Free Blog Weekend :The stats say it all

Today we return to a fabulous Chipalatta tradition of Free Blog Weekend. You can take the discussion anywhere you want as long as it is respectful and has some ties to the Astros or baseball.

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Free Blog Weekend: Septembers, hits and other questions

It’s Friday, the weekend is ahead, so you know what that means: Free Blog Weekend. Let’s get started.

September Morn.

200 hits = Batting titles.

  • Someone mentioned this week that since Jose Altuve was only thesecondAstros’ player to reach 200 hits in a season, that explained whytheAstros had never had a batting champion. Perhaps, but I thought I’d look a little deeper to see how many similar teams had players with 200 hits. Here’s a short list of teams — with similar life spans as Houston — with the year of their inception and the number of players with 200-hit seasons:
    • Texas (1961) 7 players.
    • NY Mets (1962) 2.
    • Milwaukee (1969) 4.
    • Minnesota (1961) 4.
    • Kansas City (1969) 6.
    • Colorado (1993) 7.
  • That’s a short list. A little surprising to see some of the names that were on these lists of 200-hit seasons. Cecil Cooper had three 200-hit seasons. Others names on the list include Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla and even Juan Pierre.
  • For the Astros, part of this may be due to playing so many games in the Astrodome, where long fly balls were just long outs. However, you could argue that the dome vastness was also an advantage for spray or gap hitters.

Saving the farm.

  • Chad Qualls leads the team in saves this season with 17. With his injured hip and the fact the Astros may want to get a look at others, it’s quite possible he won’t reach 20. You have to go back to 2011 to find a pitcher who reached that mark (Mark Melancon, 20). Of course, when a team wins only 51 games, duh, it’s a little more challenging to save games, right? still, the Astros haven’t started the season with an established closer since Jose Valverde in 2009.

Firing line.

  • Just an observation. Five times since 2000, the Astros have fired a manager in mid-season. Jimy Williams, Phil Garner, Cecil Cooper, Brad Mills and Bo Porter were all fired in the summers.  Unless you count Porter, not since Larry Dierker “resigned” after the 2001 season has Houston had a “normal” between-season manager transition. Get this: Prior to this recent rash of in-season firings, you have to go back to 1982 to find the last such transaction. That was when Bob Lillis replaced the fired Bill Virdon, the longest-tenured manager in Astros’ history.

And, a list of questions to get your weekend started:

  • With the above-mentioned reference to closers, how important (rank it) is it for the Astros to bring in an experienced closer to start 2015?
  • As we’ve discussed before, it should be a busy winter for Luhnow. What is the single most important area Luhnow should upgrade (e.g. third base, shortstop, corner outfield, closer, etc.)?
  • Have you noticed a palpable difference in attitude, on-field decisions, etc. since Lawless took over as manager September 1? In your mind, after eight games, should he be a strong candidate for the permanent job?
  • This one calls for honor and honesty. Looking back at your Astros’ predictions and expectations before the 2014 season began, what’s the one you absolutely nailed and what’s the one you absolutely missed?

 

FREE blog weekend II: It’s time . . .

Tom Lawless got his first loss as Astros’ manager Saturday, a loss that was snatched from the jaws of a win. Needing one win over the last few weeks to avoid a fourth consecutive 100-loss season, Chad Qualls struck again, this time with his sixth blown save of the season.

So, as the team streaks to the end of the season, it’s time . . .

