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Two weeks out, Astros still have major decisions


The Astros cleared the decks of one decision Monday, naming off-season acquisition Scott Feldman as the opening day starter.

No major surprise given the $30 million investment. Still, with opening day two weeks away, Jeff Luhnow and Bo Porter have several significant questions remaining. Here are five remaining key decisions.

Closer.

  • Okay, maybe not a major decision, but with Jesse Crain notavailable, do you really believe Porter will go with closer-by-committee? That would mean no setup roles, no seventh inning guy, just whoever’s available on a night-to-night basis. Eight players saved at least one game for Houston last season. Porter could spread the love again in ’14, but Chad Qualls, Josh Zeid or Josh Fields may be April’s closer.

Left side of the infield.

  • Since only Marc Krauss and Marwin Gonzalez are tearing it up with the bat, other positions stick out.  Porter can hide only so many bats, you know. 3B Matt Dominguez is just 24 and SS Jonathan Villar only 22. But the question is: How patient will Luhnow be with either, especially since the primary (maybe only) option is Gonzalez (gulp). Hunch here is that Luhnow acquires another fallback by opening day.

George Springer and Jonathan Singleton.

  • Yes, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth if Springer is sent to Oklahoma City, but the yelling won’t be as loud since he’s hitting .192. Remember, Springer has only 266 ABs at the AAA level, though he did light it up: .311/.425/.626 in those 62 games.  But a full season in Houston screams — yes, screams — Rookie of the Year candidate.  Perhaps the more intriguing question, though, revolves around the Astros’ #4 prospect. Singleton hasn’t been himself since that 50-game suspension and he doesn’t appear to be finding himself this spring. Scary? Indeed. Problematic? Only if he doesn’t start to resurface between now and July. There’s no need to rush the likely future first baseman of the next decade. After all, he’s only 22, so the OKC decision is not pressing.

The Lineup.

  • Porter used 139 different lineups in 162 games last year. It shouldn’t be as tricky this year as some spots should be more stable. For example, Dexter Fowler should hit leadoff for 150 games. At this point, it wouldn’t be surprising if Marc Krauss is the de facto cleanup hitter for as long as he can maintain it. But who hits second (Jose Altuve? Robbie Grossman?), third or fifth may not be as clear cut. The temptation for Porter may be to experiment, but here’s hoping he resists that temptation. Fowler, Grossman, Jason Castro, Krauss and Chris Carter would be a good start.

The non-stars.

  • Everyone is waiting for Springer, Singleton, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel and other stars to ascend the throne and lead the way. One of the many keys to the 2014 season and beyond, however, may lie in which of the non-stars takes a step forward to become serious contributors. So, how is that a decision? Luhnow’s personnel team will need to be shrewd and not pull the plug on some of the under-the-radar players like Dallas Keuchel, Paul Clemens, Nolan Fontana and others. Frankly, with so many top pitchers in the system, it would be easy to sell high on Keuchel.

What are the most important decisions for Luhnow and Porter before opening day?

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About Chip Bailey

Chip Bailey lives in Colorado Springs, CO, and is an author and former sports editor and sportswriter who has followed the Astros for more than 40 years. A native of Natchitoches, La., Chip enjoys watching baseball at most any level, especially pro and college. Several years ago, he worked as an associate of Pastor John Bosman, who enjoyed giving nick names to his staff. He came up with Chipalatta, and it’s stuck.

21 comments on “Two weeks out, Astros still have major decisions

  1. Astro45
    March 18, 2014

    Chip, agree that some are making their “cuts: much easier for Luihnow. My thought on batting order is if Fowler gets on, Altuve should bat 2nd. He does not miss too many fastballs, so the pitcher has a choice – off speed with advantage Fowler stealing, or fastball – advantage Altuve. Am expecting some unusual roster moves and/or trades in next two weeks.

    Like

    • Chip Bailey
      March 18, 2014

      Astro 45, absolutely agree. Just “feel” it. As obvious as some of the situations appear, unusual, unorthodox and unexpected moves wouldn’t be surprising. Dominguez may be the biggest question mark honestly. He needs to hit. The bad part there is there is nothing in Houston or in the system. At least for shortstop, there’s a future coming down the road if you know what I mean.

      Like

      • rj1953
        March 18, 2014

        i think they lean towards fields as the closer. we do have rio ruiz in the system, but i am unsure how he is performing currently

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    • Steven
      March 18, 2014

      Fowwler will be a test. His road OBP last year was .343, and to be honest, I would take that. He does walk some. If he can settle somewhere between his home stats and away stats from the last two years, he can be a productive player. I’m in his corner – I think a .275/.350/.400 with a .750 OPS is fine from your leadoff hitter, and I’ll take it.

      If Grossman wins either the LF or RF job I would expect him to bat second, or even third. I know people are penciling Castro at the three spot, but I am not a fan of penciling a guy there that you expect to only play 120-125 games because of the nature of his position. To me what made Bagwell and later Berkman so dangerous out of the three spot wasn’t their power – that made them dangerous anywhere in the lineup, it was their ability to draw a walk. It could turn a bad start to an inning to a pressure situation where a pitcher had to throw to a cleanup hitter with a person on base – and the fact that Bags could steal a base or two in that situation helped put a little more pressure on him. I would pursue that kind of hitter.

