Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jeff Bagwell Returns

The Astros have announced that Jeff Bagwell is returning to the Astros to serve as a guest instructor during Spring Training this year, after having been away from the game since briefly serving as the Astros hitting coach in 2010. 

Obviously, Jeff Bagwell's presence alone is not going to turn Jon Singleton into a .300/.400/.500 slash line hitter. (Or will it....?) But he clearly mastered hitting during his playing days, and hopefully he can impart some of that wisdom on the Astros current roster. More importantly, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio represent the Astros to most of us, and it's nice to see Bagwell return to the fold. Let's hope this will lead to a bigger role in the future.

Revisiting the Dexter Fowler Trade*

* - The one that brought Fowler to Houston, not the one that sent him to Chicago.

On December 3, 2013, the Astros sent Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes to Colorado in exchange for Dexter Fowler and a PTBNL.  The PTBNL was later revealed to be 25k in cash, so it is fair to say that this represented a very minor part of the trade only.  I seem to recall rumblings around the time of the trade that the PTBNL would be a "significant" piece, but in the end it amounted to only a negligible amount of money, at least in terms of the monetary amounts that we talk about in baseball.

The recent Fowler trade has essentially altered the equation to something more like:

Jordan Lyles + Brandon Barnes for 116 games from Fowler + Luis Valbeuna, Dan Straily and 25k

I recently wrote a little about the pieces coming back to Houston, and I won't revisit those guys at all.  I remain happy with second Fowler the trade, especially because of the Astros' depth in CF in the Majors (Marisnick, Rasmus, Presley and perhaps Springer), as well as the minors, which includes some good prospects (Brett Phillips, Jason Martin), some potentially good prospects (Teoscar Hernandez), some guys potentially returning from the wasteland of Arlington (Delino DeShields), and some guys that may simply need to be given a chance but aren't going to excite many pundits in the process (Andrew Aplin).  I can't think of another position where the Astros have as many possible candidates.  No one here is a sure thing, but the chances of someone emerging from this pack on occupying CF in MMP until 2021 are high.

But with the Astros 5th - and probably 4th - starting pitching slots open for auditions, it seems reasonable to review the Fowler trade, especially with regards to the progress of Jordan Lyles.  He could have looked pretty good on the SP depth chart about now.  Plus, it is often kind of fun to see how ex-Astros have fared after leaving the organisation, because really, the Astros can't afford to leak much talent if they want to contend.

Let's deal with Barnes first.  He became the starting CF on a miserable 2013 Astros team, and gained some admiration for his all-out style of play.  He carries an above-average glove in CF, and has occasional pop from the right side.  He has not walked much (career rate 4.8%) and has struck out waaaay too much (just shy of 30%).  Sarcasm alert... he would fit nicely on the 2015 K-stros!

Barnes appeared in 132 games for the Rockies, earning 313 plate appearances.  His 2014 triple-slash was .257/.293/.425 for an overall wRC+ of 83.  Note that wRC+ is park adjusted, so this factors in his Coors Field splits, which were significant.  Barnes hit .299/.338/.552 in 142 PA's at Coors, and .222/.255/.316 in 171 PA's away.  So perhaps worth keeping around, especially given the need to rotate players for extended home series because of the altitude and associated longer recovery times.

But Barnes was never going to be the main piece of the trade for Colorado.  The Rockies were most interested in Jordan Lyles, who ended to season with 126 and two-thirds innings thrown in the bigs in 2014.  He broke his left (non-pitching) hand in a home-plate collision with then-Arizona's Martin Prado in early June.  As a result, he missed the next two months, returning in early August.

Lyles started the season well, as noted by the odd fantasy baseball article (ignore the title).  His first appearance of the season was on the road against Miami, and it wasn't great (4ER in 5IP).  After that, he was pretty much nails for the next six weeks: 1ER in 6.2IP (home), 3ER in 5IP, 0ER in 7IP (home), 2ER in 7IP, 1ER in 6IP, 2ER in 8IP (home) and 2ER in 6IP.  Then he got beaten up by the San Diego offensive juggernaut (6ER in 3.1), but rebounded, giving up 2ER in each of the next three, throwing 4, 5 and 6 innings in the three games.  The 4 inning game was the game in which he broke his hand.

