George who? Astros have opening day down

Excuse me, but George who? Odd isn’t it, how a win on opening day can cause you to forget an entire pre-season of frustration? At least for an evening.

The Astros have this opening day stuff down! If everyday was opening day, Houston would never have another problem!

Yes, even Bo Porter can bask in the success with his all-time opening day record is 2-0.

Let’s remember, though, that the Astros were 8-2 winners last opening day over the Texas Rangers, then promptly scrambled back for two shutout losses en route to a six-game losing streak. Let’s don’t talk about Yu Darvish.

Some of you may have seen Tuesday’s game. Others of us struggled along on MLB Gameday. Still others may be just learning now about the 6-2 win in front of 42,117 fans.

Yeah, I noticed the Astros had 11 Ks and one BB. Yes, they were 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position. But forget that, at least for the next 24 hours.

How ’bout that pitching? Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers. What was that you were saying about L.J. Hoes? Jesus Guzman? Not to mention Jose Altuve and Dexter Fowler.

Save your rants for another day, there’ll likely be plenty. For one day, though, celebrate with what went right for the 1-0 Astros.

 

Opening day: Comparing 2013 and 2014 pitching

They say the game of baseball is all about pitching and defense. Enter your favorite “Rah roh George!” or “Houston, we’ve got a problem!” line here. There isn’t a marked difference from last April to this April. Still, though the edge may go to the 2014 rotation, it’s not a slam dunk.

The primary difference is that this rotation may get a chance to gel together. Last year’s opening day starter Bud Norris was on the trade block starting in spring training. Most of this year’s rotation should avoid the trade talk for the duration of the season as long as they perform.

You can read other Astros’ comparisons today:

We rated the rotation in the order Bo Porter set up his rotation in 2013 and how he’s lined them up to start this season.

You can argue this one all day and all night. And you wouldn’t be wrong. In other words, somewhat of a tossup, but I’ll give Feldman the edge because of maturity. Bud might still be in Houston if not for attitude. Edge: Feldman.

Do you even have to ask? The Astros are better in the #2 slot in 2014. No brainer, hands down. Cosart has better stuff, more upside and — injuries aside — will last longer in the rotation this season. Edge: Cosart. By. A. Mile.

Humber actually had a solid spring, but ended up spending more time in Oklahoma City than Houston. Because of his youth, not to mention his southpawness, Oberholtzer can step up big if he can connect his 2013 season with strong innings early on this season. Edge: Oberholtzer, if only because of his strong 2013 season.

Harrell was bumped down in the rotation (#2 to #4) this season and Peacock is in the bullpen. Honestly, come the break, Harrell could be gone or in the bullpen and Peacock could be back in the rotation. Both have flashes, but neither will provide the consistency the Astros need. Edge: Pick ’em.

Some would call Keuchel a young man’s version of Bedard. Soft-throwing. Finesse. Crafty. Both pitched in relief and as a starter. In all likelihood, Keuchel will do so again. You could argue that Keuchel should win this battle because of his youth and the fact he’s my sleeper. He’s another pitcher who has the potential of going wire to wire on the roster. Edge: Pick ’em.

And, then, there’s the bullpen.

Bo Porter trotted out 26 different players to pitch last season. Of those 26, Norris was the only one who did not pitch in relief. That was out of necessity.

As long as injuries don’t take their toll, the bullpen — at least on paper — should be improved considerably. Even though Jesse Crain may not return for several weeks, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Josh Fields and other should bring some stability to the late game for Houston.

Come on, tell me you’d rather have these guys (from 2013) carrying gas cans to the mound: Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz and friends. Instead of Qualls, Albers, Fields, Kevin Chapman and Peacock.

Edge: 2014 pen. No argument. Without a doubt.

Now, here’s the ace up the sleeve or you could even call these guys a secret weapon of sorts. There are actually 3-4 players in the upper minors who could make a big splash by either late May or June. In fact, any one of them could be game changers and become the Roy Oswalt of 2001.

Alex White

  • Working his way back from Tommy John surgery last April. Most people forget he was tabbed as the fifth starter before he was injured. The 25-year-old is a former first rounder who possible top-of-the-rotation stuff. He could start in Houston’s bullpen sooner than later.

Asher Wojciechowski.

  • The product of the J.A. Happ trade likely would have been on the roster albeit for that back strain. The Astros won’t rush him back, and he’ll need time to get into pitching shape. But he should be part of the mid-season cavalry for the pitching corps.

Michael Foltynewicz.

  • Some believe he could actually be the best pitching prospect in the organization, and he’s pitched only 103 innings above A ball. Seasoning and getting control of that fastball is all that separates him from a call to Houston. Realistically, he could be a 2015 addition, but don’t count out 2014. Some people will scoff at the fact I can see him as a future closer, but I’m not alone in that mindset.

How do you rank ’em?

