September 2009

Astros are a loose bunch

When relief pitcher Wesley Wright was doing a television interview prior to Wednesday’s game, he got a shaving cream pie to the face, courtesy of – who else? – LaTroy Hawkins. The same LaTroy Hawkins who was the mastermind behind the rookies dressing up in tight workout outfits for the flight to Philadelphia for the final road trip of the season.

As the season draws to a close, the Astros are certainly a loose bunch. And that is just fine with interim manager Dave Clark.

“I like a loose atmosphere,” Clark said. “I think that’s how you’re able to go out and be yourself and play the game like it’s supposed to be played and have fun doing it. That’s exactly what it’s all about it, trying to have fun and win ballgames.”

Clark believes the manager and coaching staff have to create a positive atmosphere. He doesn’t want players getting too high when they’ve won a bunch of games in a row or too low when they’re struggling to put anything together.

“We want it on an even keel,” Clark said. “There are times you’re getting your butt kicked but you have to find a way to get it done, find a way to keep it at an even keel. A lot of that comes from the veterans as well. That’s the kind of atmosphere I definitely want, and that’s the kind of atmosphere I’ll definitely command.”


Wandy Rodriguez is scheduled to start the first game of the final series of the season Friday in New York. He will be followed by Yorman Bazardo on Saturday and Wilton Lopez on Sunday, but interim manager Dave Clark said Lopez could be used in the bullpen prior to Sunday.

The Astros are shorthanded in the bullpen with Chad Paronto perhaps unavailable for the final four games of the season because of a strained left hamstring.

“The thought process behind that is maybe put Lopez back in the pen and see where we’re at at that particular time,” Clark said. “The last game of the season, if we have to run them all out there, we’ll do it.”


Relief pitcher Chad Paronto, who had to be helped off the field in the seventh inning Tuesday after straining his left hamstring, said he was sore on Wednesday, though not as sore as he thought he’d be. Paronto said he’d like to pitch again in the final days of the season, but interim manager Dave Clark suggested the right-hander is done.

“It’s frustrating to finally get a chance to get out there and show people what I can do and get hurt,” Paronto said. “I’m not as effective when I pitch every five or six days. Being a sinker-baller, I do better when I pitch every one or two days.”

2010 baseball free agent list

Here is a list of potential free agent starting pitchers for 2010. I wish this were like the old “Wheel of Fortune” of the 1980s and I could give you $30 million to wander around and pick a few of these guys and put the rest on a gift certificate, but the reality is the Astros’ payroll will go down next year, so if you’re picking one of these guys to fit into the rotation in 2010 you will need to exercise restraint.

Another thing to keep in mind is that once these options are picked up, there won’t be a great amount of attractive talent available. That means the price will go up.

The guys with asterisks have options for 2010, and the (A) next to the names means that pitcher projects as a Type A free agent. And (B) means Type B free agent. So who do you like? (This list is the product of Cot’s Baseball Contracts.)

Brandon Backe, HOU
Miguel Batista, SEA
Josh Beckett, * BOS
Erik Bedard, SEA (B)
Daniel Cabrera, ARZ
Bartolo Colon, CWS
Jose Contreras, COL
Doug Davis, ARZ (B)
Justin Duchscherer, OAK (B)
Adam Eaton, COL
Kelvim Escobar, LAA
Jon Garland, * LAD (B)
Tom Glavine, ATL
Mike Hampton, HOU
Rich Harden, CHC (A)
Tim Hudson, * ATL
Randy Johnson, SF (B)
John Lackey, LAA (A)
Cliff Lee, * PHI (A)
Braden Looper, * MIL (B)
Jason Marquis, COL (B)
Kevin Millwood, * TEX
Brett Myers, PHI
Vicente Padilla, * LAD (B)
Carl Pavano, MIN
Brad Penny, SF
Odalis Perez, WAS
Andy Pettitte, NYY (B)
Joel Pineiro, STL (B)
Sidney Ponson, KC
Jason Schmidt, LAD
John Smoltz, STL
Tim Wakefield, BOS (B)
Jarrod Washburn, DET
Brandon Webb, * ARZ (B)
Todd Wellemeyer, STL (B)
Randy Wolf, (A)

Astros tidbits

Here are some various Astros tidbits from Tuesday:

— As you certainly know by now, Wesley Wright is going to winter ball to be a starter. Wright will head to the instructional league in Kissimmee, Fla., following the regular season and try to get stretched out by throwing five innings before reporting for the start of the Dominican winter league on Oct. 23.

— The Astros haven’t begun contacting candidates for possible interviews to be the next manager, but about 60-70 people have contacted the Astros through emails and phone calls in the days since Cecil Cooper was let go. The Astros are still in the process of sifting through names.

Pedro Martinez will start for the Phillies on Wednesday against the Astros instead of Thursday. Cliff Lee, who was originally scheduled to start Wednesday, will instead start Thursday. Philadelphia changed up the rotation so it can start lining up its pitching for the playoffs.

