The Astros finalized their field staff for the 2014 season on Tuesday, announcing Brent Strom as pitching coach, Pat Listach as first base coach, Craig Bjornson as bullpen coach and Ralph Dickenson as assistant hitting coach.
The team also announced Dave Trembley, who was third-base coach last season, will take over as bench coach, which was a position held by Eduardo Perez last year. Perez will make the move to third base coach, taking Trembley’s spot from last year.
Astros hitting coach John Mallee is returning in the same capacity as the 2013 season, which was the first year for first-year manager Bo Porter. Dan Radison, who was assistant hitting coach last year, has been named a special assignment coach.
Strom, 64, spent the last six seasons (2008-13) with the Cardinals organization, serving as the Cardinals’ Minor League pitching coordinator (2012-13) and Minor League pitching instructor (2008-11). This will be Strom’s third stint as a Major League pitching coach and his second with Houston, having been in the same position for the Astros in 1996 and for Kansas City from 2000-01.
Listach, 46, joins the Astros from the Dodgers, where he served as the organization’s Minor League infield coordinator in 2013. Prior to last season, Listach coached on the Major League staffs for the Cubs (2011-12) and Nationals (2009-10) for two years apiece.
He also has nine years of minor league coaching experience in the Cubs system from 2000-08. Listach played in six Major League seasons, which included time with the Milwaukee Brewers (1992-96) and the Astros (1997), and was named the 1992 American League Rookie of the Year. He is a resident of the Houston area.
Bjornson, 44, returns as the club’s bullpen coach, the same position he held for the Astros in 2012. He spent last season working as the organization’s roving pitching instructor. Bjornson, who is bilingual, has 15 years of coaching experience in professional baseball, mostly spent as a pitching coach. He also played three seasons of minor league baseball (1991-93), all in the Astros system.
Dickenson, 65, will take over as the assistant hitting coach after spending the 2013 season as the club’s Minor League hitting coordinator. Dickenson has been a Minor League hitting coordinator for 20 seasons (1990-92, 1995-2009, 2013) for seven different organizations. The 2014 season will be his 36th season as an instructor at the professional or collegiate level and his first on a Major League staff.
Next year will mark Trembley’s 30th season in professional baseball and his second consecutive with the Astros. He was the manager of the Orioles for parts of four seasons (2007-2010), and also spent 20 seasons as a Minor League skipper, which included managing Porter at three different levels while with the Cubs organization (1995-98).
Perez, 44, joined the Astros last year after serving as the Marlins’ hitting coach for nearly two seasons (2011-12). He has also worked as a special assistant to the baseball operations department for the Cleveland Indians, a role which included considerable time in uniform providing instruction at the Major League and Minor League levels.
Perez played parts of 13 seasons (1993-2006) in the Major Leagues with the Angels, Reds, Cardinals, Rays, Indians and Mariners. Following his playing career, he spent several seasons as a baseball analyst for ESPN, working the postseason and for Baseball Tonight.
The Astros’ move to the American League this year allowed me to cover some games in a handful of American League ballparks I hadn’t seen, including Target Field in Minnesota and Progressive Field in Cleveland. Now that I’ve covered a game in all 30 Major League parks, I decided to rank my top 15 favorites (no use ranking the bottom ones, because know which ones they are, right?).
These rankings aren’t based on fan experience or media accommodations or good press box food (hello Yankee Stadium!). They’re based on the overall atmosphere and design of the ballpark, and even the setting and surroundings. Keep in mind I’ve been to some of the ballparks dozens of times, especially those in the NL Central. But there are some, like Comerica Park and the new ballpark in Miami, that I’ve been to only once. That could skew the rankings just a bit.
