August 2009

Pence dropped to seventh in order

Astros right fielder Hunter Pence, who entered Monday hitting .229 in August, batted seventh in the lineup Monday against the Cubs for the first time since the first two games of the season. Pence, who has hit primarily sixth this year, said he wasn’t bothered by the decision.

“Coop’s doing everything he can,” Pence said. “Whatever he needs me to do, I’m going to try to do.”

Manager Cecil Cooper had Jeff Keppinger hitting second and playing second Monday, which dropped Miguel Tejada to fifth and Geoff Blum to sixth.

“It’s not any kind of punishment,” Cooper said of Pence. “Just the way it falls out.”

Blum was back in the starting lineup for the first time since Aug. 23. He rejoined the Astros on Saturday after traveling back to Houston on Thursday to have a nerve irritation in his back examined. Cooper said Keppinger could start for Berkman on Wednesday.

“I haven’t talked to him about it, but I might decide to do that,” Cooper said. “[Keppinger] is swinging the bat pretty good.”

Keppinger hit .190 on the first six games of the current road trip.

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For Astros manager Cecil Cooper, playing at Wrigley Field was akin to returning to the scene of the crime. It was here that Houston’s late-season swoon kicked into high gear with a miserable four-game series against the Cubs in which they were outscored 24-3 and outhit 27-13 in the final two games.

Houston’s starting rotation pitched only eight innings in the final three games of the series, while the bullpen logged 17 innings. The Astros never recovered from the extra toll that was placed on the bullpen and arrived back at Wrigley Field on Monday 14 games out of first place, having lost 12 games since their previous trip to the Friendly Confines.

“That kind of got us going in a negative direction,” he said.

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Astros manager Cecil Cooper confirmed that right-hander Felipe Paulino will start Wednesday’s series finale against the Cubs. It will be his first start since allowing nine hits and five runs in 4 1/3 innings on July 4 in San Francisco. Brian Moehler will start Tuesday’s game.

“We think he deserves an opportunity to pitch,” Cooper said of Paulino.

 

Hawkins on waivers, Hampton throws and other Astros news

Astros relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, who was reportedly claimed off waivers recently before being pulled back by the Astros, said he was unaware he had been put on waivers. The majority of players are put on waivers this time of year and those pulled back can’t be traded until the season is over.

Upon being told he had reportedly been pulled back off waivers, Hawkins, who will be a free agent at season’s end, started text messaging Wesley Wright, currently pitching to Triple-A Round Rock, to jokingly tell him he was stuck with Hawkins for the rest of the season.

Astros general manager Ed Wade doesn’t comment on specific players and the waiver process, but it’s safe to assume that nearly every Astros player has been on waivers at some point this year.

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Left-hander Mike Hampton, who’s been on the disabled list since Aug. 14 with a left shoulder strain, threw a baseball Thursday for the first time in 12 days and said he felt somewhat better. Hampton has said that if his shoulder isn’t drastically improved by the end of the road trip next week, he’ll have season-ending surgery.

“I didn’t expect to feel great, but I’ll probably try it again in Arizona [this weekend] and see how I feel,” he said. “I threw probably 50 throws, just trying to get it going. Some felt good and some didn’t. We’ll give it a couple of more days and see how we’ll feel and go from there.”

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The Astros met Thursday morning and voted to approved Michael Weiner to replace Donald Fehr as the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Weiner was appointed last month, pending a vote of the entire MLBPA membership.

Fehr announced his intention to retire on June 22 and recommended Weiner get the job. A clerk to a federal judge who became the top lawyer to union head Marvin Miller in August 1977, Fehr took over as acting executive director in December 1983 and got the job permanently two years later.

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T.J. Burton, right-handed pitcher at Double A Corpus Christi, collapsed Wednesday in the clubhouse in Corpus Christi. He was taken to the hospital and admitted into the ICU with a possible viral infection. He is still undergoing tests and remains in the ICU.

Hampton will decide soon whether he can pitch again in 2009

In a last-ditch effort to save his season, left-hander Mike Hampton on Monday underwent platelet rich plasma therapy, the same procedure Doug Brocail used on his injured hamstring earlier this year. Hampton has been on the disabled list since Aug. 14 with a left shoulder strain and has been diagnosed with a partially torn rotator cuff.