  • For Jose Veras to get the ball in the ninth. Veras is — at the very least — on his way to recovering his 2013 form, pitching 24 innings with 26 Ks and 11 BBs and a 2.63 ERA since re-joining the Astros this summer. A combination of Tony Sipp, Qualls and Veras could be productive in the 7-8-9 innings.
  • Jeff Luhnow recognizes that if absolutely no other improvements are made to the team this winter, laser focus on the bullpen. Guaranteeing a success in that area of the team should be #1, #2 and #3 on the radar. Houston simply cannot suffer the same indignities from its bullpen for another season, especially given the starting rotation it has obviously put together.
  • To admit that the Carlos Lee trade for Rob Rasmussen and Matt Dominguez was a bust. Or at least just a salary dump. It’s time to take open auditions for third base in 2015. Of course, Dominguez is only 25, so there’s time to turn around that career .238/.280/.383 line. Yes, that means a career .663 OPS (.611 this season) from your third baseman.
  • For George Springer to get back to the team, though the Astros are 23-22 in his absence.  Makes you wonder, though, what this lineup would be like with him penciled into the fifth spot behind Robbie Grossman, Jose Altuve, Dexter Fowler and Chris Carter.
  • To consider that Dexter Fowler may be gone this winter. Moving Springer to his natural CF position and bringing in a big RF bat may be the best way to go to bolster the lineup. Consider the trade-off in run production for essentially the same $11-$12 million that Fowler is likely to get in arbitration.
  • Everyone realizes that, despite what you may think, Houston is still a desirable destination for managerial candidates. Several coaches and others have already expressed interest. My leading candidates as of today: 1. Rays bench coach Dave Martinez. 2. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. 3. Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo. 4. Tom Lawless. Two dark-horse candidates: Craig Biggio and Rangers interim manager Tim Bogar. Bogar would be at the top of the list, but the Rangers would seem to have the inside track since adding the “interim” tag.

FREE blog weekend: Maybe Crane was right and how ’bout that Carter?

Nothing better than a day off after a new manager gets two wins under his belt and the Astros ponder their future.

Maybe, just maybe, Jim Crane was right?

  • While it wasn’t an outright prediction, Crane suggested last spring the Astros could be a .500 team in 2014. At 61-79, if you factor in 12 blown saves and a few other missed opportunities, you could easily find 5-7 games the team shoulda, coulda won. Yes, those wins/losses go both ways, but the Astros have had more than their share of bad than good luck this year. Without pointing out — again — Jeff Luhnow’s hits and misses, add a full season from Matt Albers, Dexter Fowler and even George Springer (just the time he’s missed on the DL) and the Astros easily could have made up much of the difference. Even then, if they split the remaining 22 games, the team finishes 72-90, a 21-game improvement over 2013.
  • Yes, it may pain you to even consider thinking that Crane was right, but the team assembled on paper in March and April could have approached .500 in 2014.

Just how good has Chris Carter been?

  • In the second half of the season (43 games), Carter has hit .274/.339/.610 with 16 HRs and 42 RBI. Folks, over a full season, that projects to 60 HRs and 158 RBI. That qualifies as hot! There has been much speculation as to the immediate, quick turnaround, but little credit has been given to any specific individual or coach. With his numbers the past two years, the first-year arbitration DH should be a prime target for a multi-year contract. Maybe 3 years, $10-$12 million?

Three first-round picks…

  • Okay, technically, the Astros will have two first round (both likely top ten) picks in the 2015 draft, but they’ll also have the 31st pick in the draft thanks to the Jarred Cosart trade. Florida was awarded the first slot in the Competitive Balance process, which is the first pick after the conclusion of the first round. Want to get a taste of the players who might be available with those three picks? Check here.

On the radar.

What else would you like to chat about? Here’s your chance to set the agenda with the Free Blog Weekend!

Free Blog Weekend: Crystal ball on the off-season

It’s Friday and the weekend is on. That means a Free Blog Weekend. It’s a 9-year tradition, starting back in 2005 on that other site.

Six months ago, if you’d been offered a 66-96 record — a 15-game improvement and 30-game swing — for the 2014 season, most of you would have accepted the offer, gone to the bank and asked for another hot toddy.

Frankly, it’s easy to look at all the injuries and failed signings and see how much better the season could have been. If things had panned out with Jesse Crain, Matt Albers and players like Dexter Fowler and George Springer hadn’t missed so much time with injuries, Jim Crane’s suggestion of a .500 season was a reasonable expectation.

Now that the trade deadline is passed, a new commissioner is on board and the focus is on a sprint to the finish line, let’s take a look at the off-season to start the weekend. It will not be simple as Jeff Luhnow will need to shuffle the roster due to arbitration, 40-man status and the Rule 5 draft. Not to mention performance.

Here’s a quick recap:

Players eligible for arbitration. Some of these obviously will either be released or non-tendered. Only a few will be addressed by offers or trades.

Trade candidates.

