The Toy Cannon has gone silent

When I was in early elementary school my family moved a lot. From Milwaukee to Peewaukee (home of JJ Watt) to Chicago to Dallas to Houston. When I was in third grade I began to enjoy pro sports and my team was the Dallas Cowboys. This was not yet the ubiquitous (obnoxious) America’s team, but a struggling expansion team with mighty might Eddie Lebaron at QB and not so legendary (at the time) Head Coach Tom Landry. Dallas had no major league baseball team, but then we move to Houston in the summer of 1965 and the Astros and the stunning new Astrodome were the center of my sports universe.

And my first baseball hero? It was Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Cannon, who died on Thursday at the age of 78. It was not a real surprise as he had looked extremely fragile in a wheelchair at his Astros Hall of Fame induction back during the 2019 season (and doesn’t that seem like 10 years ago).

Jimmy Wynn came out of Cincinnati and started off in the Reds minor league system for one season before being picked up by the Colt .45s in something called the first-year player draft. He made his MLB debut right after that in 1963 splitting the year between the minors and majors. And shades of Myles Straw he played the infield and the outfield as a rookie for Houston. By the time my family moved to Houston he was in his first full-time season as an Astro and was the best position player on a very bad team as he hit 22 HRs and stole 43 SBs. He proudly wore the #24, the same as the player who he was a smaller version of – Willie Mays.

It is funny, but it never made any difference to me that the Toy Cannon was a different color than me. Never really thought about it. He was just my favorite player, just like Hank Aaron was my parent’s favorite player, who they rooted for when they lived in Milwaukee.

For much of his 11 seasons with the Astros, his protection in the lineup was not a lot to talk about. A couple of the best, Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub were shipped away before they could grow into the core of a terrific lineup.

Looking at some of Jimmy Wynn’s stats modern folks may not be that impressed. He never hit much for average topping out at .282 in 1970. Especially early on his on-base percentage (which no one cared about back then) was pretty low. But from 1968 to 1976 he had a series of very good OBP seasons topped out by a huge .436 OBP in 1969 when he led the majors with 148 walks. In 1965, the season I first saw him play, his OPS, a stat I would not know about for another 30 seasons was .841 when the NL average was .685.

And that OPS, which topped out at .943 in 1969 was tied to his power. His power is the thing that comes to mind along with his ever-present toothpick, even when hitting. His power was insane for someone who was 5′-9″ and 175 lbs soaking wet.  He had George Springer kind of power in a package that was 6″ shorter and 40 lbs lighter. He had that wonderful long helicopter blade swing and when he met it just right wonderful things happened.

There was the shot in his hometown at Crosley Field onto the freeway.

There was the early Sunday shot over the batting cage in center field at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the batting cage left on the field because no one was going to hit it 450+ feet away. Well, he didn’t hit the cage. He cleared it by a ton.

I wish I could include his HR into the upper deck of the Astrodome where they painted a cannon on the seat a few down from where they painted a red rooster where Doug Rader clubbed an upper decker. That was a long, long, long way from home plate.

Even with all his power he never hit more than the 37 HRs he whacked in 1967. But remember that the Dome for much of the time he played there was 340 feet to the leftfield pole and 390 to left center and you had to hit it up in the pavilion to register a dinger. If Wynn had played at Enron/Minute Maid he would have been tattooing the scoreboard and plunking the patrons of the Crawford Boxes on a frequent basis. He could have easily been a 50 HR player.

Folks have often pushed Roger Maris for the Hall of Fame. Here are some career numbers to compare….
Maris   .260 BA   .345 OBP   .822 OPS   826 Runs   275 HRs   850 RBIs   21 SBs
Wynn  .250 BA   .366 OBP   .802 OPS  1105 Runs  291 HRs   964 RBIs   225 SBs

Wynn was a comparable hitter, with a lot more speed and could play a good CF on top of it. Oh, and he did not play in Yankee Stadium with a short right field porch (for the lefty Maris) and with Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard and Yogi Berra around him in the lineup.

So should Jimmy Wynn be in the Hall of Fame? Nope he was good and sometimes very good but not quite that great and neither was Maris except for a few peak seasons.

