July 2009

Who is Astros' midseason MVP?

Picking the Astros’ Most Valuable Player at roughly the midpoint of the season is harder than trying to predict who will win the jumbled National League Central. The only thing that’s certain is a strong case can’t be made for any pitcher other than left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who is 8-6 with a 2.96 ERA in 18 starts. Roy Oswalt is 5-4 with a 3.81 ERA in 18 starts, but he went seven decisions into the season before getting a win.

More than likely, the Astros’ MVP is going to come from an offensive player. Hunter Pence and Miguel Tejada certainly could make a strong case. They’re the team’s two All-Stars and have been hitting better than .300 for most of the season, and manager Cecil Cooper has thrown his support behind Michael Bourn. But in this corner, the pick is first baseman Lance Berkman.

Berkman was hitting .273 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs entering Thursday. He leads the team in homers, RBIs, slugging percentage, walks and on-base percentage. Sure, he hit .162 in April, but he’s batting .314 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs since, and perhaps it’s no surprise the Astros have played better over that stretch.


Norris, Trinidad lead way in Minors

The Astros player development department has named the following Players of the Month for June:
Triple-A Round Rock: RHP Bud Norris posted a 1-1 record and a 0.96 ERA in four starts in June to earn Round Rock Pitcher of the Month honors. On the season, Norris currently leads the Pacific Coast League in ERA (2.52) and strikeouts (92). C J.R. Towles was named Offensive Player of the Month after hitting .256 (11-for-43) with 12 walks and a .441 on-base percentage in the month. OF Yordany Ramirez received the Defensive Player of the Month after recording a .990 fielding percentage in 76 games in the outfield this season.
Double-A Corpus Christi: After posting a 0.72 ERA and a 3-2 record in June, LHP Polin Trinidad was named Pitcher of the Month for the Hooks. His 7-5 record with one save and a 2.94 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) with Corpus this season earned him a promotion to Triple A Round Rock in early July. IF Wladimir Sutil was named Offensive Player of the Month after hitting .312 (34-for-109) with 16 runs scored, eight doubles and nine RBI. IF Drew Meyer‘s.974 fielding percentage while playing 78 games in the infield at second base (64), shortstop (12) and third base (two) this season earned him the Defensive Player of the Month title for Corpus Christi.
Class A Advanced Lancaster: JetHawks Pitcher of the Month LHP Fernando Abad owned a 1-0 record with one save a 1.06 ERA in seven games in June. OF Jon Gaston hit .311 (33-for-106) with 16 extra-base hits, including nine doubles and four home runs, while driving in 21 RBI en route to receiving his second consecutive Offensive Player of the Month award. The Defensive Player of the Month was OF J.B. Shuck, who has posted a .982 fielding percentage in 73 games in the outfield this season.
Class A Lexington: Pitcher of the Month RHP Brian Wabick finished the month with a 2-0 record and a 2.76 ERA in six games (one start) for Lexington. OF Brian Pellegrini was named Offensive Player of the Month for the second consecutive month after hitting .437 (38-for-87) with nine home runs and 26 RBI in 24 games with the Legends. OF Jay Austin received Defensive Player of the Month honors after recording a .985 fielding percentage in 63 games in the outfield this season.
Rookie Level Dominican Summer League: RHP Leonardo Alayon posted a 4-0 record with one save and a 1.88 ERA in eight games to earn Pitcher of the Month honors for the DSL Astros. The Offensive Player of the Month honor was awarded to OF Ricardo Heredia, who hit .370 (17-for-46) with nine RBI and a .473 on-base percentage. IF Hector Rodriguez earned the Defensive Player of the Month for the Astros after posting a .915 fielding percentage in 24 games at shortstop and third base this season.

Hunter Pence is just what the All-Star Game needs

Kudos to Astros outfielder Hunter Pence and shortstop Miguel Tejada for making the National League All-Star team as reserves. For Tejada, it will be his sixth All-Star Game — second in the NL — as he continues to play at a high level at age 35.

