February 2010

Day 9: Pick-offs and rundowns rule the morning

Sunday was the final day Astros pitchers threw living batting practice as right-handers Roy Corcoran, Brian Moehler, Chris Sampson, Gary Majewski, Felipe Paulino, Sammy Gervacio, Alberto Arias, Josh Banks, Bud Norris, Casey Daigle, Matt Nevarez, Chia-Jen Lo and Jose Valdez and left-hander Gustavo Chacin got their work in.

The pitchers will throw lightly in the bullpen over the next three days before Wednesday’s intra-squad game. The Astros open Grapefruit League play Thursday against the Atlanta Braves with right-hander Brett Myers getting the start.

Astros manager Brad Mills came away impressed Sunday with how Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino threw the ball.

Prior to live batting practice, the Astros worked on pick-offs and rundowns with 2010 first-round Draft pick Jiovanni Mier and prospect Jay Austin among those who came over from Minor League mini camp to serve as one of the runners.

“The thing that stood out today is the intensity which we did our pick-offs and rundowns with,” Mills said. “If you don’t have the intensity it’s tough to get anything out of it, and they did a real good job. I was happy that the kids from our mini camp came over and were the base runners, and that helps out a little bit because we’ve got some guys that know how to run the bases a little bit so the guys have to have that intensity.”

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Here the pitching lineups for Wednesday’s seven-inning intrasquad game:

Home team: Brian Moehler, Matt Lindstrom, Shane Loux, Wilton Lopez, Henry Villar, Polin Trinidad, Chia-Jen Lo and Jose Valdez.

Visiting team: Bud Norris, Tim Byrdak, Jeff Fulchino, Yorman Bazardo, Josh Banks, Matt Nevarez, Evan Englebrook and Fernando Abad.

Day 6: Arnsberg stressing keeping the ball down

New Astros pitching coach Brad Arnsberg has been vocal in stressing to his pitchers to pound the lower half of the strike zone. He wants the pitchers to begin down and work their way up the zone.

“When you’re up and trying to get the ball down, it can lead to real long days,” he said. “It’s a little bit further from the eyesight of a hitter and they get the top half of the ball and it’s a little bit tougher to get to the middle half of the ball.

“It’s easier to get over the top of the bat where they’re getting the bottom half of the ball, so pop-ups and grounds are the key to winning. Just because you’re not a ground ball pitcher doesn’t mean you can’t make a living in the big leagues as long as you stay in those low-thigh to beltline areas.”

Arnsberg’s philosophy is to make hitters swing. He says they’re coming to the plate wanting to put the bat on the ball, and if a pitcher can make them chase a ball down in the zone early in the count, he’s going to have the advantage.

“We want to continue to be aggressive,” he said.

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Astros shortstop Tommy Manzella became the latest player to have his contract renewed, agreeing to the minimum of $400,000. The club still has to set salary figures for Bud Norris, Edwin Maysonet and Wesley Wright.

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Astros manager Brad Mills revealed the first three starting pitchers for the Grapefruit League season, which begins Thursday against Washington in Kissimmee, Fla.

Right-hander Brett Myers will start the opener Thursday, followed by left-hander Wandy Rodriguez against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., and Roy Oswalt on Saturday against the Atlanta Braves in Kissimmee. Houston will use six starters this spring, with Bud Norris, Brian Moehler and Felipe Paulino getting the other starts.

“We’re going to have some guys piggyback and switch back and forth as we go along,” Mills said. “That’s where we are right now the first three days.”

The Astros will play an intrasquad game Wednesday and will use 14 pitchers – seven pitchers on each team throwing one inning. Third base-coach Dave Clark will manage one side against first-base coach Bobby Meacham.

Mills said he will be able to get other pitchers – Wesley Wright, Yorman Bazardo, for example — some starts because of the three split-squad games the club has and a “B” squad game on Thursday. Paulino will throw in a “B” game Friday in Lakeland.

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The Astros welcomed 37 players Friday to a weeklong Minor League mini camp that will include some of the bigger prospects in the system, including pitchers Ross Seaton, Jordan Lyles, Jay Austin, Jon Gaston, Collin Delome Jiovanni Mier and Brad Dydalewicz.

