Monday, February 8, 2016

Monday Morning/Weekend Hot Links

Now that Murderball is over for another six months, the world can all move on...

*Fox Sports' Jon Morosi has the biggest storylines of 2016 - including one about the Astros' staying power.

*This David Schoenfield piece says not to accuse the Astros (and Cubs) of "tanking" - the word that won't die in 2016.

*Sports on Earth's Anthony Castrovince: Rebuilding vs. Tanking

*This time no one is laughing when Jim Crane says he expects the Astros to make the playoffs. This time the AL West is the expectation.

*Nick Cafardo says the Astros have inquired on free agent reliever Tyler Clippard.

*Former Astro Freddy Garcia is calling it quits after 15 seasons.

*The Astros and Nationals' Spring Training complex is being built in "record time."

*The Western Louisiana Ramgers made a Super Bowl commercial.

Friday, February 5, 2016

History Lesson: Robbery in Kissimmee

It was just bad luck. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
-Minor-Leaguer Mike Rose.

In March 2000 the Holiday Inn off of US Highway 192 in Kissimmee, Florida was about 15 minutes from Osceola County Stadium - the Spring Training home of the Houston Astros. Highway 192 is indistinguishable from any other major road near Orlando - lined by hotels leading to the Walt Disney World Complex. That Holiday Inn was also the home of about 80 minor-leaguers of the 110 Astros in Kissimmee for Spring Training. Players in Major League camp stayed in condos or homes in the area.

"It's like a dormitory situation," said Assistant GM Tim Purpura, "They're real comfortable with each other. In one room they're watching TV. In another room they're playing Play Station, just hanging out."

At around 10:30pm on Sunday, March 12, 2000 five players had just finished watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in Morgan Ensberg's room. Also in Room 254 was infielder Keith Ginter, outfielders Derek Nicholson, Eric Cole, and catcher Michael Rose. Ginter's girlfriend, Alicia Szczerba, was also in Room 254, there after having dinner with her college roommate, the wife of one of the players in the room. Next door in Room 252 was infielder Aaron Miles.

Szczerba got a call from a friend in another room asking for a cigarette lighter. When she went to deliver the lighter, two men with semiautomatic handguns - one in a ski mask, the other in a green bandanna - stormed into Room 254 and tied up the five players and Szczerba with plastic zip ties, duct-taped their mouths, and covered them with the hotel bedding. While the robber in the ski mask - Richard Cook -  collected money, cell phones and other valuables, the one in the bandanna - Alexander Williams - pressed a gun to the back of Ensberg's head and asked, "You a tough guy? You a hero?" After an hour, the men heard the door to Room 252 close. "We'll be right back with some company," they said, and left the door open.

Infielder Aaron Miles had just returned from dinner and was alone in his room when the robbers burst in. They demanded money, which Miles was in the process of giving when the phone rang. Mike Rose had managed to untie himself, had shut and locked the door, and was calling to warn Miles.

Once Rose realized he was actually speaking to one of the gunmen, and not Miles, he hung up and called 911 but the call didn't go through. He then called the front desk and at 11:04pm the police were called and quickly surrounded the hotel. Cook jumped off the second-floor balcony, losing a semi-automatic handgun in the process. Cook ran through the pool area, southwest through a Sports Authority parking lot where the police dog lost his scent. A black bag with two pistols and cash were later recovered.

None of this was immediately helpful to Miles, however. For half an hour Williams held Miles hostage, telling police that he would kill Miles and then himself before he surrendered. Miles offered to let him use his Astros uniform as a disguise to help him escape. Williams turned to look out the window, and Miles saw his opportunity.

"(Miles) felt he had a chance to maneuver the gun out of (the gunman's) hand and was able to get his hand on the gun," said Purpura. "(Miles) tried to steer the gun away from himself and get control, and they went back and forth."

Miles had lunged for the gun, and officers heard the struggle from outside the room: Miles had slammed the gunman against the wall and wrestled him to the ground. With his free hand the gunman punched Miles in the head repeatedly and bit him. Miles bit Williams on the forearm Police used the butt of a shotgun to break the window and get in.

The two police were in the room with Miles and the gunman, yelling for him to drop his weapon. After not complying the officers opened fire with a 9mm gun: through the cheek, both shoulders, and stomach.

But the rest of the hotel didn't know who had been shot. "I heard those shots, and I thought Aaron was dead. Then he came out of the room with the guy's blood all over him and a big chunk of skin taken out of his back."

"We're downstairs in the parking lot, and you hear this, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop." Ensberg told ESPN, "And we're like, 'Aaron's dead.'"

Miles ran through the broken window and down to the parking lot, and bear-hugged Rose. "He nearly broke me in half," said Rose. "He had the guy's skin in his teeth, blood all over him."

Nicholson said the team was jubilant. "We mobbed him like we won the World Series. He's got his fist up, like, 'Yeah, wooooohoooooo,'...We were all going off...Everyone wanted to kill that guy."

Williams had been shot in the mouth, literally shooting out some of his teeth. He had also been shot in both shoulders and in the stomach. Williams was helicoptered to Orlando Regional Hospital and required four hours of surgery. He spent three weeks in a coma and was partially paralyzed. Miles got a tetanus shot and antibiotics for the bite. Both gunmen were caught and sentenced to life in prison.

Police said the robbery wasn't targeted at the Astros players specifically. "This looks like a crime of opportunity," said Commander Fran Iwanski, "We don't think the suspects knew the victims were ballplayers or that the team was staying at the hotel." At trial they found the players had purchased the weapons from a nearby Wal-Mart and had staked out the hotel, waiting for people to gather in a room.

"Other than the mental trauma of it," Purpura said the next day, "they're all in great shape."

"Other than the mental trauma of it" is like saying "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?" Morgan Ensberg still has scars on his wrists and the ordeal greatly affected him:
When I'm on the field, I'm happy. I'm protected. I'm doing something I love doing. But unfortunately there's two sides of me.

