January 2010

Arbitration takes a bite out of payroll

With left-hander Wandy Rodriguez set to go to an arbitration hearing Feb. 17, the toll the Astros’ eight arbitration-eligible players had on the payroll can nearly be finalized. Not counting Rodriguez, the seven arbitration players who signed will make a combined $11.84 million in 2010, which represents an $8.069 million payroll hike.

If Rodriguez wins his case, those numbers increase to $18.84 million and $13.569 million, and if he loses it’s still $16.84 million and $11.569 million. As you can see, an extra $11.6 million dollars being added to the payroll was one of the Astros’ biggest issues of 2010. In essence, they were spending enough extra money to sign a top-notch free agent without actually adding that player.

And with the payroll being cut from last year’s team-record $107 million, general manager Ed Wade had a tough task. Jose Valverde turning down arbitration was a huge plus and gave Wade the payroll flexibility he needed to make the deals he did. The Astros had already projected that the arbitration players would be taking much of that payroll flexbility already.

One-year deal makes sense for Pence

The Astros signed Hunter Pence to a one-year, $3.5 million contract Saturday in his first year of arbitration eligibility. There appears to be some kind of groundswell of support by the fans for locking Pence up to a multi-year deal, but that doesn’t make sense for the Astros.

Pence has three more years of arbitration eligibility remaining after this season and will continue to get paid his market value as long as he keeps producing. We’ve seen the Brewers lock up Ryan Braun and the Rays sign Evan Longoria to multi-year deals to essentially buy out the final years of arbitration, and those could wind up being good deals down the road.

The Astros still have three-plus years to get a long-term deal done with Pence if they see fit, so it makes no sense to do it now. A deal like that would give the player some security and could been seen as an act of goodwill, but it’s not really cost reductive. Teams would have to pay today’s market value for the player and then project what it’s going to be like two, three or four years down the road.

Long-term deals make sense when you can buy out years of free agency, but to do that for Pence at this point in his career you’d have to sign him to a six-year deal (four arbitration years and two free agent years). There’s not much sense to that considering Pence won’t be a free agent until after the 2013 season.

In case you’re wondering, Pence has four arbitration-eligible years because he’s a “Super Two,” which means he has less than three years of Major League service time (2.156) and ranks in the Top 17 percent in total service in the class of players who have at least two but less than three years of service.

Brad Mills ready for Florida

Brad Mills has spring fever, and who could blame him? The start of his first Major League camp as manager is less than a month away, the skies were sunny on a warm winter day in Houston and hundreds of Astros fans were cheering his every move Thursday.

Mills has been tagging along with the Astros’ winter caravan this week, including stops at owner Drayton McLane ‘s hometown of Temple. The caravan was back in the Houston area on Thursday, when Mills, pitcher Brian Moehler and Astros icon Craig Biggio paid a visit to a home for special-need adults.

With television announcer Bill Brown giving fake score updates of a simulated game – the Astros were leading 132-1 in the seventh inning, by the way – the crowd cheered Mills, Moehler and Biggio.

“It looked like they loved it and we enjoyed it,” Mills said. “Things like this are probably just as good for us as they are for them. We enjoy it, and it’s fun to brighten someone’s day.”

Mills has received nothing but praise about the way he handles himself from players such as Geoff Blum, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Moehler. The first-year manager appears to have won over the players and can probably go ahead and start tinkering with a lineup, considering the Astros are done shopping for the winter. Next comes the hard part. Bringing it all together in time for Opening Day.

Mills will speak a crowd of about 1,000 on Thursday night at the 25th annual Houston Baseball Dinner.

“I think the whole ballclub has been received very well,” Mills said. “I’m not talking about me. It’s the organization and what they’ve done for this community and what they’ve done to get ready for the season has all been received very well. We have some great fans and we’re looking forward to Spring Training.”

What the Astros will make in 2010

With several players still waiting on contracts for 2010, most notably Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez, I’ve compiled a list at what each player will make in 2010. Remember, thre are still a handful of younger players who have yet to have their 2010 contracts renewed, also.

