Friday, March 27, 2015

David Rollins Suspended for Steroid Use

News recently broke that the Mariners Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins - who is formerly from the Astros organisation - has tested positive for the anabolic steroid Stanozolol, and will be suspended 80 games.  The Mariners were looking carefully at offering the lefty Rollins a spot in the 'pen.

Statements out of the Mariners organisation seem supportive of Rollins' indiscretion.  Rollins himself - in a statement contained in the link above, and issued through the Players Association - also spoke of the support that the Mariners have extended.  Rollins' statement seems to indicate that he does not contest the positive test, and that he briefly dabbled in steroid use to help recover from the fatigue of Winter Ball.

I think I will fall off my chair the day that a Major League ballplayer announces that not only did he use, but he has been using for a long time, and gosh, steroids help performance.  Rollins' statement represents another data-point in the "man, I used once and got pinged" narrative that both the Players Association and MLB is wanting to promote, because it proves that their testing programme is thorough, and picks up even the little guys that "make mistakes" in trying to make an active roster.

David Ortiz also made news about steroids earlier in a piece penned for the Players' Tribune.  Read into that piece what you want - as I mentioned in my last post about Brady Aiken, the Tribune is simply there to publish the players' side of the story, and there is no sense that the articles need to be balanced or are in any way open to comment or critique from anyone else.  Trust one-sided publications at your peril.  Of course, the Tribune probably exists because players were upset about stuff written about them in the press that they felt lacked balance. But I would encourage you to read Ortiz's article, because it also speaks to the difficulties around false accusations of steroid users, and the significant encroachment into players' lives that result from stringent testing.  Regardless of whether you think Ortiz used or not.

But, regardless, testing is expensive, and players are less frequently tested than ballplayers and MLB would have you believe.  And, when David Ortiz says he has been tested 80 times, the confidential nature of the testing signed in the CBA means that MLB has no capacity to refute that.  But both MLB and the Players Association are likely to want you to believe that people are tested all the time, and little guys like David Rollins just happened to be unlucky, and were only wanting to recover from a busy winter.

In situations like this we are unlikely to ever find out the extent of a players' use.  The reason for that is because neither the Players Association nor MLB are particularly motivated to provide clarity, and are happy to promote the idea that people just make mistakes, and happen to get pinged for it.

There is a non-zero chance that Rollins' performance over a significant period of time has been assisted by performance enhancing drugs, and that his actual level of performance potentially sits below what he has demonstrated over the last year or two.  It is possible that the Astros knew something about that, and were happy to expose him in the Rule 5 draft, but organisations simply cannot be seen to turn a blind eye to the use of performance enhancing drugs, so the Astros would never, never admit this.

In terms of what this may mean for player transactions, the irony is that Rollins is less likely to be returned to the Astros because of this test - which makes no sense, really.  Rollins can sit on the restricted list for the length of his suspension, and is then entitled to pitch in the minors on a rehab assignment, which could potentially account for the first 100 games of the season.  Then he will arrive to assist the bullpen for a stretch run, and only have to be maintained on the 25 man for around 75 to 60-odd games.  The addition of a fresh, effective pitcher in the 'pen that late in the year seems like a tempting idea to me.

Which means that, unless he totally falls apart, the Astros can probably kiss him goodbye.

Brady Aiken's TJS

I remember where I was when Brady Aiken was drafted by the Astros.  I was driving between two of my work sites listening to Robert Ford and Steve Sparks via Gameday at the exact moment the draft was happening.  Aiken was my preferred pick prior to the draft, mostly because there had been a bit of negative publicity about Carlos Rodon and his reliance on his slider, and partly because I could see him in the Bigs in 2016 or 2017.  Anyhow, after one joyous yell, one fist pump, and one near collision with a car driving the other way, I settled in to fantasise about Clayton Kershaw Mk II and what it would mean to the Astros for the rest of my travels.

Stuff, of course, started to go awry pretty much straight away.  Aiken visited Houston, no deals were announced, then whispers about there being a problem emerged.  The deadline for signing got closer, and the pundits seemed to say that perhaps there may be a problem, but that it would be highly unusual for something not to be worked out.  The deadline passed, Aiken stayed unsigned, and the Astros took a bath in the media, losing Mac Marshall and Jacob Nix in the process.