Like Morgan and Staub and Cuellar and Mayberry before him, the Toy Cannon was shipped out, in his case to the Dodgers at the age of 31 in the off-season before the 1974 season. Finally, with a good team he had one of his finer years scoring 104 runs, hitting 32 HRs and knocking in 106 runs while sparking LA to a losing matchup in the World Series with the A’s. This was the only postseason appearance for Wynn and after one more season with the Dodgers, he bounced between the Braves, Mets and Brewers for the next couple years until he was finally done at the age of 35 years old.

He came back to his real home in Houston and showed he was as fine a person as he was a player, helping kids and others and serving the team and the city he loved until he died.

He wasn’t the greatest player or even the greatest Astro player I ever saw. But he was the first one who sparked my love for my team and his passing leaves me with a large hole in my heart.

God bless Jimmy Wynn and please hold him close to Your heart dear Lord.

Middle of the lockdown blues

As of last night, my county went into lockdown. My company started working from home yesterday. My internet and cable are both down. I can access some things through my phone but it is tough workwise because I can’t access our servers and drives and not easy to review documents, drawings etc.

I have the Lockdown Blues.  So this will be a cheer everyone up writeup, mostly to myself.

Are there any positives here – I think there are a few:

  • I do appreciate my 10 second commute time from the bedroom to my little work station on the kitchen table. That’s about 2 hours a day that I can use to sleep in a little and to spend on whatever I want. Let’s see – 10 hours a week for 52 weeks for 42 years (more or less) means I’ve spent about 910 days of my life commuting. Luckily for the last 20 years, I’ve taken the bus so I do get to sit back and let someone else drive most days for a piece of that commute. Still…. this is nice.
  • I appreciate being able to take a walk with my son in the afternoon as my break. He has a number of health conditions and needs the exercise that walking the parking garage ramps. I appreciate being able to see and talk to my wife during the day rather than being apart for 10 or 11 hours every workday.
  • I am lucky that my particular type of work can be done remotely by computer and skype and cell phones. But I do worry how long this will last as projects have been cancelled already and every company we serve has seem their stock crash through the floor. I am very concerned by so many folks and businesses that are getting 0 income right now. It is very disconcerting to know they are suffering.
  • I think I took sports for granted. Now that it is basically gone I think my love for sports has grown. But maybe it has become more focused……
  • On the other hand – I do think it is good that I am able to have more time with my family and less time obsessing about teams and players and scandals and…
  • It does make me proud when times like this are occurring that the people of our land and our world do worry about each other (oh, other than toilet paper). Folks do some wonderful things. I was watching a video of some local school teachers riding in a little parade through a neighborhood proclaiming how much they love the kids and miss them. And the kids were all standing outside with signs and proclaiming their love for the teachers. Very touching.
  • I was very happy that my Xfinity guy had a two-hour window to come and fix our internet and cable instead of a four-hour window and showed up in the middle of the window rather than late. I was even happier when everything was fixed quickly. It does bother me that today we take for granted that our interface with someone who comes to work for us includes standing across the room from them and then sanitizing everything they touch.
  • I am lucky that I have another family – you folks to help carry me through this.

So, it is not all despair.

An Astros’ OF question for 2021

This post was inspired by good friend of the blog – Sarge H.

Here is a question to gnaw on for the next post season based on there actually being a 2020 season.

What will the Astros outfield look like in 2021?

The three men who started the most games in the outfield for the Astros in 2019 are all free agents after the coming season.  Michael Brantley made his third All-Star team in a row with a sparkling .311 BA/ .875 OPS / 88 runs / 22 HR / 90 RBI season. George Springer frankly was on a pace for MVP contention with a .292 BA / .975 OPS / 96 runs / 39 HRs / 96 RBIs season in only 122 games with injuries cutting into that run. Josh Reddick had a very ineffective season (possibly due to a shoulder that required surgery) where it is hard to recall his 57 runs scored or his 56 RBIs. In 2020 the three are making $21 MM (Springer), $16 MM (Brantley) and $13 MM (Reddick) with Springer likely lined up for a huge payday in 2021, Brantley probably dropping a bit due to age and Reddick scraping around for a spot in the majors (unless he turns it around in 2020).

So what will the outfield look like in 2021? Well, it is highly unlikely they will pursue Reddick in the off-season and in fact may try mightily to trade him during the season when it starts back up. Brantley will be getting to an age where they are not likely to chase him unless he is willing to take a discount contract.

