Dan P does his best Stealers Wheels’ impression….

Personally, I hark back to that Stealers Wheels’ classic song “Stuck in the Middle With You” today. I would like to do what friend of the blog – Mr. Bill – eloquently asked us to do in a recent comment when he said: “We can stay mad, or we can find a way to move on and overcome”.  But I can’t yet do that. I am caught in that no man’s river between thinking about baseball and thinking about cheating on baseball and I can’t yet swim to either shore.

So today is a mix of thoughts about pre-season baseball as the Astros start their new life “after” the scandal and additional thoughts about the scandal itself.

Difference in approaches. On Saturday when the Astros’ pre-season starts with a rematch of the World Series, the Nationals will send ace Max Scherzer to the mound and he will not be facing Astros ace Justin Verlander or co-ace Zack Greinke (who will only just arrive in camp in time for the game). No, the Astros will send prospect Cristian Javier, their 2019 Minor League Pitcher of the Year to the mound.

This is nothing new for the Astros who sent long time minor league pitcher Brady Rodgers to the mound last spring to kick things off. It should be a thrill for the young man to take the mound first and should be exciting for folks, who get to see him for the first time in an Astros uniform. Does he have a shot at making the club this spring? In this spring of transition and with quite a few spots up for grabs, don’t bet against him.

The buzzer “stuff”. I have a few questions for those cynics about the Astros using buzzers last season to get to the World Series and especially on Jose Altuve‘s ALCS clinching walk-off home run.

  • If the Astros were cheating, why was their hitting line in the ALCS .179 BA/ .281 OBP/ .600 OPS – kind of like having a whole team of Jon Singleton‘s for the 6 game series?
  • If they were cheating by using buzzers wouldn’t they already know not to rip off Altuve’s uniform?
  • If they were guilty, why would Carlos Correa make such a passionate defense of Altuve? Instead of doubling down, why not use the “commissioner has investigated this and found nothing” defense”?
  • Did you actually watch the at bat and the pitch? Was Altuve either laying off some impossible pitch in that at bat or swinging at some surprise pitch that he could not hit without being tipped off? Or did Aroldis Chapman throw a bad hanging slider that was right over the middle of the plate and practically teed up for Altuve to launch?

Won’t it be fun to see Lance McCullers Jr. again. When we last saw Lance he was pitching out of the bullpen for three games in the 2018 ALCS against the Red Sox with what was a blown-out elbow that required Tommy John surgery immediately after the season. Sure, he could drive us crazy a bit by making too many pitches and completing too few innings in his starts, but he was always a bit of a bulldog who provided good results for the Astros.

It will be exciting to have LMJ back out on the mound and healthy.

Who else must we ask about the scandal. We have heard from former Astros, who were aware of the cheating in 2017 like Dallas Keuchel. We have heard from former Astros, who were not aware of the cheating that did not happen in 2019, like Gerrit Cole. We have heard from players who thought they were cheated, most famously like Cody Bellinger (who might have hurt his team more with his .143 BA, than the Astros did by “cheating”). But then they have branched out to every blogger, every writer, who has an opinion about anything. Everybody who ever played the game, every talking head who has or has never played.  They’ve gone off the deep end with talking to someone like Lebron James about this and every other celebrity they can access.

I know this will go on and on extending to every player on every team they will play. Why not dig up Babe Ruth, extract his DNA and grow a clone we can interview? Or at least create a 3D hologram of the Sultan of Swap to put on ESPN.

OK – enough about that…..

And about that Dusty. He was probably not my first, second or third choice for this job, but listening to some interviews with him, Dusty Baker is growing on me. It sounds like he will listen to pitching coach Brent Strom, which is my biggest concern.

Sure, we have to see how he handles this team, but it should be an interesting science experiment in 2020.

So, what are you thinking about today?

Astros’ 2020: Is 30 just a number?

