First place and .500, time for some off season review


When is the last time you woke up to begin a new week and your favorite baseball team was .500 and in first place in the AL West? Come on now! You can get out some ooohs and ahhhs instead of some of “Oh me’s” and ugghs and groans!

In fact, on this Monday, the Astros are one of only six .500 teams in the American League. If the playoffs began today…okay, let’s not get carried away.

Moreover, the roster is the same today as it was on opening day. A .500 team, despite horrific hitting that includes five regulars or semi-regulars hitting .205 or lower and three primary middle of the order hitters with only two home runs and four RBI between them.

So, how did they get there? Pitching and defense. The formula for consistency and the ingredients that win championships.

Only four short months ago, this year’s roster was only a pipe dream in Jeff Luhnow’s mind. Some believe it still a dream — or nightmare — at least in portion. So while the Astros celebrate first place — the first time this late in the season since 2007 — let’s take a look at the trades and acquisitions that got them here.

To be quite fair, it’s probably unfair to grade these at this point, but as turbulent as the late spring and early season have been, it’s only reasonable to review. As an equal opportunity blogger, here’s my pledge to bring back the same review a few more times this season.

The grades, to be sure, are flexible and fluid. A breakout here or injury there could significantly alter the result, and you can even argue that all grades are incomplete. Still, here’s a reminder of the off-season activity and the so-far impact on the Astros.

  • Nov 2014: Houston traded Nick Tropeano and Carlos Perez to Angels for Hank Conger.
    • One of the head scratchers of the off-season, Conger hasn’t contributed significantly, at least not in a noticeable way. Perhaps he has contributed behind the scenes with Jason Castro and the pitching staff, but the Astros had a serviceable backup catcher in Carlos Corporan. Meanwhile, Tropean0 (5) and Perez (20) are listed among the Angels’ top prospects.
    • Early grade: F.
  • Nov 2014: Claimed Will Harris off waivers from Arizona.
    • One of those under-the-radar waiver claims that has turned into a gem for Houston. Harris didn’t cut it in Colorado or Arizona, but the 27-year-old LSU product has been perfect for the Astros (4G, 6IP, 6K, 1BB, 0.00 ERA).
    • Early grade: A+.
  • Dec 2014: Signed Jed Lowrie for 3 years, $22 million (plus option).
    • Perhaps a surprise since Lowrie and the Astros had a dust-up a year ago, but the former Boston first rounder (originally acquired in 2011 for Mark Melancon) has brought stability to SS. Despite a .205 average, he has had key hits.
    • Early grade: B+.
  • Dec 2014: Signed Pat Neshek for 2 years, $12 million (plus option).
    • Had a career year in 2014, but Hinch favored him due to his ties in San Diego. He’s been serviceable, if not dependable, though not at the same level as others in the pen. Yet.
    • Early grade: B.
  • Dec 2014: Signed Luke Gregerson for 3 years, $18.5 million.
    • From Day 1, he was tabbed as the Astros’ closer though he had never been designated as such in six previous seasons. In six appearances, he has been stellar and shut down (2H, 6K, 0BB).
    • Early grade: A.
  • Dec 2014: Lost David Rollins, Delino Deshields Jr. and Jandel Gustave in the Rule 5 draft.
    • Only Deshields has stuck in the majors, though it may be a question for how long as the Rangers are already searching for outfield solutions. Gustave is back in the Astros’ organization and Rollins was suspended for PED use.
    • Early grade: Incomplete, but leaning Astros heavily.
  • Jan 2015: Traded Corporan to Texas for Akeem Bostick.
    • Seemingly insignificant at the time, but this could be one of the bigger moves of the off-season if Conger’s contributions don’t measure up. Corporan had been a steady hand and is on the same arbitration schedule as Conger, so it wasn’t a money decision.
    • Early grade: F.
  • Jan 2015: Signed Colby Rasmus for one year, $8 million.
    • You can call this move a backup, safety net of sorts. With the early signing of Alex Presley for $1 million to avoid arbitration and the addition of Evan Gattis, the Astros may have been discontent with their outfield options going into the season. While Rasmus was a good defensive addition, he continues to struggle at the plate. If it weren’t for the hard-to-swallow $8 million gig, he might be a decent addition as a fourth outfielder. Still, he is a reasonable place holder for Preston Tucker, Domingo Santana or others.
    • Early grade: C-.
  • Jan 2015: Acquired Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily from Chicago for Dexter Fowler.
    • A solid acquisition, though it rid the Astros of their best leadoff possibility for the season (assuming Jose Altuve is best suited for the two hole). That said, Valbuena may turn out to be the catch of the season for the Astros as he has already contributed both offensively and defensively. The 29-year-old is under team control through 2017 and — along with Lowrie — gives Houston a solid left side to stabilize its defense. With Straily prepping in AAA and freed of Fowler’s $9.5 million, the trade portends well for Houston.
    • Early grade: B, though it could become an A easily if Valbuena breaks out as some predict.
  • Jan 2015: Acquired Evan Gattis and James Hoyt from Atlanta for Michael Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz and Andrew Thurman.
    • The head scratcher of the off-season. Some will never approve of this trade, even if Gattis provides a career season. The three Braves acquisitions are now listed #3, #6 and #20 in their prospect listings. Meanwhile, Gattis is designated exclusively as the team’s DH and may have turned a small corner recently at the plate while Hoyt is in Fresno as the Astros’ #24 prospect.
    • Early grade: D, extending a huge benefit of the doubt here, given the unproven prospects and Gattis’ potential as DH.
  • Feb 2015: Signed Joe Thatcher for one year, $1 million (originally a minor league contract).
    • Another of those players in San Diego with Hinch, Thatcher has provided what the team had wanted. A solid deal as Thatcher had other offers on the table and the Astros didn’t have many solid left-handed options.
    • Early grade: B+.
  • Feb 2015: Signed Roberto Hernandez for one year, $2.65 million (originally a minor league contract).
    • Picked up Hernandez after the Ryan Vogelsong deal went south. He battled well in spring and provided the best option when injuries popped up and others (e.g. Straily, Alex White) didn’t step up. Was part of what was perceived a much depth in the rotation early, but now has solidified his spot for the foreseeable future.
    • Early grade: B.

