Friday, February 15, 2013

How I learned to buy in to the rebuild

I'm in.

I'm totally on board with what Jeff Luhnow, Sig Mejdal, Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein, etc. are doing. (Not you, yet, Postolos. I've still got my eye on you.) But before we begin this little writing assignment, we must first examine the alternatives of not buying in to what the Astros are doing.

1. Yell and complain.
2. Become a fan of another team.
3. (...)

That seems to be it. Option 1 is the most rampant and most popular. Soapboxes have been mounted like Trina from 4th period French, yelling about how what the Astros are doing is sullying the pure name of Baseball and how the Astros are ruining the integrity of The Game. And we've mentioned, almost ad nauseum, about how the Astros care not for what the rest of MLB thinks. Nor should they. The Astros shouldn't have to spend an extra $30m in order to keep the Yankees from yelling about how easy the Angels have it.

Option 2 is no option at all. If you bail on the Astros now, you were never an Astros fan to begin with. you just liked Winnin' and that makes you a not-fan. I'm getting to the point where I'm even starting to get over the American League. Some team was going to have to move. And once that team moved to the American League, we were going to have Interleague Play throughout the season, anyway. If you cheat on your significant other as soon as something bad happens, you were going to cheat on them at some point, regardless. That just means you were a latent pudnut, and you're not needed for anything.

So I'm in. But not for reasons that you might expect.

I'm in because the people running this rebuild have far more at stake than we do as fans. Consider the backgrounds of the front office personnel with whom we are at least remotely familiar: MBAs, Ivy Leaguers, Bloggers, Writers, NASA, law.. This is, as you are well aware, not your typical front office.

I bring that up because front office personnel are sort of on a carousel. Ed Wade did not do a great short-term job as General Manager (the long-term evaluation cannot yet be determined). Yet within weeks of his firing as GM, he was back in baseball with the Phillies. This happens across all sports, and isn't surprising. Rather than going out and hiring outside-the-box, owners and CEOs tend to hire a guy who was just determined to be incompetent by a rival.

Yet what the Astros are doing/have done over the last 18 months is unprecedented. It would have been easy enough to not trade Wandy Rodriguez. It would have been easier still to re-sign Lance Berkman this winter. Other major franchise rebuilds have not gone about their business in the way that the Astros have. The Marlins, the fraudulent team with whom every "sports writer" tends to compare the Astros, didn't.

In 1997, the Marlins won the World Series, with Alex Fernandez, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Moises Alou and a total of 12 players who made over $1m. According to Baseball-Reference, the 1997 Marlins paid $48,417,500 in payroll. The 1998 Marlins came off their fire sale winter (the first Winter of Discontent for "Marlins fans") and paid their players $34,694,667, but still paid Alex Fernandez $7m.

No front office has had the balls to do what the Astros are doing right now. We don't have to go over all the trades of the last two seasons, because it would turn a long post into a tl;dr. Here's the point: I have bought into this rebuild, first and foremost, because I don't have a choice. But second of all, if this doesn't work out - and it may take a while to get the result - the front office is going to have a hard time working in baseball ever again, at least not on this level. And smart people don't like to be ruined in the eyes of their chosen field.

The Astros are staking the reputations of the franchise and their front office on the Astros getting good again very soon. If they don't, they are responsible for the destruction of the Astros - and, no, I don't think that's hyperbole.

The Rangers are good, maybe even great. If you are from Houston and are both morally bankrupt and baseball ambivalent, it's really easy to pull the "Texas Forever!" card and just be a Rangers fan. They're on ESPN all the time. They have Nolan Ryan. Now they have Lance Berkman. Every baseball writer you read has played Just The Tip with the Rangers.

Furthermore, the Texans are good enough that if the Astros aren't within spitting distance of the division lead, even Astros fans are going to check out and pay attention to the Texans (this was brought up in the Feb. 11 Baseball America podcast - and it's absolutely correct.) Good luck getting fans on a Friday night in September, competing with high school football.

I've mentioned this on a number of occasions, but Luhnow & Co. are either going to be Branch Rickey Reincarnate, or they're going to be the reason my kid doesn't like the Astros (and there's no way she's going to be a Rangers fan). If the Scorched Earthstro campaign doesn't work, the Astros are set back for years, and not just on the field, but in the stands.

Of course, no promises can be made. Five years ago you never would have been able to guess that Brett Wallace would get platooned. Prospects - for a variety of reasons - sometimes just don't pan out. They kill it in Lancaster, and get released after struggling in Corpus. They can't adjust to the adjustments the league made to them. The Astros have built such minor-league depth that it's almost like they're throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping a few key pieces stick.

The Astros are forcing us as fans to make adjustments to the approach. If the front office is going to stake their reputation on their process, I can certainly respect that.

