.  Only rookie Bud Norris got a few starts and didn’t look lousy.  No team is going to be successful with what amounts to 500 innings of horrific pitching unless the lineup is eight Albert Pujols.

What saved Houston was a remarkable bullpen.  Jose Valverde had just 25 saves (injuries interruped his season), but he also was 12.6 runs better than the average pitcher in his 52 innings.  LaTroy Hawkins had perhaps his best season ever – 63 innings and a 2.13 ERA.  Jeff Fulchino was a stopper in middle relief, and Tim Byrdak allowed only 39 hits in his 61.1 innings.  Sure, the rest of the staff was a mixed bag of arms, but four solid relievers can keep games in hand even when the starters get lifted – and these starters were regularly lifted…

For 2010, the big move was adding former Phillie, Brett Myers, to the rotation.  A one-time starter, Myers can help here just by staying around league average.  Moving Bud Norris into a full time spot (#4) would also help some.  Sadly, Paulino and Moehler get to fight for that fifth spot in the rotation – or get starts that someone else might miss.  Still – this could be a 30 run improvement on the defensive side.

For the bullpen, Jose Valverde is gone, as is Hawkins.  Matt Lindstrom arrives from Florida with a 100 MPH fastball that has little or no movement.  Brandon Lyon was signed to a three-year deal to set up Lindstrom.  I don’t see how this is going to be better – and it could easily be 25 runs WORSE than last year.

Catching:

Ivan Rodriguez was installed as the starter at the beginning of the year and was still solid – makes few mistakes, strong against the run, still reasonably mobile, but isn’t a run producer.  After Pudge was allowed to leave for Texas, Humberto Quintero took over and was exceptional against the run though a bit more mistake prone.

One time prospect J.R. Towles gets one last shot at this job (one assumes that Jason Castro or Koby Clemens will be taking over soon enough) – with Quintero as his backup.  Though Towles didn’t throw anyone out last year (one guy – he threw out one guy), he does have better overall skills.  Overall, this might be five runs better, but I don’t buy it.  Let’s call the overall production a wash.

Infield:

Lance Berkman had his first off sesason after a long run of productive hitting.  He’s still an offensive force, but he missed a month of games with injuries.  Darin Erstad isn’t really good enough to take over here.  If the Astros expect to win, Berkman has to play 150 games and he’s at the age where that gets harder and harder to do.

Kaz Matsui returns – a glove man who really doesn’t do much to keep the offense going.  At this point, the Astros need to keep him because I don’t think Jeff Keppinger is going to do any better.

Miguel Tejada played a surprisingly solid shortstop, and kicked in with 199 hits and 46 doubles.  He’s NOT a top flight hitter, but he’s been as dependable for hits as anyone and remains above average for the league and his position.  He’s gone, though, to be replaced by rookie Tommy Manzella.  Manzella hit .289 at Round Rock last year, but isn’t going to hit as well as Tejada.  He MIGHT be 20 runs better defensively, but he may well hit about .260 with a little power, which will be about 30 runs worse offensively.

Geoff Blum had a rough season, to say the least.  He was below average offensively (.247, 10 homers – 4.2 runs per 27 outs) and he cost his team another 21 runs defensively at third base.  Enter Pedro Feliz, who had a monster season defensively and will be no worse a hitter.

On the whole, I see this group being about 40 runs better defensively, but lose 30 runs offensively.

Outfield:

Offensively, this is a strong unit.  Carlos Lee in left remains a potent power source.  Hunter Pence in right field has power, patience, speed, and provides good defense.  Michael Bourn is a burner who gets on base, steals what he can, and can cover ground in center.

Defensively, Lee needs to be a DH – costing his team about 32 runs in left.  He’s no longer mobile enough to cover any ground and he’s reaching the age where his bat might start to slip.  Jason Michaels returns to play the late innings for Lee.

Prospects:

Looking over AAA Round Rock, other than Tommy Manzello, you have Chris Johnson.  He’s a third baseman taken in the 4th round in 2006 out of Stetson.  Right now, he looks like he’d hit as well as Geoff Blum and if he fields better might be a better option for 2010.  At 25, Johnson has to step up now.  Among pitchers, Bud Norris already got the call in 2009, as did Bazardo and Sam Gervacio, who might get a second chance some time in 2010.  Gervacio showed power and control in AAA (58Ks, 21 Ws in 52.1 innings).