I wrote a little bit about Aiken and his situation in the aftermath of the whole cluster-fudge.  Re-reading the article, I think it holds up pretty well over time.  The details around what was said were clearly important: Close and Aiken claimed that he had no symptoms and therefore wasn't sick, the Astros obviously saw something else that they didn't like, and the available information seemed to point to an unusual situation that perhaps related to Aiken's ability to have effective rehabilitative interventions in the future.

I thought - at the time - that a fair amount of time would need to lapse to tell who was "the winner" in this situation.  (Disclaimer: there is no winner, but the issue really is whether the Astros actions were justified).   Regardless, I didn't expect this to shake down so quickly.  Aiken's recent start was - to the best of my tiny amount of knowledge - the first time that he threw in a game since the draft, and he lasted all of 13 or so pitches.

It would be tempting for an Astros fan to get all cock-a-hoop about Aiken's failed run-up to the 2015 draft, and declare the Astros "the winner" at this point.  But, not so fast.  This wasn't about currently being injured.  The information that we had appeared to be about his ability to successfully rehabilitate, and with pitchers, elbows are always worth looking at.

Now Aiken has already had TJS, so he is clearly able to have the procedure.  But there are a lot of recovery milestones between having the operation, and successfully throwing fastballs in the mid-90's and snapping breaking pitches for strikes.  So the next 12 months will be hugely important for Aiken and his rehabilitation, and the year-or-two after that will go a long way toward proving Aiken's ability or inability to stay healthy.

Regardless of the intensity of a fan's affiliation with the Astros, I would hope that no one is wishing for Aiken to have come to the end of his career.

I also need to point out that the Astros simply cannot afford to whiff on these number-one picks.  And in the middle of 2014, it certainly looked like they had screwed up the 2013 draft, with Appel throwing meatballs in Hi-A, and Kris Bryant mashing while he raced up the minor league ladder.  With Appel and Bryant, things look a little more even now, but with Dominguez posting an OBP of .260 in mid-2014, Bryant would have looked pretty darn good in getting a cup of coffee.

I have two other brickbats to throw.  This is the first time I have visited the Players' Tribune.  I am not  impressed, and won't be adding it to my compulsory reading list.  It looks like a fancy looking forum for athletes to post whatever unmitigated rubbish they want, with no filtering or capacity for anyone to question or present any counter-arguments.  Because athletes are always right, and journalists are horrible when they question what they say.  This is why the Players' Tribune exists.  Gah!

Of course, the second brickbat is directed toward the press.  Lots of cheap copy that vilified the Astros around the time of the whole debacle was printed, painting them as a ruthless or incompetent organisation that blackmailed a poor, innocent high-schooler whose only crime was to have dreams of greatness.  Bad, evil Astros!!  Crushing dreams since Luhnow employed a phalanx of robot number-crunchers to rid baseball of the human side.

I plan to count the number of articles in the press that acknowledge their previous missteps, or thoughtfully revisit their articles from July and August of last year.  I am confident that nothing like that will occur - because that is not how most of the press works.  They need to fill columns and sell copy - and it doesn't matter who gets in the way, but up-playing the drama of the story often gets to sell more.  Every story needs a villain, the Astros fitted the bill nicely, and the narrative about the Astros and their incompetency / ruthlessness / whatever gets to gain traction.

If you haven't already visited Constable's Rage-venture post, please do so now.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Brady Aiken has Tommy John surgery

Unsigned 2014 1-1 pick Brady Aiken wrote today in the Player's Tribune that he had Tommy John surgery yesterday.

Aiken made his 2015 debut for the IMG Academy last week, and left his start after 12 pitches (maybe 14, I can't remember exactly. It wasn't a lot.)

Aiken:
...Over the last nine months, I didn't dwell too much on what happened over the summer...I just put my total focus into preparing for the 2015 Draft. My workouts were the best they had ever been. I was throwing better and harder than I had ever before. And then...I threw a pitch and something felt a little wrong.

As you likely recall, Aiken and the Astros couldn't come to an agreement after the Astros found an irregularity in his post-draft/pre-signing physical and offered Aiken/Casey Close the minimum amount they possibly could and still receive compensation for not signing Aiken. More on that in a minute. As the deadline drew to a close, the Astros tried a last-ditch offer for the amount to which they had previously agreed, and They wouldn't pick up the phone. 

Think about that for a second. The Astros couldn't convince a 17-year old or his family to take $6.5m. 

