November 2010

Astros position breakdown: outfield

OUTFIELD

2010 Opening Day starters: LF Carlos Lee, CF Michael Bourn, RF Hunter Pence.

2010 end-of-season starters: LF Carlos Lee, CF Michael Bourn, RF Hunter Pence.

Others who were in the mix: Brian Bogusevic (LF-CF-RF), Jason Bourgeois (LF-CF-RF), Jason Michaels (LF-CF-RF, Cory Sullivan (LF-RF-CF).

Combined 2010 stats of Astros outfielders: .261 BA/.317 OBP/.401 SLG, 93 doubles, 51 homers, 217 RBIs, 156 walks, 316 strikeouts, 1,917 at-bats.

Free agents: None.

Arbitration eligible: Bourn and Pence.

What happened: The Astros went into last season feeling good about what they had in the outfield with Carlos Lee returning in left, Michael Bourn returning in center and Hunter Pence returning in right. Lee had averaged 30 homers and 100 RBIs in his first three seasons with Houston, Bourn was named the team’s MVP in 2009 and won a Gold Glove and Pence was coming off his first All-Star appearance. The three held down the starting duties, but not without some road bumps.

Lee, who started 133 games in left field, struggled out of the gate and hit .183 in April with no home runs. He had only five homers at the end of May and wound up hitting .240 in the first half with 12 homer and 45 RBIs, helping put the Astros in a hole. He came around in the second half with a .254 average to go along with 12 homers and 44 RBIs to finish with 24 homers and 89 RBIs, his lowest totals with Houston. He split time before left field and first base in September as the Astros wanted to get a look at him at first defensively.

Bourn, who started 133 games in center, picked up where he left off in 2009 and got off to a quick start, hitting .311 in April. His average slowly began dipping as the season wore on. He hit .245 in May, .252 in June and .185 in July with an on-base percentage of .271. Bourn was enjoying a great finish – he hit .229 in his final 17 games – before his season ended two weeks early with an oblique strain. He hit .265/.341/.356 with 52 stolen bases and had another Gold Glove-caliber season in center field.

Pence, who started 155 games in right, joined Lee in getting off to a slow start. He hit around .230 with two homers and seven RBIs in April before coming around in May, batting .302 with six homers and 16 RBIs. After hitting .263 before the All-Star break, Pence hit .302 in the second half and finished with 25 homers for the third year in a row and 91 RBIs to lead the team. He was up and down defensively.

Jason Michaels, the fourth outfielder, had a solid year in a backup role and parlayed that into his option being picked up for 2011. He hit .253/.310/.468 with eight homers and 26 RBIs while playing all three outfield spots. He had two pinch-hit home runs. Jason Bourgeois, a speedster who doesn’t hit for a high average, got the bulk of the playing time in center in the final two weeks with Bourn on the shelf. The Astros got an abbreviated look at former No. 1 pick Brian Bogusevic, the pitcher-turned-outfielder who made his Major League debut. Cory Sullivan began the year as the fifth outfielder but was let go in the middle of the season.

What’s next: Lee, Bourn and Pence are all back in 2011, barring a trade. Lee will be in the fifth year of his six-year, $100-million contract (he has a limited no-trade clause this year) and Bourn and Pence are eligible for arbitration. But not all three could return as starters in the outfield. The Astros are going to give Lee another look at first base in Spring Training next year, with the hopes Brett Wallace – acquired in the Roy Oswalt trade – does enough to warrant winning the first base job and keeping Lee in left field.

If the Astros deem Wallace needs more time in the Minor Leagues, they will stick Lee at first base. That’s why they’re on the lookout this winter for a left-handed hitting left fielder they could use in a platoon situation with Michaels. The decision on which player opens at first base won’t unfold until later in Spring Training.

The Astros are banking on Bourn and Pence to pick up where they left off at the end of last year and have the best offensive seasons of their careers. Lee had a down season in 2010 and would certainly give the club a boost if he can return to his 2007-09 form as a reliable run producer. Bogusevic and Bourgeois will get a look as backup outfielders, but don’t be surprised to see a Minor League player make a push during the spring.

Who’s on the farm: The Astros are starting to see the fruits of their last several drafts pay off in the outfield, where an impressive group of young outfielders is emerging.  The club is high on Jack Shuck, who had a bang-up season for Double-A Corpus Christi before finishing the year at Triple-A Round Rock. T.J. Steele had turned some heads before injuries slowed him down last season, and players like Jon Gaston, Jay Austin and J.D. Martinez could be ready for the Majors soon. Martinez was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year after he hit .341 with 40 doubles, 18 homers and 89 RBIs combined between Class A Lexington and Double-A Corpus Christi, where he finished the season. He was named the South Atlantic League’s Most Valuable Player and was a midseason and postseason All-Star.