Over the last few seasons, the Astros team salary total has been edging upward along with their average team age. Last season their everyday players were the second oldest in the majors at 28.9 years old (a weighted average based on ABs and games played) and their pitchers were fifth highest at 29.9 years old again based on a weighted average. Back in 2017 they were ninth and 16th in the majors for everyday players’ and pitchers’ age respectively.

While the Astros still have players who can help keep that average down a bit – Yordan Alvarez (22), Kyle Tucker (23), Carlos Correa (25), Alex Bregman (25), Jose Urquidy (24), Roberto Osuna (25), and Bryan Abreu (22) – they are increasingly relying on folks on the “wrong” side of that magic number of 30. Now whether that even matters is another question.

As they sit today the following folks are on or above that 30 mark: Yuli Gurriel (35), Michael Brantley (32), Josh Reddick (33 this Wed.), Martin Maldonado (33), George Springer (30), Dustin Garneau (32), Justin Verlander (37 this Thurs), Zack Greinke (36), , Ryan Pressly (31), Joe Smith (35), Brad Peacock (32), Austin Pruitt (30), and Jared Hughes (34). And that does not count Jose Altuve, who hits the magic mark in May.

Is this a problem? Well, based on last season, the under 30 crowd seemed to have more injuries going than the above 30 crowd, but it has to be a concern for the Astros this season, especially in the starting rotation. Brad Peacock already is a probable scratch for the race for the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation due to continuing concerns with his shoulder. As durable as they have been, losing Verlander or Greinke for any significant time would turn the rotation into a huge question mark.

The everyday position players are not nearly as much of a worry due to the outstanding depth of their lineup. (Which does not mean they can survive losing four or five at a time as they have done a few times in the past).

The bullpen? Well this is an area of both concern and fair sized potential entering the season. They lost Pressly for an extended time in 2019, but luckily the return of Joe Smith and the breakout season of Will Harris filled that hole in the bullpen. Now of course they have lost Harris, but re-signing Smith and picking up Pruitt and Hughes may well help the team down the line. Plus a youngster like Abreu or any number of other youngsters coming to camp may give this team depth and arm talent to survive the season.

With a season where the team may well be the most hated and despised team in recent history, it is probably a good thing to have a solid cadre of vets in the locker room. In the end, having so many grizzled veterans (or veterans dying those grey hairs) could be a plus or a minus, but it is an area of risk for the team.

 

Some days this Astros’ writing is a tough job

Your loyal servant, Dan P, is sick of “it” at this point. “It” of course being the interminable and depressing Astros cheating scandal.

My mind keeps drifting back to the movie “Speed” and a line that Dennis Hopper as cop turned bomber Howard Payne says. “A bomb is made to explode. That’s its meaning. Its purpose. Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming.”

I feel a bit empty lately because I want this story to stop. I want to stop it from becoming. But it is like when the Cat in the Hat is trying to clean up the house and instead he keeps spreading the dirt more and more. This story is a wildfire that is not getting put out any time soon, because the media loves “clicks” and it is not to the media’s benefit (read bottom line) to wrap this up and move on to another story.

It is also a story for which it is easy to keep fanning the flames. You think you can end it by letting AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow go? No. Because every day they are looking for a replacement, every day they are bringing in another candidate it will get mentioned. Will hiring their replacements bring it to an end? No. Because then you have to talk to the replacements about it and you have to try and see if someone not named Hinch and Luhnow shares in the blame (players/Crane), Will having the players do a very controlled apology press conference followed by a wide open locker room for interviews end it? No. Because everything that is said or not said is parsed and dissected by the media who were there or were reading the Cliff Notes second hand. Will playing exhibition games end it? No. Especially when you lead off with the 2019 WS Nationals. Will starting the season end it? No. Every time you play someone you played in the playoffs (or within a hundred miles of someone you played in the playoffs), it will get brought up. Every time you play a team where a former player now resides it will get brought up. Every time you play some team or player who thinks they suffered something at your hands since 2016 (or even before) it will be brought up. Will making the playoffs or even winning the World Series end it? No. The media has found nice fresh meat and they will ride this story as long as there are folks fired up and incensed about this. There will be folks who think if they win in 2020 that they cheated some more. There will be folks who think they are “getting away with it” if they win with players that they think should have been banned for life.