I have estimated what Pence, Rodriguez and Tim Byrdak could make this year, based on the arbitration numbers that were submitted Tuesday. I split them right down the middle, which a good starting point for negotiations.

These numbers do not include any incentives or performance bonuses.

Carlos Lee: $18.5 million

Roy Oswalt: $15 million

Lance Berkman: $14.5 million

*Wandy Rodriguez: $6 million (has not finalized a contract; he wants $7 million and club is offering $5 million)

Brett Myers: $5.1 million (includes $2 million buyout)

Kaz Matsui: $5 million

Pedro Feliz: $4.5 million

Brandon Lyon: $4.25 million

*Hunter Pence: $3.6 million (has not finalized a contract; he wants $4.1 million and club is offering $3.1 million)

Brian Moehler: $3 million 

Michael Bourn: $2.4 million 

Matt Lindstrom: $1.625 million 

*Tim Byrdak: $1.6 million (has not finalized a contract; he wants $1.9 million and club is offering $1.3 million)

Geoff Blum: $1.5 million 

Jeff Keppinger: $1.15 million 

Chris Sampson: $815,000

Jason Michaels: $800,000 

Humberto Quintero: $750,000 

J.R. Towles: $406,500

Chris Johnson: $400,000

– Lee, Berkman and Oswalt will make a combined $48 million, which will be about half of the 2010 payroll.

– The total amount of committed money for these players, including the estimates for Pence, Rodriguez and Byrdak, is $91,896,500. When the rest of the younger unsigned players get deals done, you can see the payroll will be around $95 million 

 

 

 

Great day for Astros

Can you imagine how different the Astros’ winter would have been had Jose Valverde accepted arbitration and LaTroy Hawkins accepted their contract offer? The Astros would have liked to have been able to bring Hawkins back and took a huge risk by offering arbitration to Valverde, but the departure of both opened doors and wallets.

Astros general manager Ed Wade signed Brandon Lyon, Pedro Feliz and Brett Myers, traded for Matt Lindstrom and picked up two draft picks, including a first-round pick. Things couldn’t have worked out much better for the Astros, who would have been hamstrung had Valverde accepted arbitration.

Valverde winds up not making as much in 2010 as he would have with the Astros, but he got the comfort of a two-year deal with an option. The Astros got what they wanted, too, and even more. With Spring Training around the corner, the Astros are hitting the finish line of the Hot Stove season with a smile on their faces.

“I thought we entered into the Valverde situation in a win-win situation,” Wade said. “If he had accepted arbitration, we would have ended up with the best free-agent closer on the market. As it turned out, we were able to satisfy the back end of the bullpen with Lyon and Lindstrom and to score draft picks, particularly a first-round draft pick, is very satisfying.

“I like what he did for us and we would have loved to have him back, but at end of the day we have to look at end results and we felt that being able to add two additional draft picks in 2010 is a pretty favorable conclusion for us.”

Updated possible 25-man roster

It’s been more than a month since I predicted what the 25-man roster might look like on Opening Day, and recent developments have forced me to change it a bit. The Astros re-signed Jason Michaels, as I had suspected, and they signed right-hander Brett Myers, which I didn’t suspect.

The goal now for the Astros is to find a left-handed bat they could plug into the outfield in a reserve role. I originally had Jason Bourgeois in that spot, but he was designated for assignment. I’m going to leave that spot open because the Astros will try to bring a veteran to camp to win that job. Here’s my best guess at the likely 25-man roster in April, barring injuries:

CATCHERS (2)

J.R. Towles

Humberto Quintero

INFIELDERS (6)

Lance Berkman

Kaz Matsui

Tommy Manzella

Pedro Feliz

Geoff Blum

Jeff Keppinger

OUTFIELDERS (5)

Carlos Lee

Michael Bourn

Hunter Pence

Jason Michaels

TBA (veteran left-handed bat)

STARTING PITCHERS (5)

Roy Oswalt

Wandy Rodriguez (L)

Brett Myers

Bud Norris

Felipe Paulino

RELIEF PITCHERS (7)

Matt Lindstrom

Brandon Lyon

Jeff Fulchino

Alberto Arias

Tim Byrdak (L)

Chris Sampson

Brian Moehler

 

How the rotation shapes up with Myers

The Astros squeezed a few more bucks together and have reached an agreement wiht free-agent pitcher Brett Myers, pending a physical. That’s key, considering he missed most of last season after undergoing surgery on his hip.