The best pitcher at AA Corpus Christi was Polin Trinidad, who walked just ten batters in 82.2 innings and earned a promotion to AAA mid-season.  He’s still a year away, but I’d rather see him than, say, Brian Moehler.  Drew Locke hit .338 with 20 homers there – but it’s taken a while for the former Dodger draft pick to get his career moving.  He must be a brutal fielder.  Catcher Jason Castro, the 2008 1st round pick, moved up to AA in 2009 and continues to hit for a decent average (.293) and work the count.  He could make the roster in 2010, for sure he’ll be on the Astros in 2011.

Pitchers in Lancaster (A+) got slapped around a lot there, but a few stood out.  Leandro Cespedes, Shane Wolf, and Fernando Abad all had decent control and strikeout numbers and are young enough to contribute a couple of years from now.  I especially liked Abad, who walked only eight in 82.2 innings.  He could be a future closer.  Because hitting is so easy there, you have to take stats with a grain of salt, but catcher Koby Clemens hit .345 with power – probably the best of the lot.

2008 1a pick Jordan Lyles pitched well at Lexington in the SAL – 167Ks just 38 walks in 144.2 innings.  Still a teenager, he’ll be in Lancaster and probably Corpus Christi soon enough.  2007 pick Collin Delome (5th round) has a lot of different skills, but needs to step up his batting average.  He looks like Brady Anderson, only in AA.  Meanwhile, top pick in 2006, Maxwell Sapp has yet to hit above. 241 in the minors and with two other catchers ahead of him, is not on the prospect lists anymore.

Forecast:

I don’t see the Astros being competitive in the NL Central.  I see them struggling to score runs – about 610 runs this season – and despite the improved defense, still giving up about 725 runs.  There are just too many holes to patch, and after two years of very lucky won-loss records, the system says no more than 67 wins and playing the under.

Advertisements

Free Agents Filing at Torrid Pace…

‘Tis the season for teams to decide on what members will remain on the 40-man roster, and which players will not get tendered offers based on existing options, and for other players to test the market.  So, for the next several days, the list of players on the MLB Free Agent list will grow and the number of players officially on the 40-man rosters will likely shrink for a little while.

The Rumor Mill

FoxSports reports that the Cubs are considering a three-way deal to move Milton Bradley.  The Cubs would get Luis Castillo from the Mets, the Mets would get Lyle Overbay from the Toronto Blue Jays, and Toronto would get Bradley.  Other deals suggest the Rays getting involved and offering Pat Burrell for Bradley.  [FoxSports]

The Mariners are looking to keep Felix Hernandez around (which means starting the process of a long-term deal now), but understand that there are many, many suitors for the AL Cy Young candidate.  [SI]

Thanks for Playing!

Carl Crawford remains in Tampa as the Rays honored his $10 million option.  Meanwhile, Brian Shouse and Greg Zaun were both bought out and will become free agents.  [ESPN]

Boston picked up the option for catcher Victor Martinez ($7.1 million), signed Tim Wakefield to a two-year deal loaded with incentives, but declined an option on Jason Varitek.  Varitek has the option to sign for $3 million to be a backup next year, else join the free agent market.  For Wakefield, he’ll have a chance to break the team record for pitching victories (Young/Clemens have 192) and win his 200th career game.  [ESPN]

Free Agent Filings…

The most interesting story is that a Japanese fireballer, Ryota Igarashi of the Yakult Swallows, owner of a 98-mph fastball, wants to play here.  Japanese players have to wait nine seasons before they can come to the states and Igarashi is already 30 but could be a viable late inning pitcher for somebody.  [ESPN]

The Dodgers declined a $2.2 million option on reliever Will Ohman, while Mark Loretta and Juan Castro also filed.  [ESPN/MLB]

Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, Yankee World Series heroes, joined the current list of 151 free agents.  Other Yankees on the list now include Eric Hinske, Jose Molina, and Xavier Nady.  [MLB]