So where is Dan P’s head right now…..

How much can you trust a cheater? It is a weird situation. The players were given immunity by the league if they told the truth. We know they absolutely cheated in 2017 and maybe a bit in 2018. Do we believe them when they say they did not cheat before 2017 or especially in 2019 when the Astros almost won a World Series that might have been clouded too? Do we believe Jim Crane when he does his best Sgt. Schultz “I knew nothing” routine? Do we believe him when he lays it all at Luhnow and Hinch’s feet? Do we believe Carlos Correa when he says his good buddy and countryman Carlos Beltran did not intimidate younger players to follow him? Do we believe Jose Altuve when he says modestly is why he didn’t want his teammates to take off his jersey back when he walked off the 2019 ALCS?

Is this karma coming back around? Friend of the blog, Diane hit on this, but many of us were a bit uncomfortable with some of the over the top gamesmanship of players, especially Alex Bregman. Most of us thought teams like the Yankees were owed some bad karma for their arrogance and feelings of entitlement over the years. But is there anything cockier than someone possibly launching a homer after being signaled what pitch was coming and then posing like a peacock in the dugout?

On the other hand…. Relative to 2019, Gerrit Cole, who now is getting paid the equivalent of a small country’s GNP for the Astros’ playoff rival (the Yanks) has straight out said he saw no cheating in his time with the Astros. He has no reason to not be honest and to endear himself to his new fans. Unless….well of course he could be using semantics in saying he did not “see” anything if it was all done by buzzers under the clothes. Oh, my brain hurts from this.

Astros PR advice either sucks or is not being taken…. After a complete fail in public relations with the Brandon Taubman meltdown, the press conference on Thursday seemed to continue a tendency for this organization to have a tin ear towards the public. While it was not as ignorant as the way the club backed up Taubman and accused his accuser without really gathering all the facts, the choice to have Jim Crane as a very defensive emcee standing behind his fairly stiff and very tight-lipped apologist ballplayers was a poor one. As Seth Payne stated on 610 Sports (KILT) this morning, they would have been much better off going straight to the open clubhouse interviews than the 90 second long “I’m sorry – can we move on” canned scripts. As Payne stated, this allowed the national press to concentrate on Crane’s contradictory statements and answers and the inadequate apologies, when the clubhouse interviews were more sincere and more natural. Note – I was wondering if you go back to the speeches and looked really close you could find Bregman, and Altuve blinking in code “My family is being held captive by the MLB and I am being forced to read from their script.” 

OK – I am ready to return to real baseball in my next post, but I had to get this out of my system.

A quick look at young Astros’ arms

The Astros head to camp this week with catchers and pitchers reporting on Thursday. With the probability that the Astros will be relying on some of their young arms to get them through the 2020 season and beyond, let’s take a little time to give you some background on some of the most likely candidates.

Jose Urquidy. Jose, will turn 25 one month into the 2020 season. He was signed as an international free agent out of Mexico in 2015. He has made a steady trip up though the Astros minor league system interrupted by Tommy John surgery, which stole the 2017 season from him. He made the jump from A- to A+ ball in 2018 and then leapt from AA to AAA to the majors in 2019. He has shown pristine control throughout his many stops, normally hitting below 2 walks per 9 IP in Justin Verlander territory. He became a fan favorite in his 41 regular and 10 post season innings, culminating in 5.2 IP of scoreless ball and a win in the World Series. It would appear that the 4th spot in the rotation is his for the taking.

Bryan Abreu. Abreu will  turn 23 right before the season starts. He was signed at 16 y.o. as an international free agent out of the Dominican and his big arm and strikeout potential brought him to be added to the 40 man roster in 2018 (to protect him from the Rule 5) and had him called up for a cameo in 2019. In his 8.2 IP at the major level his 13 Ks and 4 hits stand out. He is not showing Urquidy’s control, but he has a dynamic arm and may well earn a roster spot out of Spring Training or sometime during the season.