Platelet rich plasma therapy involves extracting a small amount of blood from the body and spinning it for approximately 15 minutes, a step that removes unwanted components of the blood that are not primarily responsible for healing. What remains is an increased concentration of platelets, which are injected into the injured area.

Hampton had never heard of the procedure until recently, but decided to try it at the suggestion of team medical director Dr. David Lintner, who had seen it show positive results on football players with hamstring and ankle injuries.

“I’m just trying everything I can,” Hampton said. “What I can do I’m trying, and that was the next step. I think I should know something by the end of this road trip. If I can’t throw in the next six, seven days, it’s pretty much going to be tough for me to come back. That’s the reality of it.”

Hampton said if he doesn’t have better range of motion and less pain in the shoulder by the time the road trip ends Sept. 2, he’s going to opt for surgery and look forward to next year.

“The next thing will be the voodoo doll, the snake charmer or the witch doctor,” he said. “I’m open to anything. I would definitely explore the options and surgery would be one of them.”

Hampton, who is 7-10 with a 5.30 ERA in 21 starts this year in his return to the Astros, wants to play next year.

“I’ve reached my boiling point when it comes to injuries and surgery and stuff like that, but right now my intent is to continue to play,” he said. “I’m open to relieving. Forty innings is less than 200. I still like putting on a uniform. I’m doing everything I can to get back. Before the road trip is over, I’ll have a good indication if I’m going pitch again this year or not.”

Wright progressing, Matsui slumping and September call-ups

Astros left-hander Wesley Wright is scheduled to throw in the bullpen Sunday before going out on a Minor League rehab assignment to Triple-A Round Rock. Wright has been on the DL since Aug. 12 with a left shoulder strain that is the result from arm fatigue.

“I’m doing whatever I can to get my legs in shape until my arm gets back to where it needs to be,” Wright said. “It’s close and I’m ready to give it some games and see how it reacts. I’m just ready to get back on the mound. This year has been a long, frustrating one for me.”

After going 4-3 with a 5.01 ERA in 71 appearances in his rookie year in 2008, Wright is 2-2 with a 5.97 ERA in 33 games this year. He’s been shuffled between Round Rock and the Astros after spending all of last season in the Major Leagues, and he was even wheeled out of Wrigley Field on a stretcher last month after suffering from dehydration.

“I had heard about the sophomore slump or jinx or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “As an athlete, you try not to believe in those things, but perhaps. I was sitting here watching TV and I saw the [2008 National League] Rookie of the Year [Geovany Soto] is hitting .217. Baseball is a game where you constantly have to made adjustments. That’s what I’m in the progress of doing.”

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Kaz Matsui was back in the lineup Saturday with hopes of breaking out of a 1-for-25 slump, including no hits in his last 14 at-bats. He entered Saturday hitting .235, but has been especially poor from the left side of the plate. He’s hitting .222 left-handed and .290 right-handed.

“His left-handed swing has not been there,” manager Cecil Cooper said. “He has not had the good left-handed swing. He has not had the patience he normally has left-handed. As a matter of fact, he looks like a different hitter left-handed than he looked a year ago.”

Matsui hit .293 in 96 games in his first season with the Astros last year, batting .291 right-handed and .294 left-handed. He was on the disabled list three different times, but has managed to avoid the DL but one time this year. Saturday marked his 95th game.
Cooper said he will continue to play Matsui.

“The guy can do so many things for us,” Cooper said. “When he does get on, he can run. He’s one of the two or three guys we have that goes first to third without any problems. We have to keep him healthy and give him time off and hopefully in these last few games he finds his swing because we need him to be an offensive force for us as a left-handed hitter.”

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Don’t expect the Astros to have a flurry of September call-ups when the rosters can be expanded to 40 players on Sept. 1. Astros general manager Ed Wade believes in calling up players who are going to play a role on the team and doesn’t believe in using the call-ups as a reward.

The Astros already expect to get back injured pitchers Doug Brocail and Wesley Wright, along with rehabbing infielder Aaron Boone.

“Whether it’s playing defense or pinch-running or pinch-hitting, you have to fill a need,” manager Cecil Cooper said. “Or maybe be a guy that’s a good situational pitcher that comes in.”

Among those likely to be called up is catcher J.R. Towles, who is recovering from an injury and might not be ready. Most teams like to add a third catching option for September. But don’t expect Chris Johnson and Tommy Manzella to get a call. Not only are they unlikely to get playing time, but they will begin to accrue Major League service time when recalled.