LHPs (6) – Douglas Arguello, Brad Dydalewicz, Dallas Keuchel, Ross Seaton, Jon Switzer, Patrick Urckfitz.

RHPs (10) – Tanner Bushue, Matt Ginter, Kyle Godfrey, Kyle Greenwalt, Chris Hicks, Jordan Lyles, Dan Meszaros, Juan Minaya, Sergio Perez, Brandt Walker.

Catchers (4) – Luis Alvarez, Rene Garcia, Frederico Hernandez, David Williams.

IFs (8) – Jose Altuve, Erik Castro, Koby Clemens, Phil Disher, Enrique Hernandez, Jonathan Meyer, Jiovanni Mier, Brandon Wikoff.

OFs (9) – Jay Austin, David Cook, Collin Delome, Jonathan Gaston, Andrew Locke, J.D. Martinez, Telvin Nash, J.B. Shuck, T.J. Steele.

Mills sets rotation for first 3 Spring games

Astros manager Brad Mills revealed the first three starting pitchers for the Grapefruit League season, which begins Thursday against Washington in Kissimmee, Fla.

Right-hander Brett Myers will start the opener Thursday, followed by left-hander Wandy Rodriguez against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., and Roy Oswalt on Saturday against the Atlanta Braves in Kissimmee. Houston will use six starters this spring, with Bud Norris, Brian Moehler and Felipe Paulino getting the other starts.

“We’re going to have some guys piggyback and switch back and forth as we go along,” Mills said. “That’s where we are right now the first three days.”

The Astros will play an intrasquad game Wednesday and will use 14 pitchers – seven pitchers on each team throwing one inning. Third base-coach Dave Clark will manage one side against first-base coach Bobby Meacham.

Mills said he will be able to get other pitchers – Wesley Wright, Yorman Bazardo, for example — some starts because of the three split-squad games the club has and a “B” squad game on Thursday.

Day 6: Batters brave cold temps, hot pitchers

On a day winter returned to Central Florida as cold temperatures and brisk winds forced everyone to bundle up, Astros pitchers faced live batters for the first time. Some of the hitters, many of whom were facing pitchers for the first time since last season, chose not to swing.

Lance Berkman stood in against Roy Oswalt and joked with the ace: “You can go ahead and move that screen [in front of the pitcher's mound].” Berkman, wearing a thick Astros jacket at the plate, chose to keep the bat on his shoulder. But he wasn’t alone.

“Also on a day like this it’s so cold you start taking some swings and you’re going to have some bees in the handles, but I thought everything went well,” manager Brad Mills said. “I thought it was good to see the pitchers get through their routine and get their work in.”

One person who did swing away was Astros third baseman Chris Johnson, who belted a home run into the player parking lot and onto the windshield of Hunter Pence‘s GMC Denali. The ball smashed the top left portion of the windshield, forcing Pence to scurry to get it fixed.

In all 14 pitchers threw live batting practice Thursday:  right-handers Roy Oswalt, Matt Lindstrom, Jeff Fulchino, Shane Loux, Brett Myers, Wilton Lopez, Yorman Bazardo, Henry Villar, and Evan Englebrook and left-handers Wandy Rodriguez, Tim Byrdak, Wesley Wright, Fernando Abad and Polin Trinidad.

“The conditions aren’t what you expected, but it’s good to get back in the swing of things,” said outfielder Cory Sullivan, who faced Myers and Lopez. “They’re anxious to get the opportunity to throw to hitters and we’re anxious to see some pitchers. It’s a tough scenario, but you get used to it. Every year you’re still uncomfortable, so you’re not used to it.

“Your timing is a little bit off. It’s tough when you’re timing is not on. It’s always good to get in a few track pitchers at that pace and that situation.”

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Nothing new to report on the injury front. Right-hander Jeff Fulchino, who aggravated his sore right ankle on Wednesday while covering first base during a drill, threw live batting practice Thursday without incident. Fulchino said covering first base is difficult on his ankle.

