April 2010

Mills juggling lineups

Astros manager Brad Mills has used 11 different lineups in the first 11 games of the season, which isn’t too surprising when you consider the offensive struggles the club has had this year. Mills is trying to find something, anything that will get the team going.

On Saturday, he had Jeff Keppinger in the leadoff spot against a left-hander. That’s mostly because center fielder Michael Bourn is nursing a groin injury, but Keppinger is a great choice to hit leadoff against lefthanders. He hits lefties well and the running game is somewhat diminished with a left-hander on the mound.

The fact that Keppinger is in the lineup at all is a good thing, considering he’s swinging the bat so well and Kaz Matsui isn’t.

Mills has also had to change his lineup with Lance Berkman on the disabled list. With Berkman out, Pedro Feliz is getting starts at first base against lefties with Chris Johnson starting at third. Feliz is generally at third and Geoff Blum at first against right-handers. If Berkman were healthy, he’d be making all the starts at first, Feliz would be entrenched at third and there would be less lineup combinations.

Ultimately, Mills would like to settle on a more consistent lineup. That won’t happen until the club starts winning and Berkman is back.

“You’d like to settle on something,” Mills said.

What is going to be interesting is what the Astros will do when Berkman returns on Tuesday, as it appears he will. With Feliz returning to third, that would probably mean Johnson would be the odd man out, but what do you do with Matsui if he’s not playing?

 

Keppinger should be starting at second base

Jeff Keppinger isn’t going to hit .391 for the season, and he’s probably not going to hit .291 when all is said and done, either. He’s a career .279 hitter entering this year, but is off to a terrific start at the plate in 2010 after going 2-for-4 with three RBIs as the starting shortstop in Thursday’s win — yes, win — over the St. Louis Cardinals. Kaz Matsui, on the other hand, is hitting .095.

At this point, I’m all for Keppinger getting the bulk of the playing time at second base. He’s proven to be a better hitter in his career than Matsui, who’s a career .271 hitter entering this year. Neither one provides much power, though Matsui did hit nine homers in a career-high 132 games last year. Matsui had a stellar year on defense last year, but Keppinger is no slouch and will make most of the plays Matsui will make.

It’s probably not wise to make a judgment on a player nine games into the season, but Matsui has been a disappointed since he was signed to replace Craig Biggio following the 2007 season. He’s in the last year of a three-year deal, so what do the Astros have to lose by starting Keppinger at second base? Perhaps they could trade Matsui down the road or even release him if he continues to struggle, but the best Astros team right now is with Keppinger at second base.

Keppinger doesn’t strike out nearly as much as Matsui and kills left-handed pitchers. He struck out only 82 times in 1,181 career at-bats coming into this year, and he led the Majors in 2008 by striking out once every 20.9 plate appearances.

Kudos to manager Brad Mills for trying to find ways to keep Keppinger in the lineup as long as he’s swinging at hot bat, whether it’s at shorstop or second base. He can even play some third and first base. The problem is putting Keppinger in the starting lineup on a full-time basis weakens the bench. Keppinger is tremendously valuable coming off the bench because of versatility, which is something Matsui doesn’t possess.

But Keppinger should continue to be in the lineup every day, and he should be starting at second base as long as Matsui has trouble getting on base.

Assessing the winless Astros after one week

So what have we learned about the Astros after six games? The pitching has a chance to be OK, but they have some major offensive problems. Either everyone not named Jeff Keppinger is a slump at the same time, or this is just not a very good offensive club.

Surely, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, who have been at the center of the offensive struggles, can only get better, and the return of Lance Berkman – which won’t be until April 20 at the earliest – can only help stretch out the lineup a little bit.

But there remain questions at catcher, shortstop and second base. These were three spots in the batting order that were somewhat in doubt coming into the year, and J.R. Towles, Tommy Manzella and Kaz Matsui haven’t done much at the plate, not that they’re alone.

The Astros don’t expect Manzella to carry the team offensively. If everyone is hitting as they should, he’ll hit at the bottom if the lineup and make all the plays defensively like he’s done for the most part this year. Matsui needs to give them more or perhaps risk losing his job to Keppinger, who’s certainly a better offensive player and remains steady with the glove.

But what to do at catcher? Towles is hitting .067 (1-for-15) with four strikeouts and doesn’t look comfortable. It’s too early to summon Jason Castro from Triple-A Round Rock, and he’s not off to a great offensive start anyway. Like everyone else in the lineup, the Astros can only hope he turns it around and in a hurry.

Manager Brad Mills said something interesting Sunday when asked why he didn’t pinch-hit Towles with runner at first and second in the seventh inning.

“We needed to find out what’s going on here and how he’s going to do it,” Mills said.

Towles struck the ball well right back at the pitcher, but made an out.

The Astros face Adam Wainwright in Monday’s series opener in St. Louis, so they continue to see strong pitchers. Tim Lincecum shut them down Monday, and Roy Halladay threw a complete game against them Sunday, with both guys beating Roy Oswalt.

