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By David Coleman, Evan Hochschild, and Stephen Higdon of The Crawfish Boxes
There seem to be two schools of thought on the 2010 Houston Astros.The first will tell you that this is a team five years past it's prime, with no eye on the future and not enough talent to compete in the short-term. All-Stars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt are nearing the end of their careers and the team has failed to supplement them with other players who can win games. Tim Purpura's reign of incompetence turned into Ed Wade's reign of irrelevance, except when it comes to the Brandon Lyon signing. Yes, about the only thing that the sabermetric community cannot figure out is who's the bigger joke: Wade, or the Astros themselves.
Compounding these personnel issues is an owner, Drayton McLane, Jr., who has proven to be a micro manager extraordinaire. McLane is someone who once ran one of the most successful franchises in MLB but now has forgotten everything that made his team the envy of professional baseball.
As far as the minor leagues are concerned...the Astros shouldn't even have minor league teams, say proponents of this school of thought. Sure, our 2008 and 2009 draft classes have been "Ok", but as the tried and true minor league critique goes, most of the players at the top of our minor league pecking order are low ceiling, high floor prospects. Too many relievers, too many players confined to corner outfield/first base, too many missed opportunities.
Bottom line for Group One thinkers: the Astros are irrelevant, will continue to be irrelevant and will by all estimations get worse (if possible). What's more - they have nobody to blame for their own shortsighted, misguided decisions. Insert snark here, mock Ed Wade a little more there, and that's the 2010 Houston Astros.
The second school of thought (one that the The Crawfish Boxes and other more reasonable mediums of baseball knowledge ascribe to) tends to agree in large part with what Group One thinkers do. Yes, our farm system is at the bottom of barrel. Certainly, Ed Wade will never be confused with a Bill James-ian GM who places a great deal of emphasis on sabermetrics, objective analysis and spreadsheets. We're all in agreement that Drayton McLane should probably back off just a tad with his puppeteering, and maybe even give Ed Wade a chance to make his own decisions. We too feel bad for Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, two Hall of Fame-caliber players, who will most likely never see the postseason again as long as "Houston" is emblazoned across their jerseys.
However, unlike the first group, we see the situation objectively. Instead of holding unfair opinions of Wade based on hearsay, misanalysed personnel decisions and an overemphasis on group thought, we believe that while Wade may not be the best GM in baseball, he has made several decisions that will impact the Astros positively as we head into 2010 and beyond. Hiring Bobby Heck as scouting director after the 2007 season was a fantastic move, and it led to immediate results on the player development front as the Astros had two above average drafts in 2008 and 2009.
On the Major League level, players like Michael Bourn, Jeff Fulchino, Alberto Arias, and Chia-Jen Lo were brought into the fold by the front office. This past offseason saw Ed Wade acquire four players via free agency and trades (Matt Lindstrom, Lyon, Brett Myers and Pedro Feliz) that are slated to take on large roles with this team in 2010, despite having to cut nearly $15 million off the payroll. McLane listens to and respects the opinions of Wade like no GM he's had before and the Astros' re-emphasis on scouting for and developing talent in the Dominican Republic is but another example of how this team is headed in a positive direction.
While the Astros are one of the older teams in baseball, younger players like Bud Norris, Felipe Paulino, Sammy Gervacio, Alberto Arias, Jason Castro, Lo and Matt Nevarez could all see fairly significant playing time with the team in 2010 and certainly in 2011. Another good draft in June by Wade, Heck and Co., should see the Astros' minor league ranking climb up the chart towards respectability.
There are always two sides to any story, and the 2010 Astros are no different. After an offseason of reading from the the lesson plans of the first school of thought, we in the second group had some catching up to do.
C J.R. Towles
1B Lance Berkman
2B Kazuo Matsui
3B Pedro Feliz
SS Tommy Manzella
LF Carlos Lee
CF, Michael Bourn
RF Hunter Pence
Bench: C Humberto Quintero, OF Jason Michaels, IF Jeff Keppinger, IF Geoff Blum, OF Cory Sullivan/Jason Bourgeois
There's little doubt that the Astros' offensive attack will be one of the least potent in the NL in 2010. Our best offensive player, Lance Berkman, is already having his health called into question, which would hurt any team. For the top-heavy Astros, this could spell disaster if Berkman is forced to miss significant action this season. Should this injury scare be just that, and Lance is able to play 145+ games, he is still one of the better first basemen in the game and should be looked at as a viable run producer and base clogger.
