January 2011

Rotation stability important to Astros

The Astros rotation certainly isn’t among the deepest in baseball and they don’t have the horses at the top you’d expect to contend in the Cy Young race, but they do have stability. And that could go a long way in determining the club’s chances to compete in the National League Central the next few years.

After announcing they had locked up left-hander Wandy Rodriguez with a three-year, $34-million contract extension on Tuesday, the top four pitchers in the team’s rotation heading into Spring Training are under club control for at least the next two years and possibly longer, depending on vesting options.

“We’re very pleased to get this done,” general manager Ed Wade. “Wandy is one of the top left-handed starters in the game. With pending free agency and its uncertainty, it made all the sense in the world for us. Wandy made it clear he wants to be a part of the Astros. Now, he’ll be here for at least the next three years and hopefully beyond that.”

Here’s a glance at the top four starters in the Astros rotation:

RHP Brett Myers
Age
: 30.
Contract status: Signed through 2012. The contract is guaranteed for the 2011 and 2012 seasons and carries a 2013 club option that could become vested through Myers’ 2012 performance. The two-year guaranteed value, including a buyout on the option year, guarantees Myers $21 million. If the contract carries through 2013, it will guarantee Myers $28 million. The pact also contains additional performance bonus potential that could raise the total value to $29.5 million.
2010 record: 14-8, 3.14 ERA.
Career record: 87-71, 4.20 ERA in nine seasons.
Comment: Myers is coming off a career year that he parlayed into a lucrative contract extension midseason last year. He’s become the leader of the staff following the departure of Roy Oswalt and is a terrific competitor who wants the ball.

LHP Wandy Rodriguez
Age
: 32.
Contract status: Signed through 2013. The Astros on Tuesday agreed to deal with Rodriguez that will pay him a three-year deal with a guaranteed $34 million. He has a 2014 vesting option that would push the total value of the deal to $44.5 million.
2010 record: 11-12, 3.60 ERA.
Career record: 62-64, 4.18 ERA in six seasons.
Comment: Rodriguez, the only remaining member from the 2005 World Series team, pitched like an All-Star in 2009 and in the second half of last year. That’s the pitcher the Astros threw $34 million at on Tuesday, and not the one who struggled mightily in the first half of the 2010 season.

LHP J.A. Happ
Age
: 28.
Contract status: Signed through 2014. Will be arbitration eligible for the first time in 2012. He made $470,000 last year, and his 2012 salary has yet to be determined.
2010 record: 6-4, 3.40 ERA (with Phillies and Astros).
Career record: 19-9, 3.27 ERA in four seasons.
Comment: The Astros were thrilled to get Happ from the Phillies in the Oswalt trade. He’s still relatively young, doesn’t make much money and heretofore has been a dependable Major League pitcher.

RHP Bud Norris
Age
: 25.
Contract status: Signed through 2015. Will be arbitration eligible in 2013 and is scheduled to hit free agency in 2016.
2010 record: 9-10, 4.92 ERA.
Career record: 15-13, 4.82 ERA in 1 1/2 seasons.
Comment: Has the kind of stuff to have a long Major League career. Norris could be poised for a breakout season in 2011.

Spring brings optimism for Wade

When general manager Ed Wade met with some members of the media earlier this week to address the team’s arbitration stance, the discussion didn’t stop there. Wade addressed a number of other topics, including the state of the Major League club, Jeff Keppinger and the young players who will play a huge role in 2011.

Here are Wade’s answers to some of those questions:

On the state of the club: “We like our club. I said when the offseason began that we didn’t expect it to be a headline-busting offseason for us. We very specifically had some things in mind. We replaced the middle of our infield with Bill Hall and Clint Barmes coming on board. We think those are some really good steps in the right direction for us. We’ve created competition for the fifth starter’s spot and we did things that did not create an environment where we could stump the progress of the young guys who came on last year and got their feet wet at the big-league level. We had a good four months last year, the last four months. We need to figure out a way to get off to a better start, and the things we tried to do this offseason were to give us every opportunity to do that.”

On having so many young players in key roles: “People stay away from the phrase ‘rebuilding,’ but I think good franchises are always in some type of rebuilding mode because that means you’re bringing players through the system or have acquired younger players who have begun to establish a new core nucleus of your club. I think it’s a process you have to go through frequently, and I think the fact a number of guys were up in early, late June last year and joined the organization at the trade deadline in July, they should benefit from the experience they had a year ago. I know people look at our club and say they’re not a lot of veterans around and where does our leadership come from, and at some times it’s the mental make up of the younger players, who recognize they have a great opportunity not only to produce on the field but have a presence in the clubhouse. We have a number of players who have indicated a willingness to do that and feel refreshed with the opportunity to step up and show what they’re capable of doing both on the field and in the clubhouse.”

