Results tagged ‘ Ed Wade ’

Bourgeois or Shuck will grab final outfield spot

Unless the Astros acquire another outfielder in the next week, Jason Bourgeois or J.B. Shuck will begin the season as the fifth outfielder. Bourgeois served in that role for a time last year, and even started 11 games in center field at the end of the season when Michael Bourn went on the disabled list.

The two have emerged as the only candidates to win the final outfield spot after Brian Bogusevic was optioned to Minor League camp on Thursday. Bourgeois has certainly had a strong camp, entering Thursday hitting .314 with four stolen bases. The fact Bogusevic swings the bat from the left side was a bonus for him, but Bourgeois’ good spring couldn’t be ignored.

Shuck is somewhat of a surprise to still be at camp. A non-roster invitee, he’s a career .303 average in the Minor Leagues, but he’s only played 36 games above Double-A. He bats left-handed and can play all three outfield positions.

Astros general manager Ed Wade said the role of a bench player, such as what Bogusevic was going to be asked to play, is difficult for a young player.

“The bat-off-the-bench role is tough for a young guy to roll himself into,” Wade said. “They’re used to get 375, 400 at-bats at the Minor League level and maybe get called up and still be sharp and game ready. It becomes much more difficult when you get four or five at-bats a week at the big league level and understand what the level of preparation is associated with that.

“We’re fortunate here that we have a guy like Jason Michaels who’s done it and can help mentor younger players, if we have a young guy filling that role. We recognize it’s a tough one to fill, and we felt the right thing for us right now was to let Bogie go play and figure that one out down the road.”

When asked about Shuck in that role, Wade said: “It’s held against the same backdrop. That’s a tough job. J.B. makes a really good contact, he can bunt, he’s an above-average runner and can play all three defensive positions. He’s still in the mix.”

The decision to send Manzella to the Minors was somewhat surprising, considering he was hitting .278 this spring and is a polished defensive player. What probably worked against Manzella — last year’s Opening Day shortstop — was his lack of experience at third base and second base. 

His departure leaves four infielders — Matt Downs, Anderson Hernandez, Angel Sanchez and Oswaldo Navarro — battling for two spots. Downs might have the upper hand because he can play anywhere and has swung the bat well, but Hernandez can also be moved all over the diamond and is a switch-hitter. Sanchez is out of options and performed well last year with the Astros.

“We’ve got things to figure out,” Wade said. “One would say your big decisions are made. You’ve decided who your fifth starter is, you’ve decided who your closer it, you’ve decided this, that and the other thing. The fact of the matter is we recognize the importance of the composition of the bench and what opportunities it provides for [manager Brad Mills].

“In call candor, we’re going to be guided by what Millsie feels is appropriate with the composition of the bench because he’s the one that will look down there and make sure that,, as best we can, we’ve provided him the pieces to make effective moves late in the game.”

Options a factor a decision time

As the Astros debate their remaining roster decisions in the next few days, one of the factors that will come into play is which players are out of options. Players who are out of options and don’t make the 25-man roster must clear waivers before being sent to the Minor Leagues, so the Astros would risk losing them.

The Astros have seven players who are out of options for 2011 – right-handers Nelson Figueroa and Alberto Arias, infielders Clint Barmes, Angel Sanchez and Jeff Keppinger, catcher Humberto Quintero and left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith. Of those, only Sanchez and Rowland-Smith are battling for roster spots at this point.

“It’s certainly something we talk about,” general manager Ed Wade said. “We try to weigh all factors, including out-of-options status. Whether it’s one of the out-of-options guys or the Rule 5 players, we try to factor in everything before we make a decision.”

Sanchez, who returned to the lineup Wednesday after missing a few days with an upper back strain, is among five players competing for two backup spots on the infield. Rowland-Smith is in the hunt for a slot in the bullpen. Keppinger will start the year on the disabled list, and Arias is likely to be disabled, as well. Barmes, Figueroa and Quintero are locks to make the club.

Pitchers Lance Pendleton and Aneury Rodriguez were both taken in the Rule 5 Draft, which means they must remain on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to their former clubs. That’s assuming, the Astros can’t work out a trade to keep them. Pendleton came from the Yankees, and Rodriguez from the Rays.

Pitchers get the best of the hitters

It only took Brett Myers two pitches to saw off the bat of infielder Jimmy Paredes.

“That’s it, I’m good,” Myers yelled.