So, let’s see your grades for each one of the above moves and here are some obvious questions and a few others:

  • Best acquisition of the off-season.
  • Worst acquisition of the off-season.
  • Most pleasant surprise.
  • Which player traded away will the Astros most regret in the future?
  • Which trade or acquisition that looks horrific now could actually turn into a boon for Houston?
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60 comments on “First place and .500, time for some off season review

  1. I have to disagree with you on #1. Fangraphs has Conger listed as a +0.1 WAR player so far this year. That’s not much, but the two guys he was traded for have contributed zero WAR because they are not in the majors. It’s early in this trade but currently an F grade is not warranted.
    On the other hand, Corporan has a +0.3 WAR for Texas so far, and Bostick is buried somewhere. So your F grade for that trade is justified!

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    • OP, overall — at this point — the moves were unnecessary. From that perspective, if the Astros had stood pat with Corporan and left the prospects in the Astros’ system, Houston would have been better off. Again. At. This. Point. IMO.

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      • I agree. I think the Astros should have not made either trade. But I still have to grade each trade. Conger’s C- grade is far outshone by Bostick’s F grade, especially considering the Astros gained no financial advantage in it and only 1 40-man advantage. Then throw in Corporan’s WAR contributing to our nearest competitor and that shades it even darker. Conger’s big contribution, however was an 11th inning dagger in the Ranger’s heart, at least for a game. Then again, Conger’s glove has been a heart attack for me.

