2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

I’m watching Opening Day on ESPN and decided I might as well write while I am getting settled in…  To be fair, with the Florida Marlins having decided to trade away all the talent they had recently acquired, I chose to find a new team to follow closely in 2013 – and that team is the Houston Astros.

Here’s a quick summary of where they are coming from:

Recent Records:
2012: 55 – 107 (Last, NL Central)
2011: 56 – 106 (Last, NL Central)
2010: 76 – 86 (4th, NL Central)
2009: 74 – 88 (5th, NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75 (3rd, NL Central)

This is a team that has hit rock bottom – even that team from five years ago was a bit of a fluke, having given up more runs than they had scored that year.

2012 Summary:
Home:  35 – 46
Away:  20 – 61 (ouch)

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

There is a simple way to look at this.  A team that scores 100 runs more than it allows is likely to win 90 games.  The converse is also true.  At 200 runs, it’s another ten wins – 100 wins or 100 losses.  The Astros allowed 211 runs more than they scored – hence the lousy record.  So – things have to be looking up, right?

Record by Month:
April:  9 – 14
May:   13 – 15
June:  10 – 17
July:   3 – 24
Aug:    5 – 22
Sept:  15 – 15

The Astros started 3 – 1, were reasonably competitive through 45 games, and not altogether awful heading into the last week of June.  Then, Houston lost the last six games of the month and the first six of July.  After breaking that streak, they lost four in a row, then twelve more in a row – 28 of 30 games were lost…  When the month ended, anyone with any trade value was gone.  August wasn’t much better…  What team has ever had a stretch where they won just eight of sixty games?

Feeling Optimistic?

Beginning on September first and covering the last 30 games, the Astros played .500 ball.  Houston edged Cincinnati, toppled Philadelphia, split with Pittsburgh, edged Milwaukee, and split with Chicago.  Only St. Louis proved troublesome, taking five of six.  They did this without scoring a lot of runs – only 102 runs were scored in that period.  What allowed this to happen was that their pitching staff tossed a number of gems down the stretch, including three straight shutouts over Milwaukee and Chicago at the very end of the season.  In eleven of these wins, the Astros threw six shutouts and allowed just one run in five other starts.

Opening Day Lineup:
CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
RF: Brian Bogusevic
3B: Chris Johnson
C: Jason Castro
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
SP: Wandy Rodriguez

Regulars by Games Played:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee (gone…)
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie (gone…)
3B: Chris Johnson (gone…)
LF: J.D. Martinez
CF: Justin Maxwell
RF: Brian Bogusevic (gone…)

4OF: Jordan Schafer
C2: Chris Snyder
UT: Marwin Gonzalez or Tyler Greene?

SP: Lucas Harrell
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Jordan Lyles
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (gone…), Dallas Keuchel
SP: J.A. Happ (gone…)
CL: Brett Myers (gone…), Wilton Lopez
RP: Brandon Lyon (gone…)
RP: Wesley Wright
RP: Francisco Rodriguez (gone…)
RP: Rhiner Cruz
RP: Fernando Abad

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

Lost Jason Michaels and Clint Barmes to free agency…  Michaels spent the year as an insurance policy for the Nationals in their AAA Syracuse affiliate, and likely is looking to become a coach.  As for Barmes, he moved to Pittsburgh and hit like someone who is 33 and running out of seasons.

NOV (2011):

Added Carlos Corporan, Travis Buck as free agents; claimed infielder Brian Bixler off of the waiver wire.

DEC (2011):

Traded Marc Melancon to Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.  Melancon had been a pleasant surprise for Houston in 2011, but was miserable in Boston and eventually demoted to AAA.  Weiland had an infection in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and hopefully can return in 2013, but I would be leery of high expectations owing to a general lack of control.  I see him as a spot starter/long reliever type.  Jed Lowrie is a pretty good ballplayer, so the trade was a good one.

Claimed Rhiner Cruz off of waivers.  This was, at best, organizational depth as Cruz had just been promoted to AA Binghamton in an eight year career drifting in the low minors.  Putting Rhiner on the major league roster when he has no idea where the strike zone is (his mid-90s fastball has crazy movement and he can’t control his breaking ball) showed how little major league talent the Astros had.  I mean, Cruz walked 45 batters in 71.2 innings in the minors in 2011.

JAN (2012):

Here, the Astros were looking to find as many players who might be able to do SOMETHING as possible.

Signed, as free agents, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Chris Snyder, Jack Cust, and Fernando Martinez (waiver claim).