2013 vs 2014 Infield: Turnip Ice Cream or Radish Sandwiches?

OK – a little truth in advertising here – I have been tasked with comparing the 2013 and 2014 Astros infield and catcher. The title I have chosen really only applies to the infield, not the catcher position, but I liked it so much I’m using it anyways.

I never have heard of anyone eating turnip ice cream, but my mother said that her family was so poor living up on  a “stump” farm on the Northern Peninsula of Michigan that they had to subsist on radish sandwiches at times. Similarly, we seem to be subsisting on the baseball equivalent of radish sandwiches – there is potential for better….but we will discuss that a little later.

You can also read other Astros’ comparisons today:

1B – The 2013 Astros relied on three main contributors (or at times subtractors) – Carlos Pena, Brett Wallace and Chris Carter at first base.  Brandon Laird and some others also manned the spot – but these three men drove the overall stats at the un-hot corner. The good – included a solid 29 HRs and an OK 74 RBI cumulatively. The bad included a .224 BA and a rally killing 219 K’s for all the folks for games they were playing 1B.  The overall numbers drove the Astros to release Pena during the season, Wallace after the season and to set up a different 3 headed monster for 2014.

Based on spring training – Jesus Guzman will get the majority of starts at 1B with Marc Krauss and Carter splitting time behind him. The Astros believe that Guzman will hit much better away from Petco Park. Fans have to wonder why he has seen huge declines in OPS the last 3 seasons (from .847 to .737 to .675) and why he has not cracked 300 ABs in any of the three seasons.

Is this position in limbo until Jonathan Singleton arrives? Or with Singleton’s recent struggles is this a black hole at a normal power spot?

2B – Since second base belonged to Jose Altuve in 2013 and still does – this would seem to be a straight forward comparison.

Basically, this comes down to a simple question with a complex answer. Jose, what do you want to be when you grow up (not grow taller – grow up)?

After a solid 2012 and a spot on the All-Star squad – Jose took a tumble in most measurable statistics in 2013 and in some unmeasurables. In 42 more plate appearances, he had less runs scored, less doubles, triples, HRs,  walks, more Ks, his BA/OBP/OPS line went down from .290 / .340 / .740 to .283 / .316 / .678. He led the league in getting caught stealing and Lord knows how many other outs he ran into.

His spring training line ran down to .254 / .279 / .618 with only 2 walks in 59 ABs and for some reason Bo Porter thinks he belongs in the 3rd spot in the lineup.

Altuve needs to turn it around this season or he may find himself the man outside looking in as some of the Astros’ middle infielders (Joe Sclafani? Nolan Fontana?) rise up out of the minors in the next season or so.

SS – Here is mama’s recipe: take a chunk of Ronny Cedeno, add in equal parts Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar, a pinch of Jake Elmore and you end up with….an unmitigated disaster. If mom made this, you would not be heading home for Thanksgiving.

In 2013 Cedeno and Gonzalez could not bust the OPS Mendoza equivalent line of .600. Villar did a bit better than that with an OPS of .640 and threw in 18 steals in 57 games. And yes, Villar did not field very well – but one interesting thing. If Villar had played all 162 games – he was on pace for 45 errors. However, the 4 guys playing SS cumulatively put up 44 errors. So basically – Villar did bring a bit more offense after the call-up, and did not really hurt the already horrid SS defense of his predecessors. He didn’t help it either.

In 2014 – It is Villar with Gonzalez as his back-up. Marwin looked good at the plate in Spring Training – but he has done that before. Villar, I believe is who he is – a guy who was an error machine at every level of the minors coming up and whose best asset is his speed which is offset offensively by getting gunned down at various places as he tries to round the bases.

At SS – the future has a name and a face and we just cannot wait until Carlos Correa kicks butt all the way up to the majors….unless he needs to be held back like George Springer.

3B – 2013 third base is the same as 2014 third base….Matt Dominguez. It has been stated here a number of times – Dominguez seemed to figure out something during the season and was a much better hitter in the second half of the season. Maybe he stayed away from John Mallee (that is just a joke – hopefully it will be proven that Dominguez is the only guy who learned from him during the season). Dominguez made a few too many errors on routine balls – but compared to the folks that played at SS – he showed he belonged big time.

Everyone is praying that his ST stats mean nothing (0 HR – 2 RBI – .186 BA and .625 OPS), because he produced close to nothing. Oh well – usually the guys who are slumping in ST, turn around when the season begins – in which case this team will be on fire in April….

The future of 3B may be a Fontana or a Sclafani or maybe young Rio Ruiz. But for now the Astro brass wants to see if Matt Dominguez can make it tough on someone to take it from him.

