While perusing the vast expanse that is the information superhighway (there’s a term you don’t hear anymore), I spotted two articles about baseball that will impact the Astros. One, I loved. Another made me want to cry.
Can we stop with the rumors, please?
Chipalatta welcomes back one of its original contributors. Would you say a renewed hello and Happy New Year to Brian Todd and enjoy his thoughts on the state of Astros’ pitching?
No more Dallas Keuchel. Charlie Freakin’ Morton signed by the Rays. And Lance McCullers Jr. on the shelf with an injury. Three of last year’s starters are gone and Jeff Luhnow hasn’t signed a replacement. What are we to do?
So, I was reliving some glory from 2015 over the last few days, watching snippets from games. And I watched some of the post-game interviews after Mike Fiers‘ no-hitter.
You remember that, right? Aug. 21, Fiers walks a lone batter in each of the first three innings, then just takes over, leaving the Dodgers scratching their heads and wondering what the heck happened.
After the game, one of the reporters at the press conference asked A.J. Hinch if having a guy like Fiers throw a no-no was “improbable.”
Hinch, who is quickly becoming my favorite Astros manager ever, shot down that theory immediately. Maybe that’s just a manager having his player’s back (are you listening, Bo Porter?), but I think it’s a little more.
In fact, after that no-hitter, Fiers had six more starts in the regular season for Houston. Four of those six were quality starts. The other two: he pitched 5 innings, giving up 4 runs, the other he went 5.2 IP giving up 4 runs (3 ER). So it’s not like he wasn’t giving the team a bit of a chance to win. His record in these six outings, 1-1 with four no-decisions.
Looking back, Fiers seemingly figured it out in 2014 with a 2.13 ERA in 71 innings, Fiers regressed some in 2015 with a combined (Houston and Milwaukee) ERA of 3.69. But, as we all know, ERA is not the most reliable stat.
But I think there are a couple of things that will work in Fiers’ favor in 2016. First, his FIP tends to be a bit higher than his ERA. That means good fielding benefits Fiers more than other pitchers. This was especially true once he got to Houston.
Well, the Astros have an excellent defense. Gold Glove at second base. Former Gold Glover in center field. Fantastic fielders at all three outfield positions really. Plus Correa and Valbuena in the infield.
Listening to the post-game interviews from several of his games, it seems Hinch and Brett Strom are trying to develop a plan for Fiers that plays to his strengths much like what they did for Collin McHugh. In an interview with MLB Network, he mentioned how Strom had a game plan for him that differed from what he did with the Brewers.
In the end, this is a guy with 404 IP in the majors who owns a 3.61 ERA. His lifetime FIP is 3.73 and he brings a WHIP of 1.21. All this from a guy who will be fourth or fifth in the Astros rotation.
It’s this quality of depth — a guy who is probably third-best or even competing for that No. 2 spot in the rotation on some teams — that makes a guy like Fiers so important to Houston.
A Tale of Two Bellies
Not bellies, really, but weight.
So there were a couple of stories at Astros.com about first basemen reporting to camp, and how much each weighed. Take what you want from these reports.
The first was a story about everyone’s favorite million-dollar minor leaguer, Smokey Jon Singleton. Despite the fact he claimed to have chilled all winter, apparently Singleton spent the winter puffing — I mean pumping — up in the weight room.
I wasn’t aware that a lack of muscle was his big issue, but maybe some added strength will help with his bat speed or something? I’m not a biomechanical specialist. But if bulking up was his answer, then adding 15 pounds of muscle was the right choice.
I guess …
The second story concerned everyone’s favorite minor league player of the year, A.J. Reed. The formerly flabby first baseman showed up to camp in the best shape of his life. Well, certainly the best shape of his professional life.
Apparently — according to the article — he spent the winter working out and taking ground balls. OK, so on the surface that doesn’t seem too dissimilar to what Singleton did. After all, if Big Jon just took some ground balls now and then — and I’m willing to give him the benefit of that doubt — then it sounds pretty identical to what Reed did.
But then why do these two stories sound so dissimilar? The Singleton story seems like an apology about the guy who ate a whole cake in one sitting. The Reed story reads like something from Shape magazine.
I’m looking forward to watching some spring games just to see the difference in their physiques.
I won’t even discuss how one is a whiff machine while the other has all the power but also seems to have great bat-to-ball skills. Something that, you know, is probably enhanced more by being in shape than being bulky.
Of course, round is a shape. But there’s a reason I’m not a major leaguer.
I look at Fiers and see an unsung hero who might really be a key piece as the season goes along. Any other unsung heroes you looking at? Marwin Gonzalez? Will Harris? Tony Sipp? Jake Marisnick?
As the players trickle into camp, we’ll get some of these stories from Chron (spit!), MLB.com and even (this is the crazy part) the national media. What stories are you on the lookout for?
So, right now we’re all looking over the National League, trying to figure out who the Astros will play in the World Series and checking Trip Advisor to get an early look at hotel prices in San Francisco, New York and Chicago (just kidding) for late October.
Yeah, the times they are a changin’.
I remember last year saying the Astros would win 81-85 games, finish third in the division and miss the playoffs but give it a good run. Obviously, my predictions will aim a little higher in 2016.