Oswalt is frustrated, understandably, and left the clubhouse with addressing the media Sunday. He has two quality starts and two losses to show for it because the Astros have scored only three runs in his two starts. It’s nothing that Oswalt hasn’t seen in the past.

Yes, there are 156 games and the offense will come around at some point, but after the first week of the season the Astros are the worst team in baseball.

Bagwell fond of Bud Norris

Astros icon Jeff Bagwell, who is a special assistant to the general manager as well as a television analyst for Saturday home games, has had a chance to see several of the up-and-coming players in the Minor Leagues the last few years. And Bagwell likes what he has seen from Bud Norris, who won a spot in the Astros’ rotation this year but was roughed up in his debut Friday.

“I expect a lot from Bud Norris,” Bagwell said. “Bud has great stuff, he’s got a personality that maybe even his teammates don’t like. But I love him. Anybody that really loves baseball would love it. Bud is off the wall. He’s not arrogant, but he believes in his ability and he’s got tons of ability.

“He’s got a chance to be in our organization pitching first or second in the rotation for years to come, and so I’m excited about that. I truly love him, and I think he’s going to do great. I really do. That’s a nice thing for us for the future.”

Bagwell said developing pitching is crucial these days considering how expensive pitchers are on the open market.

“I remember back in 2001 our young kids coming up, we had Roy [Oswalt], Wade [Miller], Carlos [Hernandez] and Tim [Redding], and I remember sitting here talking to [Craig Biggio] and saying we have a chance to be good for while,” Bagwell said. “In today’s game it’s very hard to go out and pay for pitching because pitching costs so much money. You can get a 10-10 guy and you have to pay him $11 million and he has an ERA of 4.50. If we develop our own guys, we have time to keep them in our own nest.”

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Here’s what Astros general manager Ed Wade had to say Saturday afternoon about the club’s 0-4 start:

“You’ve got to come out and play,” Wade said. “We’ve got a good ballclub and I know the guys that are struggling right now are going to hit. It’s not seven rookies we’re counting on to come through. There are guys with some pretty good track records who are struggling right now, so it’s an adjustment they’re able to make on their own, but part of it is breathing through your eyes and relaxing and let it flow.

“As opportunities present themselves and guys are struggling, as is usually the case people begin to press a little bit and it becomes, ‘Are we going to win a game before we leave town? Are we going to win tonight?’ They’re hearing it at the grocery story and every place else they go, and it’s human nature to press a little bit.

“They just have to prepare and play, and that’s normally what they’ve done every game I’ve been around these guys. They prepare well and put their best foot forward.”

 

Hitless Pence working to make changes

Hunter Pence, arguably the hardest-working Astros offensive player, faced the media with dignity like he does after every game, win or lose, on Wednesday and spoke of his team’s offensive struggles. He’s perhaps the poster child for Houston’s poor performance at the plate in the first three games, but there’s plenty of room on the wall for other faces.

Pence, an All-Star a year ago, is 0-for-12 with four strikeouts and is understandably feeling the frustration. But Michael Bourn and Carlos Lee are 2-for-12 (meaning the Astros’ starting outfield is 4-for-36), Geoff Blum is 2-for-9, Kaz Matsui and Pedro Feliz are hitting .250 and J.R. Towles is 1-for-8.

Still, being hitless after three games eats at Pence like nobody else.

“From my standpoint, never stepping up and not getting any hits, I’m trying to put better at-bats together,” he said. “I feel like there’s something off. I don’t feel like my at-bats have been as good as they should be, and it’s back to the drawing board. The good thing is to get it out of the way early. We have a day off [Thursday] to regroup, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it and make the adjustment.”

Pence has noticed that his front hip has been opening too early on his swing, making him feel uncomfortable at the plate.

“I know how to get out of it,” he said. “I’m confident in my talent and my ability and my preparation and work ethic. It’s not the way I want to start, and I definitely feel like I’ve got some work to do as far adjustments, but it’s something I’m capable of doing.”

With Lance Berkman out of the lineup for perhaps another week, Pence has been hitting in Berkman’s No. 3 spot in the batting. It’s a spot that comes with a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure, especially when Lee isn’t doing much with the bat in the No. 4 spot. Pence insists he’s not pressing because Berkman is out.

“I think for me, the only pressing would be to get going,” he said. “When it starts to avalanche on you, you start pressing to try to get a hit and do too much or too little and over think things. You think you have a heavy bat, so I really have to clear my mind and get back to the drawing board.”

Offense missing in first two games

Everyone take a deep breath and relax. It’s too early to panic or make any rushes to judgment, but it’s safe to say the 0-2 Astros aren’t off to the start they had hoped for. Getting shut down by Tim Lincecum on Monday is understandable, and it’s not like Barry Zito is some scrub, though his time in San Francisco has been checkered.

And, hey, did you know the Astros started 0-2 against the Giants in 1986 and still won 96 games? Maybe this is how they mapped it out.

If you put on your brick-red colored glasses, you’ll see the Astros have gotten two quality starts by Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez, have played good defense (five double plays in two games) and have seen good work out of the bullpen.