Right-hander Brandon Lyon, who had a small cyst drained in his should last month, threw for 12 minutes off flat ground without any problems. Manager Brad Mills said Lyon wouldn’t get on a mound until the middle of next week or late next week.

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Astros manager Brad Mills, always on the move, threw batting practice to one round of hitters Thursday and field ground balls at first base during another drill. After a series of throws from strong-armed shortstop Tommy Manzella, Mills had enough.

“That ball’s got good carry,” he said. “The last one about tore up my hand. It hurt. It was freezing out there, so I said I’m not going to take his throws anymore.”

Day 4: Astros batters take their hacks

The first full-squad workout is in the books, and all 57 players in camp were on the field Wednesday. An early morning rain shower pushed the workout back an hour or so, but manager Brad Mills was pleased that everybody got their work in.

“You hate to have your first day sitting in front of the computer watching the clouds come through and watching the animation work, but it happened to pay off,” he said. “We’re thankful we were able to start a little bit later today anyway because of the meeting and we were able to get a full day’s work in.”

Of course, with position players reporting for the first time, the sounds of cracking bats rang out in the back fields at Osceola County Stadium.

“Is that fun or what?” Mills said. “It’s fun when the pitchers and catchers and everything else, but you get position players in here and start moving around and running around and hearing guys hacking all over the place it’s good. It’s sure nice to see.”

It’s hard to judge anything in a few workouts, but Mills likes what he has seen.

“I thought everybody looked really good,” he said. “I thought they looked healthy. You guys were able to see them as much as I was, but I thought everybody looked real good and really energetic. I know it’s the first day but at the same time they swung the bat pretty well. I enjoyed it.”

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The pitchers will start throwing live batting practice Thursday, so get ready to hear the phrase “pitchers are ahead of the hitters.” The hitters took batting practice on the field for the first time Wednesday, so there will be more than a few swings and misses when they face live pitching.

Each pitcher will throw live batting practice every other day before getting a couple of days off and playing an intra-squad game March 3, on the eve of the Grapefruit League opener against the Washington Nationals. Among those scheduled to throw live batting practice on Thursday will be Roy Oswalt, Matt Lindstrom, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers.

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The Astros have agreed on one-year contracts with the corresponding Major League value of $400,000 with left-hander Fernando Abad and right-handers Wilton Lopez and Henry Villar. The deadline for players on the 40-man roster to agree to contracts is March 3.

Day 3: Mills will handle each player different

Sorry for the delay in the Day 3 recap. I spent Monday afternoon in a Kissimmee doctor’s office getting some medications for the sinus infection that socked me not long after I arrived in town. I will miss the workout Tuesday, but will be back in action for first full squad on Wednesday.

Astros manager Brad Mills is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, but don’t be fooled. He fashions himself as a disciplinarian and won’t put up with not running out ground balls or players losing their focus in the field. That could be bad news for a few of our local nine.

Anyway, Mills was asked following Monday’s workout on how he would handle players who commit blunders. Not errors in the field, but mental errors like throwing to the wrong base, missing the cut-off man or running on a pop-up when there’s one out instead of two.

Will he confront players in the dugout? Will be wait until they get to the clubhouse or to the ballpark the next day?

“I think it’s a feel thing,” he said. “Sometimes you can handle it right away, sometimes you’re going to have to handle it the next day, sometimes you can try to get the point across by playing around with him and bringing it up later in a more serious atmosphere.

“Some guys can handle it right away and some guys can’t. That’ why I’m thrilled to see 14 [position players] out here working. It gives us a chance to know them better in a more casual before everybody else is here is here.”

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Astros general manager Ed Wade said Monday he expects the rest of the position players to be on the field Wednesday, including Carlos Lee. There were no travel problems or visa problems he was aware of. If you remember, Lee showed up late last year and said he got the dates mixed up.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not Spring Training until Lance Berkman is here.

Day 2: Arnsberg winning over pitchers early

Astros pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, who joined the staff after serving the same position in Toronto the previous five years, could probably convince his pitchers to throw under-handed by the time this camp is over. He’s energetic and passionate about his job. And Arnsberg has lots of work to do to retool a pitching staff that boasted some of the worst numbers in the Majors last year.