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

After (and during) spring training, the Astros released Hernandez, Duke and Cust, moved anyone who needed time to the minors, and made one trade…

Acquired LHP Kevin Chapman from the Royals for OF Jason Bourgeois and C Humberto Quintero.  Bourgeois was, like Melancon, a nice surprise in 2011 but is a 30-year-old outfielder with no long-term future.  Quintero is, at best, a backup catcher and the Astros had other options.  Chapman at least represents a future – had 90Ks in 62 innings in 2011, and built on that in 2012.  He still needs work (especially with his control), but at least he has a shot to be a late inning contributor very soon.

JULY:

The Astros, as sellers, moved what they could for prospects:

Carlos Lee (and cash) to the Marlins for 3B Matt Dominquez (good glove, minor bat) and LHP Rob Rasmussen (could be a starter in 2014).

Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, and David Carpenter to Toronto for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joseph Musgrove, Asher Wojciechowski (decent arm, not overmatched at AA, doesn’t miss enough bats), David Rollins, and Carlos Perez (athletic catcher, decent arm, not much offense).

Brett Myers to the White Sox for prospects Matthew Heidenreich and Blair Walters.

Wandy Rodriquez to Pittsburgh for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens.

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

If nothing else, that’s a lot of prospects.  If you see the kids producing in 2014 and the Astros making steady improvement, then these deals worked.  Seeing as the team went belly up in July and August of 2012, this did nothing to help the guys who were left behind to play.

By the way, Ben Francisco only hung around for a month.  He was shipped to Tampa for a player to be named later.  (That player was LHP Theron Geith.)  Despite being a pretty good outfielder, Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a regular job and at 31 seems destined to be a fourth outfielder for a few more years.  Geith, however, has a bright future.  In two minor league seasons, Geith has a 2.66 ERA, 83Ks in 84.2 innings, and just 18 walks.  He will be on the roster by 2014, and maybe next September.

Key Injuries:

Jed Lowrie missed time leaving spring training with a bruised thumb.  Kyle Weiland made three starts and went down with what was then termed shoulder bursitis.

Relievers Fernando Abad (intercostal strain) and Rhiner Cruz (ankle sprain) missed time in May.

June brought minor injuries to Travis Buck (Achilles tendinitis), Carlos Lee (strained hamstring) Marwin Gonzalez (bruised heel), Bud Norris (spraineed knee), Wilton Lopez (sprained elbow), and Justin Maxwell (loose bodies in ankle).

Jordan Schafer, Jed Lowrie, and Francisco Cordero spent some time on the DL in August and early September, Cordero wound up missing the rest of the season with a foot injury just six awful outings after his arrival.  He really wasn’t missed, and – as he turns 37 in May – has already been released.

Cordero’s was the only injury of signifigance.  Jed Lowrie missed a lot of games, but with small injuries that kept him out a couple of weeks at a time.

[Writer’s Note:  I had pulled much of this together a while ago when I had decided to become a Houston Astros fan.  The Astros got the Rangers in order in the first, but the Rangers did the same to the Astros – in part thanks to a bad call at second on a stolen base attempt by Jose Altuve.  If the Astros are lousy this year, it could just be that I have jinxed them.]

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation appears to be Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock, and Erik Bedard.

Lucas Harrell is pretty good.  He gets some strikeouts but he walks a few too many guys.  Bud Norris has better stuff, but has been way more inconsistent, especially on the road.  Even at that, he’s marginally below average with a chance to become really good.  Bud Norris is the type of guy you might consider drafting in your fantasy league this year…

Philip Humber is trying, again, to get his career on track.  Humber threw a perfect game for the White Sox, but otherwise was awful.  He CAN pitch, but he can also think his way into oblivion.  If Humber can find his way, the Astros will have found a gem.  The problem is that his track record doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason for hope.

A guy who might, however, is Brad Peacock. The Palm Beach, FL native navigated his way through the minors, getting better every year, until he got a test drive with the Washington Nationals in 2011, where he wasn’t half bad.  Moved to Oakland, he spent 2012 in Sacramento, where he held his own despite being in a league that pounds pitchers.  After a pretty nice spring, he’s going to see if he’s ready for 25 – 30 starts.

Finally, Erik Bedard might be able to help – if he can stay healthy.  Having missed essentially two and half of the last five years, Bedard has been reasonably successful – well, at least until last year when he went 7 – 14 for Pittsburgh.  His walk rate was too high, and his ERA went over 5 (5.01), but there are reasons to think that he can be better than he was last year – starting with the fact that he has always been better than he was last year.

