March 2013

Peacock, Barnes make the club; Laird reassigned

Astros pitcher Brad Peacock was smiling ear-to-ear Monday afternoon after being informed by manager Bo Porter, pitching coach Doug Brocail and members of the front office he had made the 25-man roster.

Peacock and outfielder Brandon Barnes were among the players told they had made the club. Infielder Brandon Laird was told he was being reassigned to Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Peacock, 25, will be on an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career after spending all of last season at Triple-A Sacramento in the Oakland organization. He made his Major League debut with Washington late in the 2011 season and was 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA in three games.

“I’m excited and hopefully I can take advantage of his opportunity,” Peacock said. “What I went through last year — I came into camp not even knowing if I had a chance — I proved myself and hopefully I can keep it going.”

Peacock, who was one of three players acquired by the Astros last month from Oakland in the Jed Lowrie trade, didn’t say if he was destined for the rotation or the bullpen. He was 12-9 with a 6.01 ERA in 28 games (25 starts) at Sacramento last year, including 6-3 with a 4.14 ERA after the All-Star break.

Laird didn’t make the club despite a terrific spring in which he hit five homers and had 12 RBIs. He fell victim to a numbers game in the infield and the fact the Astros wanted to carry five outfielders.

“I felt like I did everything I could in spring to make the team and it’s their decision,” he said. “I have to go to Triple-A and continue to play and I’ll be up there shortly. They basically said it was between me and Barnes and they wanted someone who could come in late in the game and play defense in the outfield. So, I’ll continue to go down and work and be back up shortly.”

Astros lineup Monday vs. Nationals

Astros starting lineup Monday vs. Nationals:

2B Marwin Gonzalez

3B Brett Wallace

1B Carlos Pena

LF Chris Carter

RF Fernando Martinez

CF Justin Maxwell

C Jason Castro

DH Rick Ankiel

SS Ronny Cedeno

RHP Alex White

Taking a shot at the Astros’ roster

With a week to go before the season opener — and against my better judgment — I’m going to take a crack at what the Astros’ 25-man roster will look like at the start of the season. Let me know what you think.

INFIELDERS (6) — Jose Altuve, Ronny Cedeno, Matt Dominguez, Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Pena (DH), Brett Wallace.

  • Brandon Laird could be the odd man out and that would be a crime. Laird has had a terrific spring, but it’s hard to envision any of the players above not making the team.

OUTFIELDERS (5) — Rick Ankiel, Brandon Barnes, Chris Carter, Fernando Martinez, Justin Maxwell.

  • This would leave out Trevor Crowe, who has plenty of tools. But it certainly appears Barnes will make the club.

CATCHERS (2) — Jason Castro, Carlos Corporan.

STARTING PITCHERS (5) — Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Alex White, Erik Bedard.

  • I’m picking White and Bedard over Brad Peacock, who could start the year in Triple-A.

RELIEF PITCHERS (7) — Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright.

  • Chia-Jen Lo’s had a great spring, but I still see him beginning the year in Triple-A.

Astros sign Cedeno, option out J.D. Martinez

The Astros made official what first reported Saturday by announcing the signing of veteran shortstop Ronny Cedeno, who will be in the lineup for Sunday’s game against the Marlins.

Cedeno, who was released by the Cardinals last week, and Marwin Gonzalez will split time at shortstop to begin the regular season after the club informed Tyler Greene on Saturday he wasn’t going to make the club. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow pursued Cedeno in the offseason, but weren’t aggressive considering they had Jed Lowrie in the fold.

“When he became available, we went back to our original plan,” Luhnow said. “He sees an opportunity here to be, if not an every day, a guy that get a lot of playing time. Ronny has a lot of experience at the big league level. He’s only 30 years old, but he plays winter ball just about every year. I’ve been following his career since he was a prospect with the Cubs.

“He is defensively very, very good and with our young pitching staff, our ground ball staff, we felt we needed a reliable defensive player that could help the pitchers. The last thing we want to do is extend innings by not being able to make plays. Ronny is also a Major League hitter, and I think he’s going to give us an opportunity to produce some runs from that position as well.”

Greene is out of options and Luhnow said the team exploring options with other clubs regarding Greene, who struggled this spring.

“Tyler did a good job for us last year as part of this team,” Luhnow said. “He’s got value. He’s a Major League player and I think it’s more the emergence of Marwin, feeling that after Marwin spent all year with the club last year and the things he’s been able to show us this spring, being a switch-hitter, being very solid defensively, being able to play third base, second base, shortstop. I think all of that led us to feel Marwin beat out Tyler for a position on the team.”