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  2. -Best: Gregerson. Harris and Lowrie are up there in early voting returns, but I think LG gave Luhnow some much needed legitimacy.
    -Worst: Well, I can’t say Rasmus without including the Fowler deal. I know it was a trade and FA signing, but the signing only happens if the Fowler salary gets moved. I think Valbuena+Rasmus is better than Fowler+MattyD. I probably go with Conger because we gave up two prospects to replace a well-liked, backup catcher with a guy who has not shown much ability to be a better backup catcher for us. Hope I’m wrong…
    -Pleasant: Harris – another one where we got a good player for nothing.
    -Regret: wow, another tough one. I think, maybe, the answer is Tropeano…but if Valbuena can’t hold the starting spot all year I’ll change my answer to Fowler. Neither is a big regret for me.
    -Horrific to Boon: I don’t have any I would categorize this way right now. I don’t think anyone we gave up is going to be an All-Star…but do think we could have received more for some of the trades.

    Re: the Rule V guys, I don’t think it hurts that we lose 2/3 because of the already visible roster crunch at our milb affiliates. DeShields will likely struggle this year, but I’d still take his speed and OBP potential over Alex Presley (who is playing well in Fresno).

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  3. Best acquisition (so far): The one that did NOT happen. Vogelsong (WHIP 2.806). Worst (so far): Conger – we lost prospects and gained nothing when Corporan left. Surprise (so far); JFSF (his speed – hitting – and stolen bases) Later Dude: One of the prospects. Safe answer – but is normally accurate later. Boon: Only one that could possibly do that is Gattis and it is a real possibility. When hot, he can carry a team for a week or so. My overall reaction to your grading is it is a little harsh but probably honest and accurate (so far).

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  4. The player traded away the Astros could most regret probably would be Rio Ruiz. I think his ceiling is higher than any player mentioned in this post.

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  5. Conger trade – (D-) I give him a few points for his extra inning HR that won a game.
    Harris pickup – (A) I don’t give anyone an A+ – but for the price he has been great
    Lowrie (B) His .205 BA is not so good, but his .773 OPS is good and his 0 errors are great for a change.
    Neshek (C) It is early, but he has been pretty hittable so far (though Pujols has hit everyone in his career)
    Gregerson (A-) He has been very good so far and deserving of being called the closer
    Rule 5 “losses” (Inc) But as you say – not looking terrible at this point
    Corporan (F) Makes less sense the farther we get from it
    Rasmus (D+) His fielding is good, but need some O from him more than just drawing walks
    Valbuena – (B-) One of the many struggling at the plate – But 3 HRs in 12 games is solid/clutch and he has flashed a solid and consistent glove. If he stays healthy and Fowler does what he always does this will be a higher grade
    Gattis (D) What can you say – he is here for his bat and his bat is only starting to stir. Gave up a lot for him.
    Thatcher (C) Nothing special so far
    Hernandez (B+) Pleasantly surprised to this point – has been good

    ■Best acquisition of the off-season – Gregerson
    ■Worst acquisition of the off-season – Rasmus (because of salary and performance)
    ■Most pleasant surprise.- Hernandez followed closely by Valbuena
    ■Which player traded away will the Astros most regret in the future? Folty – 100 mph fastballs don’t grow on trees
    ■Which trade or acquisition that looks horrific now could actually turn into a boon for Houston? Neshek – not unusual for relievers to have a couple off games settling in

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  6. Great stuff everyone. For me i I need to let everything simmer in the pot a little longer. This will be fun to revisit at the quarter pole. Lets get em tonight in Seattle!

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  7. Last season Valbuena hit 16 home runs for the Cubs, 13 to RF, 3 to CF and 0 to LF.
    This year to date, he has hit tree home runs for the Astros, 1 to RF, 0 to CF and 2 to LF.
    I think Valbuena is a smart player who is making some adjustments. Might see him pulling the ball a little more in Seattle.

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  8. 3B, I see where Matty D is tearing it up at Fresno .206 and Valbuena’s glove I’m thinking has saved us winning 1 game and maybe 2.

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    • Kevin, the more stunning stat to me for Fresno is the number of walks.

      * 0 for Presley.
      * 1 for Duffy.
      * 1 for Dominguez.

      Fontana, of course, leads out with 10 and Singleton, despite his .270 batting average has 7 (.386 OBP) through 10 games.

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      • WOW thanks i usually dont pay attention to BB , which is a big stat for OBP. Iguess i thought Matty D get demoted might have motivated him a bit, not. Lets hope he gets better so we can grade him(-:. Can Kemp play 3B?