Francis Martes. It should be pointed out that even though he would seem to be a Methuselah among the many Astro pitching prospects, he just turned 24 and is younger than Urquidy and only a year older than Abreu. When we last saw Martes in 2017 he was the top pitching prospect in the system not named Forrest Whitley and was given a chance to fill in for an injury ravaged pitching staff. He then had to undergo Tommy John surgery and while recovering from that he was sentenced to an 80 game suspension for PEDs. As a result he has only pitched 24 Minor league innings in the last two seasons, along with 5 innings in the Dominican Winter League. In those innings he has posted ERAs above 6. It is a big question whether he can show why he was considered a high end prospect way back in 2016.

Forrest Whitley. Fans are praying that we are not seeing the second coming of Mark Appel in Whitley and that this kid’s mind will finally catch up with his 22 y.o. body. He was the team’s first round pick (17th overall) back in 2016. Between injuries, brain freezes and an illegal drug suspension, he has only totaled 248 innings between minor league ball and Arizona fall league over the last four seasons. Last year, he put up a 7.99 ERA over 59.2 IP in the minors before pitching pretty well in the fall league. What we don’t know is what he was working on (other than growing up) in those 59.2 innings. Often times the teams have the kids trying to hone a third or fourth pitch or line up their arm slots so that all the pitches have similar looks and release points. That many times looks real ugly in the stats, but eventually pays off. Anyways, it would take a miracle for Whitley to join the team out of Spring Training, but if he settles down and produces well at AAA this season, a call-up is not out of the question.

Cristian Javier. Javier, who turns 23 in March has been the anti-Whitley in his 5 seasons of minor league ball after being signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican. His ERA is a sterling 2.22 over 377 innings in his rise up the Astros system and he was particularly excellent in 2019, going 8-3 with a 1.74 ERA over 113.2 IP across three minor league levels (A+, AA, AAA). Will the Astros promote a guy out of ST with only 11 AAA innings under his belt? Well Jeff Luhnow did not do this, but this might be an interesting case on which new GM James Click can cut his teeth.

Rogelio Armenteros. Armenteros finally made his MLB debut last season and pitched decently in a small sample. He had pitched at AAA for at least part of the last three seasons and had worst stats each successive season than the one before. Again, perhaps he was working on “something”. Armenteros turns 26 in June and was another international free agent, in his case signed out of Cuba in 2014. If he does not make it this year with the Astros he may have to go elsewhere as younger arms pass him in the pecking order. He might be a good candidate for the bullpen or as a swing man in long relief and spot starts.

Framber Valdez. Framber is a 26 y.o., who was signed as (another) free agent out of the Dominican back in 2015. Overall, he has been good to very good in his minor league stints. In his two stints at the major league level he has shown wonderful movement on his pitches, but not wonderful control. The big leaguers are not offering at his pitches like the minor leaguers do and as a result his strikeout rate between minors and majors goes down from 13.2 K/ 9 IP (at AAA) to 8.5 at the MLB level while his walks go from 3.4 BB/ 9 IP to an unacceptable 5.7 in the majors. Can he suddenly find his control? His future may depend on it.

Cy Sneed. The 27 y.o. is probably on the wrong side of the cusp for being considered a young arm, though he is mostly new to Astro fans. He came over from the Brewers in the Jonathan Villar trade after the 2015 season and finally made his debut last season. After mostly working as a starter in the minors, he appeared in 8 games for the team out of the bullpen. His K rate was a solid 9.7 / 9 IP, however his hit rate was a poor 11/ 9 IP and his home run rate a terrible 2.1 / 9 IP. He would seem to be a very dark horse for a shot at this pitching staff.