If Myers is healthy for the entire season, this could be a key signing for the Astros. Myers will likely slide into the No. 3 spot in the rotation behind Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez, leaving Bud Norris, Felipe Paulino and Brian Moehler battling for two spots. I have to think Norris’ performance, youth and high ceiling give him a spot, and Moehler’s veteran presence and experience puts him ahead of Paulino.

Paulino has the stuff to succeed and could very well pitch his way into the rotation in the spring, forcing the Astros to slot him somewhere. That is a problem general manager Ed Wade and manager Brad Mills would love to have.

So as it stands, here is what the Astros’ rotation could look like once they get Myers in the fold.

Roy Oswalt, RHP, 32 years old (8-6, 4.12 ERA in 30 starts last year) — Oswalt, who needs only seven wins to tie the club career record, has been slowed by back problems the past three seasons, forcing the Astros to shut him down last year in mid-September. He still has the ability to be one of the best in the game if he remains healthy.

Wandy Rodriguez, LHP, 31 years old (14-12, 3.02 ERA in 33 starts) — The Astros can only hope Rodriguez’s coming-out party wasn’t a one-year show. He led the team in wins, starts, innings pitched, strikeouts and quality starts (23). He pitched like an ace for most of the season.

Brett Myers, RHP, 29 years old (4-3, 4.84 ERA in 18 games, including 10 starts) — He missed most of the season because of hip surgery, but he’s a hoss when healthy. He started at least 30 games in each season from 2003-2008, with the exception of 2007 when he was moved to closer and saved 21 games. He’s a significant upgrade to the rotation.

Bud Norris, RHP, 24 years old (6-3, 3.53 ERA in 11 games, including 10 starts) — Coming off an impressive rookie season in which he won his first three and final three starts, Norris could be poised for a breakthrough season.

Brian Moehler, RHP, 38 years old (8-12, 5.47 ERA in 29 starts) — The Astros picked up his $3 million option for 2010. He has the occasional rough outing, but he takes the ball every fifth day and is a workhorse. Excluding his first two and his last two starts, he was 8-8 wiht a 4.25 ERA in his other 25 starts.

Other candidates — RHP Felipe Paulino (3-11, 6.27 ERA), RHP Yorman Bazardo (1-3, 7.88 ERA), LHP Wesley Wright (3-4, 5.44 ERA as a reliever), RHP Wilton Lopez (0-2, 8.38 ERA).

 

Big Unit electrified the Astrodome

There may have been no more of a magical time to be in the Astrodome than the summer of 1998, when the Astros were churning towards 102 wins and their second consecutive National League Central division title. They sealed the deal whey they acquired Randy Johnson at the trade deadline.

Johnson’s time in Houston was only a blip on the radar during his terrific 22-year career, which came to an end Tuesday when he announced his retirement. Johnson started 603 games in his career, 11 of which came with the Astros. He signed with Arizona following the 1998 season and won four consecutive Cy Young awards, but he proved late in 1998 he was the best pitcher in the game.

Former Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker sent pitchers Freddy Garcia and John Halama and Minor League shortstop Carlos Guillen to Seattle for Johnson on July 28, 1998. Johnson made his Astros debut on Aug. 2 at Pittsburgh and allowed six hits and two runs and struck out 12 batters in seven innings to win his debut.

He pitched back-to-back shutouts in his next two starts – both at home – and struck out 16 Pirates on Aug. 28 in the Astrodome for his third shutout of the month. A crowd of 52,071 – the largest regular-season crowd in Astrodome history – watched Johnson make his home debut Aug. 7 against Philadelphia.