Houston’s Jose Valverde, as good a reliever on the market, filed for free agency yesterday.  At least five Astros players (Erstad, Tejada, Brocail) are on the list now.  [MLB]

Octavio Dotel not only filed, but learned he was a Type A free agent, which means the Sox have to offer arbitation if they hope to get compensation should someone else sign Dotel.  [MLB]

Rockies pitchers Joe Beimel and Jose Contreras filed for free agency.  If Beimel is healthy, he’s a good pickup, but I’d be surprised if Contreras gets a lot of interest from teams.  [MLB]

Cubs closer (well, former closer) Kevin Gregg filed for free agency, and – like Dotel – was graded as a Type A free agent, meaning the Cubs have to offer Gregg arbitration to get the compensation draft pick.  [MLB]

Twins infielder Orlando Cabrera joined the list of free agents, alongside Mike Redmond, Ron Mahay, Carl Pavano, and Joe Crede on the list.  [MLB]

Toronto catcher Rod Barajas is a free agent, though he noted that he’d love to stay a Blue Jay.  [MLB]

You know who has a lot of free agents?  St. Louis.  Todd Wellemeyer became the ninth player (Holliday, Ankiel, Pineiro, Smoltz, Glaus, Greene, DeRosa, LaRue) to file.  [MLB]

Gary Sheffield also filed for free agency, trying to find ANYONE who might give him a chance to play.  He’s at eight teams and counting…  [MLB]

Free Agent Discussions

Jerry Crasnick met with a number of executives and put eight questions before them.  Want to see the answers?  [ESPN]

SI’s Ted Keith identifies his list of the ten riskiest free agents.  Well, nine + Rich Harden!!!  [SI]

Old News…

Something else I missed last week…  With several infielders on the horizon (Reid Brignac, Tim Beckham) and Ben Zobrist having blasted his way into the starting lineup, the Rays had less need for Akinori Iwamura.  So, the Rays shipped Iwamura to Pittsburgh for reliever Jesse Chavez.  Chavez probably appreciates the change of scenery, joining a contender, but he’ll need to step up his game to be a contributor.  I like this move for Pittsburgh.

Happy Birthday!

His 1961 season put him on the map, and for much of the 1960s, he was a great Tiger slugger – Norm Cash would be 75 today…

Also celebrating with cards and cake (or rememberances):  Jimmy Dykes (1896), Birdie Tebbetts (1912), Gene Conley (1930), Mike Vail (1951), Larry Christenson (1953), Larry Parrish (1953), Bob Stanley (1954), Jack Clark (1955), Kenny Rogers (1964), Keith Lockhart (1964), and Shawn Green (1972)…

Afterthoughts…

For the first time in nearly 30 years, it looks like all 27 members of the U.S. Appeals court will review the “drug list” case, determining the fate of the list of 104 players who allegedly failed the 2003 anonymous steroid survey.  [MLB]

Might Be Yankees Year; Giambi and Padilla join Smoltz on Released and Designated for Assignment List

I struggled to stay up to watch the Yankees-Red Sox fifteen inning masterpiece – a great game, really, with loads of amazing pitching and the best stained player of his generation hitting a game-winning homer in the 15th inning to win it.  You had Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, former teammates in Florida, dueling it out before handing it to the bullpen.  And it was the bullpen of the Sox – heck, the pitching of the Sox, once touted for its depth and skill and now looking frazzled and weak – that finally caved.  The one time weakness, the Yankees bullpen, pitched nearly eight innings of beautiful baseball.  It’s certainly not over.  Ali looked like he would finish Frazier in 4 rounds in Manilla, if you remember, but Frazier gamely came back for more.  A war of this size cannot be won in a single series.  But the Yankees look like the best team in the AL East, and Tampa might be #2.  And the difference is depth – depth in offense and pitching, which the Yankees have now, and the Sox do not.