Josh James.The soon to be 27 y.o, after spending most of his minor league career as a starter, switched gears to pitch pretty impressively out of the bullpen after his call-up in 2018. The 34th rounder who famously treated sleep apnea and found his 100 mph fastball doubled his ERA from 2018 to 2019 (2.35 to 4.70) in a season when he seemed to be trying to pitch through some injuries.  Will the Astros give him a shot to stretch out and return to his roots of starting? Probably not, but he is performing before a new coach and GM.

Cionel Perez. With his slight build, Perez may end up as a bullpen staple. But Cionel, who will turn 24 in April, has started quite often since being signed as an international free agent out of Cuba. His biggest problem in his two small stints at the majors has been in keeping the ball in the park giving up 6 HRs in only 20 innings. Being a lefty might give him a slight leg up on others, but he is going to have to cut back on the long ball in the new MLB.

Brandon Bielak. A non-roster camp invitee, Bielak, who turns 24 in April has shot up the system after being picked in the 11th round in 2017. He’s shown a good 2.95 ERA in 272 IP of minor league ball doing a solid job of keeping folks off base and while striking out a little over 1 per inning. He could be on the short list for a possible call-up in 2020 as he put in solid numbers at hit heaven AAA in 85 innings in 2019.

Ryan Hartman. Oh boy, a lefty and another non-roster invitee, the 9th round pick in 2016 will turn 26 in April. After a terrific 2018 at AA (11-4, 2.69 ERA) he struggled at AAA in 2019 (6-7, 5.88 ERA). So, it is likely he is being brought along to give the hitters some left handed exposure in camp, but if he puts up better numbers in another stint at AAA, he could be up with the big club sometime in 2020.

Now two non-young arms, Austin Pruitt and Brad Peacock may have something to say about who if any of these youngsters get a shot at the rotation or bullpen in 2020, but that is an article for another day.

A.J. Hinch shows he’s both human and a Man in MLB interview

There is a lot of sadness involved in watching A.J. Hinch’s interview with Tom Verducci on the MLB network. There is obviously sadness for the Astro fans in reliving what has been a huge stain on our team’s one and only MLB title. There is sadness in watching a man dealing with his own failings and taking full responsibility for something that was not all of his doing. It was obvious that Hinch was nervous, honest, contrite and fully human throughout this interview.

It was also uplifting to see someone stand up fully as a man and unblinkingly take on the yoke of responsibility for the cheating scandal. Did he call Mike Fiers a rat? No. Did he blame the players? No. Did he blame the front office? No. Did he say that every other team was doing this? No. Did he say any other team was doing this? No. He said he should have done more and frankly that his inaction led to his guilt.

The most touching thing to me was that his biggest concern when he was fired was that this would pop up on his daughter’s phone at school. He straight out said he knew this was wrong, whether Jeff Luhnow shared the league memo on the subject in a timely manner or not. He came across calmly as someone who wanted to get in front of this, who wanted to get the public interview behind him and who wanted to lead the players on how to handle this when they get to Spring Training.

The ultimate irony was that even though he is no longer leading the team, that he wanted to lead in this moment, perhaps in atonement for not leading them back when this scandal occurred.

A.J. Hinch is human, but he is also a Man with a capital M.

What to like: Astros hire James Click as new GM

The Astros made two major hirings in the last week and in some ways, it felt like they brought in Felix Unger and Oscar Madison to partner up in the manager and general manager spots.

Dusty Baker had been a big name that had been out there since the beginning of the manager search. The first time I saw James Click’s name in the GM search was when the articles appeared that he would be hired. Baker is 70 years old with more than 45 years in the majors as a player, coach or manager. Click is a 42 year old with 14 years in Tampa’s front office. Baker is famous. Click sounds like the pseudonym of someone who writes computer manuals. Baker is old school. Click is all new age in baseball terms. Baker is from the school of hard knocks. Click is a Yale graduate. Baker has been with seven different teams, four as a player and four as a coach/manager with the Giants bridging both. Click has only been with the Rays until a couple days ago.