Lyles was not quite as strong after the injury, giving up three or less earned runs in six of the remaining 10 starts.  He did not manage a scoreless outing in that time - in fact, didn't throw one all season (the 0ER in 7IP outing listed above had an unearned run credited).  He finished the season with an ERA of 4.62, and an FIP of 4.30.  He was valued by Fangraphs as having a 1.3 WAR on the season.

Lyles continued to exhibit a poor strikeout rate (6.39 K/9) and middling walk rate (3.27 BB/9), so the major peripherals remain uninspiring.  He restricted home-runs well (0.85/9), and did relatively well keeping the ball on the ground (just over 50%).  He doubtless benefitted from human-vacuum-cleaners Nolan Arenado and Troy Tulowitzki on the left side of the infield, both who are rated as premium defenders.  

But really, there is nothing that would have indicated that Lyles took a giant step forward, or would have demanded a place in the Astros' 2015 rotation.  The Astros have a number of other intriguing options, and being one or who pitchers short of a rotation isn't the worst thing in the world for a month or two.  It gives someone the chance to step up, like McHugh and Keuchel did last year.  Plus, Appel or another of the Astros' interesting arms could have a rotation spot come the second half of 2015.

Now all we need is for Brandon Beachy to sign with the Astros as an NRI, and go nuts as the fifth starter.  That would complete a fascinating Astros offseason, and assist greatly in achieving a record above .500.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Historical Scouting Reports - Kevin Bass

The National Baseball Hall of Fame did something really a couple years ago when they made thousands of historical scouting reports available to the public. This post is part of a series in which we'll look at the reports of players that have passed through Houston during their career. A lot of these are, understandably, difficult to read, so I'll do my best to transcribe them while including links to a few of them.

Today we'll look at right fielder Kevin Bass. Bass was drafted in the 2nd round by Milwaukee in 1977. Late in the 1982 season he was traded to Houston, along with Frank DiPino and Mike Madden, for Don Sutton. Bass would go on to spend the bulk of his career with the Astros during two stints in the 80's and 90's and was an All-Star during the team's storied 1986 season. For his career, he hit .270 with 118 HR and 151 SB, including putting together a 20/20 season in 1986. He left Houston as a free agent after the 1989 season, played a few years with the Giants and Mets, then returned to Houston as a free agent for the 1993 and 1994 seasons before spending his final year in Baltimore.

He have quite a few reports on Bass including several from 1977 and running until 1991.

Our first from 1977 is by Royals scout Tom Ferrick. At the time, Bass was a HS center fielder being scouted for the draft. Ferrick generally rated Bass as a potentially average, straight-away hitter with below average power but very good speed. In the field he was rated as above average to very good but with an average arm. Bass was also rated as potentially having above average baseball instincts and aggressiveness, as well as good habits, good agility, and good physical maturity. Ferrick noted that he talked to Bass, who was polite, well mannered, and intelligent. Bass played football but wants baseball. He notes that the switch-hitting Bass had a compact swing from the left side and was a natural right handed hitter. Ferrick summarized Bass "has potential to be lead off type ML OF. LF because of arm, but could play CF defensively. Should be base stealer, bunter and better than average defensive OF. Contact type hitter. Good baseball instincts."

Next is a player evaluation by Dennis Holmberg, Bass' manager for the short-season Brewers minor league team in Newark in 1977. Holmberg said Bass needed work hitting left handed, but that range and running speed would be above average. Bass also was a good worker and had the tools and desire to play; that he was a major league prospect who should play in A ball the next season. Bass was a line drive hitter with excellent bat speed and used his hands well, but at times didn't get his hips into the ball, which limited his power, and would also let front shoulder fly open at times when hitting left handed. He was an above average runner that needed to learn to drag bunt and get better leads and jumps off pitchers. Holmberg said Bass could reach AA the next season and that he would really come on in the Instructional League. Bass was great to work with and it was just a matter of time; he as an outstanding prospect. Holmberg wraps his report up by saying Bass "very possibly will have to be moved to right field in time."