Ensberg and Ginter made their Major League debuts on September 20, 2000 against the Cardinals. In 2000 Ensberg's mind cleared. He had posted an OPS of .755 and .765 in his first two seasons, and in 2000 hit .300/.416/.545 for Double-A Round Rock. Ensberg would have the more successful Astro career, hitting .266/.367/.475 in seven seasons.

Ginter hit .333/.457/.580 in 2000 for Round Rock, and played in 13 games for the Astros from 2000-2002. He was the player to be named later in the 2002 trade with the Brewers that acquired Mark Loretta.

Aaron Miles was sent to High-A Kissimmee - where the robbery took place - for the 2000 season and hit .292/.352/.386. He was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the December 2000 Rule 5 draft and went on to hit .281/.320/.352 in nine Major-League seasons.

Catcher Mike Rose asked for his release from the Astros four days after the robbery. He played in 27 Major-League games from 2004-2006 with three different teams and played in the Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Royals, A's, Dodgers, Rays, Cardinals, and Indians, and Rockies organizations.

Derek Nicholson hit .311/.405/.444 in 116 games for Single-A Michigan in 2000. He played in the Tigers organization until 2005 and returned to the Astros for the 2006 season. He never played in the Majors.

Eric Cole hit .291/.349/.497 for Round Rock in 2000. He played in the Rangers organization in 2002 and returned to the Astros' organization in 2003. He never played in the Majors.

NY Times
Orlando Sentinel
Crawfish Boxes (Note: I had most of this completed when I came across TCB's post. It is excellent.)
Orange County Register

Friday Morning Hot Links

*Be sure to read Jexas' write-up of the Town Hall with Hey-J Inch.

*Read the 3rd in our Cups of Coffee series on Larry Yount.

*The Astros outfield is solid, writes Brian McTaggart. You can never have too much pitching. Or outfielders. Or infielders. Or catchers.
The fact that four out of the five guys are basically center fielders or can play all three positions gives us a lot of flexibility to mix and match. I think it's about the best combination of outfielders in the league.

*Here's something we all want to believe know: The Astros' future is bright.

*Former Phillies great Roy Oswalt will be inducted into the Round Rock Express Hall of Fame.

*Commissioner Rob Manfred slammed writers who judge Hall of Fame-eligible players for PED use based on their appearance.

*Today in Obviousness: MLB has greater parity than the NFL

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Town Hall with A.J. Hinch

Thursday night I had the opportunity to attend a Town Hall meeting with A.J. Hinch hosted by Bill Brown inside Union Station for season ticket holders. Since Hinch was not at Fan Fest I was very pleased to get to hear his side of things. A very likable guy, Hinch reminisced about the victories in 2015 and talked about plans for 2016 with the enthusiastic audience for an hour.

Hinch answered a question about his favorite moment of 2015 commenting on what he saw as the season turning point: An August weekend series against the first place Dodgers. I remember kind of feeling iffy about that weekend because we had gone 5-5 in the last 10 games and I didn’t know what to expect from Fiers, Kazmir & McCullers. Fiers pitched a no hitter to start out a series sweep. Hinch recalls turning to bench coach Trey Hillman and saying “Our guys believe.”

The topic I was looking forward to hearing A.J. speak about the most was first base. Calling this the only open competition at Spring Training he continued “One thing that’s changed on our team… there are no freebies. Someone’s got to win this job.” The only specific thing he said about Jon Singleton was “It’s time for him to step up”. He mentioned opportunities for Matt Duffy, A.J. Reed, Tyler White, Marwin Gonzalez, Luis Valbuena to all try on the first base glove. Valbuena may be more favored at third base though with Hinch saying that his defense at the left corner was very underrated.

Talking about the seriousness of production on the field for the upcoming season Hinch stated “We have to earn our keep around here. We have a culture here where we’re going to accept younger players. When they come up here I don’t want the excuse of they’re a young player.” When discussing at bats for all the talent that in the clubhouse Hinch said “These guys are going to have to fight for playing time.”

A big topic of discussion among fans has been clubhouse culture and team chemistry. Hinch when he first came to the Astros organization said he hoped to create a culture of fun in the clubhouse and seriousness on the field and the field ended up being fun too. Hinch said that while he is responsible to set the culture, the players are responsible to take care of the chemistry. With the core of the team returning he believes that the team chemistry will be on point.

A few more quick highlights:

-Hinch is pissed that the Rangers have the Silver Boot and he wants it back.

-He believes that this is going to be a higher production year for Jason Castro.

-A.J. talked a little about the bench clearing incident with the Rangers back in July of last year. Feeling the need to protect his starting pitcher Colin McHugh, who Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder had in one hand, he grabbed Fielders wrist and then Rangers manager Jeff Bannister felt the need to protect his players. Hinch said, however, that kind of tension between teams can be fun.

Fun may be the best way I can describe the 2015 season. A.J. Hinch said there is a high confidence that the team will be able to replicate the success of last season as well as surpass it. Well, if that’s the case I believe 2016 could be very fun.

Thanks to Eric Huysman from Climbing Tal's Hill for letting me tag along.

Cups of Coffee: Larry Yount

This is the third in a series of posts about Astros players in franchise history who played in one career Major League game. The first post was the sad tale of Jay Dahl, then the sort-of-awesome tale of John Paciorek. Today we take a look at the bizarre - and wholly unique tale - of Larry Yount.

Larry Yount was born on February 15, 1950 in Houston, Texas, but graduated from Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California - the alma mater of Larry Dierker, Gabe Kapler and, of course, brother and future Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Yount went to Arizona State and became the Astros' 5th Round pick in the 1968 draft - a draft that, including Yount, only produced four Major Leaguers. Of those four, only Ken Forsch posted higher than a 0.2 WAR.

Yount was sent to Greensboro of the Carolina League for his professional debut in 1968 and went 1-4 with a 4.21 ERA as the youngest pitcher on the team by two years, and was briefly teammates with Forsch. He made the jump to Triple-A Oklahoma City and went 0-3 with a 5.85 ERA/1.60 WHIP to round out his first minor-league season.