But Jim Crane, who pulled in Jeff Luhnow from the front office in St. Louis to front a very successful teardown and re-build has done his research and quickly grabbed another young man and thrust him into the general manager’s spot. There are a lot of reasons to like this hire.

What makes a good “marriage”. A lot of us old-timers know that what makes a great marriage in our personal lives is not just compatibility. It is also two people with different strengths filling in the gaps for each other. In a recent Q&A with Allyson Footer, Baker said this about building a relationship with Click.

There are some things that I can learn from him. There are some things that possibly he can learn from me. It’s like dealing with my son. I call him when I’m stumped on my computer when I’m stumped on my cell phone, how to transfer this and that. These are areas where I can improve. There are areas [Click] wants to improve on. We’ll enhance each other.”

Getting by with less. There have been concerns about how the Astros will do going forward as they feel the squeeze of budgets finally hitting or exceeding the luxury tax level in the game. Click is coming from an organization where they have won 90 and 96 wins the last two seasons with the 29th and 30th highest payrolls each season. He will probably chuckle at the angst folks have in not being able to spend, spend, spend as a solution to their problems.

Fitting in with the front office. It sure made a lot more sense to bring in an older style manager than an older style general manager. The front office as it is set up has a lot of analytics going on up and down the organization. James Click will be comfortable and will know how to use what has already been set up.

A little mix of more “humanity”. Click has been part of a Rays front office that although it has been analytics-focused, also had fun. It is understood that the employees would have ping pong tournaments and other stress-relieving and team building breaks. Jeff Luhnow (maybe unfairly) has been seen as a guy who ran a tight and not necessarily fun ship in his front office.

The long view. One of the things the Astros are saying with this move is that they see their GM as here for the long term – the manager – not so much. If Baker does not perform well, the GM will part of the search party after this season for someone who better matches up.

A different point of view. The Rays were proponents of the “opener”; bringing in a relief pitcher for an inning or two to start games. This worked out well for their team, which was number 1 in the AL in ERA last season. He may or may not bring this concept to the Astros, but it is likely that he will have different tricks up his sleeve (legal tricks) to help make the Astros a better team.

Worked his way up. In a recent article by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times he talked about his time with the Rays.

“Click…. joined the Rays in 2005 as an intern to help build a database for new baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman. Click got hired full time in 2006, and the Yale history major has worked his way up to vice president of baseball operations. He has a hand in all facets of the operation, including systems, research and development, logistics, player evaluation, contract negotiations and more.”

One of the things that impressed Crane about Click was how he had worked from the bottom up and actually had done all these jobs that would be under his direction as GM. There is a lot to be said for this.

The one unspoken plus here is that after the safe hire of Dusty Baker that seemed like an MLB sanctioned addition, that the hire of James Click feels like a pure Crane decision and a good move for this team moving into the future.

Astros’ off-season thoughts to ponder

Off-seasons are notoriously slow and this one where Astro fans only want to get back to watching real games rather than the conjured up games of the cheating scandal seems to be going backwards. It has been three months since the jarring end of the 2019 season and it feels like the start of the 2020 season is moving farther and farther away.

So, today just some wandering thoughts…..

  • Is Carlos Correa really the Astros best defender? Over at mlb.com they fill the off-season with such tomes on any subject you can imagine. This week they looked at each team’s top defender.

They used a stat called OAA (Outs Above Average) to decide that Correa is the top defender on the Astros with George Springer behind him despite Correa missing more than half the season.

Defense is an odd thing to judge statistically in this modern world of shifts. The Astros have a number of very good defenders, who don’t always show up as such statistically. I can’t pick Correa as their best defender because I can’t trust him to show up for most of the games in the season. Springer has been terrific especially in centerfield and by some defensive stats would be considered their best fielder, but was often replaced by Jake Marisnick (maybe that was not always justified). Alex Bregman has been very good at third base and Yuli Gurriel has done what Jeff Bagwell did and turned from a good third baseman to a very good first baseman. Josh Reddick made impactful plays throughout the season and Michael Brantley makes few mistakes but does not have the range of the other OFs. Jose Altuve is very good and his speed helps make up for his lack of reach. Zack Greinke showed in his short time here that he may be the new Dallas Keuchel (or beyond) as far as top fielding goes. Martin Maldonado is back because of his fielding and his ability to handle pitchers.