Arnsberg met at length Sunday morning with starters Roy Oswalt and Brett Myers. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes, and Arnsberg said he covered a variety of topics.

“It was Baseball 101,” Arnsberg said. “It was an old-school talk about some of the things they like to do. I was talking to them a little bit about what I have in store for them as far as a pitching plan and kind of what their next week entails, how I’m going to try to back both of them down as we get close to their starts and put them into that five-day rotation. It’s what I’ve done in years past with other Major League teams I’ve been with.”

Oswalt, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with former pitching coach Dewey Robinson, has already developed a good relationship with Arnsberg.

“He got to coach one of the premier pitcher sin the league in [Roy] Halladay,” Oswalt said. “You learn some things from him because he’s been around and seen a lot of pitching. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, you always learn something.”

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Two days of camp are done the Astros remain relatively healthy. Right-hander Jeff Fulchino still has a sore ankle, but it doesn’t appear to be slowing him down. Right-hander Brandon Lyon is working his arm back in shape after having a cyst drained in his shoulder.

On Sunday, right-hander Casey Daigle was pulled out of last drill because of a slightly sprained right ankle.

“It’s nothing of any significance,” Houston manager Brad Mills said. “As a matter of fact, they said it’s better today than it was yesterday. Doing different things on different days they might aggravate it a little bit, but he was fine.”

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One of the most entertaining drills the Astros have done in the first two days of camps involves manager Brad Mills hit a soft-covered baseball, a.k.a. rag ball, at the pitchers while they’re on the mound. Mills talks and yells encouragement during the drill, and the pitchers barely have time to catch their breath before another ball is hit to them.

As the drill progresses, Mills hits the balls harder and eventually Mills and first-base coach Bobby Meacham are hitting balls rhythmically at the pitchers.

“It’s a high-energy drill to keep the guys going,” Mills said. “We want them to have fun with it, but at the same time we want them to pick up in their reactions to the ball and reacting to who the ball is hit. We can have fun with it, they can have fun with it and get something out of it and learn from it.”

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Among the position players to show up Sunday: Center fielder Michael Bourn, outfielder Jason Bourgeois, shortstop Tommy Manzella, third baseman Chris Johnson, outfielder Yordany Ramirez and second baseman Kaz Matsui. There are 12 positions players in camp, but they won’t work out until Wednesday.

“It’s nice to see them show up, and it’s probably nice for me because now I can spend some extra time with them,” manager Brad Mills said. “Before everybody gets here, I can spend some time and they’ll talk to me and I’ll get to know them.”

Wade to receive contract extension

The Astros have extended the contract of general manager Ed Wade through 2012, a Major League baseball source has confirmed. The club has not commented, but an official announcement is expected later today.

Wade has hired on Sept. 20, 2007 and is entering his third full season as the club’s 11th general manager. A veteran of 33 Major League seasons, Wade spent eight years as the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies (1998-2005) before coming to the Astros.

Some of Wade’s biggest additions have been center fielder Michael Bourn, who won team Most Valuable Player honors in 2009 after hitting .285 and stealing 61 bases. Trades for LaTroy Hawkins and Randy Wolf were solid additions, with Wolf helping the Astros make a late-season surge in 2008.

Astros win arbitration case

The Astros’ run of success in arbitration hearings continued Thursday when an arbitration panel ruled in favor of the club in its case against pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, who will make a salary $5 million this year. He was seeking $7 million.

Rodriguez, who led the club in wins (14), starts (33), innings pitched (205 2/3) and strikeouts (193), still nearly doubles his salary from the $2.65 million he made in 2009. Arbitrators Richard Bloch, Elizabeth Neumeier and Frederic Horowitz made their decision after hearing the case Wednesday at the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“We’re pleased with the result,” Astros general manager Ed Wade said. “Now, it is time to focus on the upcoming season. Wandy is a tremendous pitcher who we think very highly of. We expect great things from him.”

Rodriguez, 31, has a career 51-52 record with a 4.33 ERA and has made at least 20 starts of each of his five Major League seasons. He finished ninth in the National League last year in ERA and was 10th in strikeouts per nine innings.

