Astros 2018 vs. 2017: Lineup pluses and minuses

The Astros had the best offense in the majors in 2017 and while their pitching soared to the top in 2018, their offense sank back towards the pack due to injuries and some lesser performances.

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An early look at the Astros’ Plan B’s

In 2017, the Astros Championship year, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and Lance McCullers missed significant time for the Astros. For players, we will say significant is at least 20-25 games (5 or more starts for starters).

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Astros 2019: Early spring training thoughts

Spring Training can be a little bit of a let down in the blog writing world. You bop around for a few months trying to stretch from the playoffs (if your team is lucky) to the start of spring training, throwing off every speculative non-story subject you can think of just waiting for ST to start. And then you realize that ST is a much too long period of time (as confirmed by Manager A.J. Hinch the other day) with almost as much speculation and non-story subjects.

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Taking a look at the Astros’ pitching future

If there is a complaint about the current Astros front office that does have a ring of truth to it – it has been the “failure” to develop major league pitching from scratch, starting or bullpen.  They have drafted and developed Lance McCullers Jr.as a starter and he has been very good except for the chunks of seasons he has spent in dry dock. Will Harris, Collin McHugh and Tony Sipp all were picked up after being released elsewhere. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove, Mike Fiers, Ken Giles, Roberto Osuna,  and Ryan Pressly were all obtained by trades. Luke Gregerson, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith and now Wade Miley were all signed as Free Agents. Dallas Keuchel? He was legacy from the previous administration. There have been some appearances of in-house developed talent like Francis Martes (out with TJ surgery) or Michael Feliz, but very sparse cameos mostly.

Some of the reasons for the sparseness was covered in this June 2018 post. Hard to turn pitchers into major leaguers when you are trading them for major leaguers.

However,  2018 brought possibly the first hint of a changing of the guard and it could not come too soon. Here is what the pitching free agent future looks like for the Astros:

  • After 2018 season, Keuchel and Morton leave (OK Keuchel is not officially gone yet)
  • After 2019 season, Verlander, Cole, McHugh, Wiley, Harris, Pressly, Rondon, and Smith are all FAs
  • After 2020 season, Peacock
  • After 2021, McCullers and Osuna

People can think the front office will extend a Verlander or Cole – probably not (JV more likely than Cole it seems). People can think the front office will re-sign a bunch of guys – not too likely for the guys they really want.

But what has to happen is that the Astros need to start filling in spots from within and luckily they are in better shape with that than in a long time. A look at mlb.com’s listing of the Astros top 30 prospects includes 14 of those 30 as pitchers, but more importantly, 10 of the top 14 are shown as pitchers, and those will be the focus of this post.

  • Forrest Whitley. He is shown as the #2 prospect behind Kyle Tucker on this list, however, most lists (and likely the Astros front office) have him as #1. He is the top-ranked pitching prospect in all of baseball according to mlb.com (Jonathan Mayo) and was a former 17th overall pick in 2016. He was set-back by his non-PED suspension and injuries in 2018 and with only about 80 innings between extended spring training, AA and Arizona Fall League it is hard to figure how many innings he will be allowed to pitch in 2019.

Prognosis. Likely late-season call-up from AAA but will he be put in the pen to keep his innings down?

  • Josh James. (#4 Prospect) A lot of times the 34th overall pick never makes it to the majors, but in this case, a 34th rounder in 2014 has already pitched and pitched well at the end of 2018 (2-0, 2.35 ERA, 11.3 K/9 IP). It helps that he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and suddenly his fastball hopped up to 100 mph in the minors. The Astros should be ordering CPAP machines by the gross.

Prognosis. After his jump from AA thru AAA to the majors last season he is the odds on favorite to start the season as the Astros #5 starter.

  • Cionel Perez. (#5 Prospect) The young lefty out of Cuba has pitched at all levels between A ball and the majors in his 2 seasons with the organization. He found a great groove at AA Corpus in 2018 with a 6-1 record, 1.98 ERA, and 10.9 K / 9 IP in 11 starts and 16 games. He had a decent cup of coffee with the Astros though his control was a bit of a question.

Prognosis. They may want him to get more than the 5 innings of pitching at AAA he had last year for seasoning. Or he could be battling #12 Prospect for a lefty spot in the Astros bullpen.

  • Corbin Martin. (#6 Prospect) – The local kid and 2nd round pick in 2017 has been a silver streak in racing from rookie ball to more than a half year at AA in just 1-1/2 seasons with the ‘Stros. So far in 154 minor league innings, he has a 9-3 record, 2.44 ERA, 0.983 WHIP and 9.6 K / 9 IP.

Prognosis. Similar numbers at AAA this season should earn him a call-up and have him lined up for a shot at the 2020 rotation.