Speaking of the Red Sox pitching…  What to do with John Smoltz, he of the 8-plus ERA?  He’s been designated for assignment.  The Sox have ten days to trade or release him, and then Smoltz will have to figure out what he wants to do.  Should he head to the minors and work through it?  Should he take another offer?  Should he ride off in his golf cart into the sunset?  If so, he’ll have plenty of people to golf with – now that Maddux and Glavine also have free time.  The PGA Champions Tour will have to look out.  Smoltz is coming soon.  [MLB, SI, ESPN, FoxSports]

Just as the Cubs started rolling after the All-Star break, another pitcher stumbles.  This time, it’s Carlos Zambrano who was scratched from his start with a stiff lower back.  [SI]

And, the Dodgers don’t need this – Chad Billingsley tweaked his hamstring running the bases after hitting a single in the sixth inning.  Billingsley tried to pitch at the start of the seventh, but one warmup pitch later, he was done.  He’s start to start, but a DL stint wouldn’t be surprising.  [MLB]

Seattle’s Erik Bedard has fraying in his sore throwing shoulder – and will likely miss this season and if another MRI shows more damage, could require surgery.  [SI]

The Minnesota Twins could use some starting pitching, and Cleveland – who had given up on 2009 – gave them Carl Pavano.  Pavano will actually start Saturday for the Twins.  Cleveland put Pavano on the waiver wire, the Twins pegged him, so the two clubs worked out a deal.  Cleveland will get a player to be named later.  [MLB]

Baltimore also got a player to be named later when they agreed to trade catcher Greg Zaun to Tampa.  Chad Moeller was recalled from AAA to back up Matt Wieters.  [SI]

Most teams are looking for help.  Here are two teams that are moving in the other direction.  Texas designated Vincente Padilla for assignment.  Padilla hasn’t been in the good graces of Rangers management – and now management has ten days to trade, release, or send Padilla to the minors.  And, Oakland released Jason Giambi.  The 38-year-old slugger has been fighting a quad injury that has him on the DL – and now he’s got time to find a new job.  If he’s healthy, he might be able to help someone off the bench for six weeks – so somebody might take a flyer on him.  [SI]

Alex Rios was considered a franchise type player by Toronto.  Now, he’s been put on the waiver wire and according to sources, some team put in a claim.  Toronto can let him go (the new team takes on the rest of his $60 million in salary), or pull him back and make a trade offer.  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back!  Geovany Soto (Cubs), Darin Erstad (Astros), Rich Aurilia (Giants) all returned from the DL.  Chris Woodward had been released by Seattle – Boston needs a shortstop badly, so they signed him up…

Hurry Back!  Astro reliever Doug Brocail heads to the DL with a strained right shoulder.  The Dodgers got two starts out of Jason Schmidt before he headed back to the DL with a strained shoulder.  Now THAT was a good investment of $47 million… 

Welcome to the Majors!  Julio Borbon was called up by Texas.  He’s hit over .300 the last couple of years heading through the minors, but in cities that make people look like hitters.  He’s got some speed and won’t turn down a walk, but isn’t likely to get one because he makes so much contact.  He’s probably no better or worse than Willy Taveras (though he won’t run as often), but he is certainly younger and cheaper…

Schmidt Returns With Win; Wang Injury Bug Continues

Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang’s 2009 disaster season continues…  He was playing catch when he felt soreness in his bicep.  He won’t throw again until Friday, and if I were him, I’d be looking to get in shape for 2010.  [ESPN]

Texas closer Frank Francisco heads to the DL with pneumonia – he’ll be back soon, but he needs his rest and fluids.  C.J. Wilson will close, and Willie Eyre gets the call from AAA.  [ESPN]

Mets starter Fernando Nieve’s injury was pretty severe – he tore a muscle in his quad.  He’s out six weeks.  Welcome back to the bigs, Cory Sullivan, who used to be an outfielder for Colorado.  Sullivan’s stay may be short-lived – the Mets will likely call up a starter (Jon Niese?) to take Nieve’s start in the rotation.  [SI]

Speaking of bad quads, A’s first baseman/DH Jason Giambi’s quad has been problematic, and now he’s on the DL.  Giambi’s been day-to-day for weeks with a variety of quad and hamstring injuries.  [SI]

