Astros winning with diamonds in the rough

You can tout your underage prospects and rookie phenoms all you want. You can praise the high-priced talent signed to shore up the back end of the bullpen if you like.

Me? I’m here to praise those waiver wire claims and cheap free agents that are putting together some solid season for this team. Why? Well, aside from the fact that those players are major contributors to the Astros’ winning ways, they also bode well for Luhnow’s brain trust moving forward. Because this team is going to need that brain trust to make some smart decisions.

The Evidence
Luhnow and his eggheads in the front office aren’t perfect. I still think we got hosed by the Angels on the Hank Conger deal. I mean, someone prove me wrong that his pitch framing skills are worth losing Carlos Perez and Nick Tropeano.

But the Astros have had great luck finding those diamonds in the rough since Luhnow arrived. And it all started with Rule 5 draftee Marwin Gonzalez. Since arriving in Houston, MarGo has put up a total 1.3 WAR and done an admirable job filling in around the diamond. In his fourth year in the big leagues, MarGo is finally getting paid at $1,062,500.

The diamonds in the rough continue with Josh Fields, another Rule 5 guy, who has finally put it together, giving a plus WAR for the first time while coming in with an ERA of 1.00. For bargain finds in the bullpen, Fields is actually not even close to the best deal in 2015. Tony Sipp has already matched his 2014 WAR (0.8) with a 2-0 record and a 0.55 ERA. Think Sipp is awesome? Will Harris, claimed off waivers, has a 0.9 WAR, a 0.47 ERA. He’s given up a run in 19 innings pitched.

Harris and Fields are essentially making MLB minimum at just over $500,000 a year. Sipp is getting paid big money: $2.4 million.

When the Astros picked up the former Faustino Carmona (Roberto Hernandez), I was skeptical. It was a minor league deal where the parties had a chance to opt out prior to Opening Day. But the Astros held on to Hernandez, and he’s rewarded them with five quality starts in eight, and four wins by the team in those eight starts. After his first start, he’s never failed to go six innings. All for the low low price of $2.655 million.

Joe Thatcher might be a miss in this category. His 3.38 ERA and $1 million salary are practically a disappointment compared to the rest.

But then I’d be remiss in not mentioning the best waiver claim of the Luhnow era: Collin McHugh. His ERA might have skyrocketed to 4.09 thanks to one really bad start , but McHugh is still 5-1 and the Astros are 7-1 in his starts. Oh, and he’s signed for league minimum at $516,300. Yeah, I’m gonna say that was a good signing.

Now The Hard Part

Thatcher notwithstanding, it seems the brain trust can be trusted. Well, that’s good, because the Astros — thanks to all this winning — probably won’t have a chance to pick these waiver gems or Rule 5 studs. In both instances, you pick at your last draft order. Houston will be picking a bit higher in the coming seasons. Which, in a way, is good. Because Luhnow and Co. need to focus their attention on some big decisions when it comes to its minor league talent.

There are logjams a-comin’.

Middle Infield: Some time next month, the Astros’ middle infield will be set for the next 10 years at least. Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve will soon be best buds. That leaves a lot of middle infield talent needing to find a home. Whom do you keep as that super sub? Who is trade bait. Here’s a run-down of some of the talent.

Tony Kemp: Currently sporting a .452 OBP in AA, Kemp is a second baseman. He doesn’t have a lot of power, but he’s got a good bat and a world-class eye at the plate.

Nolan Fontana: The “good” news is that Fontana has hit a wall in AAA, making him look expendable. Batting just .206 right now, he’s still got a .359 OBP, meaning he looks like a “Luhnow Guy.”

MarGo: The Astros’ current shortstop is a year removed from an OPS season well over .700. Don’t think he can’t get hot at any moment. Oh, and he’s steady with the glove compared to …

Jonathan Villar: All potential and no … oops, sorry Becky. Villar is up to .229 with the bat, and that throw to the plate Tuesday night is a good reminder of that potential.

Jiovanni Mier: Don’t laugh, but the former first-round pick is now batting .268 in AA, and he’s got an OPS of .819. He’s only 24. And he reportedly has a smooth, steady glove.

Joe Sclafani: Technically listed at 3B, Old Pro’s favorite overlooked prospect is hitting .243 in Fresno — when he gets to play — and he’s walking and whiffing both at about 20 percent.

Outfield/DH: With Preston Tucker now looking at long-term leases in Houston, Luhnow will need to make some decisions about the outfield. While I expect Rasmus to be gone this time next season, that still leaves the likes of George Springer, Jake Marisnick and Tucker in Houston’s outfield on Opening Day 2016. Gattis is probably back at DH. So …

Right now, Domingo Santana, L.J. Hoes and Alex Presley are all hitting above .300 at AAA. The weak link is Presley with a .696 OPS. But that ignores Andrew Aplin, who is scuffling right now, but has performed well at AA and in the AFL.