  • J.B. Bukauskas. (#8 Prospect) – The overall #15 pick of the 2017 draft, he had a short stint in 2017 after signing, and then missed a big chunk of 2018 after a car accident and injury. He pitched best in 28 innings at A+ Buies Creek (3-0, 1.61 ERA) and then showed well in the Arizona Fall League.

Prognosis. Expect to see him at AAA Round Rock this season and from there he is just an injury call-up away from the majors.

  • Bryan Abreu. (#10 Prospect) – Signed as a teen out of the Dominican, he played mostly at rookie ball until rocking and rolling through A and A+ ball in 2018 right on to the 40 man roster (protected from the Rule 5 draft). In 2018 he was electric putting up a 6-1 record in 54 innings with a 1.49 ERA, 1.031 WHIP and 14.9 K/9 IP.

Prognosis. Obviously a little ways away, but if he continues to show his stuff at AA and AAA over the next two seasons he may be showing it at Minute Maid pretty soon.

  • Jairo Solis. (#11 Prospect) – A youngster signed out of the Dominican, some may scoff at his 2-5 record, 3.55 ERA and 1.599 WHIP at A ball Quad Cities in 2018. But he was only 18 y.o. almost 4 years younger than the average player at that level.

Prognosis. Way too early to project this kid, but when you get placed above another prospect, who has already pitched in the majors that is saying something.

  • Framber Valdez. (#12 Prospect) – That other prospect was Valdez, another young man out of the Dominican. He has snaked his way slowly up the organization since 2015, sometimes helped by the fact he seemed to be the only lefty doing anything positive on the farm. He got a shot to help out late in the season and he showed a ball that has crazy movement, problems with control, but also the propensity to not give up hits.

Prognosis. If they want him to be a starter he will likely be working on his control issues at AAA. If they want him to be a lefty out of the ‘pen he may break camp with the big club.

  • Rogelio Armenteros. (#13 Prospect) – He is one of the most accomplished minor league pitchers in the system with a sterling 29-13 record and 3.18 ERA over 430 innings since being signed out of Cuba. He had bookmark 8-1 records at Fresno in 2017 and 2018, though a much higher ERA (3.74 up from 2.16), which likely signals he was working on another pitch in 2018.

Prognosis. He’s a hard one to figure. Is he one of those AAAA guys who will never quite climb over the top or will he be one of the pitchers they are hoping to help them reach a soft landing in 2020 from their free agent losses?

  • Cristian Javier. (#14 Prospect) – A 2015 signee out of the Dominican, he has been steady Eddie rising up the ranks with one good performance after another. At 21 he spent 2018 at A and A+ ball putting up good numbers (7-6, 2.70 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 11.9 K / 9 IP).

Prognosis. Likely three years away, but another name to watch.

Others. #18 Prospect Dean Deetz may have a shot at a bullpen spot out of Spring Training. #19 Prospect Brandon Bielak has been terrific after getting drafted in the 11th round in 2017. #26 Prospect Tyler Ives struggled as a 3rd rounder in 2017, but picked up the pace with a strong 2018. #27 Prospect Peter Solomon – the 4th rounder only pitched one game in 2017, but made up for it with a very good 2018 at A and A+ ball.

And don’t forget former #1 prospect Francis Martes, who may need to ask for a mulligan after getting hurt in 2017 and having TJ surgery. He may be bypassed when he returns in 2019.

So whatcha think of the team’s pitching future?

 

Why Keuchel and Marwin are still out there

There is always a risk in a headline like this. By the time this is posted one or both of these Astro free agents, Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez, could be signed. So a good alternate headline is why are Keuchel and Marwin still unsigned on Feb. 12th at 6:52 AM?

One of the things that can get players like this in trouble is a false comparison which can lead to a false expectation. In Marwin’s case the name of fellow Swiss Army knife Ben Zobrist gets bandied about. For Dallas his agent rolled out Hall of Famer Tom Glavine as a comp. To paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen in a VP debate, after Dan Quayle compared himself at his age to JFK, “I know Ben Zobrist and Tom Glavine and you sirs are no Zobrist or Glavine”.  (By the way Quayle probably should have said, yes I’m no JFK – I go home to my own wife every night). Both players non-coincidentally have new representation with agent Scott Boras, who was the source of the Glavine comparison to DK and who undoubtedly has been planting the seed that a lucky team will be signing the next Zobrist in Marwin G.

First of all, despite mumblings and grumblings about both players at times during their stay in Houston, they are both Astro heroes, who played a big part in the team’s resurgence and eventual World Championship.

