2017 Rule 5 may be a ho-hummer for the Astros

Major League Baseball will hold its annual Rule 5 draft this Thursday and unlike other years this one may be a ho-ho-hummer for the Houston Astros. Without getting too detailed here – the Rule 5 draft allows a minor league player to be picked by another major league club, if they have spent either four or five years in the minors, depending on their age when they were drafted. The kicker is that the drafting club has to keep the player drafted on the 25 man major league roster for the full season or offer them back to the original club at half the $50,000 they paid for the player’s rights.

A number of famous players have found a new club and success through the Rule 5 including Josh Hamilton and Astros’ farmhand Johan Santana, who was drafted by the Marlins and then immediately traded to the Twins, where he had great success (after minimal impact in his first “required” year in the back of the Twins’ bullpen). More recently the Astros lost Delino Deshields Jr. to the Rangers in the Rule 5 and in Jeff Luhnow’s first action in his new job, he traded for Marwin Gonzalez, who the Red Sox had drafted from the Cubs for him.

The important thing for the big club is that any players they want to protect that are eligible for the Rule 5, must be on the 40 man roster ahead of the draft. Three weeks ago, the Astros put two of their eligible pitchers, Dean Deetz and Cuban Cionel Perez on the 40 man and traded OF Ramon Laureano (who was eligible) to the A’s. There are 18 Astros farmhands in AA or above, who are eligible for the draft, including OF Jon Kemmer and pitchers, Akeem Bostick, Kent Emmanuel, Mike Hauschild, Brendan McCurry and Cy Sneed.  It will be interesting to see if anyone goes after one or more (up to three) of the Astro eligible, especially since many of them were not that good last season or may be getting too old to be considered top prospects.

Out in the world here are some of the top Rule 5 players eligible:

  • Mark Appel. RHP. Yes that Mark Appel. Just like with the Astros, he never put it together with the Phillies farm teams.
  • Kohl Stewart. RHP. Fourth overall draft choice in 2013, has been good when healthy, but has not been healthy enough to get above AA
  • Burch Smith. RHP. Missed two seasons after TJ surgery, but showed some flashes at AAA and in the AFL  in 2017
  • Mason McCullough. RHP. A Matt Albers type body with a big sinking fastball and a penchant for walking a lot of batters
  • Cale Coshow. RHP. A 100 mph guy who may be a bit  blocked in the Yankees system
  • Victor Reyes. OF. High batting average, high-speed, no power guy
  • Nick Ciuffo. C. Likely future backup catcher in the majors

It is hard to see where the Astros really have any room for a Rule 5 guy on the 25 man roster for a whole season. Usually these players are available for a reason and the Astros are in the middle of a win it all window.

It is much more likely that the Astros lose a player than pick a player on Thursday.

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Houston Astros: The challenges of winning again

In reply to the recent “Writer’s Blog” post, good friend of the blog, Old Pro proposed that we write about “How winning a ring might change the Astros as an organization, as a team and individually. Why is it so hard to win another one?”

The last time a team actually repeated as champion was the Yankees who threw up a trifecta of World Series Championships between 1998 and 2000. In the 20 year period from 1998 to 2017 a number of teams have won more than one championship, but the Yankees are the only team to repeat the year after winning one. The Yanks along with winning 1998-2000 also won in 2009. The Red Sox broke the curse in 2004 and won again in 2007 and 2013. The Giants did a little skiptomylou by winning in 2010, 2012 and 2014, while not even making the playoffs in 2011 or 2013. The Cardinals doubled up in 2006 and 2011.

So, it is not impossible to repeat, but fairly rare. It is not too rare for a team to win more than once in the same window. But we will take the bait. Why is it so hard to repeat and what challenges do the Astros face in chasing a second WS crown?

