July 2013

Norris excited for opportunity in Baltimore

Bud Norris, one of the few remaining players from the Astros’ previous regime, is on his way to a pennant race.

The Astros finally pulled of a deal just minutes before Wednesday’s non-waiver Trade Deadline, sending Norris to the Orioles in exchange for outfielder L.J. Hoes and another player.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” Norris told MLB.com. “I’m very thankful for Houston and the organization for everything they’ve done for me and given to me. You get drafted by them and come through the Minor League system and play here for four years. Houston’s been my home for a long time. It will be hard to leave a lot of it behind me, but as I look forward I’m excited to play in Baltimore. They’ve got a great city and a great, young team. They play together and play very hard. I’m excited to go to postseason and make a run at something.”

Norris, 28, is 6-9 with a 3.93 ERA in 21 starts for the Astros, but was scratched from his scheduled start Tuesday in Baltimore, only adding to speculation a trade was in the works. At a $3 million annual salary, Norris was the Astros’ highest-paid player and is under club control for two more years beyond 2013.

Norris, the longest current tenured member of the team, has seen more than 12 trades in the last few years, with many teammates leaving Houston for greener pastures. The list includes Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman, Michael Bourn, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Chris Johnson, J.A. Happ and Brandon Lyon.

“I really wanted to get an opportunity play in the postseason,” he said. “You play in the big leagues to go out there to win to be the best you can be. It’s been a tough stretch the last four years in Houston and I’ve seen a lot of people get traded from them. I’ve prepared for it and I’m really excited for the opportunity to pitch in Baltimore.”

The trade punches a huge hole in the Astros’ rotation, but they have some arms coming in the Minor Leagues. Jarred Cosart, one of their top pitching prospects, made his debut earlier this month and more young arms could follow.

With Norris off the books, the Astros’ highest-paid player is veteran left-hander Erik Bedard, who’s making $1.15 million. The only other player making more than $1 million is relief pitcher Wesley Wright at $1.025 million.

The Astros traded closer Jose Veras to the Tigers on Monday in chance for outfield prospect Danry Vasquez and a player to be named later. Vasquez was the No. 4-ranked prospect in the Tigers system and was sent to Class A Quad Cities.

Bedard scratched from Wednesday start

The Astros scratched left-hander Erik Bedard from his scheduled start Wednesday night against the Orioles and will instead send rookie lefty Brett Oberholtzer to the mound.

Bedard, who’s on the trading block, hasn’t yet been dealt, though it remains a possibility. On Tuesday, the Astros scratched right-handed Bud Norris from his scheduled outing against the Orioles while working on possible trades.

As of 1 p.m. CT – two hours before the Trade Deadline – Norris had not been traded.

Sources told MLB.com on Tuesday three teams were hard after Norris, including the Orioles, who are in contention in the American League East.

Bedard would have made his third start in Baltimore since he left the Orioles after 2007. He went 0-5 in five starts in July, but posted a respectable 3.86 ERA in that span. He’s pitched at least five innings in eight straight starts.

Norris says next 24 hours will be ‘pretty interesting’

Bud Norris, his heading swirling full of emotions about 24 hours prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, told reporters Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore he remains committed to the Astros, but wouldn’t mind getting a chance to play for a contender.

Norris got a call earlier that morning from manager Bo Porter, informing him he wasn’t going to get the ball in the series opener against the Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He wasn’t traded, but the Astros wanted to sit him out as a precaution.

“They scratched me for a lot of reasons,” he said. “So it’s a little unfortunate. I wanted to go out there and pitch, but I understand there’s a lot of stuff flying around me. I’m here to support my teammates tonight and just go out and see what happens. I just have to be prepared for both ends of it. You could stay, you could go. So I’ve been concentrating on pitching here, and that’s what I’ve done for the last four years and it hasn’t changed yet, so that’s the way my focus is going to be. It’s out of my hands.”

Even as he repeatedly checked his phone in the clubhouse, Norris found time to escape the rumor mill by playing cards with teammates – the same teammates who stood behind him and jokingly read a fake report from the television that he had been traded.

Norris wouldn’t handicap whether he would be with the Astros in a day.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to put any numbers on it. Everybody speculates where I could go and stuff like that. It’s out of my hands. It’s the GM and the front office, and I just want to play baseball for wherever I am and right now. I’m still an Astro and that’s where my focus is.

Norris, the longest current tenured member of the team, has seen more than 12 trades in the last few years, with many teammates leaving Houston for greener pastures. He admits he can’t help but wonder what it would be like to pitch for a contender.

“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s why you play the game, is to compete and go out and win. We’ve been through it the last couple of years here, but to see 10-plus players I’ve seen [traded] in my four years is pretty crazy and I know now that maybe I’m the next piece…

“Like I said, I just want what’s best for me and my family and my future, and I’m very thankful for the Astros and everything they gave me. If they decide otherwise, I understand the reasons behind it and I still wish them well. I have to be a little selfish and take care of myself.”