In 1969, Yount split time between the Instructional League and Peninsula of the Carolina League, posting an 11-6 record with a 2.27 ERA/1.23 WHIP, but struggled with walks - 56 of them in 103IP. He made the jump to Double-A in 1970 with Columbus in the Southern League, and cut his walks drastically - to 2.8 BB/9, going 12-8 with a 2.84 ERA/1.12 WHIP in a career-high 184IP.

In their inaugural season in 1970, the Columbus Astros - led by Yount, Forsch, and Cesar Cedeno - edged the Montgomery Rebels for the Southern League title by one percentage point, .569 to .568, going 78-59 while the Rebels played two more games and went 79-60.

Yount spent Spring Training with the big-league club in 1971, and was sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City for the season. Over the previous two seasons, across three levels, Yount had thrown 287IP, allowing 219H/84ER, with 247K:114BB. He made 22 starts for the 89ers, second on the team behind a 21-year old pitcher named J.R. Richard, and went 5-8 with a 4.86 ERA/1.60 WHIP as his control issues reared their ugly head once more, walking 5.5 per nine, throwing ten wild pitches and hitting nine batters. The team finished 71-69, two games behind Denver for the West Division title.

With the minor-league season over, the 21-year old Yount had to spend a week to fulfill a military obligation, but was called up to the Astros upon his return. Yount said in 1989:
I was just sitting around for a week and hadn't done anything. I usually had some stiffness when I had come back from other layoffs and there was no question at the time that I had no business trying to pitch that soon. But I was a 21-year old kid, and like any 21-year old, I wasn't going to turn down a chance to show them what I could do.

1971 was the Astros' tenth season in existence. They would go on to post a 79-83 record, their tenth straight season at .500 or below, but 1972 would bring the team their first winning record. September 1971 saw the Astros fighting to get there, though. From September 5-13 the team won eight straight games - the last seven on the road - and they had taken both games in a two-game set at Atlanta on September 6/7. September 14 would mark the first game in a ten-game homestand with the Astros in 4th place, ten games back. The Astros dropped both games against the Padres to open up the homestretch, and would face the Braves at the Astrodome on September 15 and 16 sitting at 73-75.

Phil Niekro got the start for the Braves, facing Houston's Jack Billingham. The Astros got a run across in the bottom of the 1st to take a 1-0 lead, the last lead of the game. Billingham gave the run right back in the 2nd. Tied 1-1, the Braves took a 3-1 lead in the 4th, and then, in the 5th inning, Hank Aaron hit the 636th homer of his career to put the Braves up 4-1 and end Billingham's night.

Side Note: Following the season, Jack Billingham would be sent to Cincinnati along with Ed Armbrister, Denis Menke, Cesar Geronimo, and Joe Morgan for Tommy Helms, Lee May, and Jimmy Stewart. On April 4, 1974 Billingham gave up the homer that tied Aaron with Babe Ruth for career home runs. 

Reliever Skip Guinn, making his 2nd appearance for the Astros in 1971, would hold the Braves there, throwing 3IP alllowing a hit and walking three - one intentionally - but no earned runs. Down 4-1 in the bottom of the 8th, the Astros pinch-hit for Guinn with Rich Chiles, who flew out. Roger Metzger also flew out, and Joe Morgan grounded out to first to end the inning.

Warming up in the bullpen for the top of the 9th was Larry Yount. Yount hadn't pitched yet for the Astros despite being with the team for a week. Due up for the Braves was Ralph Garr, who came into the game hitting .332/.364/.428 and this guy named Hank Aaron.

"I'll tell you how much I remember: I can't remember whether it was in the Astrodome or Atlanta."
-Larry Yount

Yount's elbow had been bothering him, but he wanted to pitch. "I knew that I couldn't pitch when I went to the mound from the bullpen," Yount told the Milwaukee Journal in 1989, "but I tried it anyway...Maybe it had something to do with Henry Aaron was coming up."

The PA announcer said his name and home plate umpire Ed Sudol wrote Yount's name on the lineup card. Yount threw another warm-up pitch with his aching arm. He threw another warm-up pitch and "it felt like someone had stuck a cattle prod" in his right elbow.

"You figure you'll run out to the mound," Yount said, "that the adrenaline will be pumping and that you'll figure out what's wrong. I threw a couple of pitches and said, 'Something's wrong,' then called the coach. That might have been the most sensible thing I've done."

The diagnosis was tendonitis, which cleared up with rest and Yount went off to the instructional league, where he pitched well and, incidentally, got his real estate license. He struck out the first six batters he faced in Spring Training in 1972, but he was the last player sent to the minors before Opening Day.

Yount started at Oklahoma City 3-0, but faltered his way to a 5-14 record with a 5.15 ERA/1.66 WHIP, striking out 112 but walking 85 batters in 166IP.

"I completely lost the ability to throw the ball over the plate. I just got progressively more screwed up. I couldn't throw it near the plate," Yount told the LA Times.

In 1973, Yount again was in Triple-A, this season with new affiliate Denver. He went 3-12 with a 6.79 ERA/1.91 WHIP in the thin mountain air. He struck out 69 batters and walked 89. And so on March 30, 1974 Yount was traded to Milwaukee with Don Stratton for Wilbur Howard. Howard would play in five seasons for the Astros, hitting .252/.285/.327.

Yount, meanwhile, was with the Brewers, the home organization of his younger brother Robin. Six days after Yount was traded to Milwaukee, Robin - the Brewers' 1st Round pick in 1973 - would make his Major-League debut at the age of 18 and begin a career that would culminate in 3,142 hits (still 18th all-time) and a Hall of Fame election in 1999.