Corner outfielders Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence are both above average players, but not quite "All Star" level talents. Lee is a terrible defender in left field, though the short porch at Minute Maid Park mitigates this effect slightly. At the dish, Carlos is a "pencil him in for .300/20/90 RBI/75 R" sorta guy. Not one to walk an extreme amount, he does have great contact skills and rarely strikes out. A slowdown in his bat speed could spell trouble for the Astros, however.
As for Pence, he is entering into what should be the prime of his career. In the field, Hunter has one of the best throwing arms in all of baseball, and is rated overall as a very good defensive outfielder. Patience truly is a virtue, and 2009 saw Pence take this credo to heart as his offensive approach changed for the better and led to a solid, if not unspectacular season. Fresh off an offseason that saw him collect a substantial pay raise, Pence will be looking to build on his 2009 campaign and capitalize on his large reserve of talent.
In center, the oft-maligned Michael Bourn turned in one of the more surprising 2009 seasons of any Major Leaguer. From his defense to his baserunning to his ability to attack the fastball, Bourn rewarded GM Ed Wade's faith in him by seeing to it that 2008 was nothing more than a bump in the road. 2010 will be an important season for Bourn, as he attempts to solidify himself as one of the game's top center fielders.
The left side of the Astros' infield has a couple of question marks. Pedro Feliz is a known entity, and that's the scary part. We know he'll be above average defensively, but we also know he hasn't hit 20 home runs since 2007. At 35, we know his best days are behind him. His $4.5 million contract for 2010 means he will get his share of playing time, which means the Astros will get a .700 OPS and plus defense at third, unless you're the optimistic sort about Feliz' offense bouncing back.
Tommy Manzella is the other question mark. A 27 year old "prospect", Manzella looks to shore up the shortstop position after the loss of Miguel Tejada. The jury is out on his defensive ability, which, coupled with his less than mediocre offensive numbers in the minor leagues, means Jeff Keppinger may see more time here than we would like. Kepp's bat is fine, but he is no shortstop defensively. Perhaps prospect Wladimir Sutil or a castoff from another club gets some playing time here when we look back on 2010.
It used to be that second base was the easiest preview of all for the Astros. Now, two years after the retirement of Craig Biggio, the team finds itself plugging in whoever is healthy enough to play. Health is always a factor when discussing Kaz Matsui, who is in the last year of a three year/$15 million contract. If healthy, he is good for a fairly high batting average, can steal a base and will generally play good defense. The fact that he has missed considerable playing time in both 2008 and 2009 doesn't alleviate the injury concerns about Matsui. It's the prospect of having to wait and see with Matsui that should leave most with the opinion that the Astros are going to have to become familiar with someone other than Kaz playing second base.
At catcher, the only sure thing to be on the Major League roster on Opening Day is Humberto Quintero, who will be the second string catcher, no matter if JR Towles or Jason Castro is the starter. Quintero is a run-of-the-mill reserve catcher who displays no remarkable qualities. He is what he is.
Towles has shown promise before, but has yet to perform consistently on the Major League level. Now is a good time for J.R. to showcase his wares, however, as Jason Castro appears nearly ready to leave the minor leagues and become the Astros' full-time catcher. To his credit, Towles has shown the propensity to walk a fair amount when compared to his strikeout rate. His Triple-A numbers indicate that he can be a passable Major League catcher; the question is whether or not he will ever live up to that sort of billing.
There is no question that Jason Castro is the Astros' catcher of the future. At 22, he would be one of the youngest catchers to ever log significant time behind the dish for a big league team, and it looks as though he will begin the 2010 season in Round Rock. That being said, the Astros would be pleasantly surprised if he wins the job from Towles this spring and begins his Major League career in April. Spending more time in the minors wouldn't be a bad thing though, and would allow the Astros to see if Towles can offer them (or another club) anything of value.
Riding the pine, Geoff Blum is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Both he and Jason Michaels offer veteran leadership and other intangibles...or so we are led to believe. Jeff Keppinger is a perfect reserve player - able to play multiple positions defensively and is a positive contributor offensively. He should see a good deal of playing time at third base, second base and perhaps short. The fifth outfielder's spot looks to be a fairly wide open battle between minor league invitees Cory Sullivan and Jason Bourgeois. Bourgeois, a former Milwaukee Brewer, is the more interesting of the pair, but neither is a potential starter in waiting.
We are cautiously optimistic about the Astros' rotation. Everyone knows how good Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez can be. Those two can be penciled in as a strong one-two punch quite comfortably. There are a couple of question marks that follow, though.