  1. It is hard to do anything that 29 other entities are trying to beat you at. It took the Astros 56 seasons to win one. The Rangers are still chasing a title entering their 58th season. The Indians have not won since John Wayne was driving cattle in a 1948 classic Red River. The Cubs had a 108 year drought; the Red Sox went a mere 86 years without one. It is hard to do once, which makes it really hard to do twice.
  2. Less rest. OK, the Astros get the same rest as the Dodgers and a little less than the other playoff teams, but the teams in their own division get 4 more weeks of rest and that can be big.
  3. The Hunger. The 2017 Astros were hungry, were driven, and played like it. Now, the 2018 Astros may be more relaxed and more confident the second time around, but they will never be as desperate to win as they were in bringing the first WS title to a city that was both thirsty for a title and drowning in the grips of a flood.
  4. The Luck. From micro-watching the playoffs, it is easy to see so many times when the Astros were lucky at the right time. Whether it was scoring the game winner when a simple pitch and catch could have gunned down the winning run or watching balls barely bounce off an opponent’s glove for a critical double or having the opponent whack line drives right at our fielders at a crucial time in the game, there were a lot of times when one play made the difference in winning or losing. The team was excellent, but so were their opponents and sometimes it was the luck that never smiled on them for 55 previous seasons that shone through.
  5. The Rebound. We saw what happened to Dallas Keuchel in 2016 after winning the Cy Young in 2015. He admitted that he did not prepare enough in the off-season, that there was too much wining and dining and schmoozing. After weeks of the guys going to awards shows, going to the late night shows, being wined and dined and schmoozed will they rebound in time for next season?
  6. Too much respect. We’ve seen it in many places, especially with coaches and GMs. They win that first title and they are “made” men. It is like getting tenure. They get a free ride for a number of seasons no matter what poor decisions and poor moves they make.
  7. $$. Sometimes winning the championship makes player’s minds to wander about the money. It is obvious that in their run to the first championship, Jose Altuve did not let the fact that he is grossly underpaid affect the way he performed. But at some time, if thoughts go to ME rather than TEAM, things can unravel.
  8. Worrying too much about the window closing. Big example is the Rockets after winning their second championship. They got tied up too much in worrying about making the BIG moves to get a third or more championship and went and grabbed over the hill Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen. This did not make them a better team and in their case made them older and helped the window to close faster rather than bring in another quick championship.

So those are just some thoughts about the challenges facing the Astros. The plus side is that the core of the team is quite young and controlled for a while. But they do have some parts that might start slowing down – like Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Justin Verlander, etc. I think the Astros will win it again soon, but maybe not in 2018.

Astros 2017 recap: The Top 10 games of the year

There are many tasks in the blogging year that are real chores. Picking out the top ten games of a year that ended in the Houston Astros’ first World Series title was more a labor of love. There can be a lot of different opinions about this list, and that is the point. This is one person’s shot at this and it won’t hurt this writer’s feelings if y’all head off in different directions.

#10. Astros 8, Rangers 7. May 2 Minute Maid Park.

For two seasons the Rangers had the Astros number. Their record in 2015 against Houston was 13-6 and that felt so good they upped it to 15-4 in 2016. If the Astros had just split with the Rangers, say, going 9-10 in 2015 and 10-9 in 2016 they would have won the division both seasons. Instead, they were a Wild Card in 2015 and were left outside looking in, in 2016. Taking care of the Rangers was a psychological barrier the Astros needed to put behind them if they wanted to have a special season in 2017. The Astros first series with the Rangers started well as they rallied for five runs in the 7th to beat the Rangers 6-2 on the first day of May. The second game looked a whole lot like many of the games the previous two seasons. The Rangers were taking batting practice against Mike Fiers early, turning four home runs into a 5-0 lead in the fourth inning. The last couple of years this could easily have resulted in a 11-2 rout.

But not this time. Jose Altuve‘s two-run homer started the comeback in the bottom of the fourth and Marwin Gonzalez‘s right handed solo shot narrowed the score to 5-3 in the 5th inning. The Astros bats then went quiet until they loaded the bases in the eighth inning. Marwin came up left-handed with two outs and his grand salami just inside the RF fowl pole became one of the defining moments of the season shoving the Astros ahead 7-5. George Springer added an RBI single a few hitters later and the Astros took an 8-5 lead to the ninth inning. Luke Gregerson gave up a walk followed by a two-run homer to Nomar Mazara to raise the angst level. Will Harris walked the tight rope for a save, stranding the tying run at 3rd. This game was a clear signal that 2017 was a different year for the Astros and their enemies to the north.