Anyway, here are the rankings. Completely subjective. Feel free to post comments on the blog if you agree or disagree:
1. Wrigley Field (Chicago)
2. PNC Park (Pittsburgh)
3. Fenway Park (Boston)
4. AT&T Park (San Francisco)
5. Yankee Stadium (New York)
6. Safeco Field (Seattle)
7. Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore)
8. Petco Park (San Diego)
9. Target Field (Minnesota)
10. Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles)
11. Minute Maid Park (Houston)
12. Comerica Park (Detroit)
13. Coors Field (Colorado)
14. Citi Field (New York)
15t. Progessive Field (Cleveland)
15t. Great American Ball Park (Cincinnati)
Honorable mention: Busch Stadium (St. Louis), Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia), Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City), Nationals Park (Washington), Miller Park (Milwaukee), Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (Texas).
Astros owner Jim Crane said last week the team would be in position to increase its payroll next year, and on Tuesday he gave his first indication just how much money could be spent on players.
Crane said the Astros’ payroll, which was at about $13 million to end the season, could be between $50-60 million next year regardless whether the club is able to settle its disagreement with Comcast. The Astros contend Comcast/NBC improperly filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition in an attempt to prevent it from terminating the media rights agreement between the team and Houston Regional Sports Network.
The Astros on Monday filed a motion to dismiss an involuntary Chapter 11 filed by four Comcast affiliates against Houston Regional Sports Network, the parent company of Comcast SportsNet Houston.
“If this gets resolved, we could go a little bit deeper,” Crane said.
The Astros are encouraged by some of the young talent that hit Houston last season and are even more enthused about the prospects that are now sitting at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues and could make an impact next year. Still, the Astros will be in the market this winter for a closer, an outfielder with some pop and a veteran starting pitcher.
That means the Astros could have about $30 million to spread among three or four players, but don’t expect general manager Jeff Luhnow to make a run at any of the higher-end free agents just yet.
“I would say [the payroll] could go to $50-60 [million] very quickly, and if this gets resolved it could go higher,” Crane said. “We’re not going to make a move unless it fits into the plan, and we’re not going to rush the plan. Jeff’s got a very systematic formula and we do have some good players coming up. You add three or four key positions and bring in a couple of guys that are ready, this team is pretty competitive pretty quickly with the starting pitching we’ve got. We’re deep in pitching.”
The Astros’ pro scouts are in Kissimmee, Fla., with general manager Jeff Luhnow this week to talk through Minor League free agents, Major League free agents and players the club might take with the top pick in December’s Rule 5 Draft, as well as going through offseason planning. The meetings are being held in conjunction with the instructional league, which ends on Saturday.
“They’ve been out seeing players all year, so it’s great to get their firsthand perspective,” Luhnow said. “[Monday] we went over to watch our instructional league team beat the Braves, 12-2. [Outfielder James] Ramsey hit a three-run bomb, and [first baseman Chase] McDonald hit a bomb. We had five pitchers and couple of them were in the high 90s, and one of them [right-hander Jandel Gustave] was over 100. It was really a fun day.”
Tuesday was a camp day, which meant the Astros players remained at the team’s complex at Osceola County Stadium and got their workouts in. On Thursday, the Astros will travel to Viera, Fla, to face the Nationals.
“It’s kind of like Spring Training to a certain extent,” Luhnow said. “I think the program’s been great. They’ve been doing classwork stuff and doing a lot of good stuff. They all know what their marching orders are for the offseason. And looking at some of these kids in this environment, they’re learning the Astros way, and I’m pretty excited about the way we drafted this year.”
The Astros have agreed to hire Cardinals Minor League pitching instructor Brent Strom to be their next pitching coach, a source told MLB.com on Monday.
Strom, who had worked with the Cardinals since 2007, will be announced by the club when the deal becomes official. He replaces Doug Brocail, who last week was reassigned to become the club’s special assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow and senior pitching advisor.
A former Major League pitching coach for the Astros and Kansas City Royals, Strom was with the Nationals/Expos for five seasons from 2002-2006 as Minor League pitching coordinator before joining the Cardinals, where Luhnow was vice president of scouting and player development.
Strom, 64, was the New York Mets’ first-round selection in the 1970 First-Year Player Draft. He owns a career mark of 22-39 with a 3.95 ERA in 100 career Major League games (75 starts) for the Mets (1972), Indians (1973) and Padres (1975-77). He graduated from USC with a degree in physical education and helped the Trojans to NCAA baseball championships in both 1968 and 1970.