The Astros are looking for large steps forward from Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino, who were both better than their ERA indicates in 2009 from an advanced metric perspective (xFIP, SIERA, etc.). Norris’ stumbling block could either be his walk rate or his health (a large IP increase in 2009). The odds-on favorite has got to be his health - an issue which has caused us much consternation as we await actual baseball.
Paulino is more enigmatic. Nearly all of his skill-related peripherals suggest that he’ll perform admirably as a starter, but lady luck and the Astros defense will need to shine favorably for his skill to shine through. What we'll be more concerned about is how lady luck affects him. Fewer pitchers can boast the differentials between ERA (6.27) and skill-related metrics like xFIP (4.10) and SIERA (3.87). The odds are ripe for Paulino to follow somewhere between these two bounds, but it's not exactly clear exactly which bound he'll be closest to. It is hoped, in TCB land, that a more consistent approach with Paulino from new manager Brad Mills and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg will result in more consistent results. Paulino definitely suffered from Cecil Cooper's woeful mismanagement of Paulino (bouncing him in and out of the rotation all summer long).
The last acquisition of the offseason, Brett Myers, should see a bounceback in 2010 with his health issues under control. Concerns linger about his hip surgery and the possible mechanical changes Myers employed to compensate down the stretch in 2009, so he is by no means a sure thing. However, the Astros will likely only need him in a fourth or fifth starter capacity, which limits the amount of leverage on Myers’ performance.
We feel this will be one the better rotations the Astros have fielded in several seasons, but that isn’t saying much. With three question marks following the Wizard and his Wand(y), there is cause for both concern and optimism. If only two of the three question marks solidify themselves, then the back up plan, Brian Moehler, can be called upon to help out; we’re just hoping it doesn’t come to that - fervently.
Top Seven Guys: RHP Matt Lindstrom, RHP Brandon Lyon, RHP Alberto Arias, RHP Jeff Fulchino, RHP Chris Sampson, LHP Tim Byrdak, LHP Wesley Wright
The Astros' bullpen in 2010 isn’t going to blow anyone way with the names that are in it (sorry fantasy baseball players). The analogy that I will put forth is it’s like a casserole. None of the ingredients are top notch, but the end result will be quite serviceable. All of the relievers are present because they all have a skill set that is strong, but overall they are roughly average (kind of like canned/frozen vegetables).
The closer is likely to be Matt Lindstrom (stuff), but will likely fluctuate between he and Brandon Lyon (control). Lindstrom is tantalizing because of his raw stuff, but he lacks the command of his raw talent to say definitely that he will be the closer. Other closer-by-committee candidates are Chris Sampson (ground balls), Alberto Arias (ground balls + Ks), and Jeff Fulchino (strong like bull).
Alberto Arias was TCB's dark-horse candidate for the starting rotation last year, and this year he is our dark-horse candidate for closer of the future. Arias mixes extreme ground ball rates with a propensity to also strike batters out—a sterling quality in a reliever. Although a TCB favorite, the likely order of closer preference for the Astros goes: Lindstrom, Lyon, Arias.
There is a thin margin of error that bullpen and it is health. All of the backend of the bullpen candidates are health risks in some form or fashion, save maybe Arias. If all goes well health-wise, the Astros' bullpen will be like a delicious chicken pot pie: nothing special, but still satisfying. If health issues crop up, then the Astros' bullpen gumbo will taste like the one that has been sitting in the back of the fridge for about three weeks: you can probably eat and everything will be OK, but you’re going not going to be happy about it.
In The System
What the top of the Astros system lacks in impact, it makes up for in volume. All the players that are closest to seeing the big leagues this season are relievers. Guys like Chia-jen Lo, Matt Nevarez and Sammy Gervacio are all on the cusp of making a difference in the big league bullpen. Other guys like Wilton Lopez, Evan Englebrook and Henry Villar are longer shots, but are on the 40-man roster and could make an impact this season too. The first three all have a chance to close games; their stuff is that electric. The big question is how much can the Astros use these guys?
With Alberto Arias, Jeff Fulchino and Chris Sampson combining with Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon in the back of the bullpen, where is there room for more arms? The loser of the Brian Moehler/Felipe Paulino battle will get the sixth spot here, most likely, leaving these MLB-ready guys in Triple-A. As volatile as relievers can be, this is a good thing.