Yount tried to get his head straight. He went to Maury Wills' psychologist and also to talk to his high school coach Ray O'Connor, who told him that his mechanics were so messed up by his coaches that he couldn't find himself anymore. "He couldn't come close to the plate...I don't think his coaches were smart enough to develop the tools he already had," O'Connor told the LA Times. "They took him and tried to make him into what they wanted."

Yount did not pitch in 1974. He came back in 1975 between Single-A Burlington and Double-A Thetford Mines, posting an 8-16 record with a combined 4.82 ERA/1.72 WHIP, his walk problem not yet solved: 83 walks in 153IP with 62 strikeouts. The Brewers released him in 1976.

And so, Larry Yount of the Houston Astros has one of the more heart-breaking lines in baseball history:

Yount turned to real estate, using the license he got while in the instructional league the fall after his lone appearance in the majors to build LKY Development. He also served as his younger brother Robin's agent throughout his career. The two had been in business together for some time and owned land near where the Diamondbacks planned to build Chase Field and put a brewery on the Chase Field complex.

I had plenty of opportunities to make it back. Nobody can say I didn't have the chance.

Check out the fantastic Baseball Project's "Larry Yount:"

Thursday Morning Hot Links

*Lots of links yesterday about tanking because of Buster Olney's and Jayson Stark's hand-wringing. They all pretty much agree that it doesn't make any sense to spend $100m on a 65-win team when you can spend $50m on a 60-win team. Included in those links: our own Not Hank Aaron, CRPerry from the Crawfish Boxes, Dayn Perry, and the ever-valuable Grant Brisbee.

*Here's FanGraphs on how MLB's 40-Man Rosters were created, with a good look at the Astros.

*Moar FanGraphs: The Case for Doug Fister

*The Astros used 13 starting pitchers in 2015, and have one of the best "back-up plans" in baseball.

*The Astros have lost the 6th-most fans in pro sports in the last decade. Plenty of caveats, though...

*The Astros had six Urban Youth Academy grads sign letters of intent yesterday.

* posted its Top 100 Prospect List yesterday. On it:
#22: Alex Bregman
#40: A.J. Reed
#41: Francis Martes
#74: Kyle Tucker
#75: Daz Cameron

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Luhnow Did Not Tank

Tanking has been the talk of baseball once again, with Buster Olney devoting a great deal of column space to "executives" being highly critical of the wave of (NL) teams who appear unconcerned with fielding a winning team in 2016. Discussion of tanking invariably leads to the Astros and Luhnow, who you might remember, fielded some pretty non-competitive teams the last few years. Primarily, this revolved around the 107 and 111 loss teams of 2012 and 2013.

Tanking is generally considered the practice of actively making the team worse in order to secure a higher draft pick. Occasionally, and most troubling, this will spread to the players and coaches losing on purpose. I don't think anyone has accused the Astros of 2012 and 2013, or the coaching staff, of not giving their all on the field. Instead, the charge is organizational tanking. In other words, intentionally not providing enough talent to regularly compete. When we think back to the lineups from 2012 and 2013, it's easy to see how that charge might stick. Buster Olney summarized the allegation like this

In 2013, the Astros' payroll was projected to be about $25 million at the start of the season, and Houston traded away almost every player making more than $1 million. The Astros finished with a record of 51-111 and picked first in the 2014 draft.
This discussion missed a key component, however, and I think this takes Luhnow's strategy out of the definition of "tanking" and into something very different. Luhnow took over the Astros in December of 2011. They were coming off a 106 loss season. Even more, the fire sale had already commenced, with the biggest trades coming at the trade deadline. Hunter Pence, a 28 year old outfielder in the middle of a 5 WAR season, was traded to the Phillies for prospects, and Michael Bourn, a 28 year old outfielder in the middle of a 3 WAR season, was traded to the Braves for "prospects." This left Wandy Rodriquez and Bud Norris as the two best pitchers on the team, and Carlos Lee as the unquestioned leader of the offense.

In 2012, there were only four Astros with greater than 2.0 WAR, which is considered league average. Lucas Harrell, Justin Maxwell, Jed Lowrie and Wilton Lopez. Meaning, the only league average offensive players were acquired by Luhnow in the 2012 offseason. This was not a case of a GM actively trying to lose to secure the #1 draft pick. The #1 draft pick was the natural result of the team he was given. To dig out of the hole through free agency in 2012 or 2013 would have required replacing nearly every position player with a free agent.

So, of course the Astros traded away any and all player who were making money in 2012 and 2013. The truth is, though, those player weren't good enough to prevent the team from losing 100+ games anyway. In his big deals before and during the 2012-2013 seasons, Luhnow traded away Mark Melancon, Carlos Lee, J.A. Happ, David Carpenter, Brandon Lyon, Brett Meyer, Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Johnson,  Wilton Lopez, Jed Lowrie, Jose Veras, Justin Maxwell, Bud Norris. Hardly building blocks. If all of these had been kept, the bullpen would have been slightly better,  and the Astros would have picked number 1 in the draft. Had Luhnow invested in the free agent market, the Astros would have been burdened with long term, aging contracts, blocked prospects and picked number 1 in the draft.

But you know what happened? More than adding prospects through trade and the draft (Correa and McCullers were the product of the 2011 season, not 2012 and 2013), the miserable 2012 and 2013 seasons allowed the Astros to ride out the down years with Altuve, and see what they had in Dallas Keuchel, and take a flyer on Colin McHugh. The improvements in 2014, plus some prospect development, showed that there was enough of a core that it was time to supplement with free agency. Amazingly, the Astros went from 111 losses to the playoffs in two short years.

Calling what Luhnow did "tanking" grossly oversimplifies the process. He took over a team that was the worst in the majors, and had already traded its most tradeable assets. The farm system was thin, and the best prospects were several years away. Instead of panicking into a desperate, and futile, bid at mediocrity, he showed patience, and that patience was rewarded. I can't really see any other process that could have worked this well, this quickly.

PS. Seems like this is on a lot of people's minds. Chris Perry, over at The Crawfish Boxes, posted a very similar article today. Check it out.