Also, the team optioned outfielder J.D. Martinez, who started in left field last year for the Astros on Opening Day, to Triple-A Oklahoma City and also reassigned catcher Jason Jaramillo to Minor League camp

Cedeno, 30, played for the Mets last year and appeared in 78 games, hitting .259 with four homers and 22 RBIs in 186 plate appearances. He’s a career .247 hitter with 37 homers and 218 RBIs in an eight-year career with the Cubs, Pirates, Mariners and Mets.

“I’m very excited to be here,” Cedeno said. “I can be an everyday player and that’s very important. It’s kind of frustrating because I got released in St. Louis and they pushed me to get here and I have an opportunity, and now I’m going to enjoy it.”

The Astros traded shortstop Jed Lowrie in February and came to camp with Greene and Gonzalez vying to be his replacement. They’ve both had 42 at-bats in 18 games this spring, and Greene is hitting .167 with no RBIs and Gonzalez is hitting .238 with a homer and two RBIs.

Astros, Cedeno close to reaching agreement

The Astros are closing in on a deal with free agent infielder Ronny Cedeno, a baseball source has told Cedeno was released by the Cardinals earlier this week.

Cedeno, 30, will provide some middle infield depth for the Astros, who have yet to see either Tyler Greene or Marwin Gonzalez seize the starting shortstop job. Cedeno has played mostly shortstop in his career, but he can play second.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow couldn’t be reached for comment.

Cedeno played for the Mets last year and appeared in 78 games, hitting .259 with four homers and 22 RBIs in 186 plate appearances. He’s a career .247 hitter with 37 homers and 218 RBIs in an eight-year career with the Cubs, Pirates, Mariners and Mets.

The Astros traded shortstop Jed Lowrie in February and came to camp with Greene and Gonzalez vying to be his replacement. They’ve both had 42 at-bats in 18 games this spring, and Greene is hitting .167 with no RBIs and Gonzalez is hitting .238 with a homer and two RBIs.

Game 27: Humber pitches well, Ankiel provides punch

What happened: Philip Humber allowed only three hits — all of them solo homers — in six innings and didn’t walk a batter, and Rick Ankiel hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning off Craig Kimbrel in the Astros’ 3-2 loss to the Braves on Saturday afternoon at Champions Stadium (boxscore).

What we learned: The signing of OF Rick Ankiel could pay off for the Astros. Ankiel, a non-roster invitee, had the only two hits the Astros collected against Atlanta with a seventh-inning double and his ninth-inning, two-run homer. Ankiel appears destined to start for the Astros on Opening Day and is hitting .395 with three homers and six RBIs this spring in 38 at-bats.

“Rick Ankiel is a professional Major League Baseball player that has played at a high level in this league, played on a World Series championship team and knows how to play the game,” manager Bo Porter said. “He has a great work habits, he is a good teammate. All the things we were looking for, we found in Ankiel and he’s been everything we could have imagined he could be.”

What we learned II: If IF Brandon Laird doesn’t make the team, he’ll be one of the absolute last guys to get cut. Laird, who can play first and third base, is battling for a backup infield spot and has made a good impression with the bat, hitting .310 with five homers and 12 RBIs in 47 at-bats.

“He’s in a good spot and he’s in a good spot because he’s put himself in a good spot,” Porter said. “He’s played well in different scenarios and situations we’ve put him in, and he’s gotten some big hits, some big RBIs. Again, it’s a guy we are definitely considering as far as the 25-man roster goes.”

What else: RHPs Josh Fields and Rhiner Cruz each had 1-2-3 innings in relief of Humber.

What went wrong: The Astros were held to only two hits.

What they said: “The first two I was being aggressive and didn’t throw the ball where I wanted to, but the last one it was a 3-1 count and I decide I wasn’t going to walk the guy. I felt the wind blowing in behind me and I said, ‘Well, maybe the wind will hold it up if he gets it.’ He hit it well enough to get it out of here.” — Astros RHP Philip Humber on the three homers he allowed.

What’s next: Minor League RHP David Martinez will start for the Astros on Sunday against the Miami Marlins at 12:05 p.m. CT at Osceola County Stadium. The Astros are trying to line up their starting pitching for the start of the regular season, but a bevy of relievers are expected to get some work in as well. Martinez was 9-5 with a 4.38 ERA in 27 games (26 starts) at Class A Lancaster last year.