— Astros interim manager Dave Clark said he considered hitting Miguel Tejada in the lead-off spot Tuesday with Michael Bourn out of the starting lineup. “I thought about leading him off and seeing what happens,” Clark said. “It may happen in the Mets series. You just never know.”




Towles trying to prove his worth

J.R. Towles was in the starting lineup at catcher Monday for the sixth time in 11 games. While Tommy Manzella and Chris Johnson aren’t getting much playing time, the Astros are committed to giving Towles a good look in the final few weeks of the season.

Towles was the Astros’ top prospect and starting catcher at the start of the 2008 season, but he hit .137 with four homers and 16 RBIs and spent most of the season in the minors. The Astros are searching for a catching option for next season, with current top prospect Jason Castro likely to be able to start at some point next year.

“He’s going to be given the opportunity to be our guy,” Astros interim manager Dave Clark said. “That’s what I believe in, that’s what I’m going to do. We have to see what this kid can do. After what he did in ’07, he got off to somewhat of a slow start last year and went through what all first-year players go through, but I think now he’s starting to settle back in again.”

Towles make a quick rise through the Astros’ system in 2007, advancing from Class A Salem to the Majors in a few months. He was gangbusters in the September of ’07 for the Astros, hitting .375 with one homer and 12 RBI sin 14 games. He had eight RBIs in one game.

During his ascent through the system in ’07, Towles spent 2 1/2 months at Double-A Corpus Christi while Clark was managing the Hooks.

“Two years ago, no one really got him out when I had him at Double-A, and even when he came up here in September he put on a pretty good show,” Clark said. “It’s more of a confidence thing, but he will get it back.”

Clark said Towles will get the lion’s share of time at catcher in the final seven games, especially considering he’s familiar with some of the young pitchers – Yorman Bazardo, Felipe Paulino and Wilton Lopez – the team is starting.

“The fact he’s here and not playing on an everyday basis, with any young guy you’re going to go out and put too much pressure on yourself, and that’s exactly what he’s doing,” Clark said. “The last couple of days or so, we’ve had conversations with him on relaxing and stop looking for a perfect pitch because you might be waiting all year to get it.

“You hit in front of the pitcher and you’re going to get a mixture of stuff and anything close you have to swing at it. They’re trying to get you out by making yourself get yourself out.”


Tough pitching match-ups against Phils

The Astros managed to hold off the Cardinals last week and make sure they didn’t clinch the National League Central at Minute Maid Park. Now, the Phillies enter a four-game series against the Astros which begins tonight Philadelphia with a magic number of three.

Houston doesn’t much to play for the in the final week, so making it difficult for Philadelphia to clinch a playoff spot is about as exciting as it gets for the Astros. But based on the pitching match-ups, I don’t like the Astros’ chances.

Monday — Yorman Bazardo (0-2, 9.55 ERA) vs. Cole Hamels (10-9, 4.11 ERA)

Tuesday — Wilton Lopez (0-0, 10.38 ERA) vs. J.A. Happ (11-4, 2.79 ERA)

Wednesday — Brian Moehler (8-11 , 5.21 ERA) vs. Cliff Lee (7-3, 3.28 ERA)

Thursday — Felipe Paulino (2-11, 6.51 ERA) vs. Pedro Martinez (5-1, 3.32 ERA

Astros battling sickness

Second baseman Kaz Matsui was scratched from the starting lineup Sunday with flu-like symptoms, and he’s not the only player dealing with sniffling, sneezing and coughing. Tommy Manzella, Edwin Maysonet, Miguel Tejada, Michael Bourn, Humberto Quintero and first base coach Jose Cruz are also dealing with various illness issues.

“We could go around the clubhouse and say that about a lot of guys,” interim manager Dave Clark said. “It’s just out there right now, and hopefully we can over this thing pretty quick.”


Roy Oswalt, who won’t pitch in the final week of the season, was kicking back and relaxing in the clubhouse prior to Sunday’s game and was nice enough to give me a quick update on his back condition. Oswalt, who has a bulging disk in his back, will be doing more cycling and swimming in the offseason to help strengthen his core.

Oswalt is going to cut down on his running, which means no more running stadium steps like he has done in the past.

“As far as core work, I’ve been doing the same thing all year,” Oswalt said. “The last days I’ve felt pretty good, but I’ve had eight days off. It’s the first time I’ve had eight days off in a row, so I think I just needed a little time.”


Left-hander Mike Hampton, who underwent rotator cuff surgery on Sept. 15 and won’t pitch in 2010, made a visit to the clubhouse on Sunday and was still wearing a sling.

“I have a long way to go, but I should be alright,” he said. “Sleeping is the toughest part right now, but it’s better than it was. I’ll start rehabbing here in another week or so and go through the whole deal and get healthy and see if I can strike my kids out.”

How about a player-manager for Astros?

Remember when Pete Rose was a player and the manager of the Reds back in the 1980s? That was pretty cool, and I wish we had more of those in sports. I would have nothing more than the Astros to have a player-manager next year.

I could envision Geoff Blum coming in to yank a pitcher from third base and then later pinch-running for himself when he represents the tying run. Blum is pretty much a platoon player anyway, so he’d be in the dugout as manager half the time. Blum is full of great ideas, too. And I’d enjoy a manager doing his post-game interview with dirt on his uniform.