May 4 blog: Nothing is too late.

#9. Astros 16, Twins 8. May 29 Target Field.

The Astros made this particular Memorial Day extremely memorable with a rally for the ages. Brad Peacock had pitched scoreless ball for 4 innings and then ran aground leaving the game trailing 3-2 and watched as Jordan Jankowski turned that into a 7-2 deficit in the matter of a few hitters. By the time Ervin Santana finished the seventh inning with an 8-2 lead, the Astros had a win probability of 1%. Two outs into the 8th inning the Astros had closed that lead to 8-6 but still only had a 14% chance of winning the game. After a walk, a balk and four hits including a three-run homer by Carlos Beltran the Astros were winning 13-8 and had upped their chances of winning to 98%. The Astros had sent 14 men to the plate in the eighth inning and turned two walks, a hit by pitch and eight hits (and only one HR) into 11 runs. The additional three runs they scored in the ninth further deflated the Twins, who had to wonder why AL Manager of the Year Paul Molitor could not stop the bleeding after removing Santana.

This was the game that put the Astros in a special category – a team that made no lead impossible to overcome no matter how late in the game.

May 28 blog: Yes, the Astros are that good.

#8. Doubleheader Astros 12, Mets 8. Astros 4, Mets 1. September 2  Minute Maid Park.

After not adding any help at the July 31 trade deadline, the Astros had wobbled through an uneven 11-17 August. Towards the end of the month Hurricane Harvey hit and the kindly Texas Rangers were so understanding they made the Astros play three games in Tampa as home games. And then two unexpected things occurred. First, the Astros pulled off a trade out of nowhere for Justin Verlander at the second trade deadline on August 31. Second, the Astros decided to go back to Houston and play a series with the Mets even though much of the town was underwater and evacuees were filling the George Brown Convention Center a few blocks from Minute Maid.

There were some who complained about doing this in the middle of the mess, but the instinct that the city and the team needed something to deflect the mind from the mess won out. The team went out and rolled over the Mets twice including starting pitcher Matt “Harvey” in the first game and this was part of an eventual seven-game winning streak and a 20-8 record in September. Though Justin Verlander did not pitch in either of these games, the psychological lift of trading for him was evident and the team went out and won not only this doubleheader, but the whole enchilada for their beloved city.

Sept 1 blog: Jeff Luhnow’s finest hour.

Sept 3 blog: The Verlander boost.

#7. Game 2 of the ALCS. Astros 2, Yankees 1. October 14 Minute Maid Park.

This was the kind of game that the Astros’ fans were picturing when the Astros made the improbable trade for Justin Verlander at the last second (or was it two) before the Aug. 31 deadline. Verlander gritted his teeth and threw nine innings of five hit, one run ball with the only blemish being a ground rule run scoring double by 3B Todd Frazier in the 5th inning that wiped out the 1-0 lead that Carlos Correa‘s fourth inning blast had provided.

But Verlander’s 124 pitch effort left the Astros tied headed into the bottom of the 9th and with Aroldis Chapman coming in to shut down the Astros. Well, Chapman is still looking for the 2nd and 3rd outs of that inning as Jose Altuve hit a one out single and then scored on a double by Correa, that the Yankees did not (by these eyes) smoothly relay to the plate. When Gary Sanchez treated the ball like a goalie treats a puck, Jose scored to put the Astros up 2-0 in the series.

Oct 13 blog: Astros must live in the present.

Oct 15 blog: The plan and the destination.

#6. Game 6 of the ALCS. Astros 7, Yankees 1. October 20 Minute Maid Park.

The team was reeling. The fans were reeling. But after losing 3 in a row in New York including choking away the fourth game with a four-run Ken Giles blow-up in the ninth, Verlander was not reeling. He was dealing. He threw seven shutout innings of five-hit ball, while the Astros gave him three 5th inning runs on a ground rule double by Brian McCann and a two run, two out single by Jose Altuve.