For Pence, this will be his first trip to the Midsummer Classic, and it’s well-deserved. No one plays the game harder or with more enthusiasm as Pence, who play has yet to gain him national attention. When he chased down a foul ball during a blowout loss in San Francisco over the weekend, he fell over the bullpen mounds and then tipped his hat to the fans.

Pence will revel in his first All-Star Game. He’ll appreciate being there and sharing the clubhouse with some of the game’s greats. He’ll take it seriously, though, hoping to get a win for the NL just in case the Astros make it the World Series and need home-field advantage.

Pence will run out every ground ball and crash into the wall, just because that’s the way the game’s supposed to be played. Even if it’s an exhibition. Astros fans have come to appreciate Pence more and more with each season, and now the rest of the country can find out what they’ve been missing.


Who are the Astros' All-Stars?

I would be surprised if the Astros had more than the minimum one representative when the 2009 All-Star Game starters and reserves are announced at 2 p.m. Sunday. No Astros player had a legitimate chance to get voted in as a starter based on the most recent balloting numbers, but shortstop Miguel Tejada appears to be the most likely to make the National League team.

Tejada entered Saturday ranked first in hits in the NL (103) and multi-hit games (32), tied for first in doubles (26) and was fifth in batting average (.329). Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who leads the league in hitting and was leading the NL in voting, appears to be a shoo-in to make the team in some fashion. Neither Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins nor New York’s Jose Reyes were having All-Star caliber years, helping open the door for Tejada to make the team for the second year in a row with the Astros.

Astros outfielders Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee figure to also be in consideration for a reserve spot, and manager Cecil Cooper went as far as to say center fielder Michael Bourn deserved a spot on the All-Star game. Bourn leads the league in steals, triples and infield hits.
“I think I would have at least two guys on there,” Cooper said. “Tejada, for me, should be one, and you can take your pick with one of my outfielders. One of them deserves to be on there. I would probably go with – if I had to pick one of three and I was pushed – I would go with Bourn.

“He’s scored a lot of runs and is leading the league in stolen bases and is hitting .290. Those are All-Star numbers. Hunter’s hitting .300 and is one of the top hit guys probably in the league. He doesn’t have the RBIs like a lot of these guys have, but he’s having an All-Star kind of year, and is Carlos.”

Lee as hitting .300 with 12 homers and 47 RBIs and Pence was hitting .306 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs entering Saturday. A factor that could help the Astros land an outfielder on the team is that two of the three leading vote-getters in last week’s balloting update are injured – New York’s Carlos Beltran and Philadelphia’s Raul Ibanez.

Player balloting will determine eight reserve position player and eight pitchers (five starters and three relievers) for both rosters.  Eight more selections, including the extra pitcher, will be made by the managers, with input provided from league officials.

“I don’t really pay much attention to it,” Pence said. “It would be nice, but I definitely haven’t had a good week or two and didn’t do what I needed to do. But it would be a great honor.”


Astros manager Cecil Cooper said Saturday he isn’t sure how he will handle his pitching staff for the resumption of Thursday’s suspended game against the Washington Nationals. The game, which was suspended May 5 in Washington tied at 10 in the 11th inning, will resume at 6:05 p.m. Thursday at Minute Maid Park.

LaTroy Hawkins was on the mound for the Astros with a man on first base, but Cooper said another pitcher could be used to resume the game if Hawkins pitches a lot of innings prior to Thursday. Cooper has also said Felipe Paulino could get the ball to resume the game. Paulino, who was rocked for nine runs in two innings Friday, would be pitching on normal rest.

“I’m going to wait until we get home Monday and sit and map it out,” Cooper said.

Russ Ortiz will start Thursday’s regularly scheduled game.


Kenny Baugh, the former Lamar High School and Rice University product drafted in the first round by Detroit in 2001, has been signed by the Astros. Baugh will take Polin Trinidad’s roster spot at Double-A Corpus Christi and start Monday.

