March 2011

How many games will the Astros win in 2011?

The Astros are heading to Philadelphia today in anticipation of tomorrow’s season-opener at the Phillies, which is scheduled for a 12:05 p.m. CT first pitch. It should be in the mid 40s with a chance of rain at first pitch.

No matter what you think of the Astros’ chances this season, if you’re a baseball fan you should be feeling some excitement on this day. With the Astros’ 25-man roster now set, we should have a better idea of they’re going to do this season.

Assuming their starting pitching stays healthy, it should have them in better shape than most of the prognosticators and predicting. The two keys for me are getting off to a quick start — which has been a huge problem in recent years — and staying healthy, which has already been an issue. The Astros don’t have much depth.

So, let’s have it. What are your predictions for the upcoming season.

 

My latest Astros roster projection

Some teams have already set their 25-man roster, while others — like the Astros — are going to wait until close to the deadline to set rosters, which is 10 a.m. CT on Thursday. But it’s becoming increasingly clear what the Astros roster is going to be at this point.

With that in mind, I bring you my first poll question:

 

For me, the only roster question remains the final couple of bullpen spots. I think everything else is pretty much set, so here’s my latest roster projection:

CATCHERS (2)

Humberto Quintero

J.R. Towles

Comment: Towles is dealing with back issues, but if he’s healthy he will split time behind the plate with Quintero. If the back is an issue, I’m guessing the Astros have to take switch-hitter Carlos Corporan to start the year.

INFIELDERS (6)

Brett Wallace (L)

Bill Hall

Angel Sanchez

Chris Johnson

Matt Downs

Joe Inglett (L)

Comment: The addition of Inglett satisifies the need for a left-handed bat off the bench, something they weren’t going to have unless J.B. Shuck made the club. Sanchez gets the start at shortstop with Clint Barmes out, beating out Tommy Manzella. Sanchez hit .280 in a part-time role last year and has been getting a lot of at-bats as spring winds down. Plus, he’s out of options, which means the Astros would risk losing him if they didn’t keep him on the roster.

OUTFIELDERS (5)

Carlos Lee

Michael Bourn (L)

Hunter Pence

Jason Michaels

Jason Bourgeois

Comment: Bourgeois brings a lot to the table. He can run, plays terrific defense and can play second base on occasion. Plus, he had a very strong spring at the plate. He’ll likely get the last spot over J.B. Shuck.

STARTERS (5)

Brett Myers

Wandy Rodriguez (L)

J.A. Happ (L)

Bud Norris

Nelson Figueroa

Comment: This is set.

BULLPEN (7)

Brandon Lyon

Wilton Lopez

Jeff Fulchino

Enerio Del Rosario

Ryan Rowland-Smith (L)

Mark Melancon

Fernando Abad (L)

Comment: Del Rosario’s stellar spring numbers were too good to ignore, so I have him winning a spot. Rowland-Smith is in good shape as a left-handed specialist/long reliever. I have Abad winning final spot over Henry Villar, who did well this spring. At the end of the day, I see Brad Mills putting more stock in what Abad did last year than his lousy spring.

So long from Florida

The Astros played their final Grapefruit League game of the season Monday against the Phillies in Clearwater. The club will fly to Oklahoma City on Tuesday morning for a night game against its new Triple-A club later that night before returning to Houston immediately after the game.

After an exhibition against the Red Sox on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park, the Astros will work out Thursday in Houston before flying to Philadelphia, where they will open the 2011 season at 12:05 p.m. Friday.

The long wait until Opening Day is finally over.

“Since last year, we were all ready and excited for the season to start, and Spring Training was the beginning of that,” first baseman Brett Wallace said. “We’re getting close to the games finally counting. We’re excited about the way the team’s coming together. We’re ready to play games that count and get to Philly and get it underway.”

The Astros will wait until Thursday to make their final roster cuts, and they have quite a few decisions to make. Who will start at shortstop? What will they do at catcher if J.R. Towles is hurt? Who will get the final couple of spots in the bullpen? The uncertainty at catcher at shortstop is a product of injuries to starters Jason Castro and Clint Barmes.