So, just trying to see if the rotation is better, at first glance, the answer is probably no.  Harrell and Norris are the same (though Norris might be slightly better).  I don’t buy that Humber is better than Jordan Lyles was in 2012, and Erik Bedard won’t be as good as a partial season of Wandy Rodriguez.  If one pitcher surprises, it might be Peacock who COULD be as good as J.A. Happ was.  So, let’s go with the team allowing perhaps 30 extra runs here.

Relief Pitchers:

The Astros are going to give the closer job, at least at first, to Jose Veres, who has four career saves.  Veres isn’t awful, but he isn’t a big time closer.  Brett Myers wasn’t awesome last year, so that’s not a big loss.  I was surprised that Wilton Lopez didn’t get a second chance, he pitched well enough, but the Astros went with younger arms – Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, and Wesley Wright.

This group will be no better or worse than last year.

Cruz had a 6.05 ERA last year – is that really worthy of a significant role?  Wesley Wright wasn’t half bad for a situational lefty.  Xavier Cedeno was league average and could be better.  Edgar Gonzalez has been around and he’s never been a dependable option.  The guy I like is Hector Ambriz, who fanned 22 in 19 innings in a late call last year.  He could wind up the setup man before all is said and done.

Catchers:

Last year’s catchers were league average in total, but had a few weaknesses, including starter Jason Castro not being too solid against the run.  Chris Snyder is gone, so Carlos Corporan is back as the backup.  He looks like he can throw.  Castro isn’t a bad hitter – he was slightly above average because he showed a little power and a little patience while hitting .257.  Chris Snyder hit .176 and didn’t hit enough to be worth keeping around.  Corporan can hit better than that – maybe .240 with a few homers, so that would be a step forward offensively.  If Castro can be stronger against the run that would help immensely.  This unit should score about 15 more runs than in 2012.

Infielders:

Three-quarters of the infield in use toward the end of the season returns – Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, and Matt Dominguez at third.  Jed Lowrie is gone, replaced by Ronnie Cedeno.  Wallace is getting better defensively, Altuve is slightly below average as a glove man, but not problematic, and Dominguez is a solid defensive option – far better than Chris Johnson.   Cedeno may have more experience, but he won’t put up more runs than, say, Marwin Gonzalez.  They are essentially the same guy.  The problem is that neither is a long-term solution, so as we are following this team, look for them to find a better shortstop through the minors.

Carlos Pena was added to back up Wallace at first and be the primary DH – which will last as long as Pena keeps drawing walks and hitting homers.  I fear, however, that he may not hit .220.

As a unit, this team will probably hold the line offensively (Wallace will help offset the loss of Jed Lowrie), but it could be ten runs better defensively.

Outfielders:

This year’s outfield features Chris Carter, the old Oakland As prospect, Justin Maxwell, and Rick Ankiel – a reclamation project of sorts.  J. D. Martinez will be back as a possible fourth or fifth outfielder, sharing the role with Brandon Barnes.

Defensively, Carter can’t be worse than J.D. Martinez was, and he has the potential to put a lot more runs on the board by virtue of his power and patience.  Justin Maxwell is a better fielder and hitter than Jordan Schafer was – it would be nice if he hit, say, .250 rather than .220, though.  Ankiel hasn’t been a good hitter for a few years, but he’s still better than Brian Bogusevic was, and even if he isn’t, J.D. Martinez can hit better.

As a unit, this team could score about 60 more runs and save ten to fifteen in the field.

[As I reach this point in the essay, Justin Maxwell just hit a high drive off the top of the wall in left for a two-run triple, giving the Astros an early lead.  Woohoo!!!]

Down on the Farm:

Most of the guys who did anything at AAA are on the club, and nobody stands out as a prospect.  Moving to the Corpus Christi Red Hawks, the top prospects at AA would include first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who hit .284 with power, 88 walks, and is 21-years-old.  Another option is shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 22-year-old with speed and some hitting skills.  I’m just not sure he can hit in the majors.  A top pitching prospect might be Jason Stoffel, who fanned 57 in 58 innings, walked just 16, in a relief role.  Jarred Cosart made 15 starts at AA and was decent, but not great.  He is ranked highly by scouting organizations.

At A+ Lancaster, right fielder Domingo Santana impressed with power and average, while centerfielder George Springer has all that and speed, too. Both are free swingers.  Coming up in A Lexington is Delino Deshields II – who plays like his dad, but is a few years away (and only 20).  Another guy making marks include shortstop Carlos Correa, a top pick out of Puerto Rico last year.