Norris admitted the last few days have been nerve-wracking.

“And exciting at the same time,” he said. “My emotions are here and there and everywhere. I’m glad I had an off day [Monday] to give me time to relax and rest up. The next 24 hours will be pretty interesting.”

Norris scratched as three teams pursue him

The Astros scratched Bud Norris from his scheduled start Tuesday night against the Orioles and will instead send Lucas Harrell to the mound.

Norris, who’s on the trading block, has yet been dealt and was expected to be at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in an Astros uniform later in the day. The Astros are pulling him from the game as a precaution in advance of Wednesday’s 3 p.m. CT Trade Deadline.

A source told MLB.com on Tuesday three teams were hard after Norris, including the Orioles, who are in contention in the American League East, but no deal is imminent.

Norris, 28, is 6-9 with a 3.93 ERA in 21 starts and is on pace to throw 200 innings for the first time in his career. He certainly could help plug a hole in the rotation of a contending team and the Astros are still trying to acquire as many prospects as they can.

Zeid: ‘My dream is about to come true.’

Josh Zeid heard Jose Veras had been traded on Monday morning and his mind began to wander who would fill the vacant roster spot. Could he be called up next? If not, who’s it going to be? The relief pitcher couldn’t help but play general manager in his mind.

“You never want to do someone else’s job, so you go about your everyday business,” Zeid said.

About an hour and a half later, while lying on the floor watching television, Zeid got a call from Tony DeFrancesco, the manager at Triple-A Oklahoma City. DeFrancesco told him to pack his bags for Baltimore to join the Astros. He finally got the call.

“You think it’s a prank call,” he said. “Is the really happening for me? You hang up the phone call and you take a deep breath and go ‘Oh my goodness, my dream is about to come true.'”

Zeid, 26, has gone 4-1 with 13 saves and a 3.50 ERA in 43 relief appearances for the RedHawks, serving as closer since June 15 and going 13-for-14 in save chances. He’s struck out 53 batters in 43 2/3 innings pitched and allowed a .231 opponents’ batting average.

He could make his Major League debut Tuesday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards when the Astros play the Orioles. His parents, Ira and Karen, began driving to Baltimore from their home in New Haven, Conn., at 5 a.m. Tuesday so they could see their son play.

“My dad’s birthday was recently, so I called my dad and said, ‘Hey, I know I didn’t get you any presents, but happy birthday!’” Zeid said. “’Yeah, you’re going to drive to Baltimore tomorrow.'”

Zeid’s promotion came two years to the day he was acquired by the Astros, along with Jarred Cosart, Domingo Santana and Jonathan Singleton, from the Phillies in exchange for Hunter Pence in a trade that could pay huge dividends for Houston. Cosart made his Major League debut earlier this month, and Singleton shouldn’t be far behind.

Since he got the call, Zeid’s phone has buzzing with an activity of text message and phone calls.

“I’m getting messages from numbers that aren’t stored in my phone from people saying, ‘I’ve been following you your whole career. Congratulations, you deserve it.,'” he said. “It makes you feel like you belong, like you deserve it and everything you’re working for is for a good cause. It’s rewarding. I couldn’t be any happier. The last 20 years of playing baseball has been so worth it.”

While he was making his way to Baltimore on Monday, Zeid just hoped he could help stabilize the rotation.

“I walked many more guys than I would have liked to down in the Triple-A level,” he said. “I think just getting a lot more focus on the bullpen, working with guys who have a lot of experience up there. Any experience at all is going to benefit me a great ton. I hope to get the opportunity to go out there and pitch and do well. Just throw up zeroes and hand the ball to whoever comes after me.”

Now that Zeid can call Houston home, he can join his new wife, Stephanie, who’s a doctor of neuropsychology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“We kind of wanted to make our home in area where there were great hospitals and facilities for her to work at, and it made it easier for me to work, especially on a Minor League salary,” Zeid said. “I could go and work out in the winter and it wouldn’t cost me anything. You don’t have to pay to work out at Minute Maid Park. If I had to work out anywhere else, I’d have to pay a couple of thousand bucks a winter. The relocation was just as much to benefit me as it was to benefit her.”

Now, they’re both living a dream.

Astros acquire outfielder for Veras

The Astros have acquired outfielder Danry Vasquez and a player to be named later from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for right-handed pitcher Jose Veras.

Vasquez, 19, has spent the 2013 season at Class A West Michigan where he has hit .281 (105-for-374) with 16 doubles, five triples, five homers and 39 RBIs in 96 games. He is currently ranked by MLB.com as the Tigers’ No. 4 prospect and will report to Class A Quad Cities.