The Astros have not lost a case since 1996 (Rick Wilkins). They beat Mark Loretta and Jose Valverde in 2008, but their most recent case to go to hearing a prior to that was with Darryl Kile in 1997.

What the Astros need to find out this spring

Astros manager Brad Mills has been in Kissimmee, Fla., since Friday, so he’s probably already learned a few things. The wind blows constantly, the sky is high and bright and the traffic on Highway 192 should be avoided at all cost.

Mills was joined this week by general manager Ed Wade and his staff as players are slowly trickling into the facility at Osceola County Stadium. Astros pitchers and catchers will work out for the first time Saturday morning and will soon be joined by position players.

Like most teams, the Astros come to Florida full of question marks. Their hope is to leave Kissimmee with most of those questions having been answered. Here are some of the things Mills and Wade would like to see resolved by April 1:

1. Find a starting catcher: Unless the Astros bring in a veteran catcher on a non-roster deal, J.R. Towles or Jason Castro will be the starting catcher. Humberto Quintero is slotted as the backup, meaning Towles and Castro are essentially playing for a spot on the Major League roster.

Castro, 22, has yet to play above Double-A, so it might be asking too much for him to make that jump to the Majors. The Astros’ worst fear would be if neither Towles nor Castro stepped up at the plate this spring. They need someone to win this job in impressive fashion.

     Prediction: Castro starts at catcher.

2. Sort out the rotation: Let’s assume Roy Oswalt is healthy, Wandy Rodriguez stays on track and Brett Myers is healthy. Realistically, the No. 4 spot in the rotation is Bud Norris’ to lose. Unless he falls on his face, which I don’t believe he will, he will be in the rotation.

The wild card is Felipe Paulino. Last year it was “high noon” for Paulino and Fernando Nieve to prove they’re capable big-league pitchers. Well, it’s about 11 p.m. for Paulino, so it’s probably now or never. If he builds on his bright spots from last year, he could be a huge boost for the rotation.

If not, Brian Moehler will be doing his usual inning-eating, bang-up job at the bottom of the rotation, though Wesley Wright, Yorman Bazardo and Wilton Lopez could be heard from

     Prediction: Norris and Moehler will have the final two slots.

3. Find a closer: This isn’t something I would be too worried about if I were an Astros fan. Either Matt Lindstrom or Brandon Lyon – both newcomers – can handle the job, and one of them will be the closer. I was leaning towards Lyon because of his experience, but considering he’s going to start a little behind his fellow pitchers because of the cyst he had in his right shoulder, that could give Lindstrom a leg up.

Lindstrom has electric stuff and could win this job by throwing strikes and keeping the ball down. The truth is either one of these guys can handle the role. The Astros would much rather have Lyon or Lindstrom closing this year than Jose Valverde, considering the financial ramifications.

     Prediction: Lyon is the closer.

4. Identify a No. 2 hitter: Michael Bourn is entrenched as the lead-off hitter, and Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman will hit somewhere in the meat of the order, 3-5. Ideally, the Astros would like Kaz Matsui to fill the No. 2 spot in order because he can run a little bit and can handle the bat, but Matsui’s on-base percentage of .302 is troublesome.

Pedro Feliz’s OBP of .308 isn’t much better, and he doesn’t run as well as Matsui and is more of a run-producer, so I think we’ll see him hitting lower. He never hit higher than sixth last year. Tommy Manzella or the starting catcher will also hit down in the order. That leaves Hunter Pence.

Pence hit all over the lineup last year, with the exception of first and fourth. He saw most of his time at third, fifth and sixth, starting 82 games as the No. 6 hitter. The lower he hit in the order, the better his batting average: .238 in second, .257 in third, .290 in fifth and .291 in sixth.

His on-base percentage was a solid .346, but he needs to hit in the thick of the order so he can drive in some runs. If he hits second Berkman and Lee are third and fourth, the bottom five spots won’t scare anyone. That’s why Pence should hit fifth behind Berkman and Lee and stretch out the order a little bit.

     Prediction: Matsui hits No. 2.

 

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