So, what were we looking at this time last year … and the year before that?
Well, as we wait for breathless reports of pitchers and catchers unpacking their toiletries in their lockers, high fiving old teammates and making reservations at a steakhouse before hitting the field to stretch tomorrow, here’s a look back.
Feb. 18, 2015. Chip wrote a rather prescient piece on the depth of our minor leagues at each position.
* His top first baseman? A guy named A.J. Reed that most of us knew only as the Golden Spikes winner who could also pitch.
* Preston Tucker was the fourth-best outfielder. Two of the ones higher on the list are now with the Brewers. The best guys on this list are now younger — Kyle Tucker and Daz Cameron — but I’m pretty sure we all miss Brett Phillips.
- Even with the graduation of Carlos Correa, Nolan Fontana is still the second-best shortstop in the Astros’ minor league system.
- The list of pitchers has been decimated. So long Mark Appel and Vincent Velasquez. That said, with the emergence of Joe Musgrove and Frances Martes … plus the return of Michael Feliz, do we miss them that much?
The whole article has nary a mention of Tyler White or Matt Duffy. Or Chris Devenski for that matter.
Of course looking over the article from 2015 doesn’t seem all that out of place. A few names have changed, but we’re talking about many of the same guys. Preston Tucker, Lance McCullers and Carlos Correa are still hot topics. Many of the same minor leaguers would make a similar list this year.
A few days later, Chip again gave us a post about decisions facing Jeff Luhnow. First base was on the agenda, with Chip suggesting the ball was in John Singleton’s court.
Starter options looked like Roberto Hernandez, Dan Straily, Brad Peacock and Sam Deduno.
But looking back to Feb. 18, 2014, we have an interesting look at Carlos Correa coming out of his low A season at Quad Cities and how a big spring in 2014 just might catapult him past Jonathan Villar in 2015.
Interesting, yes. But for my money, I’ll go back an extra day to Dan’s tragic look at how a revamped bullpen can catapult a team to respectability.
Tragic? Well, the point he makes about the 2011 Diamondbacks bullpen (an improved unit from the 2010 version) and the 2008 Rays bullpen (vs. the bad version in 2007) and how those pens changed the complexion of their teams is spot on.
He then goes on to write about how Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain (yikes!) will alter the landscape of the Astros’ fortunes. This was so bad, Crain was seen as the closer, and he never pitched again in the majors after that article was written. He did pitch in the AFL for the White Sox last year, but his Baseball Reference page still shows him in an Astros cap.
Like I said. Yikes.
Go a day later on Feb. 19, 2014, and you have a cringe-worthy piece by Chip (believe me, my “What The Heck Was He Thinking” stories are littered across the landscape a couple of years ago) that takes a look at potential diamonds in the rough.
Peter Moylan — the Aussie with the down-under motion — is now providing pitching depth in the Royals’ system. He actually logged 10.1 decent IP for Atlanta last year.
The other gem in hiding was Alex White, who looks to be out of baseball.
The point here isn’t to pick on Chip — or Alex White or Peter Moylan — but to look at how far we’ve come.
Today, our diamonds in the rough story would be about which excellent first base prospect we send out to the pillow at Yankees (spit!) Stadium on opening day. Our biggest worry in the rotation is which major leaguer with a proven track record will start the season in the Astros bullpen. Our biggest concern in the outfield is whether Preston Tucker — a guy with an OPS above .730 — will make the squad.
Rejoice Astros fans.
So, what did you worry about in 2014 or 2013 (or even this time last year) that doesn’t concern you anymore?
What do you think will be less worrisome in 2017? Is there anything that will keep you up nights this time next year? Contract extensions? How those World Series rings are messing with everyone’s grip on the bat?
So, we’re about three and a half weeks from Spring Training games. Welcome back to the Grapefruit League, folks! Well, in 24 days. But you get my point.
So, what will I be watching for this spring?
Honestly, this could be a boring spring in many ways. We don’t have six position battles and three rotation spots open. On the rotation side of things, the only question is which very solid, competent, experienced Major League starter will nail down the back-end of the rotation? Scott “When I’m Healthy, I’m Better Than Average And It’s A Free Agent Walk Year” Feldman, or Doug “Same Here” Fister?
I’m pretty sure we all know who’ll be manning the three outfield spots in the bottom of the first inning at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day. Barring any injuries (I’m looking at you, George Springer!) it’ll be Colby “Qualifying Offer” Rasmus, Carlos “Way Too Excited” Gomez and “Bounce Back” Springer.
Oh, sure, we’ll all be looking to see who that fourth – and possibly fifth – outfielder might be. And maybe – MAYBE – Fister edges past Mike “No-No” Fiers for the fourth spot, moving Fiers to the fifth spot.