Cincinatti catcher Ramon Hernandez’s knee now requires surgery – which means an extended DL stint.  Coming up to pick up some innings will be Craig Tatum.  Tatum is hard to read – the Mississippi State grad has some power and tools, but has had periods where he hit .320 (FSL, 2007) and .231 (Southern League – same year).  My take is a low average power guy – .220 with 12 homers in 250 at bats type.  Ryan Hannigan, who has been a nice surprise, will get most of the innings, though.  FYI – Hannigan went to Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, the same college that Rube Waddell attended and occasionally coached back in the winter of 1902/1903. [SI]

Welcome back Carlos Quentin – the White Sox slugger has been out two months suffering from plantar fasciitis.   He took over in his old stomping grounds, left field, and cost Brian Anderson a slot on the big league roster.  [SI]

I watched the Phillies and Cubs last night – and I saw two teams heading in different directions.  The Phillies are marching toward the NL East crown after winning their ninth straight, and the Cubs don’t look like they have any direction at all.  And so many of us picked them to win the NL Central, if not challenge for a World Series title.  And now, the Phillies found out Brett Myers may return in August and pitch out of the bullpen.  [MLB]

Welcome Back!  Jason Schmidt was recalled by the Dodgers and won his first start in over two years.  Andy Finch and I saw him in his last rehab start, and he doesn’t have the great fastball – but he has enough to fool people.  However, he was hit a little even by the Memphis Redbirds, so he’ll need to really be on top of his control to win in the bigs.  I’m rooting for him, but not putting him on my fantasy roster any time soon.

Colorado signed Matt Herges to a minor league deal.  He still has some gas in the tank.  Tommy Hanson returned to the Braves (and looked great), and J.D. Martin joined Washington for a start last night.  Cleveland fans might remember Martin – he was once hailed as a top prospect back in 2002, and was a 2001 first round pick out of high school.  Injuries cut into his development, but he’s never really pitched poorly.  He’s got good control, strikes guys out, and at times has looked dominating.

Hurry Back!  Houston’s Darin Erstad and San Diego’s Edgar Gonzalez were both put on the 15-day DL.  Florida’s Andrew Miller was sent to AAA to find his command.

Edgar Gonzalez Hospitalized After Beaning; Does Omar Minaya Read This Blog?

Padres infielder Edgar Gonzalez was hospitalized after getting hit in the head by a Jason Hammel pitch.  He was conscious and aware at the time, but suffering from dizziness and ringing in his ears.  The pitch hit him on the side of the helmet.  His brother, Adrian, also left the game in the sixth to be with his brother.  Colorado’s Hammel hit three batters in the game.  [MLB]

Royals starter Gil Meche heads to the DL with a sore back, to be replaced by Sidney Ponson.  SI’s coverage suggests that manager Trey Hillman may have contributed to the problem by allowing Meche to make too many pitches, noting that he hasn’t won since throwing 132 pitches in a shutout last month.  [SI]

Angel left fielder Juan Rivera left last night’s win over Oakland with tightness in his right leg.  He’s experienced stiffness in his quad for a couple of days now.  Robb Quinlan got the call and may see more playing time in the short term.  [MLB]

Astros OF/1B Darin Erstad left last night’s game with a pulled hamstring after running out a single.  He’s day-to-day for now, but this has been bothering him for weeks.  [MLB]

Rays starter Scott Kazmir left last night’s game in the seventh inning with cramping in his left forearm.  Kazmir thinks it was tied to dehydration and isn’t worried about it.  [MLB]

FoxSports Ken Rosenthal reports that Troy Glaus may rehab as an outfielder in the minors for St. Louis.  He hasn’t been able to make the throw from third to first, but  as an outfielder he might be able to help the Cardinals with his bat.

I swear I just wrote this suggestion a day or two ago.  Was it ESP?  Does Omar Minaya read every baseball blog out there?  The New York Daily News says that the Mets are working with Julio Lugo as a potential shortstop option and may release pitcher Tim Redding to make room for him.  [FanNation/SI/NY Daily News]

Welcome Back!  Mark DeRosa returns to the Cards, while Jarrett Hoffpauir heads back to the minors.  And, Jed Lowrie returned to the Red Sox.