Aiken actually addresses that:
I can honestly say I don't regret not signing. It was a very difficult decision, but it also was an informed decision based on circumstances only a few people know the truth about...We weighed the pros and cons, talked with friends and mentors and doctors whose opinions we value and discussed it over a number of family dinners...

Now your money quote:
The money wasn't the only factor to consider. I wanted to play somewhere I felt comfortable, with a support system I felt would lay the groundwork for a successful and long career. Making sure I had that in place was worth the frustration of not being able to get on with my career sooner.

Alright, I'll stop before I make clicking the link not worth the time. But there are some things to chew on here.

1. Brady Aiken does not regret not taking $6.5m from the Astros (UPDATE: Or $5.1m or whatever). This is hard to fathom for regular people. You likely know I teach high school. Brady Aiken turned down an amount equal to what I will make in 151 years (Adjust based on UPDATE). That, by its very nature, disqualifies me from being "impartial." But everybody's circumstances are different. But it does mean that...

2. Brady Aiken & Posse would rather not take the Astros' millions of dollars than pitch in the Astros' system. Aiken says he wanted to "play somewhere I felt comfortable, with a support system I felt would lay the groundwork for a successful and long career." Simply by not signing with the Astros, the implication is that the Aikens didn't feel like the Astros would lay the groundwork for his "successful and long career." 

3. This is becoming a habit with the Astros. They did the same thing with Ryan Vogelsong, lowering their offer after he took a physical. Vogelsong told KNBR:
Everything that's happened to me this offseason - and one of these days I'll tell you guys all about it, when we're all sitting around having a couple beers 10 years from now when I'm done playing - and you'll go, 'There's no way that happened,' and I'll say, 'Yup,' and you'll understand what I'm talking about.

Vogelsong's agent tried to clarify that the Astros didn't give him the willies, but Twice is a pattern. What is said pattern? Physicals are not a rubber stamp. They will come to a verbal agreement and, depending on what the medical stuff shows, have no problem adjusting their financials based on the medical information provided for them. We can make jokes about Brady Aiken's tiny UCL all day long, but the Bidness Side of the Astros - as always - give zero craps about what you think, what The Media thinks, what the MLBPA thinks, and what the player and/or his agent thinks. 

Is this worthwhile? In the short-term, yes. Like speculating on whether or not Carlos Correa would have broken his leg had the Astros promoted him to Corpus earlier, this is a hard concept on which to get a handle, because you're dealing with alternate histories. Would Brady Aiken be 24 hours removed from Tommy John surgery were he already in the Astros' system? Apparently the Astros thought that it was enough of a risk (though, to me, anyone who throws harder than 64mph is a full-body cast waiting to happen) to destroy what little favorable outsider-perception they still enjoyed. But that has always been their M.O., a "screw your opinion, we're here to win some games...at some point" philosophy. Regardless, the Astros didn't give $6-ish million to a player who won't pitch until 2016. 

But that long play, though...that's trickier. If you thought that Base Ball had gotten past its Good Ol' Boy days, you're quite wrong. You can see there is a visceral reaction to the Astros, or at least Jeff Luhnow. Maybe it's the Sports Illustrated 2017 World Series Champs cover. Maybe, though, it's the perception that Luhnow doesn't care about human feelings. You and I kick the coffee table, we fall to the ground and weep. Jeff Luhnow kicks the coffee table and it splinters like a bullet hitting an Ikea bookshelf. You and I need coffee in the morning. Jeff Luhnow needs compressed air and some castor oil. You get my point. 

The problem is that the perception can impact the long-term health of the team to which we have chosen to be loyal (or at least mildly follow while we crack another beer). Casey Close represents some of the biggest names in baseball, and if he is at the point where he won't - or even would rather not - deal with the Astros, that's Not Good. You better believe that if 37-year old Ryan Vogelsong basically says that the Astros gave him the shakyballs, other players are listening. 

Let's say the Astros are ready to step up and spend more than $12m/year on a player (provided his MRI is like looking at Clark Kent's MRI), if the perception is - thanks to the comments made by Casey Close, Brady Aiken, and Ryan Vogelsong just in the last eight months - the Astros give no craps about the overall well-being of a player, that's a Bad Thing. Every time Peter Gammons can think to get his butt cheeks off the keyboard to his phone to tweet something mean about the Astros, players, agents, and media are paying attention. 