So, what are we waiting to see this spring? Well, here are the nine most intriguing story lines for this spring in ascending order. So, without any further delay, let’s have a look at what might keep your attention during the Grapefruit League games:
9. Signs of change
Looking at the players who impacted – negatively – the Astros’ offense the most, the ones coming back who might be up for a bounce back season, or at least an improvement over 2015, are Luis Valbuena and Evan Gattis. Both showed a lot of power (25 HRs and a .438 SLG for Valbuena, 27 HR and a .463 SLG for Gattis) but both also couldn’t get on base decently (.310 OBP and .285 respectively). Awful BABIPs were the main concern, though neither was bad at BABIP too far beyond their norms. Still, an upswing in BABIP this spring might be a good sign.
8. Backup catcher
Once Jason Castro is signed for $5 million (he’s not worth the extra $250,000), the focus will move toward his back up. Max Stassi or Tyler Heineman are the obvious choices, but watch to see if Gattis puts on the old backstop equipment this spring.
7. Upsetting the apple cart
The late cuts could lead to some roster crunches. In 2014 Spring Training, the Astros cut J.D. Martinez and added Alex Presley. Or maybe a Chris Devenski, Michael Feliz or Joe Musgrove puts up numbers that push for a roster spot. In that case, maybe some other team is willing to pick up a healthy Scott Feldman. Maybe (Lord forbid) Altuve strains a muscle or two and needs a few weeks R&R. You never know when a trade or an injury will upset the whole equation.
6. The bench
Let’s see: Nine offensive starters, five in the rotation, seven guys in the bullpen. That’s 21 players. You need that backup catcher, so if it’s not Gattis, there’s a spot. That leaves three places. Marwin Gonzalez is one. Jake Marisnick is one. Who gets that last spot?
5. That last bullpen spot
Is the bullpen set? You’ve got Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Tony Sipp, Will Harris and a long reliever (Scott Feldman?). Who gets that seventh spot? Is it Josh Fields? Michael Feliz? Someone from AA or AAA?
4. Any kids pushing for a roster spot
Which brings me to the kids. Are either Musgrove or Feliz pushing for a roster spot? Feliz is already on the 40-man roster, so moving him to Houston is not a huge burden. Bringing up A.J. Reed before Super Two (and giving Singleton that chance to fail) seems more unlikely. But if he crushes it in the Grapefruit League, the clamoring will only intensify.
3. The final rotation spot
Fiers, Fister or Feldman? Or Feliz? Still, whoever brings up the last spot is important. They need to be healthy, effective – especially against another team’s No. 5 – and an innings eater.
2. Third base
This spot is essentially Luis Valbuena’s to lose. That said, Colin Moran, Tyler White and Matt Duffy will all make their case. Oh, and don’t forget J.D Davis.
1. First base
Speaking of Duffy, White and the aforementioned J.R. Reed will all be vying to unseat pseudo-incumbent John Singleton. There are 40-man and Super Two considerations to, well, consider. But do you care? I will be watching for any sign of weakness from Singleton.
So, what will pique your interest this spring?
So, as readers here are aware, the Astros exchanged arbitration numbers with catcher Jason Castro recently. Castro and his agent, Relativity Baseball, have asked for $5,250,000. The Astros countered with an even $5 million.
In the grand scheme of baseball salaries, a lousy quarter million dollars is chump change. And in the end, it doesn’t matter. This is arbitration. If the two sides cannot decide on an amount, Castro will either play for $5 million or $5.25 million.
But when it comes to 2017, Castro’s first year in free agency, the fact that Luhnow is drawing such a strict line means Castro is probably on his way out, especially if he has a middling year like he did in 2015.
Defensively, Castro’s 1.2 dWAR. Not bad, but how did he compare to other catchers? Well, in the AL, his Rdrs/yr (defensive runs saved averaged over 1,200 innings or roughly 135 games) was 15, which ranked third in the AL among catchers who caught at least half of their team’s games. His RF/G (range factor/game) was fifth best among those catching half their games. And he caught a decent 36 percent of runners trying to steal.
The problem for Castro is that he did all this while putting up a .211/.283/.365 slash line with just 11 HRs and a K-rate at about 34 percent.
Good defense. Not great, but pretty good. But lousy offense.
Meanwhile, in small sample sizes, Max Stassi’s defensive numbers were way better than Castro’s numbers. And, honestly, can his offense be any worse?
Well, maybe. His slash line — in Fresno — was .211/.279/.384 with 13 HRs and a 32 percent K-rate.
The “other” two catchers at AAA in 2015 were Luis Flores and Trent Woodward. Flores seems like a place holder. Woodward, meanwhile, across four levels — he skipped Lancaster — .284/.361/.345 with just one homer but a K-rate below 25 percent. He certainly won’t be ready in 2016, but 2017 might be another matter.
Of course, there’s one other AA and AAA catcher we all need to look at, and that’s Tyler Heineman. Heineman put up a .285/.334/.379 slash with just three homers and a — get this! — a 7.6 percent K-rate.
No power, but good plate discipline. (Though his walk rate isn’t exceptional.)
And that’s it in the high minors. Roberto Pena had a .572 OPS in Corpus.
1. So Luhnow is definitely sending a message with that $250,000, but what are his options? Max Stassi? Tyler Heineman?
2. How much are we all regretting sending Jacob Nottingham to Oakland?
3. Is Luhnow making a mistake? Should Houston maybe try to lock up Castro for three or four years since there isn’t a huge prospect ready and waiting?