Who do you think is the Astros’ best defender and how much will Gerrit Cole miss having all this great leather around him with the Yankees?

  • How will Dusty Baker handle the lead-off spot in the lineup? 

Will Dusty use George Springer as A.J. Hinch used him throughout his time here?  This may be an area where we see just how much Baker will listen to the existing staff and the analytics folks. If you look back at his time with the Nationals in 2016 and 2017, he tended to have more traditional speed guys like Trea Turner (79 SBs in the two seasons) or Michael Taylor (31 SBs in the two seasons) in the leadoff spot.  They both had some power, but not George Springer type of power and certainly, George is no SB threat like Turner and Taylor were.

The player who stole the most bases in 2020 for the Astros (10) is gone – Jake Marisnick. Jose Altuve recovering from his knee injury barely ran at all last season. Their biggest stealing threat may be someone who is not starting – Myles Straw.

Will Dusty leave George up top or will he move the slugger down the lineup?

  • Will Jim Crane give the go-ahead on any in-season pickups up with the luxury tax looming?

Even with very good teams the last few seasons, the Astros have been very active on in-season trades. Pickups have included Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, Martin Maldonado (twice), Cameron Maybin, Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini. I’m probably forgetting someone.

If they need a boost due to injuries or lack of performance will Crane allow any addition to the payroll in 2020? Or will any pickups need to be off-set with salary dumps?

  • Will the Astros lead the league in being hit by pitches and how will Baker allow his pitchers to respond?

When you read items like the following from Indian Pitcher Mike Clevinger

https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/high-hard-indians-clevinger-takes-aim-cheating-astros-68687223

… it makes you wonder how much high and hard inside is going to happen this season. Will it just be for a short time or every game they play?

How will the umpires handle this? To “punish” the cheaters will they warn both teams immediately after the Astros get hit so there can be no brushbacks by our team without ejections? Will Dusty tell his players to take it and smile or will he go all old school medieval on their a——es?

How will the Astros and their new manager handle this situation and how will we feel about this?

These are just a few thoughts and questions rattling around today. Where are your heads here in early February?

It’s Dusty Baker, but is it for the right reasons?

The Astros filled one of the gaping holes in the organization when Dusty Baker was named the new manager. There are a lot of reasons to hire a manager for any professional sports team and there is definitely a question on whether he was hired for the right reasons.

First of all, an opening at the helm of a team that made the World Series and came within a few outs of winning it is an unusual, but not unprecedented situation. One of the most famous of these was Casey Stengel being let go by the Yankees in 1960 after his team lost 10-9 to the Pirates on one of the most famous plays in World Series history, Bill Mazeroski’s walk off solo shot to start the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7. Ironically, Stengel was basically forced out for turning 70 years old, the same age as Baker is right now. The Yankees did it again in 1964, removing Yogi Berra from the manager’s spot after losing a game 7 to the Cardinals. In 1997, Davey Johnson was the Manager of the Year in the AL, leading the Orioles to the ALCS and quitting before he could be fired by Peter Angelos.

So there have been plum jobs before that popped open, but never for the reason that the Astros dugout leader A.J. Hinch was let go. The cheating scandal and its aftermath has overshadowed everything this off-season. But filling that spot for a team that came so close in 2019 and is still one of the strongest teams (on paper) has been an interesting journey and begs the question – Was Dusty Baker chosen for the right reasons?