BP posts Top 10 Astros prospects

Baseball Prospectus posted their Top 10 Astros Prospects after I posted the Hot Lynx. It is NSFW because of Prospect Porn. The article is free to read, so you can read the write-ups, but here is the list of their Top 10.

1) Alex Bregman
2) A.J. Reed
3) Francis Martes
4) Daz Cameron
5) Kyle Tucker
6) Derek Fisher
7) Colin Moran
8) Michael Feliz
9) David Paulino
10) Miguel Angel Sierra

But one quote, on A.J. Reed:
This is not a drill. Slowly reach for the oxygen mask, and place yours around your head before helping anyone else. Take deep breaths. Have a sip of water. Now that you're calm, imagine standing in the middle of a field, imagine being tackled by Brian Cox. Or cross-checked by Chris Chelios. This is what it's like to be a baseball being thrown to Reed. The potential is there for a 30-plus home run hitter with a .270-.280 average and even better on-base skills. Invest.

Tuesday Morning Hot Links

I turn 36 today. In Barry Bonds' Age-36 season he hit .328/.515/.863 with 73 home runs, 177 walks, 35 intentional walks, and 32 doubles. I got out of bed this morning and my hip popped. Here are your links...

*Scott Feldman will arrive to Spring Training at 100%.
I don't think I realized how bad I felt [last year] before I hurt my arm. Playing catch and throwing, I feel better than I have in years

The last thing we want is to get to the end of May and have an injury or two and realize we didn't prepare ourselves. I think we're prepared in the rotation.

*SI's Jay Jaffe gave the Astros' offseason a C+:
The Astros certainly upgraded their closer, but they did so at a cost of considerable rotation depth both in 2016 and beyond...the team does have an enviable base of young talent, but it still feels as though a contender ought to do more instead of resting on last year's laurels.

*Francis Martes, one of the Astros' top pitching prospects, is even more motivated this season thanks to the Astros' willingness to promote young guys. Between Quad Cities, Lancaster, and Corpus, Martes struck out 98 batters in 101.2IP.

Minor-league pitching coordinator Doug White has Martes working on a cutter with former Astros minor-leaguer and current GCL pitching coach Erick Abreu.

*'s Jim Callis predicts that Alex Bregman will stay at SS and could be the Astros' 3B as early as 2017. Colin Moran: you're on notice.

*Pitchers and catchers don't report until February 18. But here's pitching prospect Joe Musgrove...17 days early.

*Owners started talking about the league-wide ramifications of the Astros model of tanking rebuilding quickly.

*Former Astro Mike Foltynewicz has lost 20 pounds since undergoing surgery to remove part of a rib to get to the life-threatening blood clots in his shoulder.

*So the Astros officially won't be trading Lance McCullers to the Yankees for Greg Bird.

*More than 100,000 people are stranded at a Chinese train station

Monday, February 1, 2016

Monday Morning Hot Links

Pretty slow weekend in AstroWorld. Here are some things that happened while you got ready for the Pro Bowl...

*The Masked Marvel posted the Depth Charts: Corner Infield edition.

*Jeff Luhnow said over the weekend that the Astros are "built to go the distance."

*Astros-related notes from the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo:
-The Astros may be interested in Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, which would allow the Astros to play Castro some at 1B. Reminder that Brewers' GM David Stearns was Luhnow's assistant.
-Some teams were worried about Doug Fister's medicals, and thought the Astros could have gotten him on a minor-league deal.

*The Astros are one of seven teams who kept their closer (Luke Gregerson), and added another team's closer (Ken Giles).

*Scott Kazmir compared the non-World Series champion 2015 Astros to the non-World Series champion 2008 Rays.

*On the Royals, and spending:
The question: how can the Royals, owners of baseball's third-smallest market and worst local television contract, afford a payroll close to $130 million including two new $70 million contracts? The Answer: "We can't."

*Ken Rosenthal: The disconnect between fans and front offices

*Headline: Being a Mariners fan is difficult - but exciting.

*Are the Dodgers pricing themselves out of Los Angeles families' budgets?

*I guess Andruw Jones had not yet actually retired.

Astros Depth Charts: the Corner Infield Edition

Welcome to the Corner Infield Edition of the Astros Depth Charts.  If any dedicated readers are interested in the earlier articles in this series, I can indicate that the primer can be found here, the catchers here, the middle infielders here, the CF depth chart here, and the corner outfielders here.

This article - the corner infielders - is really the one that inspired the series.  In the middle of the long, dreary offseason, I found my thoughts drifting toward the corner infield of the Astros, and wondering how the position battles would shake out.  In the vast majority of the positions already discussed, there seemed to be a relatively clear line from starter, to backup, and into the minor-leagues.  In the corner infield - a weak point for most recent Astros teams - no such clear line exists.  What there is could more accurately be described as a mishmash of roughly similar players, because they all seem to be competing on a level footing for a small number of jobs.

And about that level footing.  It isn't really level, because contract-details matter.  The particular details that matter are the various deadlines that include the late April "deadline" (to delay service time, allowing for six years of control until free agency) and the Super-Two "deadline" (three rather than four trips through arbitration, which normally falls in early- to mid-June).  After the super-two "deadline" has passed, I would expect to see most of the below mentioned players being treated as per the results of their production, with only the anticipated results related to waiver status of a player outrighted off the 40-man roster creating a possible pecking order.

The corner infield is traditionally a power-hitters haven.  The projected starters - Valbuena and Singleton - certainly fit that profile, as does top prospect A.J. Reed.  Some of the others in the mish-mash (such as Matt Duffy, Tyler White and Colin Moran) appear to project more as high OBP or contact orientated bats, which the Astros potentially could afford by virtue of the power they have at other positions.  So it will be interested to see how the profile plays out as the season progresses.