Best guess on their record?

They aren’t as good as last September.  They aren’t as bad as last August.  I see the team being 75 runs better offensively, and five runs worse defensively, thanks to a slightly worse starting rotation.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed ratio at about 660/800.  Working against that is the move to the offensively charged AL West, which features the Rangers and Angels, a decent Oakland, and an improving Seattle.  The system calls for 66 wins, which seems a tad bit high.  So, I’ll temper that to 64 – 98, hopefully avoiding a third straight year with 100 losses.  If that happens, let’s consider it a a success and watch for some talent to get added to this young team.

As I finish this, I see that the Astros have extended their lead to 4 – 0 in the fifth over Texas.  If they hold on for the win, it would make for a great start to the season.

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Sox Win ‘The Humber Game’, and Plenty of Pitchers Head to the DL

There have only been 21 perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball, but the Chicago White Sox have three of them.  Yesterday afternoon, Philip Humber defied his humble resume and blanked the Seattle Mariners, 4 – 0, without allowing a single baserunner.

That last out was something – on a 3 – 2 pitch to Brendan Ryan, Humber threw a slider that Ryan half-swung at.  Ryan felt he checked his swing – but the home plate umpire, Brian Runge, called it a swing immediately.  However – the pitch got away from catcher A.J. Pierzinski, who had to run back toward the backstop to retrieve the ball and fire it to first for the last out.  Ryan, had he chosen to run hard to first, might have beaten the throw, but halfway down the first base line, he chose to argue with the umpire over the swinging strike call.  [ESPN]

When Dallas Braden threw his perfect game, I noted that his resume was rather short prior to pitching his gem.  For Humber, this was his 30th career start, winning his twelfth decision.  He had had five cups of coffee since first racing through the Mets chain in 2006, and only last year had he stayed with a team longer than a few weeks.  Already 29, Humber isn’t a bad pitcher – his career numbers are actually not too bad, he just hasn’t ever stuck.  One assumes he’ll hang around as long as he stays healthy now, though…

The last White Sox perfect game came in 2009 when Mark Buehrle was rescued by a Dewayne Wise miraculous catch in the ninth inning.  The first one, thrown in 1922 by Charles Robertson in his fifth major league outing, I wrote about here.

Well – I checked and there isn’t a “FireBobbyValentine.com” or “FireBobbyV.com” site yet.

It won’t be long, though.  The Sox got off to a 9 – 0 lead against the Yankees yesterday, but the bullpen gave up 15 runs in the last three innings, including back to back seven-spots in the seventh and eighth innings, to blow the game and lose, 15 – 9.

To help remedy the problem of having a lack of productive outfielders, the Red Sox acquired Cubs centerfielder Marlon Byrd, a mid-30s hustling outfielder with limited range and a failing bat, for former reliever prospect Michael Bowden.  The Red Sox REALLY need to remedy the pitching staff, considering the starters are carrying a 6+ ERA since September 1st, and they lost their closer in Spring Training.  [SI/CNN]

Hurry Back!!!

The Phillies placed Cliff Lee on the 15-Day DL with an oblique strain suffered in the 10th inning of his outing in San Francisco.  The Phillies are using caution, hoping the strain doesn’t become a tear.  Joe Savery, already up and down once this season, returns to take Lee’s spot on the roster.  Kyle Kendrick will likely take Lee’s spot in the rotation.  [ESPN]

Hurry up and acquire Francisco Cordero for your fantasy team!  The Toronto Blue Jays placed closer Sergio Santos on the 15-Day DL with inflammation in his throwing shoulder.  Cordero will get the save opportunities, but lefty Evan Crawford will get the roster spot for the time being.  Crawford has had improving strikeout rates in the minors, but occasionally is a bit wild.  Until he gets that under control, he won’t be used in high leverage situations. [ESPN]

The Yankees, frequently snake bit when acquiring pitchers, are going to start to wonder if that Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero trade was a good idea.  After throwing 15 pitches in a rehab start, Pineda was shut down with soreness in his shoulder and will be given an MRI.  Joe Girardi’s comment? “Not good.”

Cubs starter Ryan Dempster will go on the 15-Day DL with a strained right quadriceps muscle.  Coming back to Chicago will be Randy Wells, who had struggled in his three AAA starts.  The Cubs are already on pace for about 100 losses, they don’t need to lose Dempster for any amount of time.

