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.

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NL’s Best and Worst Pitchers in 2009 – Hot Stove News…

Quick news hits first before we take a quick look back at pitchers in 2009…

Tim Lincecum asked for $13 million when filing for arbitration – if he wins, it would be the highest amount paid to an arbitration eligible pitcher.  Of course, Lincecum is a bit of a party animal off the field, but between the lines he’s one of the five best pitchers in the National League.  He’s certainly one of the most valuable commodities – a pretty durable arm (so far) who gets a lot of batters out and wins games.  [ESPN/SI]

There’s a rather long list of players and teams avoiding arbitration or signing deals – you can get the list on SI or MLB – but the ones that caught my attention were (a) Jonathon Papelbon getting $9.35 million from Boston – about two million more than the going rate and (b) Bengie Molina likely returning to the Giants.  The Mets pursued Molina but apparently not hard enough, and are now stuck with playing backup catchers every day for another year (unless you consider Omir Santos a budding starter).  [FoxSports/ESPN]

FUN WITH DATA!

Having purchased my copy of the Lahman database, which is invaluable for doing quick queries so that I can plug data into my spreadsheets very easily, I can finally start doing the type of statistical analysis that I like…  I’ve already assembled the NL data and will be doing the AL data later this week.  And, after having knocked out the NL sheets, we get to have some fun with the lists it generates.  Today, we’ll start with the pitchers.

Top NL Starting Pitchers

The first rating system I have looks at how many runs a pitcher cost or saved his team over the course of the year above or below what the average pitcher allowed.  ERA is a pretty simple way to note this, mind you.  Someone with an ERA of 2.00 is two runs per nine innings better than someone with an ERA of 4.00.  However, it’s easier to have a low ERA when you pitch in San Diego, so I modify the runs allowed (not earned runs, but runs allowed) by removing the park effect.  Then, I also try to isolate the advantage a pitcher has in being on a team with a good defense vs. one with a bad defense.  For example, a pitcher on the Giants gets help from having a very solid defense – Randy Winn and Fred Lewis in the outfield are plus defenders at their position, the infielders were rather good as well.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals staff had behind them an injured Rick Ankiel or Chris Duncan or Ryan Ludwick in the outfield not catching as many flies as most teams and were playing an injured (and less mobile) Mark DeRosa at third and, perhaps more importantly, an outfielder at second base all year in Skip Schumaker.  Once I figure out how many runs the seven guys in the field affected the team’s ability to prevent runs, you can make a second modification to a pitcher’s runs allowed numbers and compare it with the league average.

The league average pitcher allowed about 4.53 runs per nine innings.  The total number of runs saved is not just dependent on runs allowed per nine, but the number of innings pitched.  The best pitchers in saving runs will usually be starters.  Sometimes, a reliever can sneak in there, but not very often.  Let’s get to the list.

Best Starters:

In terms of runs saved, the best starting pitchers in the National League were…

48.57 – Chris Carpenter (STL)
43.19 – Adam Wainwright (STL)
40.25 – Danny Haren (ARZ)
38.80 – Tim Lincecum (SF)
38.30 – Ubaldo Jimenez (COL)
38.16 – Jair Jurrjens (ATL)
36.39 – Javier Vasquez (ATL)
33.68 – Josh Johnson (FLA)
30.62 – Matt Cain (SF)
28.51 – Wandy Rodriguez (HOU)
28.09 – J.A. Happ (PHI)
26.14 – Ted Lilly (CHC)
23.33 – Jason Marquis (COL)
22.81 – Tommy Hanson (ATL)
21.32 – Clayton Kershaw (LA)

No other starters saved at least 20 runs more than an average pitcher would have allowed given the number of innings pitched by that player.  The top two guys were Cardinals – two pitchers who were wonderful despite having several players not necessarily having good years with the glove.  Those pitchers DO benefit from having the best catching in baseball (Yadier Molina) – but Carpenter’s 48+ runs saved over the average pitcher might be the largest number I have seen in the five years I have done this.  Based on this criteria, Carpenter deserved his Cy Young consideration.  Among the surprises on this list was Clayton Kershaw who couldn’t get any support from his team but really did pitch very, very well and I think could be a sleeper ace for 2010.  And, seeing how well Jason Marquis pitched for the first four months of the season, one assumes that Colorado will miss that kind of production.