Keuchel’s 2015 Cy Young year (20-8, 2.48 ERA) carried the team to its first playoff spot in a decade and within a few outs of a berth in the ALCS. He also pitched excellently before facing an injury in the 2017 WS run (14-5, 2.90 ERA). His post season exploits (like many pitchers) was up and down, but his brilliant start to eliminate the Yanks in the  2015 Wild Card play-in game along with some strong starts against the Royals, Yanks and Red Sox in the 2015, 2017 and 2018 playoffs will be best remembered.

Marwin Gonzalez has been one of the most flexible players on the club both as a switch hitter and also filling in all around the infield and as a semi-regular in left field. His career year was the 2017 World Series year as he led a terrific lineup with 90 RBIs while putting up a very good .303 BA/.377 OBP/ .907 OPS slash line. He was terrible in the playoffs that season (much better in the 2018 playoffs) but hit a critical game tying HR in the 9th inning of the Game 2 WS classic against the Dodgers that helped the Astros bring home their first win in a WS game ever.

But enough with heroics, let’s look at why each of these guys are having problems selling themselves as the next Zobrist or Glavine.

MarGo vs. Ben Z

The case for Marwin includes the fact that he is 5 years younger than Ben was when he signed a 4 year $56 million contract. His 2017 was a better year than any year Zobrist has ever put up (except for a decade ago 2009 season).

Both players are switch hitters. Both players play both the infield and outfield solidly, though Zobrist has played both RF and LF, while Gonzalez has been almost exclusively in LF.

But getting back to the 2017 season, while it is a season that Ben has not matched since his younger days, it is also a year that Marwin has never come close to matching. In fact, outside of that 2017 season, all of Gonzalez’s other seasons have been basically less than Zobrist’s 13 year (162 game) average of 87 runs/17 HRs/76 RBIs / .266 /.357/.785. One of the biggest differences between the players comes in the area of plate discipline. For his career, Zobrist has 809 walks vs 970 Ks, while Gonzalez has 179 walks vs. 541 Ks. In his last 4 seasons, Zobrist has exactly the same amount of walks as Ks and in two of those seasons had more walks than Ks. Marwin’s best season in this area was 2017 and even then he had only 49 walks vs 99 Ks. In 5 of his last 8 seasons, Zobrist has had an OPS over .800, while Gonzalez has only the 2017 season above the .800 mark.

Bottom line – if Marwin and his agent are looking for a Zobrist payout, they need to find someone who can’t look at basic stats. He still is a valuable player due to age and flexibility, but it looks like he should get something more in the range of 3 yrs – $36 million.

The Beard vs The Brave

The case for Dallas Keuchel includes a Cy Young under his belt, the fact that he is a lefty, the fact that he has been under 3.00 ERA three of his last five seasons and the big time fact that after Patrick Corbin signed he was really the top pitcher available out there in the free agent market. He has won some huge games for the Astros and is definitely a pitcher not a thrower.

Similar to Tom Glavine he is a guy who throws to contact (they are both just under 9 hits per ball game for their careers) and not a K guy – Keuchel has struck out 7.4 per game, while Glavine in a very different strikeout adverse era only struck out 5.3 per game.

So how does Keuchel, heading into his year 31 season compare to Glavine at the same age?

Glavine at that age had also won a Cy Young, but had been in the top 3 four times, while DK only had votes once. Glavine made 4 AS teams (Keuchel made two) and had ERAs of between 2.55 and 3.20 in 5 of his 6 seasons, with a 3.97 in his one outlier. Keuchel had the injury he suppressed during 2016 (4.55 ERA) and a 3.74 ERA last season along with 3 sub- 3.00 ERA seasons. Glavine had picked up MVP votes in 3 seasons, while Keuchel did in 2015 only. Glavine had at least 29 starts in 8 of his 9 seasons before turning 31 (the other season was a strike season) and Keuchel missed significant time in both 2016 and 2017. Wins/losses are not always a telling feature on pitchers, but Keuchel in his last five seasons is 67-45 while Glavine in his five seasons leading to age 31 was 86-40.  Keuchel is an excellent athlete and has been 4 time Gold Glove at pitcher, while Glavine’s hitting was recognized as he had been a 3 time Silver Slugger through age 30.

Remember that after reaching age 30, Glavine played 12 more seasons , won another Cy Young and came in second once, made 6 more All Star teams and won 176 more games out of his career total of 305.

Bottom line: Dallas Keuchel is a good pitcher who at times is a very good pitcher. He also is a very hittable pitcher (gave up the most hits in the AL last season), who may struggle as his 91 mph fast ball drops to 89.5. He will work hard for his next team and may bring value for 3 or 4 years, but not 6 or 7 years if that is what he wants. Best guess….he signs for 4 years/$84 million with an opt out along the way.