The only other point that I think needs to be made before launching into the projections is that Marwin González, who will see some time at the infield corners, has already been projected in the middle-infield edition.  Carlos Correa will likely slide across to third base at some stage of his career, but I would be surprised to see it happen in 2016.  Evan Gattis or Preston Tucker may see time at first base as well.  All of those guys have been covered in previous instalments.

One of the Corners:  Luis Valbuena (30, turns 31 in November)

Valbuena is a veteran of 8 major-league seasons, six of which have resulted in more than 300 plate appearances. He was signed as an amateur free-agent by the Mariners in 2002, originally as a second-baseman.  He had a combined AAA line (acquired over parts of six seasons) of .304/.385/.476 in nearly 1200 plate appearances - his career has been one of slowly growing into his left-handed power.

After a .249/.341/.435 triple slash in 2014 for the Cubs (547 PA's), Valbuena was traded to the Astros with Dan Straily in exchange for Dexter Fowler.  The Cubs had Kris Bryant primed to take over third base along with a well-documented infield logjam, so they were happy to let tow years of Valbuena go in exchange for a year of Fowler.  Valbuena was waiver-wire material as recently as the 2011-2012 offseason - which is how the Cubs acquired him - but he busted out with the Cubs in 2014, posting a 115 OPS+.

With the Astros last season, he posted a .224/.310/.438 line in 493 plate appearances.  He also hit a career-high 25 home runs, but had stretches when he was pretty awful, such as a .163/.212/.337 May (in 104 plate appearances).  His season was also remarkable for some in-season tinkering, which the commentators frequently noting that Valbuena was being coached to go up the middle more, and not try to pull everything (which is where all of his power is from).  Other tinkering included a positional change: an infield reshuffle was forced by Carlos Correa's promotion and Jed Lowrie's return from injury.  That resulted in Valbuena shifting across the diamond to First Base for 31 games, where he had not previously appeared in his professional career (according to B-R).  Not that there was anything wrong with Valbuena at third.

Moving to the projections, Marcel projects Valbuena to have a .235/.323/.426 season with 19 home runs - a similar line to last year with a little more contact and a little less power.  Steamer sees a similar line with even less power: .234/.323/.411 with 16 home runs, a walk-rate approaching 11% and a strikeout rate approaching 21%.  ZiPS projects perhaps the best season for Valbuena: .238/.330/.425, with a walk rate and strikeout rate slightly above 11% and 21% respectively.

Valbuena has agreed to a salary of $6.125MM this season - his last before his first opportunity as a free agent.  He is going to be an interesting guy to watch in his walk-year - if he plays well this season, he enters a weak free-agent class, but may be burdened by a Qualifying Offer.  Personally, I doubt that a QO will be offered unless Valbuena has a total bust-out.

In the Corner-Infield Mish-Mash:  Jon Singleton (24, turns 25 in September)

"Singles" (ha!) was drafted in 2009 in the 8th round by the Phillies, and was traded to the Astros in 2011 as part of the exchange for Hunter Pence.  He debuted in slightly controversial circumstances in 2014, shorting after signing a 5-year, $10MM contract through the 2018 season.  The contract has three options - a $2.5MM option for 2019, a $5MM option for 2020 and a $13MM option for 2021.

Anyhow, Singleton bats and throws left, and is defensively restricted to first baseman or DH.  He has a .274/.383/.473 career minor-league line in just over 2700 plate appearances.  That line may not jump out at you, but remember that - aside from 21 at-bats in Quad Cities in 2013 - the closest he has been to the average age of each level is 2.3 years young.  He has constantly been well below the average age for each level throughout his career, often by between 3 and 5 years.

Singleton's potential has not translated into an exciting minor-league line, however.  He has 420 plate appearances over parts of two seasons with Houston, posting a .171/.290/.331 line overall.  That line isn't great, but on the up side, he has posted an isolated slugging north of .160 and a walk rate of 14.3%.  On the down side, his career K-rate of 36% is... um... concerning.

I would think that Singleton is likely to open the season at first base for the Astros, getting a chance to grab that spot.  I doubt that the Astros will want to bring other big bats up until late-April (lest they be granted free-agency a year earlier) or mid-June (to avoid super-two status).  I would think the most likely possibility is that Jon Singleton gets April at first base to see what he has, but things are much more uncertain after that.

Marcel likes Singleton to improve - positive regression it what that is called - predicting a .212/.306/.385 line.  That said, the other projections - which utilise minor-league stats a little more - also think that Singleton has significant improvement in him.  Steamer projects him for a .229/.330/.422 line with a walk rate approaching 13% and a strikeout rate of 27%.  ZiPS is a little less enamoured, projecting a .216/.316/.422 triple-slash, with a near-identical walk-rate, and a strikeout rate a whisker below 1-in-3.  None of these projections are particularly good, but they do indicate positive progress in terms of his career, and Singleton wouldn't kill the Astros with such a performance should it be sustained over a whole season.

In the Corner-Infield Mish-Mash:  Matt Duffy (26, turns 27 in Feb)

Matthew Edward Duffy - the one who plays for the Astros - made the majors for the first time last year.  In a grand total of nine plate appearances he mashed, posting a line of .375/.444/.500, including one double, one walk and two strikeouts.  He was a 2011 draftee (20th round) out of the University of Knoxville, and is currently on the 40-man roster.  He bats and throws right - which is possibly significant given the current corner infield and outfield mix.

Duffy earned his promotion by virtue of a solid year at Fresno, where he posted a .294/.366/.484 line in just over 550 plate appearances.  That included 20 home runs and 29 doubles, with 90 strikeouts versus 48 walks.  Not too shabby, but he isn't young anymore, and needed to make a serious move in 2015 to stay with the organisation.

Moving to the projections, Marcel thinks about Mr Duffy in very simplistic terms, merely regressing Duffy's gaudy line from last year to .261/.325/.424.  Steamer offers a projected triple-slash of .248/.299/.387, with a league-average-ish strikeout rate of 21% and a walk rate of 5.5%.  ZiPS sees similar production: .242/.297/.388, with a similar walk and strikeout rate.  Those lines place Duffy firmly in the category of role-player - which, as a righty backup bat in the infield - he could possibly be granted the opportunity to try.