  • Fowler, who could earn $10 million plus next season.
  • Scott Feldman, in the second of a three-year deal ($10 million next season).
  • Chad Qualls. Need room on the roster, he has a reasonable salary and Michael Foltynewicz is grooming the rest of this season.
  • Castro. Under performer and pricey.
  • Dominguez. They obviously like him because of the rumored extension last spring, but . . .

Free agent possibilities. It’s time to stop the dabbling and dive in. Houston needs a big, middle-of-the-order bat. Who’s available?

  • Nelson Cruz. He’s 34. A 2-3 year deal might be solid.
  • Hanley Ramirez. Could he be heading into his prime? Or will be a bust from here on?
  • Melky Cabrera. 30. Will the Biogenesis mess bring down his price?
  • Stephen Drew. He’s a Scott Boras client, but could be an intriguing possibility is he hits the rest of this season.

Waiting in the wings. These are the players who could possibly contribute next season from the minor leagues.

  • Mark Appel. Yes, despite a nightmarish 2014, he could be a mid-season addition.
  • Nick Tropeano. If he’s not up next month, he’ll contend for a roster spot in the spring. Should be a shoo-in, no?
  • Collin Moran. Hmmm. Intriguing, to say the least. Could he make the jump early next season?
  • Domingo Santana. Trade candidate this fall? Or, could he be the ultimate AAAA player?
  • Tony Kemp/Nolan Fontana. Keep an eye.
  • Preston Tucker. At 24, it could be his time.

Regardless how he does it, Luhnow must use the off-season to bring significant upgrades. Time to recognize which high-level prospects are in, which ones are the proverbial scrubs and make the investment in key free agents.

  • What does the roster look like next April?
  • Who are the definite keepers from the above lists?
  • Best trade candidates?
  • Which of the above should be signed to two, three or four-year extensions?
  • Which player is the biggest gamble in trading? In other words, by trading or releasing (this player), he could become a key player in another organization.

Free Blog Weekend: ROY, Ed, trades and stuff

The Astros will reach the halfway point of the 2014 season with Friday’s game against Detroit. While the team has taken a step back in June after a couple steps forward in May, Houston is now headed toward a 69-win season at its current pace.

Not exactly a winning season, not exactly the playoffs.  Still, a 69-93 finish would represent an 18-game improvement and that should be a good stepping stone to 2015.

AL Rookie of the Year.

  • George Springer has joined the race and it’s now a two-man contest. Jose Abreu, the guy the Astros didn’t sign earlier this year, is still in control, but Springer is moving into range to challenge. At this point, Springer is on pace for a 30 HR, 80 RBI season, not bad for a guy who spent the first three weeks in the minors. One of the keys to the race for Springer may be how well Jon Singleton, Matt Dominguez or others around him hit the rest of the way.

Send that man a Christmas card!

  • Ed Wade should get a medal. Or two. Or at least a Christmas card. If the Astros continue to improve and, indeed, come anywhere close to Sports Illustrated’s prediction in 2017, many of the key players will have joined the Astros during the Wade administration. George Springer, Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Jason Castro, Jose Altuve and a few others all pre-date the current Jim Crane era. Of course, some of those could be elsewhere or non-performing in a couple of years. But remember, it was Wade who put together the Phillies’ championship teams last decade. He was fired three years before Philly hit it big. Can lightning strike twice? Is Wade that good?

See ya Chris, but “no!” to Chad!

  • ESPN’s Jim Bowden says there’s a 60 percent chance that Chris Carter will be traded before the deadline. Really? If Jeff Luhnow can get something decent in return, pull that trigger in June. With Jose Veras back in the fold, it could mean that Chad Qualls is expendable. As well as Qualls has pitched in his age 35 year, the Astros could sell high or at least package him with another prospect for a bigger return. Would hate to see Qualls packing, but it could also open the door in the second half for one of the young guns at Oklahoma City.

Where are they now?