“You always want to be strong up the middle and coming into camp we were very strong up the middle,” Astros manager Brad Mills said. “You lose your catcher and shortstop, but [Angel] Sanchez played really well for us last year and we know [Humberto Quintero] has done well. We’re going to wait and see how Towles is. We have more than adequate guys to fill in and do a good job.”

Note: This will be my final blog from Florida. I’m flying home to Houston later today, and will take a few days off before joining the team in Philadelphia on Thursday. Thanks for all your readership this spring, and you can bet Tag’s Lines and MLB.com will have the latest on the Astros all season long. Houston, hello!

Game 33: So long, Kissimmee

The Astros’ final day in Kissimmee proved to be rather busy. They made a trade to acquire infielder Joe Inglett, they said goodbye to Rule 5 pitcher Lance Pendleton and they nearly got into fisticuffs in an 8-4 loss to the Tigers. Perhaps these boys are ready for the regular season to start.

Click here for Inglett’s bio. You may remember him. He hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth off Matt Lindstrom to help beat the Astros last year in Milwaukee, and he lined a pitch of Bud Norris’ shin last year.

Click on the links above for more information on those stories, but here’s the game recap:

What went good: The Astros banged out 10 hits, with Carlos Corporan and Oswaldo Navarro both going 2-for-4 (Navarro, a non-roster invitee, was told after the game he wasn’t going to make the team, along with Ross Wolf). Jason Michaels went 1-for-1 as a pinch-hitter, Michael Bourn went 1-for-4, Carlos Lee was 1-for-3, Bill Hall was 1-for-2, Tommy Manzella was 1-for-3 with a triple and a hard lineout and Angel Sanchez had a pinch-hit single.

Jeff Fulchino solidified his case to make the team by throwing a scoreless inning, allowing one hit.

What went wrong: Wandy Rodriguez struggled mightily with command in his final start of the spring Sunday, allowing six hits, four walks and five runs in three innings while throwing 90 pitches in a the Tigers. He went 0-3 with an 8.04 ERA in five starts and missed a rotation turn with mild shoulder tendinitis.

“My arm feels strong,” he said. “I tried to make quality pitches and I missed a lot. You could see today in the game I had a lot of walks. That’s my big problem today. I feel strong and tried to throw too hard, and that’s my big mistake.”

Manager Brad Mills said it was a matter of not being able to locate his fastball.

“We had a good talk afterwards and he felt he was real strong and couldn’t command his fastball and that’s not him,” he said. “When he’s able to command his fastball, it makes all his other pitches better. We’ve all known that about him for years.”

Jose Valdez gave up two runs and one hit, including a homer to Miguel Cabrera, in his one inning of work, and Ryan Rowland-Smith allowed three hits and one earned run and was victimized by poor defense when two players converged on a ball and both stopped to let it get past them.

The benches empited in the sixth when Valdez threw an inside pitch to Victor Martinez the pitch after Cabrera’s home run. The players ran onto the field, but there was no pushing or shoving or punching.

Said Valdez: “He talked back to me like, ‘You tried to hit me.’ He was trying to get in my head.”

Said Martinez: “It was a pitch that I didn’t think was with good intentions.”

Said Mills: “I have no idea why Victor got really excited there. The ball wasn’t that close. It was low and in and he just backed away. There was absolutely nothing there.”

At the plate, Matt Downs (.261 spring average) went 0-for-4 and Hunter Pence (.339) was 0-for-3.

What they said: “We’re trying to see if there are left-handed opportunities, and right now if you look at the way we’re set up you’ve got Anderson Hernandez as a switch-hitter and J.B. Shuck as a left-handed hitter in the mix. We think that with Inglett’s experience and the fact he’s succeeded in that role in the past it made sense to bring him in and give us a little bit more to consider putting the final roster together.” — Astros general manager Ed Wade on Joe Inglett.

What’s next: In their final Grapefruit League game of the season, the Astros travel to Clearwater, Fla., to meet the Philadelphia Phillies at 12:05 p.m. CT. Bud Norris will face off against Cliff Lee in a game that will mark the Houston debut of infielder Joe Inglett, who was acquired in a trade with the Rays on Sunday.