Brad Peacock gave the Yanks some hope with an Aaron Judge moonshot in the top of the 8th, but a homer by Altuve, a two run double by Alex Bregman and a sac fly by Evan Gattis put the game away and set up the Game 7 matchup for a trip to the World Series.

Oct 19 blog: It ain’t over until C.C. Sabathia sings

#5. Game 4 of the ALDS. Astros 5, Red Sox 4. October 9 Fenway Park.

This was the beginning of the Astros late inning playoff madness. games 1 and 2 of the ALDS were matching 8-2 poundings of the Sox by the Astros, while Game 3 featured the Red Sox making a series of it with a 10-3 shellacking of the good guys. Game 4 was important, so important that both teams brought back their Game 1 starters, Chris Sale and Justin Verlander in relief in this game. Heading into the 5th inning, Astros starter Charlie Morton had pulled a Houdini by only allowing a run on a 1st inning solo homer by Xander Bogaerts that tied the game at 1-1. He somehow had escaped a bases loaded no out jam in the second and in the third gave up no runs despite allowing a single, double and single. In the third he was helped out by a line drive double play and by Marwin Gonzalez gunning down a runner at the plate. After he walked the second hitter in the 5th, A.J. Hinch had seen enough and brought in Verlander to protect the 2-1 lead. Verlander in his first relief appearance in his major league career, immediately gave up a lead shifting HR to Andrew Benintendi, but then settled down for the next 2.2 innings. The Astros rallied against one of the best regular season pitchers, Chris Sale and one of the best relievers in Craig Kimbrel.  Alex Bregman repeated the blast he hit in game one against Sale as he tied the game 3-3 in the eighth. Josh Reddick then had a clutch two-out RBI single against Kimbrel to put the team ahead and grizzled vet Carlos Beltran whacked a run scoring double in the 9th to give the Astros a 5-3 lead. They needed it as Rafael Devers hit a Springer assisted inside the park home run against Giles who then put them in the ALCS with 3 final outs at Fenway.

Oct 7 blog: Astros’ foot on the throat time.

Oct 9 blog: It’s April again in Houston. All about the lore.

#4. Game 7 of the ALCS. Astros 4, Yankees 0. October 21 Minute Maid Park

This may always be known as the tandem pitching game. As much as the Astros’ fandom has hated tandem pitching, it was worked to perfection here as Charlie Morton threw five beautiful two hit shut out innings for the win and was capped by four equally beautiful one hit shut out innings by Lance McCullers Jr. for the save. The only drama came in the top of the 5th when Alex Bregman gunned down Greg Bird at the plate to preserve a 1-0 lead at the time.

Evan Gattis got the ball rolling for the Astros with a solo homer leading off the fourth. Manager Joe Girardi looked smart as he replaced C.C. Sabathia with Tommy Kahnle with one out and two on later in the fourth as Kahnle coaxed an inning ending DP from George Springer. Girardi’s IQ dropped in the fifth as Kahnle gave up a solo shot to Jose Altuve and a two-run double to Brian McCann to give the Astros their final margin of 4-0. On to the World Series!

Oct 21 blog: Sports Illustrated prediction is on the line.

Oct 21 blog: Holy Toledo! Astros win! Astros win!

#3. Game 2 of the World Series. Astros 7, Dodgers 6 (11 Innings). October 25 Dodger Stadium.

This was the game that allowed us all to think that the Astros could win the World Series, but heading into the 8th inning it did not look too winnable. Dallas Keuchel had pitched well in game one and lost 3-1. Justin Verlander had pitched even better in game 2, but had allowed three runs on just two hits (both home runs) and the Astros were down 3-1 which had been a death sentence against the Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen prior to this series. Correa drives in Bregman with a single in the eighth to draw the team within one and then Marwin Gonzalez mired in a terrible slump in the playoffs (6/42 for a .142 BA) hit the improbable tying HR in the top of the 9th.

Altuve and Correa hit home runs off former Astro Josh Fields to lead off the tenth, but Ken Giles burped up the 2 run lead in the bottom of the inning. George Springer knocked out the eventual game winning two-run homer in the top of the eleventh, but not without some drama in the bottom of the inning as Chris Devenski got two liners for outs followed by a homer and a game ending K. This would be one of the greatest games in WS history, and the Astros first WS win ever, but was surpassed four days later….