The Diamondbacks placed starter Daniel Hudson on the 15-Day DL with a right shoulder impingement.  Jonathan Albaledejo will get some time on the roster in his absence.

Also, Royals pitcher Greg Holland heads to the DL wiht a stress reaction in his left rib.  That doesn’t sound fun…  Returning from AAA Omaha is Jeremy Jeffress, a reliever with a reputation for throwing smoke and smoking pot.

Welcome Back!!!

A.J. Burnett returned from his eye injury to pitch the Pirates to a victory yesterday.

Transaction Wire:

The Orioles traded Josh Bell to Arizona for future considerations.

The Tigers recalled pitcher Thad Weber from AAA Toledo and sent down struggling pitcher Daniel Schlereth for a little extra work.

Oakland recalled lefty pitcher Pedro Figueroa from AAA Sacramento, and dispatched Graham Godfrey to AAA.

Happy Birthday!!!

Those celebrating with cake, cards, and remembrances include:

(1901) Taylor Douthit
(1918) Mickey Vernon – fine first baseman of the 1940s and 1950s.
(1923) Preston Gomez – decent player, managed the Padres and Cubs some time back.
(1955) David Clyde – high school to the majors, and then struggled with life – not just baseball.
(1956) Moose Haas
(1959) Terry (Tito) Francona
(1961) Jimmy Key
(1966) Mickey Morandini
(1988) Dee Gordon

Strasburg Signs Record Deal; Tigers Add Huff

$15.1 million!  Smoking the old record by more than $4.5 million, Stephen Strasburg is baseball’s richest rookie ever – and immediately becomes a member of the Washington Nationals 40 man roster.  Don’t be surprised if Strasburg is sent to AA for a couple of weeks to before getting to play with the Nationals in September.  According to Stan Kasten, the deal was inked at 11:58:43 – leaving Kasten to remark, “we didn’t even need that last minute.”  [ESPN]

The only three first rounders not to sign were high schoolers Devon Washington (TB) and Matt Purke (TEX) – who both will head to class next year and possibly reenter the draft in a year or two – and Aaron Crow (KC) who wasn’t subject to Monday’s deadline as he has no college eligibility left.  Crow was drafted #9 by Washington last year and didn’t sign…  I have no idea what that kid is waiting for…  Anyway, looking at the list of signed players it looks like the biggest winner was Scott Boros, who got six first rounders to sign.  [ESPN]

Nate McLouth’s hamstring injury isn’t healing, so the Braves outfielder is heading to the DL.  Reid Gorecki gets the call from AAA.  Gorecki has been in the minors for nearly a decade now, and is a nice AAA outfielder, but not a prospect.  [SI]

This isn’t going to be that fun a September for the Twins.  Justin Morneau left last night’s game with an inner ear infection and is day-to-day.  And, after another lousy start, Francisco Liriano was sent to the DL with a tired arm.  Former Mets prospect Philip Humber gets another shot at the rotation.  The Rice alum hasn’t yet lived up to the hype since being drafted in the first round (#3 overall) in 2004.  [SI]

Detroit added Baltimore Orioles DH/1B/3B Aubrey Huff to the lineup for the stretch run.  A team that works hard to score runs, Huff will add a quality lefty bat to the roster.  The Tigers gave up A+ reliever Brett Jacobson, a guy with a mid-90s fastball, decent control, and just starting to show consistent success.  Huff is a free agent in six weeks, and this is the first time he’ll have been in a pennant race – but, Huff admitted he liked the way things were coming together in Baltimore.  [ESPN]

Let’s clean up some old news…  Hiroki Kuroda (LA) may be fine, but he’s missing his next start.  Vincente Padilla (TEX) and John Smoltz (BOS) were released and are free to find new gigs.  What kinds of problems does a Vincente Padilla pose such that a pennant chasing team drops its best arm on the big league roster?  Somebody is going to do some digging before signing him.  Or, he can go to Washington and help out immediately…

ESPN was reporting this morning on TV that Kevin Gregg, who has had an AWFUL August and blew another save last night by allowing four runs and a game winning homer to Padre Kyle Blanks, is going to be replaced as the Cubs closer.  Gregg had pitched better every month, but starting with back-to-back blown saves in Florida, Gregg has looked like the bad version of Brad Lidge…

Welcome to the Bigs!  Baltimore recalled Kam Mickolio, a reliever who has shown improvement in the minors.  In college, he would walk more than he would strike out, but lately he’s looked better and better, so why not give the kid a shot…