Our next report is from Holmberg in 1977 again, this time from the Instructional League. Bass had improved in the field but still needed to improve his bunting. He was learning to steal bases and his quick bat could show some "fence power" in the future. His weakness in the field was on ground balls and throwing to the proper bases, but Holmberg felt that would improve with experience. Bass could run, throw, and hit, and was a good fielder, one of the finest young players Holmberg had seen. All he had to do is play every day to improve.

Next up is a report by Tony Siegle, then with the Brewers, from 1978 prior to the season. He said Bass was very aggressive in all respects. At Newerk, Siegle had some questions about Bass' bat but after seeing him again in the Instructionals he no longer had doubts. Bass could run and throw, but his fielding, especially with groundballs again, needed "smoothing out."

The next report we have is from 1985 by Bobby Morgan, who looks to have been a Royals scout at the time. I'm not too sure about the ratings he used, some sort of X +/- system, so you can see for yourself, but he summarized Bass as a "Good every day player - Good contact. Having a good year." On a side note, the Constable will not be happy about Morgan's last note on that report.

Now we get to the back half of Bass' career. The next report was from March 1990 by Phillies scout Eddie Bockman. Bass was with San Francisco at this point. This report is brief, but Bockman said Bass was "very good established everyday ML player. All tools above average. Solid in every area. Could help any ball club." As an interesting side, Brett Butler is also listed on this report. Bockman didn't like him, that he was "not our type of player." Butler would average about 5 WAR over the next 3 seasons.

Our final report is also by Bockman, this time from the spring of 1991. It's again very brief but he said Bass "has been used sparingly this spring. Probably due to knee surgery last year. If healthy can be good everyday player in ML. No clue if he changed his tune on Butler, though.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On the Dexter Fowler Trade

Yesterday, the Astros finalised their trade of Fowler to the Cubs - a deal that has apparently been percolating for the last six weeks or so.  I had an article planned (and which I will still write) about why the trade market for Castro and Fowler has been a little slow this winter.  Essentially, teams seem happy to have a glove-first guy at C and CF, and the teams that do have a weakness in that area are not great match-ups for the Astros in trade talks for various reasons.  Fowler finally got traded, and the published analysis seem to see the trade as fair, logical and good for both teams (although this pundit likes it for the Cubbies).

Looking at this trade purely from the Astros' perspective - and ignoring any judgment about who "won" the trade - it is evident that this trade was one that needed to be completed.  The loss of what Fowler brings to the table is significant, as he is a solid player who likely would have played well enough for a qualifying offer at the end of the year.  But subtracting him for an infielder who can be a league-average bat at the left side of the infield is also an idea of considerable merit.

Lets start by looking at what Fowler is.  He is a solid source of on-base percentage, and a great baserunner (but not necessarily a base stealer).  OBP is vital for the Astros, who seem to be hell-bent on assembling a lineup of high-strikeout power-hitters.  OBP turns solo homers into crooked-number innings.  OBP ratchets up the pressure on the pitchers, who must deliver strikes when players are on-base, perhaps making the chances of a fat, hittable pitch more likely.

Fowler, and his career .366 on-base percentage, was an ideal switch- and leadoff-hitter on the Astros.  With the Astros, he struck out at an average-to-slightly-superior clip (21.4%), walked a lot (13.1%) and stole a few bases (11, versus 4 caught-stealings).  As mentioned above, most of his measured base-running value is in taking the extra-base and going first-to-third, rather than base-thievery, so he should be seen as an intelligent baserunner, rather than an out-and-out burner like Jose Altuve.

Fowler plays a moderate CF.  His defensive numbers - depending on whether you choose to believe them or not - peg him as a fairly awful CF compared with other major-leaguers, which is a combination of a poor range and weak throwing arm.  I also recall that he botched a number of plays late in the season last year, including a dropped fly-ball, a couple of outfield bobbles, and a slow throw into second that allowed the opponent to take an extra-base, which are more examples of sloppy play rather than defensive weakness.  The CF fielding numbers measure his poor range and noodle-arm, rather than overt lapses of concentration - but it could be true to say that the lapses of concentration and the fielding metrics were both difficulties.