Oct 25: Game 2 live blog.

Oct 26: Insanity: Greatest win in Astros’ history.

#2. Game 5 of the World Series. Astros 13, Dodgers 12 (10 Innings). October 29 Minute Maid Park.

It is fairly rare for a team to blow a three run lead in a game. In this game, the Dodgers blew a 4 run and a 3 run lead in consecutive innings and the Astros blew a three-run lead in the 9th inning. Dallas Keuchel struggled and put his team in a 4-0 hole. A run scoring double by Carlos Correa and a huge 3 run homer by Yuli Gurriel tied it up in the 4th. Collin McHugh walks two and then gives up a three-run homer to Cody Bellinger in the top of the 5th. In the bottom of the 5th, Clayton Kershaw gives up two walks, then gives way to Kenta Maeda, who then gives up a three-run bomb to Jose Altuve – 7-7. And they were just getting started half way through this 10 inning monster of a game.

Bellinger hits a run scoring triple in the seventh, but Springer ties it with a home run and Correa follows an Altuve RBI double with a two-run homer for an 11-8 lead. The Dodgers creep closer with a run off Brad Peacock in the eighth, but Brian McCann hits a homer off of a lefty for a 12-9 lead headed into the ninth. Chris Devenski gives up three runs including a Yasiel Puig home run to tie it in the ninth. But Alex Bregman’s liner to left along with Derek Fisher‘s pinch running speed bring home the walk off run in the 10th. Astros win one of the craziest and greatest games you will ever see.

Oct 29: Game 5 live blog.

Oct 30 blog: EPIC: There are no words!

#1. Game 7 of the World Series. Astros 5, Dodgers 1. November 1 Dodger Stadium.

This was not the most exciting or most compelling game of the season or even of this series. But it did not need to be. It was THE game. The game that finally pulled King Kong off the baseball backs of the city of Houston in the 56th season of major league baseball here.

World Series MVP George Springer started the game off with a double that led to two runs in the top of the first. His two run homer in the second capped a three run rally that put the team up 5-0. There might have been no drama in this game except for a couple of facts. Starter Lance McCullers Jr. only lasted 2.1 IP after hitting more Dodgers (4) than got hits off of him (3).  The second fact was that no lead seemed big enough in a series that boasted game after game of blown leads by each team’s pitchers. The Dodgers were held scoreless through five innings despite putting nine batters on base. They then broke through for a run against Charlie Morton in the sixth, but after leaving two runners on in that inning they were toast as Morton did not allow another runner the rest of the game. Champagne, hugs and marriage proposals ensued.

Nov 1 blog: Game 7 live blog.

I’ve added some links to take everyone back to what was going on around these critical times in the Astros’ finest season.

So…..Where do you stand on this list? Wrong 10? Wrong order? Or just right?

Chipalatta and the winter, off-season writer’s block

Sometimes it is just really hard to write about baseball. The season is over. The season has brought us all any of us could ask for from a Houston Astros’ season. All the whining and complaining we all did before and during the season and the playoffs seems pretty silly at this point. The team we waited for all our lives arrived and delivered Houston’s first World Series championship on the most glorious silver platter against the media darlings times three.

So what to write about? The two biggest baseball stories have to do with the eventual landing spots for Giancarlo Stanton and for Shohie Ohtani and right now that landing spot will not be in our little hamlet by the Gulf.

At some point I will finish a post about the top 10 games of the year for the Astros, but that one is a ways away from ready. I could write about relievers we could possibly sign or trade for, but it is boring me even writing about writing about it.

We already hit on the top 30 prospects and already talked about possible holes in the team. We mulled on one of the biggest holes in the 2017 Astros’ armor… designated hitter. We threw out 10 random questions for all to chew on or to savor.

Last off-season we were in an interesting transition as Jeff Luhnow put a brake on the youth movement and one by one brought in the veterans who helped the young guys bring home the trophy.

This off-season we are not out trying to buy a brand new ring, but just getting the beautiful ring we own buffed up. Not nearly as intriguing, but potentially interesting. But it will be more interesting as we actually see who is brought in and how they get here.