On the progress of Jeff Keppinger, who underwent surgery on his left foot Jan. 14: “When the surgery was performed, the specialist who did the surgery in North Carolina indicated the normal process would call for probably a three-month rehab before he’s running aggressively, and that takes us probably into early or mid-May if everything is moving in a straight line. Keppinger has indicated through Nate Lucero, our trainer, he’s feeling great right now and if we could shave some weeks or months off that rehab schedule, that would be great. It would be dictated by the progress he makes and what the doctors tell us.”

On which players he’s most anxious to see this spring: “Brett Wallace has been talked about a lot from the standpoint of this is a golden opportunity for Brett to step up and win the first base job when he gets to Spring Training, and he’s got to do that because we know we’ve got alternatives. We know we can play Carlos Lee at first base or Brian Bogusevic coming through the organization with the ability to play over there. I think, again, Brett is one of those young guys who will benefit from having been here the second half of last season and find out you have to make adjustments at the big-league level. Every successful young player is challenged at the big league level and the ones who remain successful are the ones who make adjustments. I’m anxious to see him and anxious to see J.A. Happ in our uniform all year long. I think we saw a real good sample of what he’s capable of doing by what he did a year ago. I’m looking forward to seeing the guys who we were counting on to show whatthey’re capable of doing over six months, primarily our outfield trio. Hunter [Pence] and Carlos got off to tough starts last year and came on strong, and I would anticipate you’re not going to see those slow starts again. I’m anxious to see Chris Johnson at third base and given the opportunity to go out there and build on the type of season he had. Newness is always great, and I’m anxious to see the two new middle infielders [Barmes and Hall] as well. I guess what I’m saying is I’m excited to see everybody when I get down there.”

On the top prospects coming to Spring Training, including RHP Jordan Lyles: “The message delivered to these younger guys when we call them up is you’re not going to make the club out of Spring Training. No matter how many times you say that, they’re going to come in and try to make the club. Sometimes we’re reluctant to bring in younger guys like that, but we thought creating an environment for Jordan Lyles, who probably does have a chance to make our club, and some of these other younger guys, it gives them a chance to see what a big-league environment is all about and, in all candor, gives us a chance to pump our chest a little bit that we’ve got a substantial number of young guys who are on the near horizon and have a chance to help this club in the not-too-distant figure. And why not bring them in and show them off and get them in shape and send them back to Fred Nelson on the development side and put them in the right spot to continue their development?”

 

Avoiding arbitration hearing would benefit all

The last thing the Astros want to do is sit down before an arbitration panel next month and try to explain why Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez aren’t worth the money they’re asking. Pence and Rodriguez are pros, but feelings can and often do get hurt and during the process.

Astros general manager Ed Wade, like he’s done each season since he took over as GM, has set his own deadline of close of business next Tuesday to work out deals with Pence and Rodriguez.

“The spreads are fairly significant and our hope still is that we can get something done, preferably on a multi-year basis with Wandy and would to get Hunter done as well,” Wade said. “The spreads are significant and there’s a lot of ground to cover.”

Rodriguez, who went 11-12 with a 3.60 ERA last year, is asking for $10.25 million, which is substantially more than the Astros’ offer of $8 million. He lost his arbitration case last year and had to settle for $5 million after asking for $7 million.

Pence, named the team’s Most Valuable Player after hitting .282 with 25 homers and 91 RBIs last year, is asking for $6.9 million, with the Astros countering at $5.15 million. Pence made $3.5 million last year in his first year of arbitration.

You can bet Wade and arbitration expert Tal Smith will have done extensive homework to try to continue their strong success rate of winning cases. 

Pence is asking to nearly double his salary, but the Astros don’t want to go that far. The Astros were able to settle with Pence last year, but the gap was only $1 million. Rodriguez’s gap is $2 million more than his gap of last year, and the fact he’s a free agent after 2011 should compliate negotiations.

The Astros are willing to considering signing Rodriguez to a long-term deal, but you can’t help but wonder if Rodriguez’s poor start had something to do with losing his arbitration case. He was 3-10 with a 6.09 ERA in his first 14 starts before going 8-2 with a 2.03 ERA in his final 18 starts.

