Rookies, quality starts no good when bullpen leaks like a sieve

Whether it’s little league, high school, college or professional, pitching and defense are the keys to any successful baseball team. Few teams win without those elements and no team wins consistently.

Throw in a anemic hitting group, one of the worst defenses in the AL, and you have a 100-loss team. But, as you know, starting pitching has not been the issue for this year’s Astros. If the team had kept Jose Veras, or invested in the back end of the pitching staff, perhaps the kick to the finish line would have been different.

Take a look at some of these numbers.

71 quality starts, 51 wins.

  • You can interpret those stats any number of ways, but it seems clear the Astros have provided enough starting pitching this season to make a decent team. Sure, you’ll lose a 3-2 or 2-1 game here or there, but even a decent bullpen combined with 71 quality starts should be enough to get to 60 wins by this point, no?
  • Think about it like this: Boston has won 91 games with 87 QS and Texas has 81 wins with 71 QS.

Houston is 18-28 in one-run games and 13-17 in two-run games. Here’s a rundown of some of the lower-scoring games.

  • 0-1 in 1-0 games.
  • 3-1 in 2-0 games.
  • 0-1 in 3-0 games.
  • 4-5 in 2-1 games.
  • 2-5 in 3-1 games.
  • 4-3 in 3-2 games.

2.56 ERA for rookie starters.

  • Since July 12, four rookie starters have not only been impressive, they have been dominant. During that span, Jarred Cosart, Brad Peacock, Brett Oberholtzer and Paul Clemens have pitched 172 1/3 innings in 28 starts for a combined 2.56 ERA. Folks, the top teams in the league haven’t posted those numbers.

Meanwhile, the bullpen this season has been horrific. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but consider these 2013 bullpen numbers:

  • 60 save opportunities.
  • 28 blown saves.
  • League-worst 5.13 ERA.
  • League-worst 229 walks.
  • League-worst .275 batting average against, 22 points higher than the closest team!
  • League-worst 82 HRs, 24 more than the closest team!
  • League-worst 1.55 WHIP.
  • League-worst .833 OPS against, .150 higher than the Astros’ team.

Okay, I’ll stop. But consider that just 21 blown saves could have resulted in a 14-game swing in the Astros 51-98 record. Can you say 58-91?

The obvious good news is that the Astros have apparently found the some solutions for the rotation. The bad news is that the team will need to clean house — with a couple of possible exceptions — in the bullpen.

With that news, here’s a little either/or to start your week:

  • Best chance to be successful in 2014 rotation: Cosart, Peacock, Oberholtzer, Clemens.
  • Not convinced on this one, could be a paper tiger: Cosart, Peacock, Oberholtzer, Clemens.
  • Could make some noise in Houston at some point in 2014: Mark Appel, Mike Foltynewicz, Asher Wojciechowski or Nick Tropeano.
  • In the dugout, most likely to be gone by December: Bo Porter, hitting coach John Mallee, pitching coach Doug Brocail, bench coach Eduardo Perez.
  • Who do you blame the most for the team’s pitching woes: Jeff Luhnow, Bo Porter, Doug Brocail or Drayton McLane?
  • What has contributed the most to Astros losing close games? Bullpen, lack of hitting, or defense?
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Defense rivals bullpen as Astros’ biggest need for improvement

The Astros are bad in so many areas and good in so few, it’s hard to isolate which area is in the worst condition. Starting pitching has been a highlight, even a bright light in recent weeks, but that one area hasn’t been enough to improve a poor team, much less carry it.

Obviously, the bullpen is not only horrific, but in need of major revision. Astros’ hitters are among the worst in the majors in average, runs scored and strikeouts. Most of us can recount several base running fiascos during 2013 and the Astros have been caught stealing (42) more than any other team in baseball.