Friday Morning Horror Stories

Stephen King... I mean, Sam Miller, at Baseball Prospectus, tells the horror story of the fall of the Astros from their 2004-2005 heights, as seen through the progression of their 29th ranked 2004 farm system. (The full article requires a subscription, but I think the majority of it is available for free). This is a companion piece to his earlier article outlining the Brewers, who were ranked number 1 at the time. If you would like a detailed analysis of what led to the Astros downfall, this is a good read. I can completely understand if you don't though, as it could lead to some vivid nightmares.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=19631

I think this a pretty good response to all those people who are devaluing the current strength of the farm system. Sure, a good farm system doesn't guarantee future success. But it sure beats the alternative.

Survivor: Kissimmee - Day 5

Real-time (sort of) updates for the 5th day of Spring Training.

11:11am: Crane and Postolos will address the team before workouts tomorrow.

9:33am: "Put Your Butts Safely Here...or You're Out"

9:31am: An air-horn is going off in Bo Porter's office.

8:40am: The Astros will use Spring Training to evaluate Chris Carter in LF.

8:39am: "Ideally," Bo Porter says, Tyler Greene will turn into an Ian Desmond-type player.

8:27am: Hector Ambriz (ankle) walking around on crutches in a walking boot.

8:24am: Max Stassi is out again for practice today (Oblique)

7:25am: Rain in Kissimmee means only side bullpens today.

6:51am: Chris Carter shows up to camp (on-time, mind you, just after almost everybody else).

Thursday, February 14, 2013

No Reid Brignac

Reid Brignac has been traded to the Colorado Rockies, ending the Houston speculation. Looks like - for now - we've got Marwin and Greene entrenched at SS.

Brett Wallace getting more reps at 3B?

In Christina Kahrl's excellent piece on the Astros moving to the AL, we find out a number of things regarding the Astros' plans, such as:

*Even with Matt Dominguez at 3B, Brett Wallace is going to see some time there.
*Chris Carter will get some LF experience.
*Nate Freiman really needs to hit to get a chance of staying with the Astros.
*There's going to be a lot of movement between Houston and OKC, especially regarding the pitching staff.

First Meat Wagon of the year!

For those of you new to Astros County, we refer to an injury report as the Meat Wagon. And the Meat Wagon was called out for the first time of the 2013 season this morning during a rainy workout in Kissimmee when reliever Hector Ambriz rolled his ankle. Catcher Max Stassi was held out of practice for the second straight day, but his oblique injury is apparently not all that serious.

The K-Stros?

One thing the Astros recent acquisitions have had in common is a tremendous ability to strike out. Depending on who wins the positions battles this spring, there is a legitimate chance that the Astros could field a team with 7 of the 9 starters who had a strike out rate greater than 20% last year (Castro, Wallace, Greene, Carter, Maxwell, Ankiel, Pena). There is a strong chance that the everyday starting lineup could have 4 players with a strikeout rate greater than 30%.(Carter, Maxwell, Ankiel, Pena).

We could be looking at a historic strikeout team. Only 12 teams in history have struck out greater than 1300 times. The all time record was set by the Diamondbacks in 2010 with 1529. No other team has exceeded 1400. The American League record was set by the Athletics last year with 1387. Using Baseball Prospectus's depth chart, combined with 2012 strikeout rates, the Astros project to strikeout 1556 times. That is a very rough projection, but I think its fair to say that the Astros will at least join the 1300 strikeout club, and potentially threaten the AL and possibly the ML record.

But what does that mean? The list of high strikeout teams includes some truly abysmal offenses, including the 2012 Astros, who were dead last in the majors in runs scored. However, it includes a number of league average or better offenses as well. I don't think you can say that if the Astros increase their strikeouts from a year ago, they will necessarily decline offensively. Carter might strikeout at a higher rate than anyone and still be the best offensive player on the roster. However, its worth paying attention to as the spring develops, to see whether an effort is made to minimize the effects of these high strikeout additions in the final roster construction.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Survivor: Kissimmee - Day 2

And here is your continually updated news from Spring Training Day 2, also known as "Survivor: Kissimmee."

12:11pm: Brian McTaggart checks in with bullpen updates, quotes from Brocail. Also notice what is hopefully a typo in "Plantar Fascistic." Feet are fascists.

11:24am: Ankiel takes Porter to RF in batting practice. Porter calls it foul.

11:22am: Porter says the mound celebration was improvised, but he wants the team shaking hands more often.

11:17am: Alex White threw well today.

10:58am: When workout ended, players got in a line and shook hands, post-game style. Strange.

10:32am: All players have reported to camp except for Chris Carter, Carlos Perez, and Jose Martinez. Both Perez and Martinez are currently having visa issues. There is no excuse for Chris Carter.