The first day of live batting practice is always an interesting one for the hitters, who are generally a few days behind the pitchers. The Astros’ batters faced live pitching for the first time Monday, which marked the third time the pitchers threw off the mound.

“Today’s always an interesting day, simply because you don’t know how many pitchers have faced any hitters this winter or recently,” manager Brad Mills said. “It’s the first time the hitters are getting to see any type of live pitching. You get to see who works quick on the mound and who doesn’t and those types of things. There’s a lot of things that need to get brushed up on a day like this because we have so many new guys.”

Catcher Jason Castro was no worse for the wear after seeing five pitches from Fernando Rodriguez.

“I felt pretty comfortable in the box actually, and I actually had some good results, but that doesn’t mean anything right now,” he said. “It’s about getting reps, and it’s good to see early on it felt pretty good.”

The Astros’ first three groups of pitchers threw to hitters, including Brett Myers, J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez.

“I was very happy with how it went, the rotations and the timing of it,” Mills said. “The first day we try to get everything down and I thought it went really well.”

Mills didn’t see all the pitchers throw, but he said he liked what he saw from Jordan Lyles, Sergio Escalona, Arecenio Leon, Myers and Happ.

“There were a lot of guys I didn’t have an opportunity to see, but it was nice to see them facing some hitters and throwing the ball well,” Mills said.

Astros general manager Ed Wade has been pleased with camp after the first six days of camp.

“I think the camp has been great with the level of enthusiasm and athleticism,” he said. “The whole tenor has been very, very positive. I think part of it flows from the staff and the attention to detail with regard to the schedule, and Millsie preaching energy to the stuff during the 8 o’clock meeting before they go on the field and interact with the players.

“It hasn’t been a case of any particular player standing out, it’s a case of the guys collectively looking like they understand why they’re here and they’re having fun in the process.”

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Above: Astros GM Ed Wade listens as manager Brad Mills addresses a group of players.

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Above: Astros aces Brett Myers, J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez warm up for live BP.

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Above: Brett Myers pitches batting practice to Jimmy Paredes.

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Above: Hunter Pence prepares to hit against teammate Brandon Lyon.

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Above: Players get conditioning work in after their morning drills.

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Above: Oklahoma City pitching coach Burt Hooton and special assistant Doug Brocail talk.

Astros full squad hits the field

The clubhouse was buzzing and full of excitement this morning as 62 players – everyone except veteran infielder Bill Hall – dressed and took the field for the first full-squad workout of Spring Training.

The players took physicals in the morning and then heard from owner Drayton McLane, general manager Ed Wade and manager Brad Mills in a quick team meeting.

“I talked to them about the opportunity we have here,” McLane said.

Wade reminded the players they have a veteran core nucleus who know what they’re responsibilities are from the standpoint of leadership, but he also told the many young players on the roster they also carry some responsibilities.

“The young guys don’t have to act like young guys,” Wade said. “They can step up and hold themselves and their teammates accountable and hold that measure of trust between themselves and their teammates and the staff and believe in themselves.”

Hall, who signed with the Astros in December, isn’t expected to be with the club until Wednesday following the birth of his child. Among the players who arrived for the first time in camp were Carlos Lee and Michael Bourn.

“It’s time to get going,” Mills said. “It’s really kind of hard to ease into those types of things because we start playing games in a week. Most of the guys are ready to go, they’ve at least been playing catch. We’re going to introduce a lot of the things and they’ll get it done. We’ll be fine.”

Here are some early-morning pictures of the players getting ready for the first full-squad workout:
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Above: Clint Barmes, Hunter Pence and Brett Wallace emerge from the clubhouse for the first full-squad workout of Spring Training.

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Above: Jason Michaels hits the field for the first full-squad workout of Spring Training.

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Above: Carlos Lee prepares to take the field for the first workout.

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Above: Brad Mills speaks briefly to the team before beginning early-morning stretch.

Wade addresses spring hot topics

Astros pitchers and catchers hit the field tomorrow for their first workout of the spring, with position players joining the fun on Sunday. I’m hopping a plane for Kissimmee today and will begin reporting on Spring Training first thing Wednesday morning. This one-man team will be reporting from Kissimmee for more days than any other Houston reporter, so check the blog and Twitter www.twitter.com/BrianMcTaggart often for updates for all the latest news.