Injury update: C J.R. Towles is still nursing a stiff back and didn’t play Sunday. … IF Angel Sanchez is also dealing with back issues, but he came off the bench and had a pinch-hit single.

Here are the healthy players remaining in camp, with my roster predictions in bold:

Pitchers (16)Fernando Abad, Gustavo Chacin, Enerio Del Rosario, Nelson Figueroa, Jeff Fulchino, J.A. Happ, Wilton Lopez, Brandon Lyon, Mark Melancon, Brett Myers, Bud Norris, Aneury Rodriguez, Wandy Rodriguez, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jose Valdez and Henry Villar.

Catchers (3) — Carlos Corporan, Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles.

Infielders (8)Matt Downs, Bill Hall, Anderson Hernandez, Joe Inglett, Chris Johnson, Tommy Manzella, Angel Sanchez and Brett Wallace.

Outfielders (6)Jason Bourgeois, Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee, Jason Michaels, Hunter Pence and J.B. Shuck.

Here are the photos from the final day of workouts/games at Osceola County Stadium:

The Astros play catch on the morning of their final workout of the year at Osceola County Stadium.

Nelson Figueroa throws in the bullpen Sunday.

Lance Pendleton laughs while Burt Hooton tries to figure out how to slow down the pitching machine. Pendleton, a Rule 5 pick, was sent back to the Yankees only a couple of hours later.

Jason Michaels stretches while Carlos Lee talks to him before batting practice.

OF Jason Bougeois takes a cut in the batting cage.

Mills says cuts will come down to wire

As the Astros prepare to leave Florida in less than two days, the injury to Clint Barmes, who’s expected to miss four to six weeks with a broken left hand, has forced manager Brad Mills to prolong some pending roster decisions.

Mills had hoped to have most of his decisions made by the time the team left Florida on Tuesday, but he said Sunday morning that’s not going to happen.

“It’s going to go all the way up to Thursday probably, now with Barmie’s hand and so forth,” he said. “That kind of connects with the other decisions we need to make. Not necessarily with the pitching, but the position players.”

The Astros have 34 healthy players in camp, a number that doesn’t include infielder Tommy Manzella. He was optioned to the Minor Leagues last week, but brought back to Major League camp Saturday and thrown back into the mix to start at shortstop. He was the Opening Day starter last year.

Manzella, Matt Downs, Anderson Hernandez (non-roster), Oswaldo Navarro (non-roster) and Angel Sanchez are battling for three spots — two backup infield jobs and the starting shortstop position. Sanchez is dealing with back problems and is out of options, which complicates matters.

The decision on who makes the club on the infield will have a domino effect on the final outfield spot, where Jason Bourgeois and J.B. Shuck are the last two men standing. If the switch-hitting Hernandez makes the team, that would give the Astros a left-handed bat off the bench. Bourgeois is right-handed and Shuck is left-handed, so Shuck might have a better chance to crack the roster if Hernandez doesn’t make it.

Of course, general manager Ed Wade said the team doesn’t necessarily have to go with a left-handed bat off the bench.

Stay tuned.

Game 32: 8 pitchers take turns

The biggest news Saturday at Astros camp came in the morning, when it was revealed starting shortstop Clint Barmes would miss four to six weeks with a broken bone in his left hand, suffered when he was hit by a pitch Friday.

That’s a big blow to an Astros team that already has seen starting catcher Jason Castro likely lost for the entire season. The NL Central has been hit hard by injuries this spring, with Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals out for the year, Zach Greinke of the Brewers starting the season on the disabled list and Reds pitchers Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto injured to begin the season.

Here’s the recap of the Astros’ 10-0 loss to the Nationals:

What went right: Eight different pitchers got work in Saturday, with reliever Henry Villar starting and giving up two hits and two earned runs in two innings. Wilton Lopez, Fernando Abad and Gustavo Chacin each threw a scoreless inning.

Abad, who’s struggled mightily this spring, had better command of his fastball, keeping it down better in the zone than he has in previous outings. Enerio Del Rosario stretched his scoreless innings streak to 12 1/3, but it wasn’t without some drama.

He loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth and would have escaped the inning had he not dropped a throw at first base, allowing an unearned to score. The next batter ripped a line drive back at him, and Del Rosario knocked it down and scurried to throw him out to end the inning.

Jason Bourgeois and Brett Wallace had the only hits for the Astros, both singles. Wallace also walked and is hitting .365.

What went wrong: Playing without Michael bourn, Clint Barmes and Bill Hall, the Astros were held to two singles, going 2-for-28 as a team. Angel Sanchez was 0-for-4, and Hunter Pence and Oswaldo Navarro were 0-for-3. Wallace and Del Rosario made fielding errors.

On the mound, Brandon Lyon allowed two hits and one earned run in one inning, Mark Melancon gave up two earned in one inning and Aneury Rodriguez squandered three earned runs and two hits in one inning.

What they said: “You start feeling sorry for yourself and all you have to do is look at what’s happening at other people’s camps. That’s why you try to build as much depth as you can, and that’s why every general manager in the game starts to hold their breath the last 10 days of Spring Training and hope things like this don’t occur.” — Astros general manager Ed Wade on the injury to Clint Barmes.

What’s next: In the final spring game of the season at Kissimmee’s Osceola County Stadium, the Astros will send Wandy Rodriguez to the mound in his final start before the regular season. Ryan Rowland-Smith, Aneury Rodriguez and Ross Wolf are also going to get in some work.

Injury update: SS Clint Barmes was diagnosed with a broken bone in his left hand and will be out four to six weeks. … C J.R. Towles woke up Saturday with back tightness and was scratched from the lineup. He’ll be reevaluated Sunday.

Here are today’s photos:

The Astros packed their truck for Houston on Saturday morning.

Bill Hall and special advisor Enos Cabell chat before Saturday's workout

Alberto Arias talks with trainers and Dr. David Lintner after throwing off the mound. He hasn't pitched a spring game this year because of shoulder tendinitis.

Jeff Keppinger, who is slowly recovering from Jan. 14 foot surgery, plays catch in the outfield Saturday morning.

Barmes out 4-6 weeks with broken hand

The Astros lost their second starting player to an injury this spring when it was revealed Saturday morning that shortstop Clint Barmes would miss four to six weeks with a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal bone of his left hand.

Barmes was hit by a pitch in the hand — the same hand he broke in the Minor Leagues in 2002 — on Friday night against the Yankees in Tampa. The hand will be immobilized, and Barmes will be examined in the next few days in Houston by Dr. Tom Mehlhoff.

“It’s definitely pretty frustrating to hear I’m going to have to miss time,” Barmes said. “After last night, talking to the doctor and going through some of the tests he was giving me, it looked very promising. There was a small fracture in the X-ray, and they’re saying it needs time to heal before we push it and try to get back to doing baseball activities.

“I’m hoping and am going to be trying to get back as soon as possible, but I can only push it as much as they’ll let me.”

The injury means Barmes will begin the season on the disabled list, leaving the Astros searching for another shortstop. They have four infielders in camp — Matt Downs, Angel Sanchez, Anderson Hernandez and Oswaldo Navarro — who were competing for two backup spots. Tommy Manzella, who started at shortstop on Opening Day last year, was optioned to Minor League camp two days ago.

Earlier this spring, starting catcher Jason Castro tore his anterior cruciate ligament and is lost for most of the season.

The Astros traded for Barmes in November to be their starting shortstop. He hit .235 with eight homers and 50 RBIs in 133 games last year for Colorado, and is two years removed from hitting 23 homers.

Game 31: Shuck steals the show

Friday’s game against the Yankees wasn’t televised, so there’s no video evidence that will tell the story of the outstanding game outfielder J.B. Shuck had. The evidence was on Shuck’s uniform, which was covered from neck to feet in dirt.

In short, Shuck played like a guy trying to make a team. Getting the start in left field before more than 11,000 fans under the lights at Steinbrenner Field, Shuck stole the show in a 6-4 loss to the Yankees. He went 1-for-4 at the plate with a hustling double and an RBI, but he made two terrific diving catches and threw out a runner at the plate.