Still, one of the most perplexing areas is defense. The Astros lead the league — in fact, the majors — with 95 errors. It’s quite possible that Matt Dominguez, once projected as a gold glove type, will make more errors than any other season as a pro. Add to that countless errors by four different shortstops and pitchers must be pitching to hitters so they hit to the right side.

Indeed, the bullpen has the worst ERA in the AL (5.20), but it’s also allowed the most unearned runs in the league (31).

If the name of the game is pitching and defense, it’s no secret why the Astros are in trouble. Despite strong outings that portend promising careers, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and even Jordan Lyles or Brad Peacock or Dallas Keuchel can change that.

You may arrange these differently, but here are the five worst areas of the 2013 Astros:

  • Bullpen.
  • Defense.
  • Clutch hitting.
  • Fundamentals (base running, bunting, working counts)
  • Overall hitting. How many regulars are below .250?

Your thoughts on the worst area(s) for this year’s Astros?

More quick thoughts heading into the weekend:

Cosart has a way of turning a bad day into a beautiful thing

From skeptic, cynic and head shaker to upbeat, excited and hopeful. All in one 24-hour period.

That’s what someone like Jarred Cosart can do for fans. And for a team struggling toward another 100-loss season.

This kid can pitch. Without television, it’s the first time I’ve seen him pitch as a major leaguer.

He’s not only a keeper, but looks to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for years to come. And, everything that Ed Wade hoped for when he made the trade. Gotta figure that Wade — now back in Philadelphia — is taking some good-natured ribbing from folk in the organization after Cosart’s start to his major league career.

Nonetheless, the Cosart’s pitch-and-miss-the-bat routine is catching quite a bit attention, though he quite obviously still needs to perfect his game. He looks smaller than his 6-3, 180 frame, and pitchers more like a 6-5, 215 guy. More importantly, he seems to have command of his pitches and knows when to throw his repertoire.

Which brings me to this short discussion point today: Other than George Springer, which players in the system or currently in Houston do you drool over? Which ones do you believe will have the Cosart-effect rather than the Chris Burke-effect?

Other than Springer and Carlos Correa, here are the Top 5 can’t-wait-to-see candidates for me:

  • Jonathan Singleton. Still think he’ll make a difference in a big way.
  • Nolan Fontana. Surprise, darkhorse. Great eye at the plate, good defense.
  • Asher Wojciechowski. Like Cosart, seems to know how to miss the bat. Can’t wait to see him back-to-back with Cosart.
  • Mark Appel. Any list should include him. Rough start, but here’s a hunch he could be in Houston late 2014.
  • Lance McCullers/Mike Foltynewicz. Okay, I’m pitcher-happy, but the Astros have a shot at a dominant rotation for the next decade and these two could be part of that.

Chris Burke effect. Yes, I’m hoping there are more Cosarts than Burkes, but here are a few I have concerns about:

  • Delino Deshields. Yes, he may still work out. He’s hitting .310 right now, but 2014 could tell a lot more.
  • Singleton. Yep, he’s on both lists. Hoping his 2013 is just a get-back-in-the-swing-of-things after the drug suspension, but his season is worrisome.
  • Jordan Lyles. No, not a prospect, of course, but not sure where he fits. His relief stint may also be an indication the Astros have concerns, though he could clearly develop into a solid middle rotation guy.

Your thoughts? Your lists?

Friday thoughts on Cosart, Bedard, magic numbers and video tape

Hey, football season is getting close! How ’bout those Tigers? Or them Texans?! Wait, that’s an Astros’ logo on top of this entry. Wonder if the Astros could trade the rest of the season for cash considerations? Or maybe just a couple of series.

Seriously, there are only a few people who thought that the Astros might lose 110+ games, but I’m beginning to think that’s exactly where the team is headed. After 120 games, the Astros have a seven-game lead on Miami and the White Sox in the race to claim the #1 pick in 2014.  Guess we’ll need to start factoring the “magic” number.