Astros position breakdown: third base

We close out the infield portion of out position-by-position analysis by sinking our teeth into third base, which is pretty set at this point in time:

THIRD BASE

2010 Opening Day starter: Pedro Feliz.

2010 end-of-season starter: Chris Johnson.

Others who were in the mix: Geoff Blum, Matt Downs.

Combined 2010 stats of Astros third basemen: .265 BA/.292 OBP/.392 SLG, 31 doubles, 14 homers, 80 RBIs, 25 walks, 126 strikeouts, 616 at-bats.

Free agents: Geoff Blum (option declined).

Arbitration eligible: None.

What happened: The Astros signed Pedro Feliz to a one-year, $4.5-million contract at last year’s Winter Meetings with the hopes he could add some muscle to their offense and be a run-producer while playing a steady third base. Feliz did neither. He scuffled defensively and never got going with the bat, hitting .221 with four homers and 31 RBIs in 97 games before the Astros benched him in June and handed the starting job to rookie Chris Johnson.

Johnson, who made his Major League debut at the end of 2009 and played sparingly, had a tremendous spring and made the Opening Day roster, thanks in part to an injury Lance Berkman. That’s because Feliz saw time at first base against left-handers with Berkman out, allowing Johnson to make some starts at third. But Johnson’s season was quickly derailed when he went on the 15-day disabled list April 20 with a right intercostal strain.

When Johnson was healthy, Berkman was back in the lineup for the Astros and they had no room on the roster for him. He went to Triple-A Round Rock and hit .329/.362/.570 with eight homers and 33 RBIs before the Astros called him up.

Although he got a late start, Johnson went on to make a run at National League Rookie of the Year, hitting, .308/.337/.481 with 11 homers and 52 RBIS in 94 games. He led all Major League rookies with a .308 batting average (minimum 300 at-bats) and hit .316 after the All-Star break with 11 homers and 44 RBIs. He struggled at times defensively, committing 18 errors for a .908 fielding percentage, but the Astros are confident he will continue to improve with the glove.

What’s next: Johnson is the man of the moment. He’s penciled in as the starter next year with the expectation he’ll continue to improve as a run producer and a defensive player. The Astros will be in the market this winter for a utility player that can play third base when Johnson needs a day off, but if he’s healthy expect C.J. to make at least 150 starts for the Astros in 2011.

Who’s on the farm: The Astros’ top two third base prospects are in the lower Minor Leagues: Jonathan Meyer and Mike Kvasnicka. Meyer, a third-round pick in 2009, hit .245/.304/.317 with two homers and 49 RBIs last season in 121 games at Class A Lexington in his first full season in pro ball.  Kvasnicka was taken with the 33rd overall pick this year and hit .234/.305/.337 with five homers and 36 RBIs in 68 games at short-season Tri-City. Kvasnicka, out of the University of Minnesota, has played third, the outfield and caught, but his future is at third base.

Thompson in running to be Astros hitting coach

Milt Thompson, who spent more than five seasons as the hitting coach of the Phillies before being let go in July, has interviewed for the Astros’ hitting coach position that became vacant when his former teammate, Jeff Bagwell, decided not to return.

Astros general manager Ed Wade said Wednesday that Thompson, who was in Houston on Monday to meet with Wade and manager Brad Mills, was one of a handful of candidates the team has interviewed either in person or by phone. Wade confirmed Thompson interviewed, but stopped short of naming any other candidates.

“He’s one of several people we’ve talked to over the last three days,” Wade said. “We hope to get to a point of making a decision by the end of next week or the early part of next week.”

Thompson, 51, played for the Astros in 1994-95 as part of a 13-year career in which he had 1,029 hits with six different clubs, all in the NL. He hit .313 with six RBIs in the 1993 World Series and set a Phillies record with five RBIs in Game 4 against Toronto.

He took over as hitting coach in 2005 and helped the Phillies finish second in the NL in scoring in 2005, first in 2006 and 2007, second in 2008 and first again in 2009. This year, the Phillies were second in the NL in runs scored behind Cincinnati, but Thompson was let go following a rough stretch offensively in the middle of the season.

Thompson has also interviewed as hitting coach with Seattle.

The Astros relieved hitting coach Sean Berry of his duties at the All-Star break and gave the job to Bagwell, the franchise’s all-time leader in homers and RBIs. The team improved offensively in the second half, and Bagwell was offered a two-year contract to return. But he told the Astros last month the commitment to the job would take him away from his family too much.

Bruce Bochy cut his teeth with Astros

Did you know that Giants’ World Series-winning manager Bruce Bochy was born in France? Did you know that Bochy was behind the plate when Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb‘s all-time hits record on Sept. 11, 1985? Did you know Bochy began his professional baseball career with the Astros?

Unless you have followed the Astros since the 1970s, you might not have known that last one, though Bochy’s time in Houston was brief and certainly wasn’t distinguished.