The Best Reasons for Picking Dusty Baker

  • Has Faced the Media Circus Before – He was with the Giants when Barry Bonds went ballistic with the long ball and had to face that hailstorm of media hype. This also included having to face a lot of steroid questions as both Bonds’ and later Sosa’s manager. Also, with the Cubs he had to maneuver through the “Bartman” fan interference mess.  In both Chicago and D.C. he had to deal with a lot of press scrutiny of his and his team’s work.
  • Has Been a Consistent Winner – He has been to the playoffs in 9 of his 22 seasons in the majors. He’s won 53% of the regular season games he has managed and taken all four of his teams – Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nats to the playoffs. In his last four major league seasons, his teams won 97, 90, 95 and 97 games.
  • Has a Good Reputation with the Players – Even though he is thought of as an old school manager, he is also considered a player’s manager and has consistently been loved by his teams. The Astros’ players will be getting plenty of negative vibes as they steer through the coming seasons with the Scarlet Letter “C” branded on their chests (at least digitally). They don’t need a manager kicking them when they are down and he should be someone they can rely on to have their back and probably their front when he steps up to the podium each game.
  • Has Seen It All – He played in 19 seasons (15 as a regular) in the majors and then managed 22 more and has done both at a high level. There can hardly be any situation that he hasn’t had to handle or seen in more than 40 seasons in the big time. He should be a great sounding board for his team.
  • Has Not Affected the Astros Future – He is only committed to 1 season as manager (2 if the team so wants that option). If it is not working or does not work out, Jim Crane can move onward quickly without him.

The Questions That Make One Wonder If This is the Right Hire

  • What About the “Other” Scandal – While Dusty Baker has a sterling reputation when it comes to the electronic cheating scandal (rumor has it he can only operate a black and white TV with only 4 channels at home) what happens if the media sharks ask him about the “other” Astro scandal – the Brandon Taubman scandal tied to the Roberto Osuna domestic violence suspension and redemption. As friend of the blog Billy C. pointed out with this link….. https://nypost.com/2015/12/08/dusty-bakers-domestic-violence-drivel-confirms-worst-fears/  …..he might not have as smooth sailing with the press, if they ask about Taubman or about Osuna.
  • What About the “Other” Part of the Season – You know the part that starts after you win 92 or 95 or 97 games. The playoffs. In his 9 playoff runs, Baker has won 3 series total – the NLDS in 2003 with the Cubs and the NLDS and NLCS in 2002 with the Giants. In seven other seasons his teams were one and done, losing one Wild Card Play-in game (2013) and six NLDS series (1997, 2000, 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2017). So his teams have played in two NLCS series (going 1-1) and one WS series (0-1). Just as a reminder, A.J. Hinch in his 5 seasons with the Astros has won 6 playoff series, won a wild card, won 3 ALDS series, won 2 ALCS series and won one WS. As the saying goes…. that would be more.
  • What About His Reputation as a Pitcher Killer – This especially ties to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who he used like heck at young ages and whose careers both died in a flurry of injuries and unfulfilled promise. Would Lance McCullers Jr. be the next potential victim?
  • What About His Reputation as a Poor In-game Manager (Especially in the Playoffs)? A beat reporter for the Washington Nationals was interviewed by Sports Talk 610 Wednesday and he basically said that for 21 hours a day, Baker is the greatest manager in baseball. It is only the 3 hours that they are playing the game where he falls down. And he laid the blame for both post-season failings (2016 and 2017) at Baker’s feet. Now whether he is kin to Evan Drellich and has a grudge about this I don’t know. But it does not make one feel very good about things.
  • What About Using or Ignoring Analytics – My mom has a land line telephone and no computer. My father-in-law had a computer on his desk at work towards the end of his career that he never turned on. He now has a computer (because he loves playing the stocks), but he had a flip phone forever and even though he finally got an i-phone from one of his daughters, he uses it only for phone calls – not even texts. Older folks are not that inviting to “new” things. What will happen when the inevitable happens and he uses his gut in place of analytics that were ginned up by the laboratory that Jim Crane has put a lot of stock and cash into?

Yes, the argument is moot at this point. Dusty will manage the team at least for the coming season. Will he change his spots and his luck and catch that ride to his first WS title as a manager? A lot of people will think that he used up his luck in being able to take over a 107 win team from his couch.