10:18am: Astros engage in "fake, joyous" mound celebration following successful cover drill.

9:15am: Porter: "Everything is new. Let's go and compete." And Clemens will be in Kissimmee on Sunday. 

8:39am: Porter and Luhnow addressed the team prior to the first official workout.

8:15am: Jason Castro calls 2013 his "biggest year yet."

8:06am: Jose Veras isn't going to commit to being the closer - he'll let the Astros make that call.

7:54am: Rick Ankiel remembers he doesn't play for the Cardinals, shows up in Kissimmee. Was also talking to Reds and Giants.

7:46am: Fernando Martinez will not participate in the World Baseball Classic.

7:34am: Erik Bedard says he'll do everything he can to make the team, but if it doesn't work out, he'll "move on." He also says he was talking to the Blue Jays before signing with Houston.

6:00am: Bud Norris is not a morning person.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Astros fan trying to become cave dweller

It's safe to say that being an Astros fan lately has started to feel a bit like a support group. The last two years have been rough, both on the field and in the media, but we've always had each other, right? As evidenced by the #astrosmovies twitter phenomenon last week, when we all pull together we can still get noticed, so let's use that sense of community to help one of our own achieve his goal of joining the MLB Fan Cave this year.

Out of 52 finalists, Jay Ducote is the lone Astros fan. In two days, he'll find out if he's one of 30 contestants chosen to audition during Spring Training to be one of the few to actually join the Cave. So, if you want to see more awesome stuff like this
 
go vote for him now!

Spring Training Day 1 Updates

Rather than overload the site with each new development in Spring Training, we're going to take it by days, and update this post. So here is your Day 1 Spring Training running post:

2:07pm: We find out that Rick Ankiel has been working out at the Cardinals Spring Training facility, and "will join the Astros soon."

1:12pm: Jose Veras is penciled in as the closer. Committee is an option.

1:11pm: Luhnow doesn't like how thin the Astros are at Catcher

1:06pm: Luhnow says pitcher Chia-Jen Lo will not participate in the World Baseball Classic.

1:04pm: Luhnow sees Cosart projecting as a starter, not a reliever. Depending on Spring Training, could possibly earn a rotation spot in 2013.

12:58pm: Catcher Carlos Perez is still in Venezuela with a visa issue

10:20am: John Ely gets box of now-useless brick-red shoes.

9:42am: Bedard is here!

9:36am: Don't call him "Chuckie Fick." His name is now "C.J. Fick."

9:24am: Erik Bedard still hasn't shown up.

8:52am: Nate Freiman hit a homer off Bo Porter

8:08am: Brocail and Porter want starters to be able to handle eight innings.

8:07am: Bo Porter has not settled on an Opening Day starter.

8:02am: SP4 and SP5 will be a "competition"

7:55am: Lucas Harrell says Bud Norris has earned the right to be the Opening Day starter

Astros looking at eight players for 2013 1-1

Of course, the Astros aren't sharing that list, but JJO writes that the Astros have eight players on a shortlist for the 1-1 pick in the June 2013 draft. Interestingly, a high school pitcher is not on that list.

Everyone's going to have their own list, but here is John Sickels' list for the 2013 draft. There are some familiar names on there - some Biggio kid at #50 - with other local (to Houston) players.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Porter: "You can't be afraid to be different"

Speaking to the Des Moines Register, Bo Porter addressed what we could be seeing with the Astros in 2013, and used throwback former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry as an example:

"You can't be afraid to make changes. You can't be afraid to be different. People said (football) coach (Hayden) Fry was crazy with the tight end, when they couldn't get the tight end involved in the offense and get him down the line...Coach Fry said, 'We're going to stand him up.'...Now, how many times do you see the tight end come across the formation and stand up in the NFL?"

This better mean that we get to see a Rover at some point in 2013...

Jim Crane wants a Florida Spring Training renaissance

According to this article from TCPalm.com, Jim Crane is looking at the possibility of moving the Astros' Spring Training facilities from Kissimmee out to Arizona, but is also exploring the idea of sharing facilities with another team in Florida.

The latter idea - which is used in Arizona - has been previously mentioned. Crane toured the Mets' facility in Port St. Lucie (which is a mere ten miles from The National, the golf course Crane owns) last March. As early as December 2011, Crane mentioned moving from Kissimmee once their agreement ends with Osceola County Stadium in 2016.

Way back in August 2010 the Nationals expressed interest in moving from Viera to Kissimmee, where they could share facilities with the Astros.

Crane, on the two-team facility:
"We think the economics work for whomever wants to do it. One, you can keep the costs down. Two, you've got more activity there. And we've been told it also works really well because you can play that other team, too. It just makes everything better. That's what you're seeing in Kissimmee."