In the Corner-Infield Mish-Mash:  Tyler White (25, turns 26 in October)

In the last exciting depth-chart instalment, I mentioned that Tyler White in the same breath as Preston Tucker - guys without the traditional athletic body habitus that the Astros seem to be drafting with more regularity since Jeff Luhnow took the reins.  White was taken in the 33rd round of the 2013 draft, from another noted baseball powerhouse - Western Carolina University.  He has been old for most of the levels he has played at in the minors, but ascended from Rookie Ball after being drafted to Fresno / AAA inside of 2 years.  That hasn't happened by accident.

White can rake, as his .311/.422/.489 minor-league line shows.  He has walked (174) more than he struck out (164).  At Fresno, he recorded a remarkable line: in just over 250 plate appearances, White mashed to the tune of .368/.467/.559, which is remarkable line, albeit in an offensively-friendly league.  The peripherals supported that, too, with 84 walks against 73 strikeouts, which is arguably something that Astros could really do with at the major-league level.  He kept raking after the Fresno season finished, too, winning the MVP of the Dominican Winter League.

White has been a catcher in the past, but he currently seems restricted to the corner infield spots - at absolute best - for now.  He  was mostly a third baseman in Corpus, then became mostly a first baseman at Fresno.  I assume he that he won't be seen as a major-league contributor anywhere but first base or DH, but having an emergency catcher around isn't the worst thing in the world.

White has not yet made his major-league debut, and isn't currently on the 40-man.  That is a significant disadvantage if he wants to make the team out of Spring Training.  I doubt the Astros would promote him prior to the end of April (to ensure a sixth year of control prior to free agency), and perhaps until after the estimated super-two date has passed.

White hit only 14 home runs last year in just under 300 plate appearances, so whether he has enough power for a corner-infield position remains to be seen.  He is certainly a unique profile as a hitter in general, so the projections will be doubly interesting.

Marcel does not project those with no major-league plate appearances, so B-R offers no projections for White.  Steamer likes him a fair bit, projecting for a .260/.339/.401 plate appearance, with a walk-rate just south of 10% and a strikeout rate of just under 18%.  That amounts of a slightly above average wRC+ of 105.  ZiPS is a little less bullish, projecting a .251/.336/.381 line, with very similar strikeout and walk rates.  ZiPS sees White hitting 10 home runs in just under 500 PA's, for what it is worth.

It remains to be seen whether White's contact-heavy skills will translate into decent major-league production.  Both of the abovementioned projection systems think not, at least in his first year of play.  Although Tyler White has nothing left to prove in AAA, but I think he will return there to open the season, giving Jon Singleton a chance to play a little.

In the Corner Infield Mish-Mash:  A.J. Reed  (22, turns 23 in May)

Andrew Joseph Reed was originally drafted in the 25th round out of an Indiana High School by the Mets on 2011.  He didn't sign, opting to attend the University of Kentucky instead.  He was then drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft by the Astros as a two-way player.  The Astros saw more potential in his bat, and developed him as a first baseman / DH type.

Reed is like White in a bunch of ways.  He is not considered a super-athletic type.  He has raced through a bunch of minor-league levels in a short time.  And also he has a ridiculous career minor-league line: .324/.415/.583.  Reed recorded 237 PA's at Corpus to end the 2015 season, where he mashed to the tune of .332/.405/.571 with 11 home runs.  He is a lefty-swinger with perhaps a long swing that may leave him a little prone to strikeouts, but his batting eye and power seem to be for real.

Most Astros fans are lying in wait for the Next Great Astros First Baseman.  In the pre-Bagwell days, there were some useful seasons sprinkled around, but no one consistently dominated at the position for a long period.  Jeff Bagwell was the guy for the 1990's and early 2000's.  The Big Puma took over at first until the mid-way through 2010 season.  Since then, the Astros have only managed middling returns from first base on a series of poor teams.  Chris Carter put it together in stretches, but had long stretches of being struck out a lot as well.  Astros fans are crossing their fingers in the hope that either Reed or White is that guy, and 2016 is the year which we may find out whether that is the case.

The projections like Reed to be a slightly above-average producer in Houston in 2016.  Steamer projects a .258/.327/.424 line in 240-odd plate appearances, with 8 home runs.  Steamer thinks that Reed will have a roughly-average strikeout rate, with a walk rate approaching 9%.  ZiPS is significantly more bullish on Reed, projecting a .261/.338/.456 line with 26 home runs despite a 25% strikeout rate (and a 10% walk rate).  The line that ZiPS projects - ranked by wOBA - would be fifth on the team.  Neither of those lines would be a bad line for a first year player.

In the Corner Infield Mish-Mash:  Colin Moran (23, turns 24 in October)

Colin Moran, famously, was in the mix for the first overall pick in the 2013 draft.  At the time, he was a left-handed hitting, well-rated third base prospect with a big-league bloodline out of UNC.  The Astros went with Mark Appel instead, but they picked up Colin Moran in the Jarred Cosart heist at the trade deadline of 2014.

It hasn't always been plain sailing for Moran, however.  The Marlins seemed to have given up on him at the time of the trade, and it is still not entirely clear that their decision was wrong.  He did reasonably well after the trade to the Astros in 123 AA bats  - a level that he had not played previously.  Importantly, he showed steady improvement in 2015, where he remained in Corpus for the entire year.  His 2015 line of .306/.381/.459 is not gaudy, but he struck out less than 19% and walked more than 10% of the time.  He managed nine home runs in 417 at-bats.

Neither available projection system likes Moran all that much.  Steamer projects him to post a .259/.308/.374 line, with a walk rate of 6.3% and an average strikeout rate just below 20%.  ZiPS sees some subtle differences, forecasting a .252/.299/.380 line, with a 6% walk rate, and a strikeout rate just above 23%.