“There was some significant interest in Veras,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “Obviously, he’s been successful in the bullpen and we’re going to miss him. Really, I felt like this was an opportunity to improve our organization as a whole for a player who can help a playoff-contending team.

“I really like the player we got back. I’ve been following him since he was an international free agent, and he’s at the A ball level and you plug him into Quad Cities with [Rio] Ruiz, [Carlos] Correa and the pitchers there, it’s a pretty formidable group there and pretty exciting. He’s young and has a tremendous upside. He has the potential to be hit in the middle of the lineup.”

Veras signed with the Astros during the off-season and went 0-4 with a 2.93 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 2013. He recorded 19 saves in 22 opportunities, including 11 in a row. The trade leaves the Astros with a huge void at closer in a bullpen that was already struggling to protect leads.

“There’s an opportunity in our bullpen for guys to step and take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself,” Luhnow said. “We’ll see. You can never tell how someone is going to react in the ninth inning until they’re in that situation. There are guys who have the ability to do it. They’ll have an opportunity for sure.”

With the trade deadline coming Wednesday, the Astros could still deal starting pitcher Bud Norris, but nothing is imminent.

“There’s nothing close at this point, but we still have two and a half days to go and still a lot of activity could happen, even though nothing’s close,” Luhnow said.

Norris could be facing final few days with Astros

The Astros play their second to last game before the Trade Deadline when they meet the Blue Jays on Sunday. The team is off on Monday before opening a series in Baltimore, where right-handed Bud Norris will get the ball in the series opener. Norris remains the center of trade talks and could be dealt prior to Tuesday or in the hours before Wednesday afternoon’s deadline.

Norris is 0-2 with an 8.47 ERA in his last three starts, and manager Bo Porter spoke to him last week about the importance of worrying about pitching and ignoring any rumors. Porter thinks Norris is in a better frame of mind now.

“I explained this Bud in several conversations in which we’ve had as it relates to this whole trade rumor: the best thing you can do is go out and play,” Porter said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, Bud Norris doesn’t have a crystal ball. None of us are psychic. We can’t predict what’s going to happen. Is there a probability? Yes, because he’s a commodity in which other people would like to have, but at the same time he’s a commodity for us as well.

“Like I said to him, just go out and pitch and don’t worry about what the next day is going to bring and whether you’re going to be here or someplace else. Let the decision-makers that are making those decisions be able to be allowed them to make the decisions and you control the portion of this that’s in your hands, which is your performance.”

Relief pitcher Jose Veras could also be moved prior to Wednesday, and Porter acknowledged there’s a chance some deals could be made.

“When you have players other teams are interested in, you’re bouncing a bunch of things off the wall,” Porter said. “Obviously, I’m here on the field with the day to day, so I’m not privileged to all the many conversation in which they’re having, but [general manager] Jeff [Luhnow] and I are in communication in relations to the different teams that are interested in our players.”

Astros option Clemens, call up lefty Oberholtzer

After watching him give up six runs in the seventh inning Friday without recording an out, the Astros optioned right-handed pitcher Paul Clemens to Triple-A Oklahoma City on Saturday morning and called up left-hander Brett Oberholtzer.

Clemens was rocked for six runs and four hits, including two home runs, in one-third of an inning in Houston’s 12-6 loss to the Jays, who scored eight runs in the seventh. Clemens, 25, was 4-4 with a 6.36 ERA in 30 games with the Astros, allowing 52 hits in 46 2/3 innings.

This will be the third stint in the Majors this year for Oberholtzer, who is 6-6 with a 4.37 ERA in 16 starts for the RedHawks. He’s pitched 7 1/3 innings for the Astros year, allowing 11 hits and six runs. Both Oberholtzer and outfielder Robbie Grossman, who was called up after Friday’s game when J.D. Martinez went on the disabled list, were expected to be in Toronto for Saturday’s 12:07 p.m. CT game.

Houston’s bullpen has allowed at least one run in 10 consecutive games (since July 13), posting an 8.01 ERA in that span, and has given away several late leads.

Cosart excited for Minute Maid Park debut

Getting a chance to finally make his Major League debut against Tampa Bay 10 days ago was certainly a big moment in the life of Astros right-hander Jarred Cosart, but Tuesday’s game at Minute Maid Park against the A’s figures to be right up there, too.

Cosart, who grew up in the Houston area and cheered for the Astros, will make his first home start Tuesday when he faces Oakland in front of what should be a sizable cheering section for him. Cosart said he’s leaving 75 tickets for family, but plenty of friends are buying their own. The A’s are 10-0 against the Astros this year.

“It’s been a crazy week, and to top it off making my first home start, it’s going to be something I’ll never forget,” he said. “I’ll have to put the nerves aside and try to do too much. Just go out there and try to pitch like I know I’m capable of.”