Also, I’ll be on the Astros’ official pregame show on the flagship KTRH (740 AM) this year with Matt Thomas once a week, as well as making a weekly appearance on the the morning show of Matt Jackson and Adam Wexler on KBME (790 AM). My first segment airs at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, so be sure to listen.

Finally, Astros general manager Ed Wade recently had a question-and-answer session with media prior to his departure for Kissimmee. He addressed several hot-button topics in advance of Spring Training, and some of his responses to questions are listed below:

Q: What’s the No. 1 thing you want to see at spring training, beyond position battles and things like that?

A: “Health. It would be great if you had three layers of depth and could cover yourself if you had major breakdowns, but we need to stay healthy. We’re pressing some kids right now to step up and fill some roles that are challenging. If we have to go beyond some of those kids and dip down even further it might get a little bit tough. I think every general manager, every organization going into Tpring Training hopes that the offseason plan survives long enough to at least be implemented Opening Day. Sometimes you don’t even get to Opening Day. We saw that a year ago when Lance Berkman had the knee issue and opened on the disabled list. There’s no guarantees those things aren’t going to happen, but health plays a big part of it.”

Q: Will the sheer number of bodies in camp (63) have any impact on the way camp is run?

A: “We haven’t snuck any new guys in on, particularly Brad Arnsberg, in the last two weeks or so, so I’m sure he’s got his schedule and game plan in place. A lot of the younger players who we’re bringing in are coming in knowing they’re not going to make the club. At least we’re going to tell them they’re not going to make the club and we ask them to get used to surroundings, put their foot in the water a little bit and let the staff become familiar with them. I think everybody benefits in the process of having them there, but there’s enough of those guys we’ll be able to shuffle them around a little bit and make sure the ones we’re counting on to break with the club in April are ready to go.”

Q: Can you address the first base situation? Obviously, [Brett] Wallace is going to have to prove himself, but you have [Brian] Bogusevic and Carlos [Lee] whom you would be comfortable with.

A: “To me, the perfect-world scenario was that Brett Wallace comes in and wins the first base job and is our guy and Carlos is the everyday left fielder and we’re not worried about mixing and matching in left with Carlos at first, or trying to push Bogusevic harder to play more. I know we’re going to get Brett every opportunity to win that job, (but) a lot of things will get answered if indeed he does step up and does that.”

Q: What does winning a job entail? I know it’s sometimes tough to evaluate results in Spring Training.

A: “You can’t look at the stat sheet every day and figure out if a guy is performing at an adequate level or not. It’s the total body of work that you see in Spring Training with regard to work ethic, which is not going to be an issue. [And] adjustments, and we know Brett needs to make adjustments as every young players does. There are some adjustments he needs to make and this kid has hit everywhere, so he’s been challenged before to make adjustments. It won’t be a stat sheet. If it was based on a stat sheet, a whole bunch of us wouldn’t have to fly to Kissimmee. We’d just sit back in the office in Houston and wait for the stats to come in and put the club together that way. Millsie and the coaches are going to have huge input in this, and Millsie and I will talk several times a day and we’ll talk about these issues, whether it’s Brett Wallace or Fernando Abad. What do we do with Fernando Abad? He just went 7-1 in the Dominican, a lot of it was as a starter. What’s his role on our club? Do we put him in the bullpen? Do we roll him out and let him compete for a starting job? Those are things that we’ll have to address… .”

Q: Will Henry Villar require a similar-type discussion?

A: “Yeah, a little bit, but I just think what Fernando did this offseason, all of a sudden you’ve got to say, ‘Wow, this is pretty significant.’ Philosophically, I’m a believer – I’ve said this before — I’m a believer that if a guy shows a potential for being a starter you exhaust those possibilities. That said, there are a lot of guys who begin their big-league careers in a bullpen setting and wait their turn to come in a rotation and then step in and have very significant careers. Somebody reminded me the other day that we had this conversation a couple of years ago about Bud Norris. People had seen Bud in the Arizona Fall League and he was a one-inning guy, two-inning guy in the Arizona Fall League and ‘Man, this guy might be the back end of the bullpen guy.’ Well, back end of the bullpens can get expensive, bullpen guys are far less expensive than starting pitchers, and starting pitchers make a lot of money for a reason ’cause there aren’t very many of them around. So if we have a chance to have a couple of these guys who either break in our rotation or at some point move into our rotation it’s a lot more advantageous to the club to have them as starter versus have them as middle relievers down the road.”

Q: How comfortable are you with your bullpen depth at this point considering some of the changes that took place during the offseason?