Springer is the interesting one here. Under the Luhnow regime they would likely have chased him but ultimately would have lost out. The question here is whether Jim Crane will step in with the new GM James Click and make a PR rather than Moneyball type decision to hold onto someone the fans want so badly to be a career Astro.

Those waiting in the wings for a spot include the following:

  • Kyle Tucker. The youngster, who has been a high prospect for a number of years would seem to be a shoo-in to displace Josh Reddick in the outfield and one of the “three” come 2021. He looked completely lost in a 2018 call-up, but showed well in his 2019 call-up (22 games – .269 BA/ .857 OPS/ 15 runs/ 4 HRs/ 11 RBIs/ 5 SBs). He could be one of the three when 2020 starts, much less in 2021.
  • Myles Straw. In 2020 he will likely fill the 4th OF spot that new Met Jake Marisnick has filled for a number of years. If he can continue the .380 on base percentage he has shown to date, along with tremendous base running and outfield coverage, he might move into the top three spots in 2021.
  • Yordan Alvarez. This one seems tied to whether Yordan ever recovers from knee maladies that do not bode well in a person his age. We know after his Rookie of the year performance in only 87 games in 2019 (.313 BA/ .412 OBP/ 1.067 OPS/ 58 runs/ 27 RBIs/ 78 RBIs) that he certainly has the bat to fill an OF spot. They may not even chance playing him in the field and let him be the Big Papi of the next decade for the team.
  • Abraham Toro / Aledmys Diaz. Both players may see some outfield time heading forward, but will they get beyond the point of being the next Swiss Army knife for this team? Not likely, but perhaps one could be like Marwin Gonzalez and fill an OF spot for a couple seasons.
  • Chas McCormick. One of the top 30 prospects, though admittedly one of the older ones (24 y.o.), he has hit well with below-average power in his journey up to AAA. He showed a bit more power in 2019, but he will need to do a lot more in 2020 to be in line for a spot in the bigs in 2021.
  • Taylor Jones. He certainly has played more 1B than the outfield and maybe in line to take Yuli Gurriel‘s spot when and if he moves on, but a lot can change between now and the 2021 season. The team likes his quick, short swing (unusual for someone 6’-7″) and his improved power. Stranger things have happened.
  • Pedro Leon. If, there are international signings this season and if the Astros are able to sign the Cuban phenom and if he instantly shows he belongs…..oh never mind.
  • Player To Be Named Later. If the Astros lose the current three starting OFs – that would leave them with (hypothetically) $50 MM to spend on new OFs. Hah – OK they will more likely move that to other areas, but could use a chunk of it to bring in another solid OF.

So, if I’m betting money I think the opening outfield in 2021 will be Springer, Tucker and Straw. If I were you, I would not bet based on that statement…

Anyway, what do y’all think?

Astros international emphasis

Today’s post is based on a suggestion from friend of the blog, Larry Leach. 

Over the years the Astros have been involved in scouting, player development and winter leagues in building up their international presence. Players like all time great Cesar Cedeno or not quite so great Luis Pujols were signed as free agents out of the Dominican Republic for instance. The Astros would run their own development camps with youngsters and were on the front lines of that back in the 1970s and 1980s.

They seemed to step away from this, especially later in the ownership of Drayton McLane. However, under Jim Crane and ex-GM Jeff Luhnow the emphasis on international scouting, signings and development has been at the forefront.

Current 40 man roster

The following players on the current 40 man roster are international signings:

  • 2B Jose Altuve – Signed as a free agent out of Venezuela, he was picked up under the previous regime and is the best international signing ever by the Astros. Jose has been great, clutch and someone who has shown that physical size matters less than the size of one’s heart.
  • 1B Yuli Gurriel – The Astros made a big commitment to Gurriel in signing him to an approx. 5 year / $56 MM contract out of Cuba. He had played in international competition, but had not played in the traditional high school / college world of the US. He has earned every cent of his contract and more.
  • DH Yordan Alvarez – Technically the Astros did not sign Yordan as a young international free agent. But based on their scouting, they sent Josh Fields to the Dodgers in exchange for a player, who had not yet played in a game in the Dodger’s minor league system after also signing out of Cuba. Perhaps it was all the trash can banging that distracted LA when the trade happened….. The 2020 Rookie of the Year was a revelation.
  • RHP Jose Urquidy – Urquidy was signed in 2015 as a free agent out of Mexico. He has been a solid performer in the minors, though he missed the 2017 season with Tommy John surgery. He looked good in his time with the Astros in 2019 including a clutch turn in the World Series and was penciled in to a spot in the rotation for 2020.
  • RHP Bryan Abreu – The kid with the killer curve was signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican. He looked great in a quick cup of coffee with the big club in 2019 and was throwing bagels at the opposition in this year’s Spring Training before it was suddenly put on the back burner.
  • LHP Framber Valdez – Valdez signed out of the Dominican in 2015 and has shown tremendous movement paired with questionable control in his small time with the big club. He had looked good in the early part of this year’s spring training and being a left hander he will probably be a given another shot with the Astros some time in 2020.
  • LHP Cionel Perez – He was signed out of Cuba, not once but twice in the 2016 off-season by the Astros as they voided the original contract due to concerns with his physical. He pitched quite well in 2018, when he made his MLB debut with the Astros and much worse in 2019. Again, he is 24 y.o. and a lefty, so there may be some spot for him this season, if and when the season does begin.
  • RHP Cristian Javier – A 2015 signing out of the Dominican, he has smoked the opposition with a 2.22 ERA over those 5 seasons of minor league pitching. He slots in at #6 on the Astros top 30 prospect list and will likely be on speed dial for a call-up in 2020.
  • RHP Rogelio Armenteros – The 25 y.o. was signed out of Cuba in 2015. He made his way up the organization with mixed success as mostly a starter and made his Astros debut in 2019, pitching fairly well in 5 appearances. His 2019 minor league performance was down, but so were a lot of pitchers with AAA adopting a souped up MLB ball. He is a good piece to have, but he may get passed up by splashier young talent.
  • Enoli Paredes – Since signing out of the Dominican in 2016, the 24 y.o. has flashed a lot of arm talent in a quick rise through the ranks, sometimes pitching brilliantly but always pitching above average. He has a 2.41 ERA, with a 0.991 WHIP, while striking out 11.4 batters per 9 innings in four seasons in the minors. He has only pitched as high as AA to date, but he may be in the fast lane for hitting the bigs by the end of 2020 or in 2021.
  • Nivaldo Rodriguez – The 22 y.o. was signed out of Venezuela in 2016. He has pitched so well that he was protected on the 40 man roster without having pitched above A+ ball. His short A ball stint at Quad Cities in 2019 (1.16 ERA, 0.871 WHIP, 11.3 K/ 9 IP while only walking 1.2 per 9 IP) was particularly eye popping. He will be one to watch in a couple seasons.

Top 30 prospects – not on the 40 man

Some of the top 30 prospects are on the 40 man, but the following are not there yet.

  • INF Freudis Nova – Only 20 y.o., he was signed at 17 in 2017 out of the Dominican Republic. He has hit for decent average and not a lot of power and has fielded far better at 2B than at SS or 3B. This is likely due to throwing mechanics. Hey, he made it to A ball last year and is a couple years younger than his peers.
  • RHP Jairo Solis – Like Nova, Solis is 20 y.o. and signed at 17 in 2017, in his case out of Venezuela. He had performed well in a quick rise through the rankings, but missed all of 2019 injured. He is one of the higher thought prospects, who did not need Rule 5 protection yet.
  • RHP Luis Garcia – the 23 y.o. has had sparkling stats since signing out of the Dominican in 2017. He is not as young as someone like Solis, but he has dominated at each level finishing up 2019 in A+ Fayetteville with a 3.02 ERA and an eye opening 14.8 K/ 9 IP. He has to still work on his control, but if he can get that settled out he could be sniffing the big leagues in another year.
  • RHP Jose Alberto Rivera – Very similar to Garcia – he was signed out of the Dominican in 2017 and is also 23 y.o. His numbers are good but a step back of Garcia’s and he finished one level lower in 2019 at A level Quad Cities.
  • RHP Jojanse Torres – The 24 y.o. was only signed in 2018 from the Dominican, so he has been against some younger competition. However he did have excellent numbers in 2019 between A and A+ ball (1.71 ERA/ 1.1.09 WHIP / 10.2 K/ 9 IP). He could be poised for a big 2020 (if and when it occurs).
  • SS Dauri Lorenzo – Signed this summer at 16 y.o. out of the Dominican he has not yet played in the Astros system. However he appears to be a plus hitter and fielder. He will likely start off in the Dominican rookie league.
  • INF Luis Santana – The young man was actually signed by the Mets out of the Dominican at the age of 16, but the Astros thought enough of him to pick him up as part of the J.D. Davis trade. He hit OK at A- ball last year and less good at AA in 2019, but he was only 19 y.o. and almost 5 years younger than the league average. Unfortunately, he is mostly a 2B and blocked by some guy named Jose, but maybe he will be a future utility man.
  • RHP Jairo Lopez – The 19 y.o. was signed in 2018 from Venezuela and has shown well ever since. Over the last two minor league seasons he has risen to A- ball with a 2.29 ERA / 1.060 WHIP/ 9.7 K per 9 IP/ 3.6 walks per 9 IP. Those are all good solid numbers.