Who’s injured: Nobody.

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Astros lose Freiman in waiver claim by Oakland

Nate Freiman, who was trying to make the club as a Rule 5 pick, was claimed on waivers Saturday afternoon by the Oakland A’s. He must stay on their 25-man roster all season or be offered back to the Padres, where he was plucked away by Houston in last year’s Rule 5 Draft.

Freiman, who hadn’t played since Wednesday, had hit .278 with one homer and seven RBIs, and it became increasingly clear he wasn’t going to fit into the Astros’ plan.

The Astros now have 35 players in camp.

“When we selected him in the Rule 5 in December we thought we were getting a right-handed power guy who’s had good success, and he’s done everything to prove that’s what he was,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “Subsequent to that, getting [Chris] Carter in the trade and having [Brandon] Laird have a tremendous spring and [Brett] Wallace looking good, [Carlos] Pena looking good, it came down to a roster fit that wasn’t there that we thought might work differently.”

Luhnow said the Astros were potentially going to have a conversation with the Padres about trading for Freiman if they could get him through waivers, which they didn’t.

“He did a good job and he proved to us he is what he thought he was,” Luhnow said. “Whether or not he’s ready for the big leagues after being in Double-A that’s anybody’s guess, but he did everything that we hoped he would. It’s not a reflection on him, it’s a reflection we stayed healthy and we had a lot of options on the corners. When you talk about a player that is limited to first base or DH, there’s not many roster spots available for those types of players.”

The move perhaps betters the chances of Laird, who’s swung the well this spring, of making the team, but there’s still lots of competition for the final few position spots.

“It clears up the picture a little bit,” Luhnow said. “It doesn’t mean anybody’s guaranteed anything yet because we still need to determine those last couple of spots with [Brandon] Barnes and J.D.  [Martinez] and Laird, and there’s still enough guys in the mix. Same thing on the pitching side with the last spot in the bullpen, the last spot in the rotation. We still have our work cut out for us but we have games every day so we’ll keep after it.”

Meanwhile, relief pitcher Josh Fields, who was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in Rule 5 Draft, still has a good shot to make the club.

“It’s a little easier with a relief pitcher than it is with a position player,” Luhnow said. “We’re still optimistic we can give him a few more looks and make the right decision for the club.”

Astros close to deciding on Freiman, Fields

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said the team has gathered enough information to make a decision whether it wants to keep Rule 5 picks Nate Freiman, a first baseman, and Josh Fields, a relief pitcher, and is now debating the future of both players.

Fields, the No. 1 pick in December’s Rule 5 Draft, has a good shot to make the team considering how wide open the bullpen is. He’s appeared in eight games and has allowed seven hits, six walks and three earned runs while striking out four.

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Rule 5 pick Nate Freiman

Freiman, who didn’t play Thursday or Friday, has hit .278 with one homer and seven RBIs and is trying to make a club where the corner infield is crowded, especially with the emergence of Brandon Laird and Brett Wallace’s good spring output.

“At this point in spring, [manager Bo Porter] has done a really good job of giving everybody that’s in camp at-bats and we feel like we have a lot of information to make the decisions we need to make,” Luhnow said. “The tough part between now and next Sunday is whittling it down to the 25 guys and figuring out what our strategy is with the ones who aren’t on the 25.

“With the case of the two Rule 5 players, it’s all or nothing for the most part unless you can work out a deal. We’ve done a good job working Fields out there enough times to get a feel for where he’s at, and the same thing with Freiman. We have to make those decisions here in the week.”

The Astros could work out a trade to keep Freiman. In that case, they would place him on outright waivers and the other teams would have a chance to claim him and would subsequently have to keep him on their 25-man roster all season.

If he clears waivers, which most Rule 5 picks do, the Astros would have three days to work out a deal with the Padres or offer him back if they can’t. If the Padres take him back, they would give the Astros $25,000. If they don’t, the Astros are free to take him off the 40-man and put him in their Minor League system.

Houston worked out a trade with Cleveland in 2005 to keep Rule 5 pick Willy Taveras, who wound up finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting that season behind Ryan Howard. Luke Scott also came to Houston in that deal.