There's a very good chance that I'm over-thinking this, in my respite from my self- (and work-) imposed blogging hiatus. Maybe everything is fine. Maybe Giancarlo Stanton will opt-out in 25 minutes because he likes those clean unis and join the Astros. But I'm guessing that it won't happen. Players the Astros will want to sign are going to have some questions about the organization. So the $3m the Astros "saved" by not signing Aiken and the $4m they "saved" by not signing Vogelsong are going to cost more than $7m in the long-run. A lot more. 

Are the Astros validated with the news that a teenager needed Tommy John surgery? If that makes you feel good, then whatever. The Astros guessed correctly that a 17-year old who threw 98mph might need to have major surgery. Congratulations. I, for one, am not going to cheer the fact that it'll be another year and a half before we get to see Brady Aiken pitch, for anybody (it sure as hell isn't going to be for the Astros). To me, the Astros didn't "win" the Brady Aiken news. Nobody did.

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Shameless click-bait from July 20, 2014: Be sure to Choose Your Own Rageventure on the Brady Aiken decision.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jarred Cosart just might be in trouble

Story is developing, and I can't get to the link right now, but former Astros great Jarred Cosart has deleted his Twitter account after *possibly* having it put onTwitter that home dude bets LARGE. 

It's unlikely he's betting on baseball, because it's Spring Training. So - if this is true - he's betting on basketball. Or rugby,

More later. 

Fresno has awesome giveaway, cancels it

The Astros' new Triple-A franchise, the Fresno Grizzlies, had a cool idea: Play up this whole Sports Illustrated 2017 World Series Champs thing and give away 2017 World Series Champs rings...on August 15, 2015 to fans attending the game.

Yahoo - perhaps not realizing that maybe the promotion was a little tongue-in-cheek - called it the "boldest giveaway ever." The promotion was announced at a press conference yesterday as part of what would have been billed Back to the Future night, complete with a flux capacitor. The DeLorean-themed jerseys will be auctioned off with the proceeds going to Michael J. Fox's foundation for Parkinson's research.

I was very excited, considering - for the first time in my life - even going to Fresno.

But then the ring giveaway was cancelled. Grizzlies GM Derek Franks:
We met internally and have decided to replace the 2017 Houston Astros World Championship Ring with a more Fresno-centric giveaway, which more aligns with our marketing plans for 2015 and beyond. We do not want a Fresno Grizzlies giveaway to be perceived as a jinx for our Major League affiliate.

Yep, that's the reason the Astros won't win the World Series in 2017: A giveaway in 2015.

But wait. There's more. Fresno's CBS-affiliate Sports Director had this:
Soooo....the Grizzlies had permission from the Astros, hold a press conference INVOLVING A DELOREAN, then news hits, then the "internal meeting" decides to cancel the ring giveaway after it makes its way to Yahoo and ESPN. I don't believe that for one second.

Evan Drellich sums it up nicely:



Cool job, Astros.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Straily, Appel and Aplin Leave...

Just a quick update because time is short today.  This afternoon, I will be unavailable due the largest sporting event locally since the Rugby World Cup in 2011.  The pundits say too close to call, and because there is no best-of-three / five / seven format, the microscope will be on every single play.  I am not going to have much in the way of fingernails left come 10pm this evening.

Anyhow, for fans of fifth-starter races, this move signals the first significant cut of the spring.  Dan Straily, recently acquired from Chicago, was optioned to Minor League Camp prior to today's game.  He pitched yesterday, giving up a solo homer in 3-and-two-thirds - one of his better outings of the spring.  Overall, he threw 10.2 IP for 12 hits and 5 walks, while striking out six.  He gave up seven earned runs over the spring.

Putting the Spring Training stats aside, it is probably important to acknowledge Straily's recent form. After a promising early Major League career, he struggled in 2014 with the Cubbies.  It is not every year that your pitching coach can take a struggling starter and turn them into a strikeout machine with an ERA in the mid- to high- twos using just one Spring Training.  With McHugh, it took a Spring Training and three weeks in the minor leagues, after all.

And placing unrealistic expectations to one side, it seems that the Astros are intent on adjusting the way that Straily pitches to perhaps alter his repertoire or try and regain some velocity.  I think it is also likely that the Astros saw Straily as someone who may require a little more than a single Spring Training to turn his career around when they traded for him.  Overall, this move isn't surprising, especially given the Roberto Hernandez roster situation, the Sam Deduno lack of options, and the strong spring of Wojo.