  • Former GM Tim Pupura. Senior Director of Player Development, Texas Rangers.
  • Former GM Ed Wade.  Special consultant, Philadelphia Phillies.
  • Former GM Gerry Hunsicker. Special advisor to the GM, Los Angeles Dodgers.
  • Former Astros’ coach Dave Clark. Third base coach, Detroit Tigers.
  • Former Astros’ broadcaster Dave Raymond. Studio host, MLB.com.
  • Rick Ankiel. Lives in Jupiter, Florida, with his family looking for a job in baseball.
  • Former manager Phil Garner. Special assistant, Oakland As.
  • 2001 opening day starter Scott Elarton. Pitching coach, GCL Pirates (Pittsburgh).
  • Former #1 pick Floyd Bannister. Runs his son’s photography business in Phoenix.

 

Free Blog Weekend: Homers, Hopelessness, Exhaustion

Talk of the Astros’ resurrection are a bit premature.

Well, after twice hitting the high-water mark of six games under .500, the Astros have now slipped to 10 games under. Still, despite the recent slide, the Astros are on pace to win 70 games. That’d be a 19-game improvement over 2013. If someone had told you in March that this team would win 70 games, I think most of you would have said, “I’m OK with that.”

I know I would have.

But that’s the problem with success. You see all the little wins, and you start to lose sight of the big picture. This team is better than last year’s version. If Houston picks up its 33rd win this weekend, that puts this team weeks ahead of last year. The 2013 Astros did not pick up win No. 33 until July 12.

HOMERS: D’OH

No home runs Thursday night, and the Astros lost. You can blame Collin McHugh (why would you?) or the botched play by Jose Altuve and Jonathan Villar (sure, why not?) or even “Gopher Ball” Paul Clemens (now we’re getting somewhere). You can blame the non-Altuve offense. Or, you can ask where the power went.

Houston lost Wednesday night as well. No homers. Tuesday night: a 6-5 loss. No long balls. Sunday afternoon against the Rays … OK, the team got two homers, both solo shots. That’s four losses and in three games the power drought was in full effect.

Overall, Houston has 32 wins, and in those wins the team has hit 57 home runs. Meanwhile, in the 42 losses, the Astros have hit just 20 home runs.

It seems the win column, along with chicks, digs the long ball. That homers bring wins isn’t news. But it makes me wonder.

Is this a case for keeping “All or Nothing” Chris Carter in the lineup? Is this a case for letting George Springer swing for the fences every time his bat twitches? Should this be the reason to dump Robbie Grossman (2 HRs in 107 ABs) and Alex Presley (3 HRs in 163 ABs)?

BAD IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Our good friend Bopert reared his cynical head yesterday … and he’s got some good points. The TV deal still seems nowhere in sight. While that doesn’t mean much to us Minnesotans (yeah, I caught your dig there, Bopert), I know it means a lot to fans living withing 300 miles or so of Houston. And, yes, the idea of .500 is looking more like a mirage each day. And, yes, Krauss was the AAAA player Bopert said he’d be.

But despite the gloom from our resident Eeyore, there are some things he said that I’d like to ask the crowd about. Is Collin McHugh a “scrub” or is he a legit member of a major league rotation? We all have our own long list of “scrubs” on this team (why does Jesus Guzman still have a uniform? … Presley … Jerome Williams and Clemens from the bullpen?) and there are some borderline names I won’t argue even if I’ve not added them to my list.

But Carlos Corporan has a .710 OPS right now as our backup catcher. Utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez is batting .273 and has a .727 OPS. And I have to keep reminding myself that Marwin is ONLY 25 years old.

It’s late and I don’t intend to scour every roster to see how each team’s backup catcher and utility infielder is hitting. But I’d say, if those are their roles on this team, as bench players and spot starters, I’d say Houston is getting its money’s worth. I’d also challenge anyone to find seven backup catchers in the AL doing better than Corporan or seven utility infielders in the AL doing better than Marwin. These two are in the top half of the league at what they do.

“I’M TIRED … TIRED OF PLAYING THE GAME …”

The Astros’ bullpen has got to be singing Lilly von Shtupp’s song from “Blazing Saddles.” Thursday Porter used only three pitchers, two from the ‘pen. But the team also pitched only eight innings (that’s the benefit of a road loss I guess). Four relievers on Wednesday, five on Tuesday and five on Sunday.

Does Porter need to relax the pitch count a bit? Maybe send a guy out even if he’s over 95 pitches? For example, McHugh on Thursday had just cleared the century mark but looked like he could handle another inning.