Alas, this won’t happen. After talking with many players in the last few days, there is a tremendous amount of support for Dave Clark to take over the job on a full-time basis. I know Clark will be in the mix, but I see Ed Wade bringing someone from the outside. I don’t think many people would have a problem with Clarkie, though.


Wade, Astros preparing for arduous managerial search

Don’t expect the Astros have a full-time manager in place before the end of the season.

Astros general manager Ed Wade said club officials have yet to sit down and have in-depth internal conversations with regard to candidate lists, and the process could drag into November, especially if one of the candidates is on a coaching staff that reaches the World Series.

The Astros on Monday dismissed manager Cecil Cooper after two years and named third base coach Dave Clark interim manager. Clark will be in the mix for the full-time job at season’s end.

“Don’t call me a liar if we end up interviewing somebody in the interim,” Wade said. “I just don’t think it’s going to flow at that pace. We’ll have our internal discussions and try to come up with a manageable list, and then we’ll begin the process at some point thereafter.”

Wade hired two managers while he was general manager of the Phillies – Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel, who led the Phillies to the World Series championship last year. Wade was an assistant general manager when Terry Francona was hired by the Phillies.

“I fired Terry, and I told him it was the biggest mistake I ever made in my baseball career,” Wade said.

Wade said he’d like to hire a manager that has managerial experience in the Major Leagues or Minor Leagues and coaching experience if the Majors. That would appear to eliminate Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, both of whom have had their names surface in the media.

“I think experience goes a long way,” Wade said. “I agree with people that say just about everyone interviews well. I don’t think you can be overwhelmed in an interview setting, so you have to look at the individual’s body of work and what they’ve accomplished and what other people have said about them, people that have worked with him.

“You try to take all that information and make the right decision. I’ve been fortunate in the time I’ve been in baseball to work with some outstanding managers. I’ve worked with guys who were excellent tacticians on the field; I’ve worked with guys who were great in dealing with players. If you find somebody who can bring all those attributes to the job, you probably have Bobby Cox.”

Wade likes stand-up guys, managers who will pat players on the back when they need it and kick them in the tail when they need it.

“We’re going to have some core veteran guys on the club, we’re going to have young guys on the club,” Wade said. “There will be a lot of dialogue with the candidates about the dynamics of our team, the dynamics of our roster. We’ve got to ask them for input how they feel working with a club that’s a mixture of veterans and younger guys.

“There are some managers who are more comfortable or only comfortable with a veteran club, and there are some mangers who are developmentally oriented and like to take young players and see them grow. The way we’re going to be comprised next year would indicate a manager has to be willing to do both – work with veteran guys and get their respect and maintain the respect of those players, while at the same time having a willingness to bring the younger kids along and help to build what will become a new core nucleus.”


Clark has what it takes to manage

Ask any player who’s played for manager Dave Clark in the Minor Leagues, and they’ll usually tell you the same thing: they would be willing to run through a wall for him.

Clark, a former boxer, brings a tough-as-nails demeanor to the dugout that was certainly lacking under laid-back Cecil Cooper. And managerial changes seem to always go in cycles: Terry Collins was fiery, and Larry Dierker was laid back. Jimy Williams was laid back, and Phil Garner was fiery. Cooper was laid back, and Clark certainly has outward passion.

“I would have to say that everybody that has played for him has loved him, and he’s a good guy,” said outfielder Hunter Pence, who was on the Corpus Christi team in 2006 that won the Texas League title with Clark at the helm.

The last two interim managers the Astros have had (Phil Garner and Cooper) have landed the jobs on a full-time basis, but Ed Wade will conduct a full search. He’s likely champing at the bit to bring in his own guy, and the decision will be made by owner Drayton McLane anyway.

I can’t imagine Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell would get serious consideration, and I don’t think Bagwell would even be interested. I’d hire Brad Ausmus in a heartbeat if I were the Astros, but he might not be willing to manage as early as next year.

Brewers bench coach Willie Randolph is interested, and plenty of other names are sure to surface. I’m guessing Wade will go outside the organization to hire a manager and most of the coaching staff won’t be brought back, but there is no doubt this is a tremendously important hire for McLane.


Astros having one of their worst road seasons in years

The Astros began the second half of the season with a four-game series at the Los Angeles Dodgers. They won the first two games and lost the final two, starting two months or road misery. After getting swept by the Brewers on Sunday, the Astros have lost 25 of 31 on the road since winning those two games at Dodgers Stadium in mid-July.

Here’s how they have fared in their last five road trips

— 0-2 (at LA, after winning the first two games)

— 2-5 (at CHC; at STL)

— 2-5 (at FLA; at MIL)

— 2-7 (at STL; at ARI; at CHC)

— 0-6 (at CIN; at MIL)

The Astros are 28-46 on the road. With seven road games left at Philadelphia and the New York Mets, the Astros have a chance for their worst road record since 1991 (28-53). Their only 50-loss road season since 1991 came in 2007 when they were 31-50 on the road.