The Astros underwent some roster housekeeping Wednesday, adding first baseman Jonathan Singleton to the 40-man roster and outrighting right-handed pitcher Philip Humber, catchers Cody Clark and Matt Pagnozzi and infielder Brandon Laird.
The club also claimed left-handed pitcher Raul Valdes on waivers from the Phillies, bringing the 40-man roster to 38 players.
Humber, who had his option for 2014 declined, Laird and Pagnozzi can all elect free agency due to prior outrights, and Clark will become a Minor League free agent following the conclusion of the World Series.
Valdes, 35, made 17 appearances, including one start, in two stints with the Phillies last season and went 1-1 with a 7.46 ERA. He was 4-5 record with a 2.86 ERA in 14 starts at Triple-A Lehigh Valley and held Major League left-handed hitters to a .229 batting average.
Valdes has pitched in parts of four Major League seasons with the Mets (2010), Cardinals (2011), Yankees (2011) and Phillies (2012-13) and owns a 4.94 ERA in 95 appearances.
Singleton, 22, who entered last season as the club’s No. 2 prospect by MLB.com, hit a combined .230 this year in 90 Minor League games across three levels with 17 doubles, 11 homers, 44 RBIs, 59 walks and a .351 on-base percentage.
He missed the first 50 games of the season because of a suspension following his second positive drug test. He played his last 73 games with Triple A-Oklahoma City and finished by hitting .250 with 19 RBIs and 22 walks for a .400 on-base percentage in August.
Humber, who had a $3 million option for 2014, appeared in 17 games, including starts at the beginning of the year in which he went 0-7 with an 8.82 ERA. The Astros took a low-risk gamble that the former Rice University star would thrive in the city in which he played college ball, but it didn’t work out.
Humber said last week he wants to continue to pitch.
“I’ve showed flashes of being as good as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’m not hurt. I still enjoy coming to the park and I’m still relatively young . It’s one of those things that’s like, ‘Man, you walk away from it, are you going to look back and think I wish I could have kept going?’ There’s times in the past, I didn’t know if it was going to work out. It’s still fun. It beats working, you know?”
Clark, 33, appeared in 16 games for the Astros last season, making 10 starts behind the plate. Thrust into the Majors when the Astros lost back-up catchers Carlos Corporan and Max Stassi in a span of three days with concussions, Clark provided one of the year’s feel-good stories when he broke an 0-for-25 slump to start his career with a single.
Laird, 26, had two stints with Houston last season, appearing in 25 games. He had five homers and 11 RBI, and made 16 starts in what was his second season with the organization. Laird was originally claimed off waivers from the Yankees in September 2012.
Pagnozzi, 25, was acquired from Atlanta in exchange for cash considerations on Sept. 3 as the Astros were forced to add catching depth when starter Jason Castro hurt his knee. Pagnozzi appeared in nine games for Houston, making six starts.
Houston native Jackie Moore, who spent several years in the Astros organization as the manager at Triple-A Round Rock and later as Astros bench coach, said Wednesday he would like to stay in the game following his dismissal as dugout coach with the Texas Rangers.
“Baseball has been my life and I feel like I have a lot left,” Moore said. “The years I spent with the Astros were great, don’t get me wrong. I’m going to take a week off and lick my wounds and clear my head a little bit. I’m not ready to give up the game of baseball because I know I can’t stay home. I need to stay active. I know I have a great relationship with the Ryans. At this time, I’m going to sit back and think things over.”
Moore has deep Houston ties and is extremely tight with Rangers president Nolan Ryan and Astros president of business operations of Reid Ryan, who tabbed Moore to manage Round Rock. With Moore out in Arlington, could a return to the Astros organization be in the works?
“I’ve always enjoyed working with Jackie Moore,” Reid Ryan said. “I’ve known him 20 years. There is no finer baseball man or person. As far as a job with the Astros, in the end [manager] Bo Porter and [general manager] Jeff Luhnow will have the final say on the big league staff. If asked, I’d give him a good recommendation.”