A: “I like it. I would love to have [Matt] Lindstrom still here. We had to do some things economically and Matt was sort of a victim of that. There’s somewhat of an unknown with regard to our bullpen, but that’s okay because there are some really good arms that we’re putting into the mix there. I like what we saw out of [Mark] Melancon last year when he was up here. We just talked about guys like [Henry] Villar and Abad and Alberto Arias looks like he’s going to be healthy and capable of competing. If he can get back to pitch the way he did before he had the health issue, that’s a huge chip for us at this point. So there’s always variables in a bullpen, and I’m one of those guys who’s sort of bullpen obsessed (and) that you can never have enough quality to cover those. It used to be the eighth and ninth inning, and now it’s the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. I think we have the same type of quality and depth – albeit somewhat unknown commodities – that we’ll be able to cover those innings.”

Q: With no Lance and no old guard, what do you need or expect Hunter Pence to be?

A: “I expect Hunter to be himself. A lot of what Hunter is going to do as he evolves into a leader is going to be by example. When the truck got packed (Friday), we didn’t pack any pom-poms. We’re not expecting anybody to go down there and wave pom-poms in the clubhouse. I think it’s a case of guys showing up and showing that they belong there and exhibiting a work ethic that not only the younger guys, but their teammates look over and see what this guy is made of, what he’s all about. Whether it’s Hunter or Michael Bourn or you name the guy in the room, I think a lot of it is showing the confidence you belong there and leading by example. I think a guy like Hunter really benefitted by having an opportunity to spend time here with Darin Erstad. Darin’s been gone now for over a year, but I think his impact from the standpoint of a guy at the end of his career, the end of a tremendous career, who still suited up and played the game – whether he was playing once a week or how he played when he was playing 162 games a year – I think Hunter paid a lot of attention to that and hopefully some other guys did as well. I don’t think you have to be, and I’ve said it before, I don’t think you have to have eight, 10, 12 years of big league service to be a leader. I think it’s a matter of how you go about your business. It’s tough for extra guys to be leaders. It’s easier when you’re putting the uniform on every day to exhibit that level of leadership. Sitting watching a Penguins-Capitals game on TV, the captain of the Penguins [Sydney Crosby] is 23 years old. It’s a pretty important leadership role in that sport and their guy Crosby is 23, so if there are some young guys who could step up and do it the right way, my message is have at it. Let’s go. Go ahead and do it.”

Q: In many ways it might be semantics to some people, but you talk about Brett (Wallace) as having to win the job, but is it his not to lose or is it a different mentality from a player in keeping a job versus winning it?

A: “I think he’s got to come in saying ‘You know, they gave me two-plus months of an opportunity last year to lock this job down and I still have some ground to cover.’ I would hope guys don’t coming in saying, ‘It’s my job to lose,’ ’cause to me that’s sort of a passive way of handling it. To me, you come in and you say, ‘There’s a chance here for me to begin a very significant big-league career and I’m going to take full advantage of it every single day. I’m not going to coming in saying, boy I hope I don’t go 0-for-4 today.’ I want a guy to come in and say, ‘I’m going to get three hits today. Whether it’s the fundamental drill we do on the back field or whether it’s the five or six innings I get to play today, I’m going to put my best foot forward and then let them make the decisions.’ I don’t want guys to be passive. You’re afraid to do something you never step off and take advantage.”

Q: Your Rule 5 guys (Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton), would they be in the bullpen picture as well?

A: “Both guys at this point in time I think we’ll look at them initially form a starting standpoint because both of them have very limited bullpen experience, particularly Pendleton. So when we start talking about the bullpen and the mix and the rotation, Figgy [Nelson Figueroa] did a real nice job for us. [Ryan] Rowland-Smith, we signed him knowing he probably profiles as a starter. As I mentioned, we’ve got guys like Abad and [Jordan] Lyles coming in and he will be given every opportunity to put his best foot forward as well. We’re going to be open-minded on a lot of fronts. We’re going to be down there for a long time and hopefully we’re making really tough decisions at the end of the spring or reaching back to the Minor League camp to fill holes and going out to file a hole from the outside, which is always possible. The last 10 days of Spring Training, you can do some things with your bench and your bullpen. The key pieces have to come from the guys who show up on the 16th and the 20th.”

Q: How much do you think you know about Chris Johnson in 300-plus big-league at-bats?