“Now I know what a rock star feels like,” Johnson told reporters after the game. “I’ve had a few hundred people give me a standing ovation when I was in the bullpen when I was with Seattle, but this is the first time I’ve had 50,000 people give me a standing ovation when I was warming up.”

Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA with the Astros and continued his success in the playoffs. He started two games against the San Diego Padres in the National League Division Series and posted a 1.93 ERA, but dropped both outings, losing to Kevin Brown in Game 1 and Sterling Hitchcock in Game 4.

The Astros lost two good prospects in Garcia — who later helped the White Sox beat the Astros in the World Series — and Guillen, but Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith was pleased with how the trade worked out.

“It was a very exciting couple of months with certainly a tremendous and a very memorable performance,” he said. “That may have been our best team really. Obviously, we didn’t fair well when we went to San Diego, but you have to give the Padres credit. We ran into some good pitching out there. Randy really had a phenomenal half a season for us and he’s just one of the great pitchers of all-time.”

Recalling the trade, Smith said Mariners president and close friend Chuck Armstrong had informed Smith that Johnson would likely be dealt before the trade deadline because Seattle wasn’t going to be able to sign him as a free agent in the off-season. He wanted to end his career in Arizona to be close to his family.

“We had ongoing conversations and Gerry and the general manager of the Mariners at that time [Woody Woodward] were communicating,” Smith said. “From Seattle’s standpoint they got a couple of players did very well for them in Guillen and Garcia and John Halama rendered good service. It’s one of those trades that benefitted both clubs. Seattle got some players for future use, and we got the benefit of Randy Johnson’s superb performance for a couple of months.”

When he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, Johnson will be one of a few Astros players to reach Cooperstown. By the time Johnson gets in, Craig Biggio and perhaps Jeff Bagwell will have already taken their place, making them the first players to join the Hall who played their career entirely with the Astros.

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan played nine of his 27 seasons in Houston. Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Nellie Fox, Robin Roberts, Eddie Matthews and Don Sutton also played for the Astros.

Wade discusses state of market

With more than 100 free agents still on the market and the start of Spring Training six weeks away, things will begin heating up as the month of January progresses. Those hoping for the Astros to open their wallets shouldn’t get their hopes up. The Astros won’t be a player for any of the remaining big-name free agents.

Houston signed right-hander Josh Banks to a Minor League deal this week to compete for a spot in the bullpen. Expect the Astros to perhaps sign another pitcher or two to a Minor League deal before the start of Spring Training, and they are also are in the market for a left-handed-hitting outfielder.

“It’s pretty quiet, even from an industry standpoint,” general manager Ed Wade said. “I talked to some other clubs and talked a few agents over the holidays and things seem to be very quiet on just about every front. That will change now that everybody is back from the holidays and we’ve still got a rather large list of free agents out there.

“By virtue of the fact you have a lot of players on the free agent market, that could have an impact on trade discussions as well. It’s not a great trade environment at this point in time because teams will wait to see if they can satisfy their needs through free agency rather than giving up players in return.”

Meanwhile, Tuesday is the first day players can begin filing for salary arbitration. Houston has seven players eligible for arbitration – center fielder Michael Bourn, infielder Jeff Keppinger, outfielder Hunter Pence, catcher Humberto Quintero and pitchers Tim Byrdak, Wandy Rodriguez and Chris Sampson.

Wade doesn’t anticipate any problems reaching deals with any of the arbitration-eligible players, and he doesn’t plan on working on multi-year deals with rising stars Bourn, Pence and Rodriguez.

“At this point, our focus is going to be a year at a time,” Wade said. “That could change, but at this point we think it’s proven to stay short versus long. Our goal and our expectation is to get all of our eligible players signed and not have to go through the process itself.”

The players and clubs can exchange salary figures Jan. 20. If no deal is reached, hearings will be held Feb. 1-21.

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