Ed Wade on Paulino, Mier and another drug suspension

Felipe Paulino, the barrel-chested right-hander with the 98-mph fastball and little ability to throw it for strikes, is back with the Astros, and based on the comments made by general manager Ed Wade on Wednesday it appears Paulino better get things ironed out soon.

Paulino is 2-1 with a 3.12 ERA this year at Triple-A Round Rock, but he’s been an enigma at the Major League level since he made his debut with six scoreless innings on the final day of the 2007 season. He’s 4-7 with a 7.24 ERA in 20 career Major League games (14 starts), including 2-6 with a 7.28 ERA this year.

“I think Felipe needs to take advantage of every opportunity he gets to stand 60, 6 inches away from Major League hitters,” Wade said. “He’s got to show that he’s prepared to take advantage of these opportunities. He needs to give us a clear signal going into Spring Training next year that he’s prepared to win a job and hold it for the entire season and help us win.

“He’s got the stuff to do it. It’s not too late, but he’s got to step up and take advantage of this. We see the stuff, but it’s got to come out in whatever role he’s given for the remainder of the season. Right now, it’s a bullpen role.”

When Paulino was sent down Aug. 8, the Astros told him to work on his fastball command. He’s been used in relief and as a starter, and Wade said when he hits Kissimmee next year he better be ready to win a spot. Wade said the careers of Paulino and Fernando Nieve with the Astros were at “high noon” at Spring Training this year, and Nieve was soon cut loose.

“Aside from being out of options, when you’re as big and physical and with the tools Felipe’s got, you want to see it manifest itself on a regular bases from the standpoint of success,” Wade said. “He certainly needs to understand this is the best opportunity he’s going to get for a while and to make the most out of it.”

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Astros general manager Ed Wade returned Monday from a tour of some of the Astros’ Minor League clubs, including short-season Tri-City, rookie-league Greeneville and the new Gulf Coast League team in Kissimmee, Fla.

Wade saw three games in Tri-City and was impressed with left-hander Dallas Keuchel, a seventh-round pick from Arkansas in this year’s Draft. At Greeneville, he lauded the left side of the infield – third baseman Jonathan Myer (third round pick in 2009) and shortstop Jiovanni Mier, the Astros’ No. 1 pick.

Mier is hitting .286 with five homers, 25 RBIs and a .394 on-base percentage in 39 games.

“All indications are this kid is everything we hoped he would be from standpoint of ability, instincts, athleticism, makeup and leadership qualities,” Wade. “One of our guys was having a conversation and trying to make a point to one of our Latin players down there that had minimal English-speaking ability, and Jiovanni stepped right in and took control of the conversation and interpreted for him. We’ve heard a lot of stories like that about him.”

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Left-hander Gabriel Garcia, who was playing for the Greeneville Astros of the Appalachian League (Rookie), was suspended 50 games Wednesday after testing positive in violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. He tested positive for metabolites of Nandrolone.

Garcia is the third Minor League player in the Astros’ system this year to receive a 50-game suspension, joining Mitch Einertson at Double-A Corpus Christi and pitcher Felix Ramirez of the Dominican Summer League. Einertson tested positive for a drug of abuse, and Ramirez for Boldenone.

MLB guidelines for “drugs of abuse” stipulate that a player’s first positive test is not subject to an announcement or penalty, while a second violation carries a 50-game ban. Performance-enhancing drug violations, however, carry a 50-game suspension for a first offense.

“I’m always concerned about it,” general manager Ed Wade said. “We try to educate the players as best as we can to avoid being put in those positions, and I think we’ve done a good job with that . Any player who tests positive is making a mistake, so I’m certainly not justifying what anybody has done or what other circumstances develop within our organization.

“That said, I think our numbers are below average for the 30 clubs. But again, as an industry we have to get to a point of zero players testing positive for any type of substances and having zero tolerance for it. If you see enough of your teammates missing 50 games, unless you’re a little dense, the message should be getting through.”

Pudge trade makes sense

You can call the Astros’ trading of Pudge Rodriguez to the Rangers a case of throwing in the towel for 2009 or the start of a rebuilding effort, but I don’t believe either is the case. Are the Astros out of it for this? Almost certainly, but they aren’t going to concede anything until they are mathematically eliminated.