Chips

The Astros also had some international free agents that were used in some of the big trades of the last few seasons.

  • RHP Albert Abreu (Venezuela) and Jorge Guzman (Dominican Rep) were packaged for catcher Brian McCann before the 2017 season.
  • RHP Franklin Perez – He had been signed out of Venezuela, became one of the Astros top prospects (not named Whitley or Tucker) and was sent to Detroit in the Justin Verlander trade.

Future 

The Astros are expected to sign 21 year old Cuban star Pedro Leon when the signing period opens in July (if that date is not moved). He is a corner outfielder with above average speed and a lot of power. He is expected to come to the Astros because they have about $4 million available in their international pool that they have held on to.

So…..there you go. It is a pretty impressive, but no where comprehensive list of Astros’ prospects since their emphasis on going international.

 

 

Astros Respite: “IT” knocks “it” out of the headlines

The media obsession with the latest “thing” is nothing new to the world. I was talking to a person who had a young family member come back from the army almost 60 years ago and commit a horrendous crime against members of the family. He said they were grateful when Marilyn Monroe died because it knocked their family’s name out of the news.

And so it always seems to go whether it is natural disasters or terrorist acts or celebrity deaths or almost anything else you can name. The vultures circle and swarm and pick and pillage on one corpse until a newer, fresher corpse arrives.

And so it seems to be with the Astros cheating scandal. The “it” story that would not go away has been replaced by the “IT” story that will not go away – the coronavirus driven cancellation of the rest of the spring training games and the indefinite delay (don’t believe the two weeks) of the start of the regular season.

Is it wrong for fans to be glad for this respite from the “it” story? Well, no it isn’t. We did not do anything to cause the original situation and we have suffered through the worst off-season we could imagine. Now we face the delay and possibly, in the insanity of the current situation, the cancellation of a season we hoped would help our team regain the pride they threw away. There is nothing wrong with hoping the “it” story gets watered down or even drowned by the “IT” story.

This will continue to be a difficult time for all fans. Here at the blog we will do our best to fill the time with posts that distract or make you think.

It brings to mind something I read in the late great Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer. He was talking about his start at the Herald Tribune when local high school sports were interrupted by what I remember as some type of strike. He asked his editor what he was supposed to cover with “it” (no sports) going on and his editor told him to cover “it”. And o he did.

So, if you have any special requests for this corner of your life – toss them out there as we work as a team to fill the void that “IT” has created.

Could this be another Peacock moment?

Way back in the spring of 2017, when we neither knew nor cared about video cameras and trashcans, the Astros had an unproven pitcher named Brad Peacock. Brad had come to the Houston organization from Oakland in the first Jed Lowrie trade with Chris Carter and Max Stassi. (Oh the Golden Era of Astros baseball). He then pitched mostly in the minors, when he wasn’t injured, and did have some small unsuccessful shots in the biggies. He pitched pretty well in a 30 inning trial in 2016, but it would be truthful to say that he was a candidate to be DFA’d in the spring of 2017. Then something wondrous happened (at least wondrous for Brad) and Collin McHugh went down with an injury and Peacock was a beneficiary of an open spot in the Astros’ pitching staff.

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