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      • No, Kemp doesn’t have the arm for more than spot duty on that side of the infield. Dominguez has 9 RBI thus far, but the .586 OPS tells the real story.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think its a question of motivating Dominguez, I just don’t think he is a very good hitter. No matter how motivated or hard you are willing to work, there has to be some natural skill, and he lacks as much as other players.

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  9. conger – D. he did win game in the majors, the prospects are still that, sitting in the minors. i liked corporan but don’t think conger has had the time to show what he can contribute.
    harris – A+ he has been lights out and we got him for nothing
    lowrie – skeptical of this for 3 years, but so far not bad. B-
    neshek – not much to go on so far – C
    gregerson – a real closer? in houston? – A
    rule 5 – incomplete and doesn’t matter much at this point
    corporan trade – as stated i liked corporan but this all depends on conger – D
    rasmus – the amount of money surprised me, i thought it to be too much. don’t mind him as a player. C
    valbueno and straily for fowler – i like valbueno and straily is a near ready major league pitcher. i am not as enamored with fowler has some in here, injury prone, dogs it at times. would much rather have marisnick in CF and valbueno 3B than fowler and dominguez. – B
    gattis and hoyt – hard one to figure. glad to have gattis bat (assuming it comes to life) hate to lose folty. hoyt looks to be real deal, moran would block ruiz most likely. C
    thatcher – good move to get veteran lefty for pen, performance so far below expectation cost was low. but i remember the days when we couldn’t find even one lefty for the pen. B-
    hernandez – has been pretty good, relatively low cost, good pickup so far. B

    best acquisition – gregerson
    worst – bostick
    pleasant surprise – harris
    regret – folty
    bad to good – well the worst grade i game was on conger move so i guess i have to say him, but gattis/hoyt is the one that could really turn good if he goes on a homerun tear and hoyt any where near pitches as good as folty.

    whew!! lots of stuff. chip enjoyed this post and am looking forward to next updated review.

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  10. Best acquisition of the off-season – Games available on DirecTV
    Worst acquisition of the off-season – Rasmus. I see this as pure Luhnow nepotism. I don’t see how this $8M was worth it no matter what happens. But trades for Conger and Gattis are in the trifecta.
    Most pleasant surprise – Keuchel and McHugh still performing like its 2014
    Which player traded away will the Astros most regret in the future? Rio Ruiz
    Which trade or acquisition that looks horrific now could actually turn into a boon for Houston? Sorry, just not seeing it here….

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Here’s a prime example of how prospects just don’t pan out. Or should I say: Another prime example.

    The White Sox designated Kyle Drabek — son of former Astros’ pitcher Doug Drabek — is a former high pick (18th), but the high potential and upside just never materialized. Interestingly, he was selected by the Phillies in the 2006 draft with the compensation pick they received from the Mets for signing Billy Wagner.

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    • If I recall, they claimed him from Toronto, this spring, because he is out of options and was not going to make their 25.

      Was he designated to clear the spot for Rodon?

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    • It is amazing to me how Drabek (just as an example) is the rule and not the exception. There has to be something special in scouts like Red Murff to see MLB potential talent that others do not. I have seen high school kids that I KNEW would be in the majors and then they never make the Junior College team. Baseball is one tough game at the MLB level.

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      • AC, it’s so true. I watched kids at LSU-Eunice, the #1 ranked JC for several years now. My son played there and was not the most talented. I watched many talented kids who just didn’t make it. Everyone on that team came in as the star of their high school team. The ace pitcher, three hole hitter, leadoff guy, best arm, speediest. At LSU-E, however, there were 30 of those guys.

        The 90 mph fastball that struck out 60% of hitters “last” year didn’t work as well any more. The all state kid who hit .400 struggled to get a bunt down. You lose kids at every level…from little league to junior high. From JH to high school. From high school to college. From college to A and AA. And so on.