Meanwhile, here are some other thoughts as the Astros head into the weekend in Anaheim. Could Bo Porter leave after one year to return to Washington and Mike Scioscia become the next Astros’ manager? Oh, nevermind.

Jarred Cosart for Rookie of the Year.

  • Okay, there probably aren’t enough games and innings left in the season. Still, this guy just keeps churning out shutout innings and the best pitching gems of an otherwise dismal season. Cosart is easily the brightest spot and freshest breath of air this year. Rookie of the Year? With 42 games left in the season, he’s likely to get another 7-8 starts, probably 40-50 innings. It would put him shy of 100 IP for the MLB season, but if he continues to pitch at his current level, it will at least generate some conversation in a AL ROY race that so far has been ho-hum.

The Erik Bedard conundrum.

  • Got to admit, it’s a little surprising that Bedard wasn’t traded at the deadline.  Even more surprising, he apparently slipped through waivers this month, even though he would have cost a team a few hundred thousand. While he’s been up and down, Bedard has provided some quality innings for the Astros. You’d think a playoff contender looking to patch up a rotation or bullpen would have kicked the tires or taken a flyer. Is he really all that bad? Since no one else is interested, would you spend $1 million to bring Bedard back in 2014?

Let’s go to the videotape!

  • No more blown calls, right? Don’t count on it, but the expanded replay system in 2014 could certainly change the game. Television — more specifically the slow motion video replays — have changed the way we all look at the game. There are many calls we see that, without the slide-by-slide-by-slide, no one would know the difference. It’s left a sour taste in most people’s mouths about even the best umpires. Now, a close play that previously could have gone either way may now go the other way. And change the game. I’m on the fence with this one and have lots of questions, but not sure it’s the best thing. Then, I think about Armando Galarraga. More next week, but I’m sure you have some thoughts on more replay.

The merry go round continues.

  • The Astros have used 46 players in 2013 and seem to be a cinch to break the team record of 50. Believe it or not, only seven players have stayed in Houston all season: Bedard, Lucas Harrell, Jose Altuve, Matt Dominguez, Chris Carter, Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan. The rest have been part of an unprecedented revolving door between Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City and Houston. Bet you can’t even remember the starting rotation out of spring training. I couldn’t, had to look it up, and was still surprised.

And then, there’s Nate Freiman.

  • You can fill in the blanks after the 4-for-4 day against the Astros Thursday.

It’s time to build the Astros’ house

Stop the streak! It’s time to build the house.

For the past four seasons, the Astros have been sellers at the trade deadline. In fact, two different general managers have traded away more than a full roster trying to find the right combination to create a winner. Bereft of real veterans in the organization, Luhnow is now moving younger players, still seeking to assemble the foundation for an organization in decline since reaching the pinnacle in 2005.

Stop the bleeding, it’s time to build the house!  As any contractor will tell you, it takes 2x4s and bricks to rebuild a house. You can spend only so much time on the foundation. It’s time for the Astros to put the “build” into the “rebuild”.

No, this isn’t an indictment on either Luhnow, owner Jim Crane or their ambitious reconstruction plan. While most baseball savvy fans are in the GM’s corner and are patiently watching the blueprint slowly come to life, the Astros should throw fans a few crumbs along the way. Maybe sooner than later.

Locking up Jose Altuve is nice. Bringing up Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Villar is a good start. George Springer in a few more weeks would be great too.

With Jason Castro approaching arbitration, perhaps it’s time to buy out a few of those arb years in inexpensive fashion. It wouldn’t take an Altuve contract.

Perhaps more importantly, the Astros need to begin to build around those players. Add some key veterans who aren’t of the low-risk, high-reward, release-in-midseason group. They shouldn’t necessarily be free agents. But, with much pitching in the stable and with John Ely and Alex White working their way back with a good young core, it may be time for a well-placed addition or two in the lineup.