“Shuck had a great game,” Astros pitcher Nelson Figueroa said. “Shuck was outstanding. It could have been a lot worse day if it wasn’t for Shuck. He made some great plays.”

Shuck made a diving catch in the left-center gap in the second to rob Eduardo Nunez of a hit, coming out of nowhere to corral the ball. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. In the fourth, he charged towards the infield and went horizontal to catch Brett Gardner’s blooper for an out. In the sixth, he fielded a fly ball and threw a rope to the plate to complete a double play.

“I got a bead on it in the gap and I though I had a chance and just dove for it and was able to get to it,” Shuck said. “The other just happened to stay up long enough and I was able to slide in there and avoid running into [shortstop Angel] Sanchez. You don’t think about it and you just go after it.”

Shuck, 23, is a non-roster invitee who’s battling with Jason Bourgeois for the final bench spot. He definitely  helped himself Friday.

Here’s the recap:

What went right: Outside of Shuck’s great game, there were a few other encouraging signs. Chris Johnson went 1-for-3 with a triple and a run scored, and Matt Downs came off the bench and went 1-for-1 with a double and is now hitting .286 in Grapefruit League action.

Michael Bourn, Jason Michaels, Hunter Pence and Oswaldo Navarro also had one hit each for the Astros. On the mound, Jose Valdez pitched a scoreless inning.

What went wrong: I always hesitate to say any starting pitcher’s outing went “wrong” in Spring Training, but Nelson Figueroa would certainly have liked to have a better a line than nine hits, five runs, four walks and two homers allowed in six innings. Figueroa did throw 106 pitches, so he got in his day’s work, and he pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first.

“It was fun to get the work in and get to 100 pitches,” he said. “I felt like I was still strong, but at the same time I’ve had a sinus infection the last two days and it kind of felt like I was in a fish bowl starting out. I felt a little weak in the first inning and it started to unravel quick and I was a little worried about that a short day and a long inning.

“I got out of that first inning and felt good and made some good pitches. I found Eric Chavez’s bat a few times. I’m just really working on command and locating my pitches and get comfortable with [catcher Carlos] Corporan. All in all, it could have been a better day result-wise. We were still in the ballgame when I left. It was fun to be out there and get the work in.”

Ross Wolf pitched the seventh and gave up two hits and one run, striking out one batter. At the plate, the Astros struck out nine times, including Pence twice. Angel Sanchez and Brett Wallace were 0-for-3, and center fielder Michael Bourn made a throwing error.

What they said: “I think I’m going to put mayonnaise and mustard on his sandwich before he comes in. He did a great job today. It was great to see him and have some fun and continue to see the young kids working hard and being productive.” — Astros pitcher Nelson Figueroa on the great defensive play Friday by left fielder J.B. Shuck.

What’s next: The Astros’ bullpen will be on display when they return to Osceola County Stadium to face the Washington Nationals at 12:05 p.m. CT. Opening Day starter Brett Myers was originally scheduled to start, but he will pitch in a Minor League game because he’s already faced Washington twice this spring. The Astros will piece things together with their bullpen, with Henry Villar getting the start. Also pitching are Brandon Lyon, Wilton Lopez, Enerio Del Rosario, Mark Melancon, Aneury Rodriguez and Fernando Abad.

Injury report: Shortstop Clint Barmes left the game after being hit in the left hand by a pitch. He had a nasty bruise and some swelling and will undergo X-rays on Saturday morning. Read more about it here.

Sorry, no pictures again today. I spent the pregame in the press box writing the story that updates the status of the team’s impending sale. Details can be found here.

Barmes to undergo X-rays

Astros shortstop Clint Barmes will undergo an X-ray on his left hand Saturday morning after being forced to leave Friday’s game against the Yankees when he was hit by a pitch thrown by Yankees starter Ivan Nova.

Barmes’ hand was bruised and he had it heavily taped in the clubhouse after he left the game, but he was encouraged after doing some range-of-motion tests. He said the ball hit him square on the outside of the hand.