      If it isn’t Springer in RF batting third to open up, Grossman is about the best thing for it to me. Castro strikes out a lot, doesn’t walk particularly alot, isn’t likely to hit .300. He is a good hitter, who will probably have .300 seasons in his career, but isn’t going to do it year and year out. Bat him 5th when he is in there, behind Carter, and let Springer (or Grossman) and Carters ability to draw walks put some pressure on the opposing pitcher.

      If I make the assumption the Astros send down Springer – I think the lineup will look like CF-Fowler, 2B-Altuve, C-Castro, DH-Carter, LF – Krauss, 3B-Dominguez, 1B- Guzman, RF-Grossman, SS-Villar.

      I’m an outside the box guy – and I love giving young guys their opportunities to get their adjustments in as early as possible – so I would personally go CF-Fowler, LF-Grossman, RF-Springer, DH-Carter, C-Castro, 1B-Krauss, 3B-Dominguez, SS-Correa, 2B-Altuve and tell the offense your time is now. Singleton will be up as soon as he shows us his head is right, the limelight may not be the right place for that. Yes, I know Correa is 19, but so was Robin Yount.

      Like

      • 1oldpro
        March 18, 2014

        I like your lineup. If people say that Correa is not ready, I’d say to them that Villar was supposed to be ready and look at what we get from him! I don’t think that anyone thinks Correa has reached major league level with his game, but you could probable say that there are a dozen guys that are going to be on the opening day roster that are borderline major league talent..
        But on a more serious note, why would you start Correa now, when it is obvious that the agenda is to be real bad and get that drafting position in 2015.
        The Astros are making it very easy for me to crawl into my minor league shell and follow the minors and forget about the majors again, because I don’t feel like finding another MLB team to invest what limited time I have left.

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  2. 1oldpro
    March 18, 2014

    I think Luhnow has done all he was going to do with no TV deal. There may be a trade but this is the team he assembled and the team he is giving to Porter. He has been able to create a logjam of prospects from high A to AA, but the prospects we had before he came along are turning out to be mediocre and of AAA value(as expected) at the major league level and we are stuck with them for at least another year.
    He made an effort with Fowler and Feldman(the Killer F’s) to put a little more talent on the field, but it is pretty apparent that they do want that 1.1 draft pick again next year and they are determined to put a home grown product on the field in the coming years at a very cheap price.
    Without a good closer, I think the bullpen they are assembling is.going to disappoint a lot of fans.
    There are a lot of major league prospects in our system, but my question is, “when they arrive, will they give it all to a team that is expecting them to win for little or no pay, when every other team is littered with millionaires?”

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    • Devin
      March 18, 2014

      Why wouldn’t they give 100%? They are positioning themselves for bonus money in current contract years and millions in raises through arbitration and eventual free agency.

      Like

  3. Dan P
    March 18, 2014

    Lots of decisions to be made – totally agree. My #1 is not on your list:

    #1 The rotation – Feldman is in and the assumpion had been that Cosart, Oberholtzer and Peacock were front runners for other spots – though all of them have struggled to some extent. Has Keuchel pitched himself into the rotation? Jerome Williams? Maybe in the end it is not critical who starts the year in the rotation – but I want to know what is happening.
    #2 – Where do the young bucks end up – does Correa get AA and skip Lancaster? Singleton in AAA? Where do all the catchers not named Castro or Corporan go? What about all the young SPs like Wojciechowski, Foltynewicz – where do they go?
    #3 The back end of the bullpen – it sure works better if you know who your 7th, 8th and 9th inning guys are.
    #4 The lineup – is the lineup going to make sense from and OBP / OPS perspective? Will we have guys who can actually get on base at the top of the lineup – Fowler / Grossman?
    Those are my top 4 decisions heading in.

    Like

  4. daveb
    March 18, 2014

    I’m not too worried about the closer right now. I don’t think we’re going to need one too often, at least early in the season. Remember, our ace has got a 4.62 lifetime ERA.

    Dominguez is the least of my concerns. We know he’ll play a solid third base. And I take much more stock in what he did during the second half of last season (.260/.323/.430/.753) than what he’s done in a few spring at bats. Although those second half stats from 2013 are unremarkable for a corner infielder, on this team they are pretty good.

    I’m a bit worn out over the Singleton and Springer conversation. I’ll leave it to the experts. But as I noted a week or more ago, I’m really concerned about Singleton and his future as a major league baseball player. He’s got some far bigger issues to resolve than hitting a curveball.

    Funny thing about Altuve last year is that he hit very well in 33 games as the leadoff man (.326/.376/.399/.774). Maybe Porter should have left him there. Then he hit .282/.312/.368/.680 in the second slot. It got much worse when he hit third in 32 games, .241/.264/.314/.578. That might have been the single dumbest thing Porter did all year. Altuve had no business hitting there For that same reason, I would not put Grossman there either. He’s no more a three hitter than Altuve. I like Grossman hitting second, and Altuve down in the order, at least until he shows he can get on base at a .360 clip.