C – At least offensively, the catcher position is the least of the Astros worries, provided…..Jason Castro can make it to the finish line. Castro made a large leap forward in 2013 until going down with one of his annual injuries. His OPS went up a full point to .835 and while part of it was due to a very solid line against rightys – the guy basically doubled his OPS against leftys from 2012 – going from an insanely miniscule .361 to a very solid .738. Yes – he is not a great pitch blocker – but lets be honest – with last year’s staff, did the pitcher have any idea where the pitch was going half of the time?

Carlos Coporan was a decent backup pumping out 7 dingers in about 200 ABs. His CS% was way down from 2012 and again it is partly due to a young staff that did not know how to knock down runner’s leads.

Expectations are that the Astros catchers will give them above average offensive and below average defense in 2014. But it may be the only position where they get above average offense this season – so don’t pooh pooh that.

There are a number of good receivers coming up in the minors – Max Stassi and Tyler Heineman lead a fairly deep minor league crew. But don’t expect anything to happen this season (unless some team offers their best young pitcher and some other nuggets for Castro).

Summary – The Astros improvement in the areas of infield and catcher will rely mostly on improvement of individual players that manned the position in 2013 – specifically Dominguez and Altuve. This looks to be an area that will see slight improvement unless a big surprise occurs.

 

Opening Day: Outfield and “No” field (or DH)

Yep, there’s going to be some changes in the outfield … unless you’re talking about Robbie Grossman, who was all over the outfield last year and will be starting this year. None of last year’s starters in the outfield will start in it this year.

Though Chris Carter will be batting from the pine.

Left Field

Opening Day 2013: Our opening day left fielder was Chris Carter. Not a bad hitter for the season in some ways. He put up a season-long slash line of .223/.320/.451 including a team-leading 29 bombs. Carter had slightly better numbers as a left fielder, racking up an .818 OPS. It’s a good thing he hit better as a left fielder than elsewhere, because his actual left fielding kind of stunk.

You can read other Astros’ comparisons today:

Majority of 2013: The majority of at-bats in left field last year belonged to former Astro J.D. Martinez. After J.D., the guy with the most at-bats while playing left field was Robbie Grossman, who put up a .302/.348/.436 slash line in left and a .268/.332.370 line overall. In 257 Abs, he whiffed 70 times. A far cry from the strike out rate of Carter.

Opening Day 2014: Grossman will open for Houston in left field this season. In some ways, this is a plus for Houston, and in others it’s a balance. Grossman, Carter and Krauss are all current Astros. Between them, they made up more than 300 of the left field at-bats. So, that’s about some of the same.

But getting Carter out of left field would definitely be a plus. Krauss is a better fielder, and that’s saying something. Furthermore, there’s some addition by subtraction going on. No more at-bats to J.D. Martinez, Jake Elmore or Fernando Martinez.

Center Field

Opening Day 2013: After a decent 2012, Justin Maxwell opened in CF last season. In 90 at-bats, Jmax put up a line of .233/.296/.378. Yep, it was that bad.

Majority of 2013: Then, riding in on his Tal’s Hill-climbing steed came Brandon Barnes. OK, so Barnes’ offense wasn’t spectacular. But that defense made it all worthwhile, even with just a .240/.289/.346 line.

Opening Day 2014: Yep, this year will be different. Barnes is gone. JMax is gone. Grossman, who took the next-most at-bats in center, is going to spend most of 2014 in left field. This year it’s all about Dexter Fowler, who put up a .263/.369/.407 line. The big questions revolve around whether his offense translates to sea level, and if his defense is better when he’s not roaming the wide confines of Coors Field.

Right Field

Opening Day 2013: Well, are we talking about who started the game or who finished it? Brandon Barnes started the game and Rick Ankiel finished it … literally. Both are gone.

Most of 2013: Who played the most right field in 2013? Take a guess. Anyone? Anyone? Coming in at 154 at-bats in right field was none other than (drum roll) L.J. Hoes. Yep, I was shocked too. Hoes, who totaled 171 at-bats (including those 3 with Baltimore before he crossed the stadium), put up a .282/.332/.365 line. Jimmy Paredes, J.D. Martinez, Ankiel, Trevor Crowe, Maxwell and Barnes make up Nos. 2-8 on the list. Marc Krauss was No. 9. with 27 at-bats.

Opening Day 2014: Yeah, I know Hoes and Alex Presley are supposed to be platooning, but I’m going to go with Hoes against the Yankees (spit!) on opening day. And I’m guessing that until mid-June at the latest Hoes will be putting in the bulk of the time out there until You Know Who gets called up from Oklahoma City.

Designated Hitter

Opening Day 2013: Carlos Pena. The man knew how to draw a walk. We’re looking at a slash line of .207/.321/.346.

Most of 2013: Pena wasn’t the guy with the most at-bats at the no-glove spot in the lineup. That’d be Chris Carter who put up a line of .209/.307/.442 while DH-ing.

Opening Day 2014: Carter, whose overall slash last season was .223/.320/.451 with 29 Hrs but 212 Ks. Yep, we’re hoping for better contact in 2014.