And all that ignores AA players such as DH Tyler White (.342 BA, .952 OPS) and Brandon Meredith (.278 BA, .788 OPS).

First Base: Oh, sure, when Chris Carter gets traded, the job belongs to big Jon Singleton. But what about Conrad Gregor (.290 BA, .768 OPS) and Telvin Nash (batting just .234, but with a .799 OPS).

I really don’t see logjams at third, catcher (unless Tyler Heineman proves me wrong) or pitcher (can you have too much pitching). But keep in mind, I haven’t even looked at Lancaster or Quad Cities here. And both places are loaded with talent.

So I ask:

1. What waiver claim, low-cost free agent or Rule 5 has impressed the most so far?

2. Which one of those will impress the most going forward?

3. Where would this bullpen be without “the cheap three” of Harris, Sipp and Fields?

4. If you’d been told Hernandez would basically amount to an innings-eating, .500 pitcher in the fourth spot, you would have said (blank) when he was signed?

5. Where are the biggest logjams in the minors right now?

6. What players in AA and AAA should not be dangled as trade bait to clear some space?

7. What players at AA and AAA should be dangled?


47 comments on “Astros winning with diamonds in the rough

  1. 1. Waiver Claim success. This is such a big deal because it has been Luhnow’s finest work. Finding pitchers off the scrapheap has made him a legend because of his complete wreck of a developemental program with the organization’s pitching prospects. Dallas Keuchel is all we have to show for with the Astos’ pitching prospects. The others have sucked or been traded or both. SO FAR.
    He traded for a lot of young pitcher’s and none of them has helped the big club, so far. He’s drafted a lot of pitchers and none of them has helped the big club, so far.
    Can LMJ help turn around Luhnow’s non-waiver/non-free agent pitching fortunes? I hope so.


  2. 1. What waiver claim, low-cost free agent or Rule 5 has impressed the most so far?
    – Mine would be McHugh, who was great last season and above average this season.

    2. Which one of those will impress the most going forward?
    – The most would still be McHugh unless Fields steps in and grabs the closers spot

    3. Where would this bullpen be without “the cheap three” of Harris, Sipp and Fields?
    – They would be an average bullpen – think of last season how they had so many innings sopped up by guys with ERAs of 5.00+. Those Paul Clemens, Jose Cisnero, David Martinez, Jerome Williams outings are not occurring this time around.

    4. If you’d been told Hernandez would basically amount to an innings-eating, .500 pitcher in the fourth spot, you would have said (blank) when he was signed?
    “that is exactly what they need – especially with Peacock and Oberhotzer injured”.

    5. Where are the biggest logjams in the minors right now?
    – Middle infield is the biggest to me

    6. What players in AA and AAA should not be dangled as trade bait to clear some space?
    – Almost any pitcher. Anybody who can play 3rd base. Anybody who can play catcher.

    7. What players at AA and AAA should be dangled?
    – Both Matty D’s (Dominguez and Duffy), Grossman, Hoes, Presley, Darin Downs, Thomas Shirley????(not sure about the last one – though he is 26 y.o.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 1. My vote might be Lucas Harrell, Chuckie Fick, or Rhiner Cruz. Not because of the selection but JL willing to cut them when it turned out to not work. Or his willingness to let Myers and Valverde go. These moved created spots for the above to at least “try out.” The old management adage, “If you can’t cut it, you can’t stay.” JL offered long term contracts to MattyD, Grossman & Singleton (supposedly), but he moved all three to minors this year. He obviously is not playing favorites.


  4. How good would the Mets be right now if they’d kept McHugh?

    6. Correa is the only untouchable in my mind. Velasquez is borderline due to health.
    7. I would actively shop anyone eligible for Rule V this winter. This includes guys we currently have on the 40 like Santana and Feliz.

    Jumping back to yesterday, I would go HS with picks 1.2 and 1.5 if you can get the guys you want. I would not pick college guys thinking they are closer to contributing unless they are really the guys you want. The advantage to HS kids, right now, is the longer incubation period lines up with current roster guys getting expensive and/or leaving via FA…thus keeping the pipeline producing without having blockages at upper levels.