And I wouldn’t call trading away a 35-year-old catcher who has very little left in the tank the start of a rebuilding effort. Pudge was brought here to serve in a pinch anyway, to play one season at catcher while the Astros wait on Jason Castro to get ready. Pudge gave the Astros more offense at catcher than they’ve had in years and was a great influence on the pitching staff, but basically they go three players from the Rangers for very little. It’s a good move, and the kind they should have made.

Now, if the Astros start getting rid of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, then you have rebuilding on your hands. Getting rid of Pudge? Not to so much.

So where do they go from here? Mike Hampton‘s season could be done and you’d have to call his return to the Astros a disappointment. Astros general manager Ed Wade took chances of Hampton and Russ Ortiz to be part of the rotation, and neither has worked out. Brian Moehler can be a productive part of the staff, especially is he’s the fifth starter and not the third or fourth.

The Astros should call up shortstop Tommy Manzella in September and get a good look at him. If you think he can be your everyday shortstop next year, make an effort to re-sign Miguel Tejada and move him to third. Tejada told MLB.com last week he’s open to moving to third, but money will be an issue. I’d sign him for $5 or $7 million, but not anywhere close to the $14 million he makes now.

I’d take the rest of the money — if any — the Astros might have in the off-season and invest in pitching. Signing another starting pitcher to put him with Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris. All of a sudden you have the makings of a nice rotation. I wouldn’t bring Jose Valverde back and either give the closing job to LaTroy Hawkins, who will be a free agent at season’s end, or identify someone in the organization who can close. That, of course, is easier said than done.

The bottom line is the Astros still have some nice pieces and moves like sending off Pudge could only have a positive effect on their future.

 

Astros to honor Neil Hohlfeld

I was among those asked to vote on this year’s honoree for the Houston Baseball Media Wall of Honor, and the choice for me — and many others — was easy. Neil Hohlfeld, former Astros beat writer who died suddenly last year, is most deserving of a spot on the wall. And on Monday, the Astros announced that Hohlfeld will be this year’s inductee.

Hohlfeld will be honored posthumously in a pre-game ceremony Sept. 12 before the 6:05 p.m. Astros game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. An induction plaque will be presented to Hohlfeld’s wife, Lynne, and another plaque will be installed at the Houston Baseball Media Wall of Honor display on the broadcast level of the Minute Maid Park press box.

Hohlfeld is the third person to be inducted into the Wall of Honor, joining media pioneer Anita Martini, who was the inaugural inductee in 2007, and former Astros radio broadcaster Gene Elston, 2008. Hohlfeld covered the Astros as the beat writer for the Houston Chronicle from 1979 until 1995. He served as president of the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1993.

In 1996, Hohlfeld went on to cover other sports, including Texas A&M athletics and NASCAR, through 2006 before assuming an editing assignment for the Chronicle. In 2007, he returned to his first love as a baseball analyst for FS Houston’s pre- and post-game shows.

Hohlfeld graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism in 1973 and began his career in Hannibal, Mo. He worked for the Chicago Tribune from 1974-79 before joining the Chronicle in 1979.

Hohlfeld passed away on July 19, 2008 at the age of 56. He was honored by the Houston chapter of the BBWAA as the recipient of the 2008 Fred Hartman Long and Meritorious Service Award.

The Houston Baseball Media Wall of Honor each season inducts a current or former Houston media member who has made significant and lasting contributions to the landscape of Houston baseball through their work in journalism or broadcasting.

Brocail itching to return

 After throwing 30 fastballs in the bullpen Saturday, right-hander Doug Brocail said Sunday he felt great and was looking forward to the next step in his rehab. Brocail has been on the disabled list since Aug. 5 with a strained right shoulder.

Brocail can come off the disabled list Thursday, but manager Cecil Cooper said he probably wouldn’t return until September. Cooper said he’d like Brocail to throw perhaps two more bullpen sessions and a simulated game before being activated.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking as far as a timetable,” Brocail said. “I know that our bullpen’s spent, so it’s one of those things. If need be, I can get a couple of more bullpen sessions in and if I’m feeling good I’ll just go at it. If I’m feeling good, I don’t feel the need to go out on rehab, but we’ll see.”
 

Astros excited about signing of Alaniz, a non-drafted free agent

Astros assistant manager Bobby Heck was so excited about the signing of 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher Ruben (AJ) Alaniz as a non-drafted free agent Saturday that the club took the unusual step of issuing a separate press release to announce the deal.