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    • Dan P
      March 18, 2014

      I agree with all your points daveb except for the one about the closer. The team was ratty last season offensively, starters, bullpen – but if they had saved a pedestrian 70% of their few chances vs. the 52% rate they had – they would have won 13 more games.
      I’m not worried about anyone based on spring stats – seen it too many times where they either do a lot better or worse once the season begins. Yes, to Grossman in the 2nd spot and stick Altuve down in 6th or 7th until he takes some walks.

      Like

      • Devin
        March 18, 2014

        If altuve can post a .376 OBP stick him at leadoff and throw another solid OBP behind him. Get as many men on base as possible, limit CS and GIDP (kangaroo court?) And you will get into other team’s bullpens quicker and have more need for that pesky closer position we are worrying about.

        Like

      • daveb
        March 18, 2014

        Dan, I just think we are going to be a terrible team during the first half of the season. I see no real positive impact from Feldman. i see steady if unremarkable play from Fowler. Chances are that Porter goes at the break. Then I think we’ll see a bunch of the young guys having an impact after the break, hustling, having fun, playing close to .500 ball.

        Like

      • daveb
        March 18, 2014

        And Devin, if Altuve was to hint at a .376 OBP in the leadoff slot again, by all means, yes, he should be hitting first. As you noted earlier, that might get the guy hitting second, maybe Fowler, see better pitches. All that said, Fowler was signed to be the leadoff guy, and that’s where he’ll be.

        Makes one wonder though. With all the young stat geeks working in the bowels of Minute Maid, how could they let Altuve waste so many games in the third slot when he had no business there? Why take a second year contact hitter and stick him in a slot that calls for a power bat? Have I mentioned that that was the dumbest thing Porter did all year?

        Like

    • Steven
      March 18, 2014

      My only argument against batting Castro third is he won’t be in the lineup for 150 games. I think the spot in the order should be consistent. Last year Castro had a fairly high BABIP of .351, not sure that will be a repeat, but I wouldn’t expect it to fall to the .309 of the year before. He will probably hit around .265, and that should leave his OBP around .340. He might very well be one of only two guys on the team to hit 20 homers this year, maybe 3 depending on Dominguez.

      In a perfect world Grossman is batting second and Springer is batting 3rd. I am concerned the Astros have a different mindset. Got it, old news, but until the decision is made fingernails are going to be bitten.

      I do think that Castro is slated to bat 3rd, and he will be there even if Springer is in the lineup on opening day, and its not like he doesnt walk at all (10% the last two years). I also think Robbie Grossman is a surprise waiting to happen, with a guy that may not match his minor league 15-17% walk rates, but will certainly improve on his 8% rookie year, and I expect that average to be around .265-.270, giving him a better OBP than Castro, while still providing 10-12 maybe even 15 homers, will throw in 15 SB, and play more frequently. I don’t think thats a bad case for batting Grossman 3rd, that is until Paul Molitor gets signed.

      Like

      • Steven
        March 18, 2014

        Dave – let me add – I think sometimes who bats third honestly depends on who bats 1st and 2nd. I think if you are expecting a few more three and outs, in other words your 1 and 2 guys are either not great OBP guys (like Altuve) or prone to slumps, putting a 3 hole guy out there that can force an extension of inning one, especially if your clean up guy is a free swinger that is a threat to hit any mistake 420 feet, a guy that can draw a walk a little more ofeten can be of help.

        On the other hand, if 1 and 2 are hot, or are guys that can draw walks, a 3 hitter with a little more extra base pop is probably better.

        What is the over/under on how many different guys bat 3rd for the Astros this year? That spot in the batting order, and its consistency, is usually pretty solid on a good team, fluent on a bad team.

        Like

  5. Dan P
    March 18, 2014

    Chip
    Kuechel pitched 4 innings today and gave up 13 hits and 7 runs against the Marlins. Big ouch there.

    Like

    • daveb
      March 18, 2014

      Yes, Dan, the rotation is shaping up nicely. We might see some of the young guys sooner than expected. Too bad Wojoski is hurt. But what about Folty? Let’s stretch him out!

      Like

      • Dan P
        March 18, 2014

        I saw Folty pitch in one appearance and enjoyed it. I really can’t wait for the youngsters to start flooding the top…

        Like

  6. daveb
    March 18, 2014

    Steven, if Castro stays healthy, I think he’ll catch 110 games and DH 30 or 40 more, assuming he hits lefties. If he does not hit lefties, then he should sit against them. I think he hits in the third slot, at least initially, 5 or 6 days a week. But I also don’t expect him to stay healthy for a whole season. Historically, he does not provide that expectation.

    Other guys that might hit third before Grossman, depending on what’s on the mound: Carter, Krauss, Guzman, and Springer/Singleton, sooner or later.

    Like

  7. rj
    March 18, 2014

    a stab at the lineup

    1. fowler cf
    2. altuve 2b
    3. castro c
    4. carter dh
    5. guzman 1b
    6. grossman lf
    7. dominguez 3b
    8. hoes rf
    9. villar ss

    Like

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