Of course, when you have 13 hits in 67 at-bats, including one hit in 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position, you’re in trouble.

“This is not what this team is made of or capable of,” Hunter Pence said.

Astros manager Brad Mills could at least take satisfaction in seeing Rodriguez shake off his terrible spring.

“Wandy kind of answered all our questions,” Mills said. “He came out throwing the ball well. He struggled in the sixth and got behind walking those two guys and we weren’t able to turn the double play [in the sixth], which was key in that inning, but he threw the ball extremely well. We didn’t exactly swing the bats like we would have liked, but at the same time we really saw some positives signs from Wandy and [Jeff Keppinger] offensively did a pretty good job.”

It doesn’t get easier for the Astros. To avoid their 11th 0-3 start in franchise history, they’ll have to beat Matt Cain in Wednesday’s series finale. Cain won 14 games for the Giants last year and ranked among top NL pitchers in complete games, innings pitched and wins.

“The good thing about these first two games is how good our pitching has been,” Pence said. “The bullpen, everyone’s been solid. Wandy and Roy both had great starts, quality starts. We’ve just got to start scoring runs and swing the bats. Maybe it’s a little bit of trying to do too much. Hitting is contagious. We’ve just got to get that first win and then maybe we can relax a little bit.”

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Astros shortstop Tommy Manzella is expected to be held out of the starting lineup Wednesday after being struck in the left wrist by a 97 mph fastball in the seventh inning Tuesday. The ball caromed off the wrist and knocked off his batting helmet, but Manzella stayed in the game.

“I just saw the ball coming at my head and I just tried to get out of the way,” he said. “For the first couple of seconds after it happened I had that sick feeling and wasn’t sure. I was kind of in shock a little bit and couldn’t tell how bad it was. [Assistant athletic trainer] Rex [Jones] got out there and moved it around a little bit and it started wearing off. I was able to squeeze his hand and I knew at that point I was going to be alright.”

Astros ready for life after Lincecum

Here is the ultimate silver lining: the Astros won’t have to face Tim Lincecum on Tuesday night. It was evident from the first inning on Monday’s opener they had little chance against the two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, who puzzled Houston for seven scoreless innings.

Lincecum is the best in the game, and the Astros weren’t up to the challenge. Still, Astros manager Brad Mills had to have liked what he saw from shortstop Tommy Manzella, who made every play at his position and even added a hit. J.R. Towles had an RBI double in the ninth, and were there two bigger question marks on offense than Manzella and Towles?

That being said, Tuesday’s game is huge. Not in the grand scheme of things, but for Wandy Rodriguez, who will make his first start of the season. Rodriguez had an awful spring and was roughed up mightily in his regular-season finale, so alarm bells could be warranted if he has a poor start. But a good start would pretty much wipe the slate clean.

The Astros will face lefty Barry Zito on Tuesday, so we could see Chris Johnson make his first start at third base. Johnson, as you know, had eight homers in the spring, so I think everyone is anxious to see him out there in the regular season and not rotting on the bench like he did last September.

My prediction: Astros will go 79-83

National expectations are so low for the Astros, they’ve been lumped into the same category as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals. In other words, few think they’re going to be any good. They are picked last in the NL Central by some, which means behind Pittsburgh, and are picked fifth in the division by most.

With the Astros set to open the 2010 season tonight at Minute Maid Park against the Giants, I can see why the expectations from the experts are so low. They lost 88 games last year and said goodbye to their leading hitter (Miguel Tejada), closer (Jose Valverde) and setup man (LaTroy Hawkins) and replaced them with Pedro Feliz, Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon. Feliz isn’t nealry as good of a hitter as Tejada, and Lindstrom and Lyon aren’t as proven as Valverde.

To be the fair, the Astros also added right-hander Brett Myers and have a better rotation than they did at this time last year when Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz were part of the team. But they’re also relying on a rookie at shortstop and an unproven catcher.

The bottom line is this: if the Astros are going to have any chance to compete, they need to stay healthy, and considering they have an aging core of players, that could be challenging. Lance Berkman is opening the season on the disabled list and Roy Oswalt has already had an injection into his lower back. Berkman has to produce and Oswalt needs to make 30 starts for the club to have a chance.

The second biggest factor are the younger players continuing to progress. I’m throwing Wandy Rodriguez in the young crowd because he had a breakout year last year, but he and Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence can’t afford to take a step back.

What is impossible to measure is the difference Brad Mills will make. The players completely bought into his system and are going to play hard for him, which wasn’t the case with Cecil Cooper last year. Plus, Mills can’t be a worse on-field tactician than his predecessor, so he’s going to make a positive difference in the standings in a division that includes experienced managers in Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella.

At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to talent and health. This is not a bad team when it’s healthy, certainly not a team that will compete with Washington and Pittsburgh for the worst record in the NL. But it’s hard to convince me at this point the health of the Astros won’t be an issue.

Thus, I’m picking the Astros to go 79-83 and finish in the middle of the pack in the NL Central. That’s a more optimistic prediction than most, but still well short of contending for the playoffs. I would love to hear your prediction.

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