Baugh was 6-3 with a 4.52 ERA for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the Independent Atlantic League.

Astros keep on rolling

By taking three of four games from the Padres this week, the Astros have won eight of their last 10 series and six of their last eight games to get within one game of .500 for the first time since they were 1-2 on April 8.

“You’ve got to get to .500, and that was kind of the goal for the All-Star break,” Lance Berkman said. “Hopefully we can get there and make up a little ground above.500. Every year that I’ve been here that we’ve been .500 or close to it at the break and we’ve ended up having a good year. Hopefully that will continue.”

They’ve played tremendous baseball during a portion of their schedule in which they’ve played struggling teams like Kansas City and San Diego, but they have recently won series from a first-place team in Detroit and a contender in the Minnesota Twins.

The biggest reason for the Astros’ surge is pitching, especially starting pitching. Astros starters are 6-1 with a 2.13 ERA in the team’s last 12 games, and the starting pitching has been so good the Astros have gone to a six-man rotation.

“We went to the World Series [in 2005] with maybe the worst offense that’s ever gone to a World Series, but we knew we had a chance to win every game because our starters and our bullpen were so good,” Berkman said. “This team is vastly better offensively and recently the pitching has been just as good.

“This is a pretty good team. This was an underrated team coming out of Spring Training. We have flaws like everybody else, but there’s parity game in the game like maybe there’s never been before. We have as good of a lineup as anyone in the Central and our pitching is good.”

This weekend’s series in San Francisco — in which they will face former Cy Young winners in Tim Lincecum (Saturday) and Randy Johnson (Sunday) — will be difficult, but then the Astros come home to face the a pair of last-place clubs in Washington and Pittsburgh.

The Astros are poised to be in good position to make a second-half run, but the schedule out of the All-Star break is difficult.

“I think we’re in good spot,” Geoff Blum said. “I still think we can be better and I’m sure everybody else in here thinks we can be better, but this is something we can build on, scoring seven runs a couple of times in a big ballpark like [PETCO]. We’ve been facing some good pitchers the last couple of weeks or so, and we’re going to run into some good ones in San Francisco.”



Norris, Bazardo All-Stars at Round Rock

Round Rock pitchers Bud Norris and Yorman Bazardo have been elected to represent the 2009 Pacific Coast League All-Star Team when it takes on the International League All-Stars at PGE Park in Portland on July 15.

Norris, 24, led the PCL with a 2.17 ERA entering Wednesday and ranked first with 88 strikeouts against 44 walks. He had also limited hitters to a .224 batting average – best among active Round Rock pitchers — before getting roughed up Wednesday. 

Rated as the Houston Astros’ top pitching prospect by Baseball America, Norris fanned 84 batters in 80 innings of work with Double-A Corpus Christi in 2008 despite battling an elbow strain. He has made 15 starts for the Express this season, allowing more than two runs three times.

Norris was roughed up by Nashville in a 6-3 Express loss Wednesday. He allowed 10 hits and five earned runs in the loss – both season highs for the right-hander.

Bazardo, 23, ranks third among PCL pitchers with a 2.79 ERA and is tied for second with seven wins. He has limited hitters to a .236 batting average and carries a 1.06 WHIP – best among active Round Rock pitchers.

Bazardo is 4-0 in eight appearances at The Dell Diamond and has limited hitters to a .222 batting average on the road. He was 4-0 with 28 strikeouts against seven walks over six May starts, including a complete game shutout in New Orleans on May 31. He has not lost a start since April 30.


The international signing period begins Thursday and runs through the end of the season. The Astros, of course, have been more active in global signings since general manager Ed Wade was hired near the end of the 2007 season.

Wade said director of Latin American Scouting Felix Francisco has his eyes on a few players who could be signed by Houston.

“He thinks once the feeding frenzy ends and when the crazy money flutters back to earth, there are a couple of guys he has some strong interest in, and we have given him some budget flexiblity to go after some guys,” Wade said.