    • The other side of that is that you would be drafting 18 year olds with five seasons of minor league protection from the Rule V. So high school guys have to be protected by the time they are 23. College guys are usually 21 and they have four seasons of protection so you don’t have to add them to the 40-man until they are 25 years old or so. If you can draft a phenom in HS get him, because he will probably pay off by age 23. There is no clear HS phenom this year. I haven’t heard anyone talking about Rodgers’s abilities in comparison to a Trout or even a Correa and definitely not any HS pitchers!


    • Devin, I am like you being “split” on my thinking. I don’t want another Aiken but would be glad to get another Correa. We have a fairly immediate need for at least another starter or three. Feldman and Fausto will be gone. Would love to get a hot shot catcher, even if in HS. But want each of the 1st round picks this year to pan out to be at least “serviceable.”


      • My split is that HS players generally haven’t played very good competition. Most of the time their opponents have a problem throwing strikes and rarely face pitching over 70 MPH. You really have no idea who they are. Rodgers is going to be drafted high because he is a big kid with a good arm and a bat that makes solid contact. How will he handle 95 MPH on the corner is anyones guess though. We knew George Springer could because he faced some of that in college, and we got lucky that apparently Correa can.

        Even the pitchers that throw hard can be deceiving. Todd Van Poppel literally dominated competition in high school, but when you can throw 93 to 17 year olds you don’t even have to get it close to the zone to get them flailing pitifully at it. Once he got drafted, Oakland figured out the guys command was not professional level. I think if you can target college sophomores you will be probably be a lot better. The difference between High School and College is a chasm. The difference between college and A ball is a chasm also, but it’s not near as wide.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. 1. No doubter by Gattis. And McHugh is no doubt the best rule 5 guy. But I’ll say this for Marwin. He’s been a steady guy on a team that has lost a whole bunch of games over the past few years. That said, we’ve got some more athletic guys hanging around and others sniffing Houston. There might not be room for Marwin much longer.

    2. McHugh, if healthy, will continue to impress. He has good stuff. His pitches move all over the place when he’s on. Thankfully, he’s usually on.

    3. I’ve got to give Luhnow a lot of credit for this bullpen. And Strom has to have had an impact. Sipp, a lefty reliever, didn’t have a job a bit more than a year ago. He’s no fluke at this point. Without those guys, the pen might collapse. A good pen needs complimentary talent throughout. So far, we’ve got that. There is no guy we’re afraid to use.

    4. Hernandez? I had no expectations. I would have gladly taken .500 and 6 frames per start. I’m still not fully sold though. Let’s see what kind of stamina he has.

    5. Logjams? I think we have about 19 guys best suited to play second base. That’s why, in the back of my mind, I worry that Luhnow might pull the trigger on a deal one day that will include the face of our franchise today.

    6. There are really very few untouchables in the minor league system for me right now. I think Tyler White is going to be a very good ML hitter. Do you insist on keeping a guy that likely projects as a DH? For now I do. I’d like to see what Velasquez does when healthy for a full year. I like Santana, but he still strikes out too much. Maybe they should see what he can do with a first baseman’s glove. He’s almost big like Frank Thomas when he was young. I do fear that he’ll hit 40 a year at some point somewhere in the majors. I keep Kemp in case Luhnow lets Altuve go! But as far as trading minor league talent, It all depends on what we might get in return. I’m open, maybe excepting starting pitching.

    7. Dangle anyone I did not mention. And really dangle Sclafani. I want to see him go play and have fun. One thought though. When Correa comes up, do Sclafani and Fontana become the everyday double play combination in Fresno?


  6. 2. I think McHugh has the best chance to impress because he is a starter, he is young, he is inexpensive and will be for a couple more years, and he is absolutely Luhnow’s poster boy, and rightfully so.
    3. The bullpen is one of the league’s best and it is rested flying into Detroit. Without Harris, Sipp and Fields they probably wouldn’t have been near as good nor near as rested.
    5. I was leery of Roberto as a #5 starter, let alone a decent #4. I expected the grounders and the fight but, as out of shape as he was in camp, I didn’t expect the innings.
    6.What players in high minors should not be dangled this season. Correa, Moran, Kemp, Phillips, Velasquez, Reed, Mengden, Singleton, Kemp, and Musgrove. Those players protect the best team in the AL in case of injury this year and also guarantee more players for championship runs in the next three years.


  7. Sorry to change gears, but I wanted to ask a question for our Chipalatta bloggers. Tell me which player you would rather have.

    Player A: .243 avg, .308 OBP, .534 Slg, 8 HRs, 17 RBIs
    Player B: .269 avg., .352 OBP, .428 Slg, 4 HRs, 11 RBIs

    You may be able to figure out where I am going with this, but I will reveal the 2 players later for those that can’t.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Most everyone, myself included, felt, essentially, giving up Fowler for Rasmus didn’t make sense. However, Rasmus has willingly played all 3 OF positions and, so far, has an .842 OPS. I think we are starting to see why Luhnow put more of an emphasis on the slugging part instead of the OBP part. Basically, going 4-20 with 2 HRs is better than 6-20 with no HRs.