Let’s see how Luhnow fashions a trade from the “other” side. In other words, not just selling off the major league roster. But can he put together 2-3 low-level “prospects” for a major league third baseman or outfielder this winter?

He’s proven he can do well in the draft. He can negotiate contracts. He’s shown evidence of being shrewd at signing low-risk, high-reward players (e.g. Jose Veras) in hopes of flipping them later. Say what you will about Rick Ankiel, Carlos Pena or Tyler Greene, but he’s wasted little money in the big picture trying to find a diamond in the rough.

Yes, the Astros have proven very good at one aspect of the rebuild project. The minor league system is now among the best in all of baseball. For his next act, Luhnow will try to put some meat on those bones.

Indeed, there’s a strong foundation, it’s time to build the house.

Here’s a list of those traded over the past few years.

  • Carlos Lee 1B.
  • Jeff Keppinger 2B.
  • Jed Lowrie SS.
  • Chris Johnson 3B.
  • Lance Berkman LF.
  • Michael Bourn CF.
  • Hunter Pence RF.
  • Humberto Quintero C.
  • Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ.
  • Bullpen: Wilton Lopez, Mark Melancon, Brandon Lyon, Jose Veras,
  • Bench: J.B. Shuck, Justin Maxwell, Jason Bourgeois.

So with one third of the season remaining…

  • Has the team reached the bottom yet?
  • Will Houston actually play better now that the deadline has passed?
  • Which position should Luhnow target this winter?
  • How should the Astros proceed over the next 18 months?
  • Have the Astros done well in trading those players listed above?

Thank you Mr. Cosart, it’s fun to be an Astros’ fan again!

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It’s fun to be an Astros’ fan again!

You can circle the date July 12 on your calendar. Talk about tipping points. This may well be the moment in time we can all point to in 2015 when the Astros’ turnaround began. The time when the organization began to emerge from the deep abyss of the longest dark ages in the team’s history.

Jordan Cosart has provided hope.  Hope that perhaps no other player has provided in a decade. Meanwhile, Ed Wade must be cringing at making that Hunter Pence trade back in 2011, especially since his employer is the Phillies.

Yes, it’s fun to be an Astros’ fan again.

Jonathan Singleton, Asher Wojciechowski, George Springer are close to their debuts. Carlos Correa, Mark Appel and Mike Foltynewicz and others are possibly coming in another year or two.

Can’t remember the last time a long-awaited Astros’ prospect has been met with this type of celebration. Was it Roy Oswalt? Hunter Pence? Lance Berkman?

No doubt, Jarred Cosart has made it fun to be an Astros’ fan again!

Will his debut expedite the promotions of other prospects? Not necessarily, although it’s going to be difficult for Jeff Luhnow to keep Springer in Oklahoma City until September if he keeps hitting .400.

But here’s one thought — and it has nothing to do with starting the clock. But perhaps it can be considered trite. If the Astros let him have that gargantuan year in the minors — 30/30 year with 100 RBI and make a run at 100 runs scored — they could also minimize his number of major league at bats. What does that do? Think Rookie of the Year 2014.

And, now, Luhnow takes another step in the reconstruction project with the extension of Jose Altuve. You can say the dominos are beginning to fall — in the right way — for the Astros.

Have I mentioned that it’s fun to be an Astros’ fan again?!

See ya Bud! What was that complaint Lucas? Sorry, those attitudes and opinions will be lost in the turnaround.

It’s a new day, and it’s fun to be an Astros’ fan again.

  • Cosart will be back in a couple of weeks. How many starts and wins do you predict for 2013?
  • Who’s next to be promoted? Springer, Wojciechowski or Singleton?
  • Getting closer to the deadline, which players will be wearing other uniforms come August 1? Norris, Bedard, Harrell, Veras, others?
  • The entire rotation could go topsy-turvy in the next two weeks. Here’s a guess at the rotation in September: Lyles, Cosart, Keuchel, Wojciechowski, someone acquired in a trade. Your guess?