Remember when Keuchel nearly pitched three complete games? Man, I bet the bullpen was glad for the rest. I actually was starting to respect Porter then. Alas, he’s gone to his old overwork-the-pen ways.

FINALLY …

Some good news. Jose Altuve is having a great year. He’s in a neck-and-neck battle for the AL batting title right now. As of Thursday night, he’s second to Robinson Cano. He’s also second in the league in doubles trailing Melky Cabrera 24-23. His major league-leading 98 hits have him well on pace to collect 200 on the season. Heck, he could miss a couple of weeks and still be on track. He’s swiped 26 bases in 29 attempts, and apparently has hit the century mark in his career.

But here’s what I’m loving the most: In nearly 300 at-bats he’s struck out only 22 times. And while his 19 walks are a bit low (he’d set a goal to walk 10 times a month, so that’s not happening …) it’s because he is just hitting the ball non-stop.

I won’t bore you with my love of Dallas Keuchel at this point. Maybe another day. (Or maybe one of you can talk about how he’s doing awesome.) But there are rays of sunshine in this, another year of losing baseball.

So here’s some questions to ponder:

  • When Houston loses, what is it that is the missing ingredient that game from this team? Where is it misfiring that day?
  • This season has some good and bad to it. But what, as we head toward 90-plus losses, just bugs the crud out of you?
  • For a while, it seemed we were all singing Porter’s praises and pointing to improved play everywhere, including (gasp!) the bullpen. Is Porter back to his mismanaging ways? Or have the starters been forcing his hand?
  • Will Bass, Crain and Albers make a difference when they return in a few weeks? All are listed as “possible June” or “possible late June” on the injury report. Would their return be the shot-in-the-arm this bullpen needs?
  • What’s your bright spot this year? Altuve? The Springleton call ups? Keuchel? Collin McHugh?

OK, so talk amongst yourselves. It’s a Free Blog Weekend.

FREE BLOG WEEKEND: Things that will fix the Astros

It’s wide open. It’s a FREE BLOG Weekend! Assume Jim Crane, Jeff Luhnow and Bo Porter are reading and paying attention.

The weekend question is simple: What will fix the Astros?  Not necessarily what will get them to first place or even the playoffs, but what will make them worth watching or following?

Here are some starters:

And oldie, but a goodie.

  • Just bring up the kids. Hey, I’m convinced Jonathan Singleton and Austin Wates can hit at least .190 (like Jesus Guzman) or .167 (like L.J. Hoes). Pretty sure Mike Foltynewicz could throw out a 5ish ERA like the other guys. So, why not let ’em get their maturation in front of 19,000 fans per game instead of 4,000? Monday’s an off day, always a good opportunity for roster movement. Just sayin’.

Get back to the basics.

  • If I were Porter, there would be extra infield/outfield practice daily. Yes, daily! Baserunning drills would be part of the daily activity. Daily team meetings to review fundamentals. Hey, it’s like the preacher whose sermon was the same Sunday after Sunday. One parishioner came up and asked: “Preacher, the people are getting tired of the same old sermon every Sunday. When are you going to stop preaching on tithing?” The preacher looked back and said: “When the message sinks in and everyone seems to catch on, I’ll move on.” Ditto for bunting, throwing to the right bases, taking the extra base, base stealing, etc. Keep preaching it Bo until they catch on.

Just stick with it.

  • Probably another dead cat. But just keep putting the lineup out there. In 23 games, Porter has used too many lineups to count. Five players have hit leadoff, five in the two hole and six different players have hit cleanup. Does anyone — including the pitchers — know their roles at the end of the game? We’ve often debated the usefulness or necessity or importance of having a defined closer. I believe this season thus far seems to suggest there is an advantage to identifying a closer and sticking with that decision…at least on a regular basis.

Stay calm.

  • The Astros are 23 games into a 162-game schedule. No time to panic. Should there be an urgency? Perhaps, but if the Astros are on a five-year plan, the demeanor should reflect that. Now, if Porter is managing for his job, we’ll continue to see an unsettled nature and a restlessness. Frankly, no manager should be managing for their job in his second year. And, I honestly doubt that Luhnow has put Bo on notice.

Keep sifting out the riff raff.

Step up to the plate.

  • You’re up now. Fix the Astros!