Had Rodriguez pitched like that all season, he would have gotten a huge raise and perhaps would have a long-term deal by now. The fact is he remains inconsistent and at 32 years old is approaching the ideal time for him to put everything together if he really wants to cash in.

 

 

Arbitration numbers filed for Rodriguez, Pence

The Astros and outfielder Hunter Pence and pitcher Wandy Rodriguez face a large gap in the arbitration numbers filed by both sides Tuesday.

Rodriguez filed at $10.25 million, and the Astros countered with $8 million. Pence filed at $6.9 million and the Astros at $5.150 million. Rodriguez made $5 million last year, and Pence made $3.5 million.

“The spreads are fairly significant and our hope still is that we can get something done, preferably on a mult-year basis with Wandy and would to get Hunter done as well,” GM Ed Wade said. “The spreads are significant and there’s a lot of ground to cover.”

DeShields Jr. releases statement

Delino DeShields Jr., who was arrested early Sunday after being charged driving under the influence of alcohol, minor in possession of alcohol and a traffic violation, released a statement on his Facebook page on Monday:

“I take the responsibility of being a role model seriously and apologize to my fans and community, who continue to support my family and I during this unfortunate incident. I look forward to putting this matter behind me and sincerely appreciate the respect of privacy during this personal matter.”

DeShields Jr., 18, was arrested by the Athens-Clark County Police Department and booked at 1:06 a.m. ET, according to jail computer records obtained by MLB.com. He was released after posting a $2,500 bond for the three offenses — $500 for underage possession and the traffic violation and $1,500 for the DUI, all of which are misdemeanors.

The Astros selected DeShields Jr. with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 Draft and signed him to a $2.15 million bonus.

Scoreboard progress pictures

I spent a couple of hours at Minute Mark Park on Wednesday, talking with Hunter Pence, Bud Norris, Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace and Brian Bogusevic about their off-season workout routines and various other things that crossed our minds. The story about their off-season workouts will be posted soon.

While at the ballpark, I went into the dugout to check out the progress of the new scoreboard renovations. There’s not much to report with the massive new scoreboard that will be above right field, except the old board is completely gone. The ribbon board surrounding the stadium appears to be finished on the outside, and there’s progress on the new scoreboard that’s going in above the third-base line.

I took some pictures so you can check out the progress:

Ballpark ren.jpg

Above: The old scoreboard above right field is gone.

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Above: The new scoreboard going in above the third-base line.

misc 022.jpg

Above: Check out the ribbon board going around the facade just below the upper deck.

misc 023.jpg

Above: Chris Johnson talking with Bobby Meacham, with new scoreboard visible in background.

Jordan Lyles heading to Spring Training

Not that it should come as any surprise, but right-handed pitcher Jordan Lyles, the Astros top prospect, will be at Spring Training when pitchers and catchers report in a little more than five weeks, general manager Ed Wade said.

“At this point, I’m pretty much certain he will be there,” Wade said. “We’re going to sit down here [soon] and contact players. There’s a number of guys – including some six-year Minor League free agents we’re committed to contractually to giving an Major League invitation – we’ll be reaching out to. It’s safe to assume Jordan will be one of them.”

Lyles, 20, went a combined 7-12 with a 3.57 ERA in 27 games (26 starts) combined between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Round Rock. He spent most of the season at Corpus Christi, going 7-9 with a 3.12 ERA in 21 games.

Lyles will compete for the fifth spot in the Astros’ rotation with Nelson Figueroa, Ryan- Rowland-Smith and Rule 5 picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton and will be one of the most interesting players to watch during the spring.

Bagwell falls short in Hall of Fame voting

The Astros will have to wait for a Hall of Famer to call their own.

Jeff Bagwell, the Astros’ all-time leader in homers and RBIs, fell short of being elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday, garnering 41.7 percent of the vote on his first time on the ballot in voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were the only two players to make the Hall this year.

Players need 75 percent of the votes to be elected and can stay on the ballot for as long as 15 years as long as they receive at least five percent of the vote.

Several voters who have made their Hall of Fame selections public have questioned whether Bagwell used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. Bagwell has routinely denied using any kind of drugs and hasn’t been linked to any juicing, but some voters remain skeptic.

Bagwell would appear to have a better chance to get elected next year when a thin group of first-timers are eligible, but the list of 2013 Hall of Fame eligible players includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza.