It also means, however, that the Astros are lacking in flashy additions. Outside of a potential quick moving guy like outfielder T.J. Steele (who the Astros brass likes enough to compare him with former Houston great Cesar Cedeno), the only real position player that could emerge from the minors is catcher Jason Castro. The No. 10 overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Stanford, Castro was seen as a bit of a reach when he was drafted. Flash forward two years and he's listed among the Top 50 prospects in the game by many sources. He combines excellent defense, a big-time throwing arm and good discipline at the plate to make a potentially solid starter for the next 10 years. The question will be whether his bat is ready. Castro played more innings last season behind the plate than he had ever before. Fatigue seems to have set in late in the season, as his average plunged in the Arizona Fall League. There haven't been many catchers who have started full-time behind the plate at Age 22 or before, so leaving Castro in the minors for another season to develop wouldn't be the worst thing. If J.R. Towles or Humberto Quintero are struggling around June or July, though, expect to see Castro in the majors.
Two under-the-radar guys who could make an impact this season are outfielders Drew Locke and Collin DeLome. The first was a Triple-A Rule V selection last season out of the Dodger organization and the second was a fifth round draft pick out of Lamar University in 2007. They both have similar struggles with strikeouts. Locke is older at 27 but has a better batting eye than DeLome, who is more athletic but makes less contact. Each have good power potential and could surprise with a good three week run in the Majors in the event of an injury to Carlos Lee or Hunter Pence.
If there is an injury on the infield, the Astros were hoping Jose Vallejo may fill the need. However, the 23-year old former Rangers prospect who was acquired in the Ivan Rodriguez deal last August, sliced tendons in his hand while barbequeing at his home in the Dominican Republic. Vallejo had surgery a few weeks ago in Houston and will most likely miss the 2010 season. The most likely replacement is shortstop Wladimir Sutil. Known more for his glove than his bat, the 25-year old Venezuelan is very versatile, having played both third and second base in the minors. His bad is unspectacular but could be used in a bench role in the majors. Sutil does tend to take more walks than strikeouts and would fit in nicely behind someone like Kazuo Matsui.
If we were writing this section in 2011 instead of this spring, the first three guys we'll probably be talking about are Jordan Lyles, Jiovanni Mier and either Ross Seaton or Brad Dydalewicz. All three are high school draftees who showed a ton of promise in their first seasons in the minors. As good as they are, however, they are not going to do anything with Houston in 2010.
You can't overstate enough what the change in managers from Cecil Cooper to Brad Mills could do for Houston. Players were wearing shirts around the clubhouse with the word, "Really?" printed across the chest. The players just never knew what Cooper was going to do next, whether it be yanking around playing time, leaning too hard on the bullpen, changing game strategy all the time and calling out guys to the press rather than in the clubhouse. Add on top of that a fiery personality and Cooper simply lost this team.
Whether it was bad clubhouse chemistry brought on by the manager or injuries robbing Roy Oswalt and Carlos Lee of time, the Astros' star players underperformed in 2009. It's hard for a team to overcome their ace and their three and four hitters struggling all at once. While Lee didn't miss any time, his slugging percentage did drop from 2008.
The other thing that Mills may change is philosophy. Already this spring, Mills is talking about his team being more selective at the plate. For a club with only two everyday players drawing more than the league average in walks (Berkman, 97 and Bourn, 63), it's a welcome addition. There's not much information on what Mills will be like in the clubhouse, but he's already shown a tendency to work guys hard, build up that club chemistry and worry about getting on base. All three of those things could help the Astros win more games in 2010.
The other big change for the Astros is bringing in pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. The 47-year old has a bit of a bad reputation nationally, which we looked into here. There may be better methods to evaluating potential injuries, but it looks like Arnsberg was a victim of his manager in Toronto. It does appear that Arnsberg does a great job of creating a close-knit bond with his pitchers and has a knack for reclamation projects. If he can do for Felipe Paulino what he did for Ricky Romero, the Astros will really be interesting.
Losing Miguel Tejada will be difficult as well. Every story around the team talked about how infectious his energy was on the field. Granted, that didn't always translate to power production or solid defense, but Tejada did make it fun to play the game. Reporters around the team talk about Hunter Pence in the same way. Hopefully, he and newly arrived guys like J.R. Towles and Tommy Manzella can bring that youthful exuberance to the team to replace what the Astros lost in Tejada.
The staff at TCB collective thought, "Really? There are 10 other teams with higher postseason odds than the Astros? Huh..." There are definitely reasons to be optimistic about 2010, but it would take a lot of things going right for Houston to contend. In fact, the probability of all that happening is right around 75-to-1 odds anyway, so it seems like Vegas got it right again.
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