In the flurry of champagne-drenched camera shots following the Giants’ clinching win over the Rangers in Game 5 of the World Series on Monday, you might have noticed a jubliant Bochy talking on the field with Rangers owner/president Nolan Ryan, who was Bochy’s teammate with the Astros for one season. But Bochy never caught a pitch from Ryan.

Bochy was taken in the first round by the Astros in the 1975 supplemental draft and made his Major Legaue debut with Houston on July 19, 1978. He played three seasons with the Astros (1978-80) and hit .239 with four homers and 21 RBIs and had one at-bat for Houston in that memorable 1980 National League Championship Series against the Phillies in 1980.

In 1978, Bochy was called up about the time the Astros traded Joe Ferguson to the Dodgers for Jeff Leonard and Rafael Landestoy and wound playing about the same amount of time as Ferguson and Luis Pujols. Alan Ashby hit the scene in 1979 and would hold down the catcher’s job for the next decade. After playing in a total of 110 games between 1978-79, Bochy played in only 22 in 1980.

Bochy was traded to the Mets for Randy Rogers and Stan Hough on Feb. 11, 1981 and played with the Mets for one year and finished his career with five years in San Diego, the team he later managed before going to the Giants. He’s one of a handful of former Astros to become a manager, including Bob Lillis, Davey Lopes, Phil Garner, Ray Knight, Buddy Bell, Larry Dierker, Luis Pujols, Tony Pena, Dave Clark, Art Howe and, of course, Ron Washington, whose Rangers lost to the Giants in the World Series.

 

Astros position breakdown: shortstop

Our latest Astros position-by-position breakdown takes a look at shortstop, a position the Astros are going to be looking to upgrade offensively in the offseason:

SHORTSTOP

2010 Opening Day starter: Tommy Manzella.

2010 end-of-season starters: Tommy Manzella and Angel Sanchez.

Others who were in the mix in 2010: Jeff Keppinger, Geoff Blum, Anderson Hernandez, Matt Downs, Oswaldo Navarro.

Combined 2010 stats of Astros shortstops: .260 BA/.312 OBP/.321 SLG, 22 doubles, 2 homers, 54 RBIs, 40 walks, 127 strikeouts, 585 at-bats.

Free agents: Anderson Hernandez (Minor League).

Arbitration eligible: None.

What happened: The Astros went into last season ready to let Tommy Manzella show what he could do on offense, knowing all the while he was a Major League-ready defensive shortstop. Manzella struggled with the bat for much of the year, and came out the gate a little shaky on defense. But he got better with the glove as the season went on and blossomed into the defensive player the club had seen throughout the Minor Leagues.

Jeff Keppinger made a few starts at shortstop, but would soon be entrenched at second after the Astros cut ties with Kaz Matsui. That opened the door for Geoff Blum to get in some time at second base, as well. Manzella hit .224 in April and .192 in May before breaking his left index finger diving for a ball in late June and missing more than six weeks of the regular season. With Oswaldo Navarro and Blum the only options at shortstop after Manzella went down, the Astros traded catcher Kevin Cash to Boston for shortstop Angel Sanchez.

Sanchez hit .280 in 250 at-bats and impressed with the Astros with to put the ball in play. He went 4-for-6 and drove in a career-high six runs on Aug. 3 at St. Louis, but had only four RBIs over the next 31 games. Sanchez had only 13 extra-base hits, including no home runs, and proved to be a below-average defender because of his arm and his limited range. That’s why the Astros tinkered with him at second base, but he was still a better offensive option than Manzella.

Manzella, who hit .290 against left-handers, did end the season on the upswing offensively after coming back from his broken finger. He hit .261 in 69 at-bats to finish the season. He and Sanchez were splitting time at shortstop when the season came to an end.

What’s next: Manzella and Sanchez will back next year battling for a spot at shortstop, but the Astros will make it a priority in the offseason to find more offensive punch at shortstop, whether through free agency or a trade. That shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider the Astros managed only two home runs out of their shortstops last year. And when you consider the outfield is set and the club is committed to Jason Castro at catcher, Brett Wallace at first and Chris Johnson at third, adding offense at shortstop and/or second base makes the most sense.

Bringing in a new player could lead to a platoon situation at shortstop or even at second base, where Keppinger brings limited offensive tools. Depending on which player the Astros bring in, Manzella and Sanchez could be competing for a roster spot next spring.

Who’s on the farm: Jiovanni Mier, the Astros’ No. 1 Draft pick from 2009, is still considered the club’s shortstop of the future, but he’s a few years away. He’s off to a slow start, but he was drafted out of high school and is still making adjustments. He hit .235/.323/.314 in 131 games last season with two homers, 53 RBIs and 15 stolen bases at low Class A Lexington. The Astros are also excited about adding Jimmy Paredes and Jonathan Villar in the two deals they made at the trading deadline. They both are athletic, strong kids who bring speed.

 

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