      • Is it better? What if the hitter scored six runs off those six hits v. two runs from the four hits?

        Rasmus has been very good for us. It was a good signing. I love what he brings to the team with defense and professionalism. The only thing I’ll knock on Fowler, however, is his injury history. The defense can be inconsistent too, but I think he is better than most say.


      • Devin,

        There is no guarantees you will score 6 runs with those 6 hits, but you are guaranteed to score 2 runs and, at the very least, have 2 RBIs with the 2 HRs. In the long run the 2 HRs for every 4-20 sequence will provide better results than 0 HRs for every 6-20 sequence.


      • If you can guarantee 2HR per 20 AB then I can guarantee 6 runs per 6 hits in our fictional scenario. In the long run you might be right, but we can’t know without the context of what happens in the 8 non-HR hits.


      • Devin,

        When you put an emphasis on power you are going to get HRs. The proof is in the pudding so far. My point is that Luhnow’s plan to,emphasize slugging over OBP is proving to produce better results.

        You can try to guarantee 6 runs, but you can’t do it. In my scenario what is guaranteed is, at the very least, 2 runs scored and 2 RBIs with the 2 HRs. You know that will happen. You don’t know what will happen with 6 hits with 0 HRs.


      • I think you have to have a mixture of the two. You can’t have a bunch of guys with power but limited contact, average, or OBP. You also can’t have a bunch of guys that hit nothing but singles. I think you need both player A and player B doing what their strengths do.

        In the end you can’t prove that player A has produced more runs. You left out runs scored, and being on base for others is a way of producing runs. The 6 RBI difference could simply come from opportunity given OBP of the guys above them as well as where they bat in the lineup.


      • We also have to remember that baseball is a marathon, not a 40 game sprint. The periphreals are suggesting that Rasmus is going south. His K rate is actually higher than last year, and last years was awful. He is swinging more of the zone now than he ever has. He is relying almost solely on finding mistake pitches and capitalizing, and hitters that live that way usually die that way also.


      • Steven,

        If you follow or understand statistics, such as the college course I took many years ago, then you will understand, over a long season, that 4-20 with 2 HRs will prove to be better than 6-20 with no HRs. The numbers will bear it out.


      • I am just talking in general terms about Luhnow putting an emphasis on power over OBP and how this can produce better results.


  8. Am I the only guy around who is upset that the A’s are playing so poorly that the teams in the AL East won’t get a shot at a wild card spot? The league really needs to look into this.


  9. Another day – another win – Keuchel gives up a run, but of course it was not earned. Can a guy who barely throws in the low 90’s and looks like the white version of James Harden win the Cy Young?


    • If he keeps baffling hitters like he did today. Pounding the zone, changing location. Keuchel is proof that pitching and throwing are two different things.


  10. I guess I should stop complaining about Villar………the A’s short stop has had *17*
    errors so far this year, including the one today. They’ve hired Ron Washington to work with the kid. Seems like they could just call around, and get another one……it would be cheaper!!
    Love, love, love McHugh!! Easy the BEST pickup last year.
    Sipp and Harris have been solid as well. But McHugh has been lights out!
    Man……I don’t know who I would be ok with in a trade, except Correa…..and he is REALLY untouchable. I gotta agree with daveb, I think Sclafini in a package would get a pretty good pitcher in return. And no…….we don’t want Kyle Lohse. thank you very much.


    • Becky, Marcus Semien only has 16 errors for the A’s – heck he is only on pace for 63 errors this year!!!!
      Maybe the A’;s will trade for Villar when Correa is up and Lowrie is back….


      • Well if they got in a time machine they could do that before they traded him to the Cubs (with Dan Straily by the way)….


      • I don’t understand what Oakland did. They made terrible moves and now they are terrible. They remind me of the Astros teams of the last four years.


      • Maybe someone put a virus in Beane’s computers. The earlier series the A’s OF could not catch a fly ball. This one, the infield was terrible. And they actually got two runs on cracked bat hits.


  11. Interesting how BA appears to be unimportant in fielding a team today. LAA today played 4 guys hitting below .200 (Iannetta is on the bench with .173). Seattle (5 below .200), Texas (2), A’s only 1, and the Astros (3). Maybe no team worries about BA. So perhaps MLB is going to lower the mound to ground level or move the rubber to 70 feet 6 inches from home plate.


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