“It’s sore but very promising at this point,” he said. “It’s one of those things where I tried to get out of the way and backing off a little late, I didn’t really have time to turn in on it, and that’s what I’d normally do on a fastball in like that. Just by backing up, it got my hand.”

Barmes was forced to miss the last three weeks of the 2002 season at Double-A Carolina after he fractured his left hand when he was hit by a pitch. Barmes said he had a boxer’s fracture, which is a break of the bones that form the knuckles.

“There’s always been a little bit of a bump where it hit me, and it hit me in the exact same spot,” he said. “I’m hoping that it’s a little stronger there and obviously that it’s not broken, and if it’s not broken then we should be good. It’s just real sore right now.”

Another shot at the 25-man roster

We’re one week away from the start of the Astros season and Opening Day in Philadelphia. Astros staffers are already packing up boxes and will put them on the truck, which will leave for Minute Maid Park this weekend. The team has four remaining games in Florida, including tonight’s game against the Yankees in Tampa, before leaving Tuesday morning for an exhibition game in Oklahoma City.

The roster is slowly starting to take shape in the last few days, but there are still 36 healthy players in camp so there are plenty of more cuts to come.

Since the last time I tried to predict the Opening Day roster a couple weeks ago, I’ve already been proven to be wrong. Tommy Manzella was optioned to Minor League camp, and Ryan Rowland-Smith is out of the running for the rotation. Not surprisingly, things changed and I missed the mark with a couple of those.

So let’s try it again:

CATCHERS (2)

Humberto Quintero

J.R. Towles

Comment: Both have had a nice spring at the plate, and unless the Astros find another catcher in the next week, it looks like Quintero and Towles will split the catching duties. What is known is that Quintero is a lock.

INFIELDERS (6)

Brett Wallace (L)

Bill Hall

Clint Barmes

Chris Johnson

Matt Downs

Angel Sanchez

Comment: I’m swapping Manzella for Sanchez, who’s out of options. The Astros like his bat, but the problem is he doesn’t run very well and he’s not as versatile on defense as Anderson Hernandez, who’s a switch-hitter. Unless J.B. Shuck makes the club in the outfield — see below — or Carlos Corporan gets a catching spot, the Astros won’t have any left-handers on the bench, which could bode well for Hernandez. Still, I’m picking Sanchez.

OUTFIELDERS (5)

Carlos Lee

Hunter Pence

Michael Bourn (L)

Jason Michaels

Jason Bourgeois

Comment: I’m sticking with Bourgeois, especially now that Brian Bogusevic is out of the picture. I can’t imagine the Astros would go with J.B. Shuck, who barely got his feet wet at Triple-A last year, to have a reserve role in the outfield. Shuck has performed well in Florida, but so has Bourgeois. Sure, he’s right-handed, but he plays great defense and can fly, so he’d get plenty of chances to pinch-run. He also swung the bat well this spring.

STARTING PITCHERS (5)

Brett Myers

Wandy Rodriguez (L)

J.A. Happ (L)

Bud Norris

Nelson Figueroa

Comment: This is set.

RELIEF PITCHERS (7)

Brandon Lyon (closer)

Wilton Lopez

Mark Melancon

Jeff Fulchino

Enerio Del Rosario

Henry Villar

Ryan Rowland-Smith (L)

Comment: Yes, I’ve omitted left-hander Fernando Abad and the two Rule 5 guys — Lance Pendleton and Anuery Rodriguez. Abad has really struggled this spring after a great showing in winter ball, so perhaps he could start the season in Triple-A until he gets it ironed out. If Abad and non-roster invitee Gustavo Chacin don’t make the team, that would leave Rowland-Smith, who’s out of options, as the left-handed specialist. I think he’s probably more served to be a long relief-type pitcher, but he does have more appearances in his career in the bullpen than as a starter.

I think the only locks are Lyon and Lopez. I’m pretty sure Melancon and Del Rosario have put pitched themselves onto the team, and Fulchino has performed well despite Thursday’s hiccup. Then there’s Villar, who’s been throwing two-inning stints with some good success. I really don’t have much confidence in any of these guesses beyond Lyon and Lopez, so stay tuned.

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