Dave Trembley, the former Orioles manager who spent last season as the Astros’ third-base coach, said Wednesday he had accepted an offer to return to the coaching staff in 2014 in a role that will be announced later.
The decision comes one day after the Astros parted ways with first-base coach Dave Clark and bullpen coach Dennis Martinez and reassigned pitching coach Doug Brocail, who will be a special assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow and a senior pitching advisor.
Trembley was brought to Houston by manager Bo Porter, who played for three different Minor League teams that Trembley managed.
“I’m confident in the opportunity to show significant improvement for the 2014 season,” Trembley said. “There’s some acquisitions that are needed and I know Jeff and Bo are working on acquiring that and identifying what those needs are.
“I’m certainly excited a lot of the young players did so well at a high level of the Minor Leagues and will have an opportunity to make the club. I love working with young players. Houston is a very good baseball city, the facility is one of the best in the game and we have to start showing some improvement next year.”
Trembley, 61, spent the 2011-12 seasons as the Minor League field coordinator for the Atlanta Braves. Trembley has been in professional baseball the last 29 years, including 18 years as a Minor League manager with Pittsburgh (1987-89), San Diego (1991-93), Chicago Cubs (1994-2002) and Baltimore (2003-06).
Trembley spent three years as the manager of the Orioles, taking over in June 2007 when Sam Perlozzo was dismissed, and then he was let go midway through the 2010 season. The Orioles went 187-283 during Trembley’s tenure as manager.
Luhnow said Tuesday Eduardo Perez, who was the bench coach last season, had been offered a contract to return. Hitting coach John Mallee is coming back for 2014.
The Astros made changes to their coaching staff Tuesday, naming pitching coach Doug Brocail as a special assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow and senior pitching adviser while announcing first-base coach Dave Clark and bullpen coach Dennis Martinez would not have their contracts renewed.
“It was a tough year on the field this year at the Major League level, despite the significant progress in continuing to build our player pipeline,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “Bo and I discussed how we can improve next year and came to the conclusion that bringing in a few new and different voices would help.”
Brocail, 46, spent two full seasons as the Astros pitching coach after taking over the position on an interim basis in June of 2011. Prior to taking the Major League job, Brocail served nearly two years (2010-11) as a special assistant to the Astros general manager. Brocail had a long professional career (1986-2009), which included three stops in Houston (1995-96, 2001, 2008-09). A resident of nearby Missouri City, Texas, Brocail has been with the organization in some capacity, as a player, special assistant or coach, since 2008.
“In Doug’s new role, he will assist me in overseeing and guiding our pitchers and pitching coaches across the organization,” Luhnow said. “His experience these last three years as a Major League pitching coach combined with his many years as a player makes him ideal for this role.”
Clark, 51, spent five consecutive seasons on the Astros coaching staff, serving as the third base coach for four seasons (2009-12) and the club’s first base coach in 2013.
“The Astros thank Dave Clark for his many years of service to the organization and wish him the best going forward,” Luhnow said.
Martinez, 58, was with the Astros for the 2013 season, serving as the bullpen coach. Prior to joining the organization, Martinez worked as a pitching coach in the St. Louis Cardinals system for six seasons.
“We want our new pitching coach to be involved in selecting his bullpen coach, since they work so closely together.” Luhnow said.
The Astros shook up their coaching Tuesday, announcing pitching coach Doug Brocail would become a special assistant and the contracts of first base coach Dave Clark and bullpen coach Dennis Martinez would not be renewed.
Brocail had previously served as a special assistant following his 16-year playing career, beginning in 2010. He took over as interim pitching coach on June 14, 2011 and was later named to the position full-time.
Martinez, who won 245 games in the Major Leagues and threw a perfect game in 1991, was in his first season as the team’s bullpen coach.
Clark, who previously served as interim manager and third-base coach, moved across the diamond this year to become first-base coach when the Astros brought in Dave Trembley to be third-base coach.