Alaniz, a product of Juarez-Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas, signed for $160,000, which is slightly more then the $154,000 bonus they gave fifth-round pick Brandon Wikoff, a shortstop from the University of Illinois.

Heck said Alaniz was the classic case of a player slipping under the radar before the draft. Astros scout Rusty Pendergrass first saw Alaniz during a tryout in South Texas in June, and the team made a run to sign him that night. The Astros waited to see Alaniz pitch in a game with a travel team out of Dallas, and soon other teams were on his trail.

“From there, the pursuit was on,” Heck said. “At the end of the day, a lot of this is because of Rusty’s due diligence and the relationship he built over time with the kid.”

Heck said both Pendergrass and East Coast scouting supervisor Clarence Johns believe Alaniz has the stuff to be a Major League starter. His fastball has been clocked at 94-mph, and he has a plus curve ball. Alaniz, 18, will report to the Gulf Coast League Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday.

Meanwhile, Heck said the Astros were hoping to sign at least one more draft pick before Monday’s deadline. They’ve signed 25 of their top 26 picks, leaving 12th-round pick Geoffrey Thomas, a right-handed high school pitcher from Georgia, as the highest unsigned pick.

Thomas is among three players the Astros are still negotiating with, but the Southern Mississippi commit doesn’t have the team as enthusiastic about his chances of signing as the two other players they’re negotiating with.

“I’m hoping to get another guy,” Heck said. “We’re engaged in three different ongoing negotiations now with significant money on the table for all three. We’re trying to keep adding to the list. There’s just a lot of moving parts and dynamics to them, especially with a lot of the other signings coming in. I’m going to be happy if I get one, and if I get more than that it’s a bonus and icing on the cake.”

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Astros manager Cecil Cooper, who spent 11 seasons in Milwaukee as a player and has worked in several other capacities in the Brewers organization, and bench coach Ed Romero paid a visit to Commissioner Bud Selig on Saturday.

Selig owned the Brewers when Cooper and Romero played in Milwaukee.

“He’s special to me, but it hasn’t always been warm,” Cooper said. “He’s always been pretty good to me. I remember when I first left here after the ’87 season, we didn’t have the best of relationship. Because of his kids, they kind of smoothed it over and got us to be friends again, I guess you could say. They started recruiting me to come back as a coach and be part of the organization. We’ve always talked through the years.” 

             

Overworked bullpen worries Cooper

The Astros were ranked 25th in baseball in the number of innings thrown by their starting pitchers prior to Friday. Astros starters had thrown 646 innings, which was just ahead of the 644 1/3 thrown by the Brewers starters.

Astros starting pitchers went exactly five innings in all four games of the series against the Marlins in Florida, putting a big strain on relief pitchers. The bullpen, which was one of the Astros’ strengths last year, has been ravaged by injuries and overuse.

Jose Valverde, Doug Brocail, LaTroy Hawkins, Chris Sampson, Geoff Geary and Wesley Wright have all spent time on the disabled list year, forcing others into roles they wouldn’t have been in otherwise. Jeff Fulchino and Alberto Arias have been called upon more, but even they haven’t pitched as well as they did earlier.

“We need two or three days in a row of seven innings [from a starting pitcher] and we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. “It hasn’t happened too often here lately for us.”

Cooper was undoubtedly cringing when Wandy Rodriguez gave up eight runs in the first inning Friday. He threw seven innings in his previous start Sunday before the run of four consecutive five-inning outings by the starters.

Cooper said trying to identify a pitcher to work in long relief has been difficult. The addition of Yorman Bazardo will help, but the Astros will have to keep him back in case Mike Hampton can’t make his next start.

“Last year, we had Geary and we had Sampson and they both would flip-flop every other day, and they were both strong and did a good job for us,” he said. “This year we had to press Arias into some spots we wouldn’t have used him, as well as Fulchino. Geary’s not here and Sampson was good in the first half and has struggled lately.

“It’s been a little struggle to keep it all mapped out, but that’s still not an excuse. We have to go out and get it done.”

Sampson was sent to Triple-A Round Rock following Thursday’s rough outing in Florida, and Cooper reiterated that he was told by Sampson and the training staff that the right-hander was healthy. Sampson says he hasn’t been 100 percent since coming off the disabled list.

Still, Cooper admitted that perhaps he could have not used him as much.

“I wish we could have given him more rest, maybe, early on and tried to avoid some of this,” he said.

 

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