Game 26: Norris looks sharp in win over Cards

What happened: Right-hander Bud Norris threw six scoreless innings in his final Grapefruit League start of 2013, and Rick Ankiel pushed home the winning run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning against his former team to lead the Astros to a 3-2 win over the Cardinals on Friday afternoon at Osceola County Stadium (boxscore).

What we learned: RHP Bud Norris is ready for Opening Day. Norris fired 84 pitches against the Cardinals and made a few mechanical adjustments as he went along, but his next major test will come when he faces the Rangers on March 31. Norris will throw a few innings in a Minor League game on Tuesday — his last appearance before the start of the season.

“Bud was outstanding,” manager Bo Porter said. “I mentioned it the last start that his secondary stuff really started to look sharp and his slider started to have some really good depth to it. He had some great changeups today. He fell behind in the count and was able to get back in the count with his changeup. Just a tremendous job of attacking the zone, working fast. The pace was great.”

What we learned II: RHP Chia-Jen Lo may have pitched his way onto the club. The Taiwanese reliever worked a scoreless ninth inning to earn the save to continue his strong showing this spring. Lo has appeared in nine games and allowed seven hits and two runs and struck out eight batters in 8 2/3 innings (2.08 ERA).

“Lo’s done a great job,” Porter said. “It’s an explosive fastball. He has command of three pitches he can throw any time in the count and a fastball that will get back on you.”

What else: 2B Jose Altuve went 2-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored to up his spring average to .370. … Chris Carter saw time at DH and went 2-for-4 with an RBI single. … RHP Jose Veras and LHP Xavier Cedeno both made their returns from the World Baseball Classic. Veras allowed one hit and two runs in two-thirds of an inning, and Cedeno recorded one out. … RHP Jose Valdez threw a scoreless inning to lower his spring ERA to 1.93. … The Astros didn’t commit an error for the second game in a row. … LHP Erik Bedard threw 70 pitches in four innings in a Minor League game against Atlanta.

What went wrong: Veras was rusty in his first Grapefruit League action since March 1, but that’s no cause for alarm. CF Justin Maxwell (0-for-4), 1B Brandon Laird (0-for-4) and 3B Matt Dominguez (0-for-3) combined to go 0-for-11 as the Astros’ red-hot offense was cooled off by the Cardinals.

What they said: “You always think you do, but that’s their decision. I’ll just wait until they tell me and go from there.” — LHP Erik Bedard when asked if he thought he’d done enough to make the team.

What’s next: RHP Philip Humber, who earlier this week learned he had secured a spot as the No. 3 starter in the Astros rotation, will start for the Astros when they make their first trip to Disney to face the Braves at 12:05 p.m. CT on Saturday. Humber will make his Astros regular-season debut April 3 against the Rangers at Minute Maid Park.

Who’s injured: OF Fernando Martinez (back) is day-to-day. … RHP Edgar Gonzalez (leg contusion) is day-to-day.

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Astros swap coaching staffs against Cards

The Astros are swapping their coaching staffs for Friday’s game against the Cardinals, with the Major League coaching staff working a Minor League game on the back fields and the coaching staffs of the Double-A Corpus Christi, Class A Lexington and Class A Quad Cities working the Major League game against St. Louis. The Triple-A staff has been in Major League camp for most of the spring.

The idea came from manager Bo Porter, who plans to manage the Major League game against the Cardinals while bench coach Eduardo Perez, first base coach Dave Clark, third base coach Dave Trembley, hitting coach John Mallee, pitching coach Doug Brocail and bullpen coach Dennis Martinez work on the Minor League side.

“One of the biggest things in your organization is your ability to properly evaluate your own players,” Porter said. “We see this as an opportunity to allow our Minor League staff that was not in big league camp, it gives them an opportunity to come over and throw batting practice to Major League hitters, coach a Major League game, see our players, see other team’s players. When they’re now charged with doing reports, they have a recent comparable. They can say, ‘This is what a Major League third baseman looks like; this is what a Major League center fielder looks like; this is what a Major League starting pitcher looks like, this is what a Major League catcher looks like.'”

“Now, when they start to evaluate our players, they can probably write a better report or evaluate better because they’ve been able to witness it. They play games the same time we play games and they never get to witness it for their own two eyes. It was something that I talked to Eduardo and [general manager] Jeff [Luhnow] and the rest of the staff and [director of player development] Quinton McCracken and [field director] Paul Runge about, and I ran it by all of them and there were like, ‘No, it sounds like a great idea.’ I felt it was something that needed to happen at some point this spring and it made the most sense to do it today.”