        Yogi was right: “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”

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      • I got to watch the movie about Altuve this morning. He was basically a boy in Venezuela that nobody got to see. No scouts, no coaches. Just his father. and then Al Pedrique. The Astros had $15,000 left in their bonus pool and asked Altuve if he wanted it. The thing that stood out to me the most from the movie was Altuve’s use of a four letter word: work. He never stops using that word.
        Also, I didn’t even know he was married. We get to see his wife for about 15 seconds in the movie.
        Drabek and Altuve. two different worlds.

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  12. The trade that looks bad now but could turn out good. Corporan is a 31 yo backup catcher who weighs 240 pounds. Is he ever going to be more than that? With that body and playing the catcher position, how long will he be able to be a ML caliber player?
    Bostick is a 19 yo Pitcher that throws in the high nineties. What if he is a good reliever for the Astros in five years and then stays there for 5-6 years? That’s possible. Nobody knows.

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  13. Our pitching has been very, very good. But here are some stats that might give us pause – especially the GO/AO ratios and HRs allowed portions:

    1. Wojo – 5 GO to 13 AO (2 HRs allowed in only 8 IP; with 3 BBs and “only” 6 Ks);
    2. Neshek – 3 GO to 8 A) (and 2 HRs in 6 IP; but at least he has struck out 7);
    3. Sipp – 4 GO to 9 AO [but has 6 Ks in 6 IP and 0 HRs allowed]’
    4. Peacock – 4 GO to 7 AO [0 HRs, but 2 BBs, and only 3 Ks]
    5 Feldman (GO/AO is good, but somehow has given up 5 HRs in 17.2 innings)

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  14. And…your lineup for the first game of the road trip…

    * Altuve 2B.
    * Valbuena 3B.
    * Springer RF.
    * Gattis DH.
    * Lowrie SS.
    * Castro C.
    * Gonzalez 1B.
    * Rasmus LF.
    * Marisnick CF.

    Wojo gets his second start of the season.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. OP, has Corpus abandoned the tandem rotation? This is interesting news…

    “Lance McCullers’ performance yesterday stands as the fifth consecutive outing in which a Hooks starting pitcher worked 5.0 innings while allowing 1 run or less. Corpus Christi starters are 5-1 with a 2.12 ERA and .224 batting average against. The unit has struck out 41 batters against 16 walks in 46.2 innings pitched. As a result, the Hooks have out-scored their opposition 49-15 in the first 6.0 innings.”

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    • Chip, it appears they are consistently using the starter for 5 and then 1 or 2 pitchers for the rest. I only looked at the box scores for past 10 days. More like a starter and then 1-2-3 relievers with some going multiple innings.

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    • It looks like Appel and McCullers are starting pitchers every fifth game. But some guys are still in tandems, so some pitchers are getting favored treatment. Hader came in on the back end of a tandem in his last appearance and was the victim of Mier’s errors. Since that night CC has not won. They lost again tonight, even though Correa had two hits, including a HR. All his teammates combined for 1 hit tonight. Since they put Mier in for Kemp that night and he blew that game they are 0-3. Of course, everyone will tell you it’s a mere coincidence, but it’s not.

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  16. It’s too early to give out grades right now……but if I’m reading between the lines on what Hinch said today, he might carry 8 relievers for awhile when Fields comes back. The between the lines were “you know who” hasn’t had a very good start to the season, and “he” has options. I’ll leave it at that. Score is tied up right now, bottom of the 6th.

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  17. Valbuena’s second homer of the game is the winning run, Lowrie with an insurance RBI after a Gattis double. Sipp gets the win,Gregerson gets the save. First place Astros win 7-5 and win #5 starter Wojo’s start. Astros record is 7-6.
    Valbuena pull’s both of his home runs tonight to right field.
    Tucker, Singleton and Duffy with 3 hits each tonight and all hitting well over .300. Tucker hitting over .360 with 5 homers and 17 rbis in 11 games.

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  18. *BULLPEN*!!!!!!!!!! They have been AWESOME…..but they need another fresh arm ASAP! Fields can’t get here soon enough. Man…..who would have thunk it, that the Astros, yeah…..THESE Astros are playing this good!