Mark Appel and Andrew Aplin were both reassigned to minor league camp.  Appel had a solid spring, throwing 7 innings, giving up 5 hits and 3 walks against 5 strikeouts, and giving up two runs.  He appears ticketed to Corpus, and may be lined up for a cup of coffee or call up post-All Start Break this year.  Otherwise, he will sit in the minors for the first month of 2016, unless the Collective Bargaining Agreement is changed prior to then.

Andrew Aplin was granted 19 plate appearances, getting one hit and walking five times.  That lone hit was a single.  The Small Sample Size Police would arrest me for attempting to draw any inferences from those stats, and rightly so.  He remains an interesting prospect who is on the outside-looking-in with an Astros organisation with a number of high-ceiling outfield prospects and young major league pieces.

The camp now sits at 41, with the interesting decisions likely to be made in the next week.  Opening day is, after all, only two weeks from today, and the Astros have stated that they want player-battles over in the last week prior to starting the season.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Seven More Optioned... Still No Surprises... Camp at 44

The Astros continued to send out minor-leaguers and NRI's, with seven more optioned Friday.  Pitchers Jason Stoffel and Alex White, catcher Roberto Pena, infielders Colin Moran, Nolan Fontana and Matt Duffy, and outfielder Preston Tucker we all sent out.  Six of the seven were reassigned as invitees, and Alex White was optioned, as he was on the 40-man.

Alex White was probably the only one of that group with a realistic chance of breaking camp with the Astros on Opening Day.  He was competing for the last spots in the rotation / bullpen swingman role. However, he continued to struggle - as he has done since he lost 2013 to surgery - in the 4 innings that he pitched.  He gave up 7 earned runs on 8 hits, with six walks versus no strikeouts.  He pitched his way off the team, plus the Astros really needed to give innings to Sam Deduno and Wojo in preference to White, so this move isn't a shock.

Preston Tucker probably attended spring training with an outside chance of forcing his way into a crowded outfield / DH roster.  His plans for a hot spring were derailed by a HBP to his hand, which resulted in a break from baseball activities for a little more than a week.  He went hitless in 11 plate appearances, but walked twice (and took first on the afore-mentioned HBP) versus three strikeouts.  Tucker will undoubtedly get a look at some stage - but perhaps not in 2015 - and for now he will man the outfield in Fresno.

Colin Moran (.444, BB in 10 PA's) and Matt Duffy (2-7, 2BB, HR in 9 PA's) both turned some heads, but were unlikely to make the remain in camp by virtue of the play of Luis Valbuena and the need for reps at 3B for Valbeuna, Dominguez, Petit and Gonzalez.

Nolan Fontana struggled in 11 PA's, recording one single but walking twice.  Shortstop and second base are about as crowded as third base, with two established up-the-middle regulars, and the utility guys needing a look.  So no surprise with his exit, either.  And Roberto Pena didn't record manage to get on base in 5 PA's, and again, was likely the victim of a busy catcher-rotation.  No surprise.

These moves leave us with little clue as to how the spring-training battles are shaking down, but things are starting to get closer to a resolution.  Of the Astros remaining in camp - and according to MLBTR - only Chris Carter, Alex Presley and Luis Valbeuna (and the free-agent signings) cannot get optioned to minor-league camp, although Sam Deduno is out of options as well (according to the Chronicle) and appears to be so, given his years on the ML roster.  Joe Thatcher and Roberto Hernandez have XX(B) protection, which means they require a roster spot five days out from opening day, or the team will need to pay a $100K retention bonus and the player will need to agree to head to AAA to start the season.  XX(B) players also get a opt out option for June 1 if they are not in the major leagues on that date, so there is some additional options for Roberto and Joe.

Interestingly, there have been trade rumour rumblings from teams in need of lefty-relievers and starting pitchers.  The Orioles - in particular - are looking at lefty relievers according to MLBTR, and the Blue Jays and Rays are both looking for starting pitching due to injuries.  Neither of the XX(B) players will demand a great deal in a trade because of their XX(B) opt-out dates, but the Astros may explore trade options for others in the same position battle, such as Kevin Chapman or Dan Straily (names listed only as examples).  This may also have the effect of clearing roster space for Thatcher or Hernandez to be added.

But all this is speculation.  For mine, the big questions are also the predictable ones.  Will Dominguez even make the 25-man?  What will the outfield look like? And who will throw in the back-end of the rotation and man the last couple of spots in the 'pen?