None of this is a problem for many ML teams.  Fowler is a perfectly passable CF plug-in, especially on a one-year contract.  However on the Astros, Fowler would probably be the fourth best defensive option as a CF, and profiles better as a LF on the Astros.  Presley, Springer and Marisnick are all better defensive options than Fowler, and perhaps Grossman represents one as well.

Fowler's bat is a big-plus as a CF, but as a corner outfielder, that would not necessarily be the case.  His OBP is great at any position, but most teams would likely want more power out of a corner outfielder.  Fowler should not be keen to make the shift a corner position with one year to go before free agency, either, as it most likely diminishes his value considerably.  So the Astros may have been keen for a defensive upgrade in CF, but would likely have faced some resistance from Fowler had he been asked to move to the corners.

Additionally, MMP has a giant CF to patrol, and a comparatively small LF - which is important for half of the game the Astros will play.  Putting Fowler in left would not necessarily be a good use of what defensive virtues he does have.  And he doesn't have the arm for right, so flipping the defensive positions of Fowler and Springer was never going to fly, either.

What this does - in terms of the Astros outfield situation - is very interesting.  Prior to the Rasmus signing - which has just been made official - it likely raised the possibility of a platoon between Marisnick and Presley or Marisnick and Grossman.  That platoon could exist either in CF or RF, with Springer manning the other position.  One assumes that Gattis will man LF, but this is also subject to confirmation, and there appears to be a non-zero possibility that Carter will be traded and Gattis never sets foot in the outfield.  Gattis remains listed on the 40-man as a catcher, but this means precisely nothing at the moment.  And if Gattis is considered an outfielder then I would think that the Astros will want to carry four others on the active roster for reasons of allowing both rest and defensive substitutions.

The complexity of all of this makes my head spin, and much depends on any personnel moves in the next few weeks.  But what the Astros have created is the possibility of a very flexible outfield alignment, with legitimate ML bats being able to be plugged in at one of a number of positions.  Which acts as a nice segway to the main spoils of the trade, infielder Luis Valbuena, who also happens to have a good bat (or at least did in 2014), and offers considerable positional flexibility.

Valbuena seems like an... uh, expressive ballplayer, whose various (sometimes hypotheticalbat-flipping antics (and his awesome own appeal to the third base umpire) have gained him a bit of a following in Chicago.  Much like Fowler, he has considerable appeal that falls short of all-round awesomeness, and he is in an organisation which has a lot of league-minimum depth at his position(s).  His strong points include a degree of positional flexibility, batting left-handed, patience (walk rate at least 11.9% since 2012) and some recent power (.435 slugging in 2014) - albeit at the expense of contact (20.7% strikeout percentage in 2014 - the highest of his career).  This makes him ideal to plug in at third base on the 2015 Astros, potentially as part of a platoon with Dominguez.  His drawbacks include a short track record of success, middling (read: probably below average) defence and a lack of speed.  And again, as with Gattis, the Astros are gambling on recent track-record being more indicative of future performance in a player in their late-20's, and this seems like a good guy to take a gamble on.

The other part of the trade - Dan Straily - is an interesting pitcher - a soft-tosser who has previously had some success in the AL West based on solid strikeout rates.  However, he can be somewhat homer-prone and gives up a lot of walks, which has led to some rough periods throughout his career.  He had a solid but short 2012 in the Majors - when he threw 39.1 innings - and a good 2013 - when he threw 152.1 innings of league-average ball, both for a contending Oakland team.     Last year represented a large slide backwards in terms of results (6.75 ERA, 5.32 FIP in 52 major-league innings) despite no real change in peripherals.  Straily has suggested that he had some mechanical issues last year, which potentially bodes well for a bit of Brett Strom magic.  But at this time he is probably best thought of as a pitching project who lives on a knife-edge even when throwing well, and has no real margin for error.  Brad Peacock, anyone?