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  19. Well this is about the first game they won where the offense did yeoman’s work in my opinion. I can’t remember them winning one like this so far this year. Maybe this is the start of some better offense and less pressure on the pitching staff.

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  20. The rotation is ready for Oberholtzer as soon as he’s ready.
    Lowrie is a steady presence at short, but there are plays he does not make.
    It’s confirmed. This club will strike out and hit homeruns.
    I think Springer is a better outfielder than Marisnick.
    Nice to have a pen. Can they keep it up?

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  21. Great win last night, and big kudos to Luis Valbuena, Jed Lowrie and the bullpen [Thatcher? well, the jury’s still out on that one!].

    But I do have a serious question from the box score. Why on earth did Hinch pinch hit Chris Carter for Marwin Gonzalez? Marwin is a switch hitter that would give us a better at bat from his knees, blindfolded, and one-handed with a whiffle bat than Chris Carter has been giving us thus far in 2015. Pinch-hitting for a switch-hitter batting .333 with a streaky power guy in the deepest funk of his career, who is barely batting .070, just seems to me to be a special kind of baseball stupid. Was MarGo sick, or hurting? Did MarGo do something this off-season, or in this game, that made either HInch or Luhnow mad at him? Does Chris Carter have compromising photos of Jim Crane? What gives?

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    • This is an easy one Mr. Bill. Hinch wanted Valbuena to knock in the winning run in the 8th inning. This was the easiest way to make sure the Astros did not score any more runs in the 6th.
      See – you just have to understand how they think or how they don’t….

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      • Whoaaa! That actually makes more sense than any other explanation I have heard. Dan, with your help I think I am finally getting it. Will that be 5 cents?

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    • Mr. Bill, I think it had more to do with the starting pitcher for Seattle. Marwin (.583) has better results against Hisashi Iwakuma than Carter (.136). Once Iwakuma was out of the game, Hinch wanted to get Carter in because Carter generally hits better at Safeco than other parks. How’s that for going around the mountain a couple of times for an answer?

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      • Chip, I just keep hearing a voice somewhere saying: “you have spent too long at this mountain. Turn and take your journey . . .”

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      • I hear ya Mr. Bill. I asked the question — or made the suggestion, can’t remember which — last fall: Should the Astros sell high on Chris Carter? It was a gamble to keep him. Were the final two months of ’14 an indication Carter had turned it around or was it just a long, successful streak that wouldn’t last.

        With no real viable options, Luhnow made the $4 million gamble, which was reasonable, but he’ll be facing a dilemma if Singleton continues to hit and Carter continues to stumble.

        Frankly, I believe they should give Gattis a start or two there in case Tucker proves to more of a real deal than Singleton. That way, Tucker could slide into the DH spot and Gattis could play 1B. Yes, yes, I realize Gattis has never played there, but it wouldn’t be much of a learning curve for a former catcher, wouldn’t you think?

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  22. Chip, I know we both hope – and actually still believe – that Singleton can be the ‘real deal’, as an OBP and OPS focused guy I personally am ready for a little of the Preston Tucker/Joe Sclafani ‘Do the Hustle’ and “Stayin’ Alive” show instead of the Evan Gattis/Chris Carter “The Answer My Friend is Blowin’ in the Wind” show. I personally hope to see both Carter and Gattis [and perhaps Rasmus] dealt at the deadline – with at least one of them bringing some significant young talent – maybe a fireballer/potential closer at high A or at AA, a lefty with excellent command and control at AA or above, and/or an impressive catching or 3B prospect at A or AA. If Singleton doesn’t have it together, I’d either give Tucker, or Matt Duffy, or maybe even Jon Villar a shot at learning 1B. I just don’t see slow, streaky, injury-susceptible guys like Gattis in this club’s future. I would like to see our final 2015 line-up [which I am assuming will not include Carlos Correa, no matter how good a season he has] as:

    Sclafani – DH
    Altuve – 2B
    Valbuena – 3B
    Springer – RF
    Tucker – LF
    Lowrie – SS
    MarGo or Singleton or Duffy – 1B
    Castro – C
    Marisnick – CF

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