Six former Astros have reached the Hall of Fame, but neither has worn an Astros cap: Nellie Fox, Eddie Mathews, Joe Morgan, Robin Roberts, Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan.

Bagwell, 42, last appeared in an Astros uniform during the 2005 World Series, the crowning achievement in a career that included the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1991 and the club’s only NL Most Valuable Player Award three years later.

Bagwell made four All-Star Game appearances, had 2,314 hits, 449 home runs, 1,529 RBIs and six trips to the playoffs. He was forced to retire after a degenerative shoulder condition made it impossible for him to throw a baseball and nearly impossible to swing a bat.

I still believe Bagwell will get in at some point, but in my mind he’s a classic case of a borderline Hall of Fame player. I say that as a guy who has extremely high standards for the Hall of Fame. I certainly can’t fault anyone for not voting for him because of his performance on the field.

Here’s the entire vote: Roberto Alomar 523 (90.0%), Bert Blyleven 463 (79.7%), Barry Larkin 361 (62.1%), Jack Morris 311 (53.5%), Lee Smith 263 (45.3%), Jeff Bagwell 242 (41.7%), Tim Raines 218 (37.5%), Edgar Martinez 191 (32.9%), Alan Trammell 141 (24.3%), Larry Walker 118 (20.3%), Mark McGwire 115 (19.8%), Fred McGriff 104 (17.9%), Dave Parker 89 (15.3%), Don Mattingly 79 (13.6%), Dale Murphy 73 (12.6%), Rafael Palmeiro 64 (11.0%), Juan Gonzalez 30 (5.2%), Harold Baines 28 (4.8%), John Franco 27 (4.6%), Kevin Brown 12 (2.1%), Tino Martinez 6 (1.0%), Marquis Grissom 4 (0.7%), Al Leiter 4 (0.7%), John Olerud 4 (0.7%), B.J. Surhoff 2 (0.3%), Bret Boone 1 (0.2%), Benito Santiago 1 (0.2%), Carlos Baerga 0, Lenny Harris 0, Bobby Higginson 0, Charles Johnson 0, Raul Mondesi 0, Kirk Rueter 0.

 

 

Young players hold key for Astros

Perhaps it’s foolish to assume Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Wandy Rodriguez will each have rebound seasons, and perhaps it’s too much to ask Hunter Pence and Bud Norris to keep improving. Can Brett Myers and Chris Johnson possibly duplicate their success of a year ago? That, too, is a question the Astros will ponder.

For the Astros to make any kind of noise in an improved National League Central in 2011, they will certainly everyone to be at their best. They’ll need Lee and Wandy to perform like they did in the second half, and Pence and Norris to continue to blossom. They’ll need Myers and Johnson to prove last year wasn’t a fluke, and newcomers Bill Hall and Clint Barmes to make an immediate impact.

These are not unreasonable expectations, though it’s likely there are going to be road bumps. But more than anything else, the Astros’ need to get more from their youngsters, specifically catcher Jason Castro and first baseman Brett Wallace. The Astros are committed to these two left-handed bats in the lineup, both of whom were taken high in the first round in the 2008 Draft.

Wallace, traded from the Blue Jays last July, and Castro both got their feet wet in 2010 with varing degrees of success/disappointment. But now it’s time for them to jump right in. Imagine how the whole lineup would change if Wallace slugs like he did in the Minor Leagues and Castro blossoms into a solid hitter? That would suddenly give the Astros a deep batting order to go along with a pretty good rotation.

The Astros dealt with and certainly expected both to struggle a year ago, but now they’re fully invested in Wallace and Castro. The Astros have some good catching prospects on the farm, but none on the immediate horizon. Castro is the guy. The team toyed with bringing in a left-fielder as an insurance policy if Lee had to move to first to replace Wallace, but general manager Ed Wade said at the Winter Meetings they wanted to remain fully committed to Wallace.

Hopefully, for the Astros’s sake, Wallace and Castro can reward that confidence this season and come into their own.

_____________________________________________________________________________

I hope everyone had a great holiday season, and, like most of you, I’m back to work this week. We’ll find out Wednesday if Astros icon Jeff Bagwell made it into the Hall of Fame, and the more I hear and see feedback from those with a vote, the less likely I think it is that he’ll make it on the first ballot. Colleague Peter Gammons thinks he should make it eventually, for what it’s worth.

Wednesday also begins the salary arbitration filing period, a list that is now down to five players following the trade of Matt Lindstrom: Wandy Rodriguez, Clint Barmes, Jeff Keppinger, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence.

 

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