The Rasmus signing perhaps adds a little to the Front Office's thinking behind the Fowler trade, but that is a subject for another article.  For now, I like this trade, mostly because Fowler represented a poor defensive CF option or a powerless corner option for the Astros, and the Astros had a number of other superior defensive options to patrol CF in the 81 games at MMP.  The loss of the OBP may be significant, but the Astros are now close to fielding a team where every player in the regular batting lineup (aside from the current AL batting champ) could hit 20 homers.  Which is what they seem to be aiming for, and which is another reason why Fowler perhaps didn't fit.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Astros sign Colby Rasmus, Subject to Confirmation.

Apparently, the deal will be for one year.  As yet, no other contract details are available aside from the fact that Rasmus will earn north of 4MM.

A 40-man roster place would have to be cleared for either Rasmus or Ryan Vogelsong to be added.  I doubt either would agree to a minor-league deal.

SNEAKY BATGUY UPDATE: Looks like the deal for Rasmus is for $8M. Carlos Corporan has been designated for assignment to make room on the 40 man. Corp had recently agreed on a $975K, 1 year deal with the Astros to avoid arbitration.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Astros trade Dexter Fowler to Cubs

So the Astros were back at it again today, trading Dexter Fowler and his .375 OBP (and injury concerns) to the Cubs for pitcher Dan Straily and utility infielder Luis Valbuena.

Since we're Astros fans, and have been conditioned to think of the financial aspect first, let's take a look at that. Fowler, who was arbitration-eligible for the final time and would be a free agent at the end of the season, had asked for $10.8m. The Astros had offered $8.5m. Valbuena settled his arbitration case last Friday for $4.2m, So at the very minimum, the Astros saved themselves $4.3m in 2015.

What is Houston getting in return?

1. 26-year old RHP Dan Straily, a 2009 24th Round draft pick (think: Billy Beane's devil magic) traded to the Cubs last July in the Addison Russell/Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel deal. Straily was bonkers in the minors, striking out 11.2 batters/9inn in 2011. He made 27 starts for Oakland in 2013, allowing 132H/67ER with 124K:57BB in 152.1IP. In 2014, that number came down to 9.4, and he posted a 4.42 ERA/1.35 WHIP in 118IP between Triple-A Sacramento and Iowa.

He's young, yes. Those are some glittery minor-league numbers, yes. Last year was not good, yes.

2. 29-year old utility man Luis Valbuena. He has a career .229/.313/.374 slash line in the majors. Before you vomit blood, 2014 was his first season of getting more than 400 MLB plate appearances, and he hit .249/.341/.435 for the first >100 OPS+ season of his career. Valbuena hit 33 doubles and 16 homers with 113K:65BB in 547 PAs. So that's not bad, right? 124 of his games for the Cubs in 2014 were at 3B, so Matt Dominguez is officially on notice.

But let's take a wider-angle view of this and see what has happened over the last five days:
The Astros have traded Dexter Fowler, Mike Foltynewicz (who, I thought, was a lock for SP5 in 2015), Rio Ruiz, and Andrew Thurman for Evan Gattis, James Hoyt, Dan Straily, and Luis Valbuena.

Hey, those look like moves from a team ready to do some "competing" in 2015. Valbuena won't be a free agent until 2017, Gattis won't be a free agent until 2019, and Straily is under team control until 2020, so it's not as though the Astros went all Randy Johnson trade in the last week, because there isn't anywhere close to a Randy Johnson in these deals. But they have traded young, controllable assets for not-as-young, controllable MLB players. By "MLB players" I simply mean that they are players who have played in the Majors.

Three questions I currently have:
1) Is Straily an upgrade over Foltynewicz?
2) Is Gattis an upgrade over Fowler?
3) Is Colin Moran better than Rio Ruiz?

Because the Astros believe they have answered all of these questions with a Yes this week. It's impossible to evaluate now if the Astros won the trades, or won anything at all. It might only be when Rio Ruiz turns into the 2nd Coming of Chipper Jones in Atlanta before we know. But the Astros have done Some Things this week that make them better in 2015.