The off-season stretches out ahead of us for a couple months until the Boys of Summer return to spring training in Florida…..

So, what types of articles would you like us to cover in this off-season? Can’t promise to hit them all, but it would sure help to have some input from our loyal readers.

Your turn – what are you starving for from your favorite bloggists?

Is there a real designated hitter in the Astros’ future?

Although it feels like the torture has been going on longer, the Astros have only been in search of a full time designated hitter for five seasons since joining the Junior Circuit in 2013. Here is what the Astros cumulative DHs have done in those five seasons.

Year Runs scored HRs RBIs BA OBP OPS
2013 52 16 59 .199 .276 .615
2014 76 38 92 .246 .317 .817
2015 72 27 92 .244 .291 .743
2016 62 19 62 .223 .304 .696
2017 77 19 71 .226 .284 .671

Those are mostly yucky numbers when you consider that this is the guy who is supposed to be totally concentrating on hitting, one of those 35 HR/120 RBI guys who makes you love not having the pitcher hit every game.

Perhaps nothing highlights the Astros’ frustrations in this area more than saying that the best season by an Astros’ DH was Chris Carter in 2014. His numbers in 432 ABs were .241 BA/.318 OBP/.841 OPS with 62 Rs/34 HRs/78 RBIs. However, most eyewitnesses would claim those were the most hollow, unclutch stats in the history of the game, kind of like Carter himself.

The Astros would love to have a high impact DH in their lineup, but a quick glimpse at the AL shows that those guys are very few and far between. First consider that for 2017 the league average for the slash numbers were .256 BA/.324 OBP/.753 OPS. Looking at the 12 guys who had at least 250 ABs for their teams as DHs – how do they look against those numbers?

  • Only five of the twelve had a .256 BA or higher (though amazingly four of the five had BAs of exactly .256 or .257)
  • Only four of the twelve had a .324 OBP or higher
  • Only 5 of the twelve had a .753 OPS or higher, while five others were down in Death Valley with an OPS below .700
  • Of course the Astros main DH, Carlos Beltran was outside looking in with 411 ABs and a .229/.280/.671 slash line and 55 Rs/13 HRs/47 RBIs

When you compare the league’s DHs against the Astros average slash line for 2017 (.282 BA/.346 OBP/.823 OPS best in the majors) things look worse. Basically the only two DHs in the league who had significant DH ABs and would be better than the average Astro are Nelson Cruz (38 HRs/114 RBIs .293/.378/.935) and Edward Encarnacion (31 HRs/95 RBIs .257/.380/.873).

And this is not an anomaly, for the last decade, the AL normally had David Ortiz as a superior hitter in a DH role and one or two other guys who were also good in that specific year, like Encarnacion or Victor Martinez or Jim Thome. These guys just don’t grow on trees, because it appears to be a tough role that most players do not wear well.

So where does that leave the Astros?

  • They could go with someone like Evan Gattis in that role, but he has always hit better when playing in the field. The last time he was a full time DH was 2015 when in 523 ABs he hit a below average .247/.285/.736 with 24 HRs and 79 RBIs. Better than Beltran but not that terrific and coming at a cost of $7 million for the year.
  • They could trade for one, but they are not likely able to pick up the best guys and as we showed above most of the rest are not going to give you any better than Gattis.
  • They could let Gattis go and cobble together DHs with a Colin Moran/Tyler White/Marwin Gonzalez/”whoever needs a rest” rotation.
  • Or they could make that trade that “old pro” has been pushing for Giancarlo Stanton and use him there part of the time.
  • Or they could make a few minor trades to scoop up more international bonus money and go hard for TOR/DH Japanese wunderkind Shohei Ohtani.

So, where would you go if you were the Astros?

Astros 2017 and Miss Universe’s freckles

It feels like critiquing Miss Universe because she has a few freckles on her arms or because one eyebrow is slightly higher than the other, but the World Champion Houston Astros had a few problems last year that they can hopefully address this off-season or during the 2018 season. Some of the problems are obvious; some are not.

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