That isn't great for Moran, and I doubt that we will see him in Houston in 2016 because of the presence of Luis Valbuena.  Moran also probably sits below Reed and Singleton on the left-handed hitters depth chart for the Corner Infielders.  He would need to be added to the 40-man, which the Astros don't need to do until after the 2016 season if they want to protect him from the Rule 5.

Probably out of the Corner Infield Mish-Mash:  Conrad Gregor (23, turns 24 on Feb 27)

Conrad Gregor was a 40th-round draftee of the Chicago White Sox in 2010, but he didn't sign and attended Vanderbilt instead.  The Astros nabbed him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, and he has ascended from short-season ball at Tri-City up to AA ball, where he has spent the last one-and-one-third seasons, or 634 at-bats.

Gregor has a .239/.335/.382 line at AA for his career, which has included 13 home runs, and 78 walks against 123 strikeouts.  He is playing his age 24 season this year, so he still has time of put it together, but things don't look great for him at this point.  He will need to make significant progress this year to appear seriously on any depth-charts.

Marcel declined to offer a projection, but Steamer sees a middling .237/.303/.364 line for Gregor, which includes an average strikeout rate of just under 21%, and a walk rate of 8%.  ZiPS is less enamoured, forecasting a .228/.295/.343 line, with a the same walk rate, but a strikeout rate of 24%.

Safe to say that Gregor probably sits a fair way from the major-leagues at this point in time.

Free Agent:  Pedro Álvarez (28, turns 29 on Feb 6)

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting or supporting the Astros' signing of El Toro, the veteran of six seasons play in Pittsburgh.  But, as a point of comparison, I thought I would include him as someone the Astros could have signed, had they not accumulated the abovementioned players over the last few years.  Plus, the 2011 Astros probably would have signed him already, because he was warm, had a pulse, and used to be an All Star.

Let's forget any discussions about his place in the field, a likely contract value, and whether it could have been used to buy out a free-agent year or two.  We will briefly mention his agent, Scott Boras, where he went to school (Vanderbilt) and when he was drafted (second overall pick of 2008 draft).  Alvarez has some useful years on his resumé - he has an OPS+ between 112 and 115 in four of his six seasons - so he certainly isn't worth nothing, but he was just non-tendered a contract by the Pirates, so it also probably isn't serious breakout material.

Marcel forecasts a .239/.310/.448 season for Álvarez, with 24 home runs in 490 plate appearances.  Steamer sees a little more improvement: .242/.321/.462, with a strikeout rate approaching 29%, and a walk rate sitting solidly at 10%.  However, Steamer sees a large drop in the number of at-bats, perhaps forecasting a platoon role for Alvarez.  For some reason, Alvarez's projection has been left off the ZiPS page for Pittsburgh - normally players are included on the clubs that they are exiting from, so that is a little puzzling.

Just to point out a direct comparison: A.J. Reed has a Steamer line of .258/.327/.424, whereas Alvarez has a line of .242/.321/.462, and would likely cost multiple millions.  While the extra 40-odd points in slugging would be nice, does anyone think that would be worth 5 or 6 million dollars??

Trade Target:  Freddie Freeman (26, turns 27 in September)

Freddie Freeman, in the midst of a $135MM contract (which expires after the 2021 season) has often be mentioned as the answer to the Astros' first-base difficulties.  I think, personally, this would not be a bad idea, aside from the effect it would have on blocking the guys behind him.  His OPS+'s for the last three seasons read 147, 139 and 134, and his worst OBP over the same period was .370.  Looking at the numbers, it is possible to argue that he has been declining, but he apparently played through 2015 with a wrist injury, which may have hampered his production somewhat.  The Astros would probably be unwilling to part with a huge haul to reel in Freeman, mostly because of the amount of money owed to him, but also the sheer number of players with significant upside that they see getting a go in the corner infield over the next two seasons.

Marcel sees continued solid production from Freeman, forecasting a .290/.377/.474 line.  Steamer does not disagree: .283/.374/.480 with a walk-rate approaching 12%, and a league-average strikeout rate (20.1%).  ZiPS sees Freeman as being the best of the Braves bats with a .280/.374/.469 line, with a walk rate of 12% and a strikeout rate of 21.3%.

That is what $12MM for the 2016 season - and $20MM+ for the five seasons after that - buys.  That line would look good in the middle of the Astros' line up.

Summary:  The Astros have a host of young, interesting players to fill the corner infield for the next few seasons.  None projects as a can't-miss-superstar, however, but they have enough potentially good players and depth to ensure that the players manning the corner-infield positions will perform at around the level of a league-average player.

I may be wrong in assuming this, but I think that both Tyler White and A.J. Reed are valuable enough for the Astros to be careful about when they will be called to the major leagues.  Specifically, both will probably that their call-ups delayed until late April to ensure another year of free-agency.  They both may have any potential call-ups delayed until after the Super-Two deadline, which is normally projected for early- to mid-June.  There may also be a case in assuming that handedness matters here - A.J. Reed probably lines up behind Jon Singleton, whereas Tyler White probably lines up behind Matt Duffy on the relative depth charts to open the season.  But if the Astros get off to a poor start in 2016, I think the offseason plans could easily be ditched, and whomever is playing well could see themselves as having significant time either at the infield corners opposite Luis Valbuena and/or at DH.

I haven't really answered too many questions with this column, only to say that Tyler White, A.J. Reed and Colin Moran all seem like solid prospects who wouldn't let the Astros down from an offensive perspective if they were promoted early in the 2016 season.  All have reasonable offensive upside, but it may be that those players are primed to make more of an impact in 2017.

Thanks, everyone, for reading.  Next up, I will have a stab at predicting the 12 or 13 position players who will break camp with the Astros, plus projecting some of the guys (like Danny Worth, J.D. Davis and Alex Bregman) who have not made these lists, mostly by virtue of not having reached AA.  Then, I guess, we should look at the pitchers.