Top Relievers:

18.13 – Kiko Calero (FLA)
17.86 – Ryan Franklin (STL)
16.29 – LaTroy Hawkins (HOU)
16.23 – Jeremy Affeldt (SF)
15.49 – Trevor Hoffman (MIL)
13.89 – Nick Massett (CIN)
13.42 – Rafael Soriano (ATL)
12.98 – Huston Street (COL)
12.57 – Jose Valverde (HOU)
12.36 – Todd Coffey (MIL)
12.15 – Tyler Clippard (WAS)

As has been the case for many years, the top relievers are frequently NOT closers but middle relievers who have really good seasons in less demanding roles.  Kiko Calero, who has never had a season anywhere NEAR what he did in 2009 is the surprise winner here.  That being said, the top closer was Ryan Franklin, followed closely by Trevor Hoffman.  More than any other list, this group will change a lot from year to year.  Any number close to 10 is a great year for a reliever.

Worst NL Pitchers…

-44.28 – Manny Parra (MIL)
-33.36 – Josh Geer (SD)
-32.70 – Braden Looper (MIL)
-31.70 – David Bush (MIL)
-31.25 – Jeff Suppan (MIL)
-27.36 – Chad Gaudin (SD)
-25.35 – Todd Wellemeyer (STL)
-22.83 – Micah Owings (CIN)
-21.95 – Felipe Paulino (HOU)
-21.90 – Brad Lidge (PHI)
-20.53 – Brian Moehler (HOU)
-20.20 – Walter Silva (SD)

-21.31 – Kevin Hart (PIT) – but positive 6.30 in CHC

These are the starters for teams who felt like they had no other option than to give 150 innings to someone with a 5+ ERA.  Or, in the case of Brad Lidge, a manager who kept feeding his closer the ball despite the fact that he was getting hammered all too often.  Rarely does a reliever make this list.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is the fact that four of the five worst pitchers in terms of their relation to the average pitcher were Brewers.  Look – they aren’t the worst pitchers.  There were guys with 8+ ERAs who got just 20 innings and were sent packing to AAA, too.  Or were hurt or something.  But the Brewers were hanging in there with four guys who are no better than long relievers.  Three of them had seen better days (Looper, Suppan, Bush), but wow.  One sees immediately where the Brewers should spend their money.  Go find three guys who can pitch.  If that means giving Ben Sheets a deal, do it.  Finding three guys who can give you a 4.20 ERA in 180 innings would move the Brewers up 10 games in the standings.  Is it that hard to find three of those guys?  I can’t wait to do my team overview for the Brewers…

Cooper Fired in Houston; Did He Have a Chance?

This is your lot, Cecil Cooper.  Your two best players, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, showed signs of getting older – missing time and underperforming.  Your shortstop is older than people were told and no longer is a force at the plate, and your starting catcher had played in more games than anyone in baseball history – then he was sent packing.  The rotation is patchwork at best, featuring one guy who may hold the record for DL trips (Mike Hampton) and a third starter who barely reaches 80 with his fastball and is only marginally tolerable (Brian Moehler).  Your fifth starter is 2 – 11 (Felipe Paulino – not to be confused with Fausto Carmona, but they have similar stats).  There are a couple of guys who aren’t half bad – Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee – but the bench slots are filled with people who probably can’t hit as well as you, Cecil.  Guys like Darin Erstad.  And Cooper hasn’t played in more than 20 years.

Through August, however, your team has hovered at the fringe of the race – sometimes a little above .500, sometimes a little below.  This isn’t a disappointment – like the Cubs – but probably a pleasant surprise.  I know lots of people who thought that, after spring training, Houston would finish with 100 losses and finish below Pittsburgh.

And now, Cecil Cooper has been fired.  Well, it wasn’t entirely your fault your team has no depth, no prospects, and gave away the catcher who, while he can’t hit, was keeping the pitching staff in games.  I mean, Wandy Rodriguez came into his own this year.  But you can’t take credit for that anymore either.  Reading the articles, the owner and GM felt that a team with a $103 million payroll should be better.  And, some of the players, like Berkman, felt responsible for Cooper’s firing.  And, to read it in Houston, the players no longer respected Cooper – not liking his style, and thinking that he didn’t handle game situations well.  Some writers in Houston think that his firing was inevitable, that he had no chance, but he deserved to be fired.  I think Ed Wade needs to be fired, too – he put this team together.  Cooper held it together, until too many pieces fell apart – and there weren’t players on the farm who could step up and contribute.  I mean, Russ Ortiz as a starter?  He hasn’t been good since 2004.  Maybe Dave Clark, the interim manager, will get a shot.  Not that Dave Clark had any more experience as a MLB manager than Cooper.  Either that, or Willie Randolph can get a shot at redemption.

Whomever gets the job next year is going to be lucky to win 70 games.  Cooper had done that. [ESPN/SI/MLB/Houston Chronicle]

Well – there’s no manager’s union for things like this.  However, when a player is a problem, thank God the MLB Players Association can step in and defend him.  Word is out that the MLBPA will file a grievance on behalf of Milton Bradley.  Guys – this is money well spent.