In his Major League debut on July 12, Cosart threw eight scoreless innings and held the Rays to two hits in a 2-1 win over David Price, the reigning Cy Young Award winner. It was arguably the greatest debut by an Astros starting pitcher.

“I kind of set myself up with the debut in Tampa, but the biggest thing is to go out there and give my team a chance to win and try and get a quality start and keep us in the game,” Cosart said. “I know there will probably be more nerves at home than there was on the road. I’ve grown up here my whole life and I’ll have tons of people in the stands.”

He added: “I couldn’t have asked for any better way to come out of the gate. They were one of the hottest teams in baseball. … To go out there and have an outing like I did, it was a very special time. Like I said before, that’s in the past and now I have to focus on the A’s, who are on fire. I know the Astros haven’t beaten them this year and that will be another challenge.”

When asked what he learned about pitching in the Major Leagues in his first start in Tampa, Cosart said getting ahead with a first-pitch strike is key.

“I got behind to a couple of hitters and they hit the ball a lot harder when they were behind in the count,” he said. “It starts with fastball command, whether you throw 95 or 88. If you can command the fastball, you’ll have a lot better day. I have to throw a lot better offspeed pitches for strikes. In the Minor Leagues, you can get by with the fastball and I don’t think that’s possible in the big leagues. They’ll start timing it up, whether it’s 88 or 100. I think the biggest thing is being able to mix up pitches, change eye levels. It starts, especially for me, with fastball command.”

Cosart has eyed this moment from the time the Astros acquired him and three other prospects from the Phillies in exchange for Hunter Pence two years ago.

“It’s been a grind for me,” Cosart said. “I’ve had injuries earlier in my career that I couldn’t control. I’ve been blessed I haven’t had any major surgeries, but getting there is a feat in itself. I want to say [in the big leagues] and I don’t want to be another guy. I don’t want to go up and down and I know in order to do that, I’m going to have to pitch.

“I want to go up there and do what I did the first start, attacking the zone, change speeds and get my team back in the dugout as quickly as possible. I want to establish myself as hopefully a No. 1 starter. I want to be somebody when they put the ball in our hands every fifth day, you have a shot to not only win the game, but to dominate the game. That’s what I want to do throughout my career and hopefully I finish the year strong and establish myself for next year in Spring Training.”

Astros take next step in rebuilding, sign Altuve

The Astros announced Saturday they had signed popular second baseman Jose Altuve to a four-year contract extension with a pair of option years, marking the team’s first significant contract commitment under general manager Jeff Luhnow. The deal was first reported by MLB.com.

The extension begins in 2014 and runs through the 2017 season and provides the club with options for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Additional terms were not disclosed, but Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reported the deal is worth $12.5 million for four years with two club options for $6 million and $6.5 million.

“Jose values security and we value Jose, and it starts with that,” Luhnow said. “He’s done a terrific job for us ever since getting called up from Double-A two years ago, and he’s been a consistent force in our lineup. He just knows how to hit and he’s a good defender at second base, and when you get a player like that who can add value, not only when he’s at the plate but on the base paths, but also when he’s out there at second base, those are the types of guys we feel we need to have and have long-term. Removing some of the uncertainty for him and for us at this point makes sense.”

The Astros are essentially buying out Altuve’s three arbitration years (though 2017) and doing it in a relatively cost-friendly manner for the team.

Luhnow spent most of his first year on the job trading away players who were in the midst of multi-year contracts in exchange for prospects as the Astros went full-bore in their plan to rebuild through the Draft and player development.  The Astros opened this year with a payroll of about $22 million, with Bud Norris ($3 million) as the highest-paid player.

The Altuve deal, which has been in the work for a couple of weeks with talks intensifying in the last few days, means the club is taking the next step in its rebuilding process by locking up some young players it feels will be building blocks for the future. All-Star catcher Jason Castro could fit that mold.

“This won’t be the last time we tie up one of our young players,” Luhnow said. “In this case, it made a lot of sense, both in terms of timing and length of deal and so forth, but it’s something we’re going to look at.

“We’re going to have a lot of exciting young talent coming through our system and to the big leagues and once we feel there’s enough certainty on our side that the player is going to be around and be able to contribute at the level we need him to for the long haul, we’re going to try to get deals done. It eliminates some of the back-and-forth that goes on year in and year out with arbitration and gives the player some security and gives us some certainly know the player is going to be there for us.”

Altuve, 23, was promoted from Double-A Corpus Christi in 2011 after the Astros traded Jeff Keppinger and plugged into the starting lineup. He batted .284 with three homers and 28 RBIs in 85 games as a rookie before a breakout season in 2012, when he hit .290 with seven homers, 37 RBIs and 33 steals en route to an All-Star Game berth.

He is hitting .280 with three homers, 28 RBIs and 21 stolen bases through 86 games this season.

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