The Twins won last night, cutting the Tigers’ lead in the AL Central to just 2-1/2 games, but they will likely play a few games without outfielder Denard Span, who was beaned in the head last night.  Span felt soreness and a bit of dizziness, and is day-to-day.

Now, if the Twins catch the Tigers and the season ends in a tie, the challenge might be finding a place to play.  The Vikings hosts Green Bay in a Monday Night game, which is when the Twins would host the Tigers in a one-game playoff.  There may be nothing to worry about, but you never know.  MLB and NFL representatives will have to work out the details.  [ESPN]

Sometimes a slump is fixed based on who you play – and last night Kevin Millwood easily handled Oakland to get a win and lock up his contract for next season.  Of course, Oakland’s cleanup hitter is Kurt Suzuki and Bobby Crosby plays first base – so facing the A’s didn’t hurt…  [MLB]

Giants infielder Freddy Sanchez twisted his knee – the same knee that was bothering him when San Francisco acquired Sanchez from Pittsburgh.  He’s out for now, but may be available by the end of the week.

Hurry Back! Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa (left groin strain) went on the 60-day DL.

Welcome Back! Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson returns from the DL.

Afterthoughts… Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector, has established residency in Andorra, and hopes to sign a contract that will allow him to play for somebody in 2010.  Chapman chose a non-US location so as not to be part of the MLB Draft, which would make him a free agent and available to the highest bidder.  (Boston?  New York? Los Angeles?  I find it hard to believe he’d be a Marlin, but there are tons of former Cubans there…)  Chapman throws 100+, which is why he’s trying to be a free agent.  And, Andorra is kind of a playground for the rich families of Europe – and his agent hopes that Chapman may one day join them…  [ESPN]

News From a Friday Night in Baseball

Chicago’s Milton Bradley threw another tantrum after flying out in the sixth inning yesterday, so manager Lou Piniella sent Bradley home.  Literally.  Bradley is at least the third player (Zambrano, Dempster) to destroy a water cooler.  The GM, Jim Hendry, who is on the hook for $30 million over three seasons after signing the short-fused Bradley, says “It’s something I promise you won’t be happening again.”

Alex Rodriguez found his power stroke after getting two days off in Florida, passing Reggie Jackson on baseball’s all time home run listFoxSports Bob Klapisch says that getting Alex Rodriguez rest while he heals and not abusing C.C. Sabathia is key to Girardi getting to the postseason and keeping his job. 

The New York Post reports Xavier Nady’s elbow didn’t feel right after making two throws in a rehab start Thursday night, and now is facing Tommy John surgery. The Yankee outfielder will likely miss not just the rest of 2009, but most of 2010 as well. Nady had the surgery before – in 2001. 

Royals pitcher Sidney Ponson is the second player to have tested positive for a banned substance at the World Baseball Classic.  For Ponson, he was caught with a banned stimulent tied to a weight reduction pill.  He won’t be sanctioned by the MLB, but Ponson is banned from international competition for two years. 

Toronto catcher Rod Barajas was heading to the DL with a right hamstring strain – at least that’s how it was reported last night.  Now, he’s not.  It would have meant a first trip to the bigs for Kyle Phillips, but his arrival (and Shawn Marcum’s switch from the 15 to 60 day DL) was voided. You’ll see Kyle Phillips soon enough. The one time Minnesota draft pick turned into a prospect when he hit .306 in A+ Dunedin in 2007, and followed it with a .306 average in AA New Hampshire. He’s hitting .338 in 39 games for Las Vegas in AAA. He’s got a little power, makes contact, and has shown better patience recently, but doesn’t make a fetish out of walking. His brother, Jason Phillips, donned a MLB uniform for Toronto in 2006 and 2007, as well as the Mets.

On the Mend? Blue Jay ace Roy Halliday says he’s ready for Monday’s start against Tampa.  Cardinal Kyle Lohse threw 85 pitches in a simulated game and is ready for his rehab start, and hopes to be on the MLB roster soon. 

Hurry Back! KC Reliever Kyle Farnsworth heads to the DL with a groin strain. Arizona’s Eric Byrnes heads to the DL with a broken left hand.

John Maine’s shoulder isn’t ready – so the Mets starter will skip his next rehab start. According to FoxSports, he’ll miss a week following his cortisone shot, which he received yesterday. 

Welcome Back! Astros pitcher Felipe Paulino, Tampa reliever Chad Bradford and starter Scott Kazmir. To put Kazmir on the roster, Andy Sonnestine was sent back to AAA Durham. Texas welcomes Willie Eyre, while San Diego gets back Luis Perdomo.

Other pitchers heading to AAA, for better or worse, include Arizona’s Billy Buckner, Tampa’s Winston Abreu, and Houston’s Brandon Backe. Backe was designated for assignment, which means he could be signed by another team or head to AAA.