A: “I know that the potential is there for him to be an outstanding big-league player. It’s a matter of adjustments. We’ve all seen a lot of young players coming to the big leagues and get off to great starts and then the advance scout makes a note in his report and it goes to the coaching staff and the next thing now the guy is seeing a different pitching selection or different location and he all of a sudden become aware – if he wasn’t already – that he’s got a weakness that’s being exploited, and the guys who continue to be successful and turn corners and the ones who close up those holes and make the adjustment.”

Q:  You talk about a younger player…he was 25 last year, 26 now. Is it different sort of scale of adjustments you hit at that age than when you’re 22?

A: “Probably. I haven’t thought about it a whole lot because I still view him in the context of the amount of big-league experience he’s got as being relatively young. There are some guys who never hit a roadblock. Most players at some point in time are going to hit a roadblock and it’s how they manage to navigate around it. Some guys do and some guys just can’t get past it, can’t make the adjustment. They can’t stay off the slider in the dirt, they can’t get their hands in to hit the fastball in. And they fall by the wayside. C.J., I thought last year got challenged late in the season and made the adjustments and made them in a very significant way. This is a guy that I wouldn’t be surprised at the end of the season to C.J. at 30-plus home runs. But it’s going to entail, how does he respond to the other teams’ Brad Arnsbergs, who are back in the laboratory cooking up the formula to really make you fail? Believe me, when you have a couple of months like Chris Johnson had, there’s a lot of pitching coaches in the lab right now. Rich Dubee’s doing it right now in Philadelphia right now, getting ready for Opening Day against, trying to figure out how to shut C. J. down.”

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.

 

 

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.

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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.

 

Astros update from Winter Meetings

With Day 3 of the Winter Meetings getting underway Wednesday, here are few interesting Astros items:

This is what we know on Wednesday morning: the Astros clearly are ready to improve their second base situation, which is why they’ve made contact with Bill Hall. The scuttlebutt is manager Brad Mills is a fan of Hall and would like to add him to the mix next year. The Astros like Jeff Keppinger, but see him more of a utility-type player.

If the Astros add a player like Hall to a lineup that already includes newcomer Clint Barmes, the Astros are suddenly more interesting. They already have enough pitching to compete in the NL Central next year if things fall into place, but adding a pair of bats to the lineup – even if they’re not Pete Rose or Manny Ramirez – will be significant.

But general manager Ed Wade said adding one or two players is not going to be key for next year, and he’s right. The key pieces that are already in place, specifically Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, will have to perform from wire to wire.

“For us to move to the next level, it’s not going to be the addition of one guy at a position,” Wade said. “It gets repetitive, but it’s got to be Lee. If Carlos and Hunter get off to the type of start they’re capable of getting off to and [Chris] Johnson continues to do what he did last year, you’ve got three guys in the lineup right here all capable of hitting 25 or more home runs in knocking in a bunch of runs.

“It’s not like we’re in a position where we have to look at ourselves as necessarily a small-ball club. But we have to be more consistent from the standpoint of performance over the next six months, more consistent game-to-game, inning-to-inning. We have to be more selective at the plate and get more guys on base.

“Adding one particular player could help because that does have a domino effect on the lineup, but at the same time everybody needs to hit their mark. It can’t be, ‘We’ll ride this guy, we’ll ride that guy.’ It has to be collective.”

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Here’s what Wade said about the pursuit of a second baseman: “Even at second base, Kepp did a good job for us last year and we knew [Angel] Sanchez can go over and play second and Millsie likes Anderson Hernandez and we re-signed him. We have alternatives. If you look at our club, we’re committed to [Jason] Castro behind the plate. The first base situation will resolve in some fashion, hopefully with [Brett] Wallace being the guy.

“At shortstop, [Clint] Barmes is our guy. C.J. is our guy [at third]. If Carlos is in left, Carlos is our guy. And [Michael] Bourn and Pence [are established]. We started talking about where do you upgrade this thing? We have to look at a couple of the infield positions and say, ‘Is there something that incrementally gives us better run production and gives us that need? That’s sort of what we’re doing right now.”

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Wade expects his team to try to make a pick in the Rule 5 Draft, which is Thursday morning in the final event of the Winter Meetings. Houston’s 40-man roster stands at 36, so there’s room to add a player.

“We’ve gone through some preliminary discussions on the Rule 5 and we’ll have more substantive conversations,” Wade said. “There’s a possibility we could take somebody in the Rule 5 Draft. Unless things change, we’re at 36 and we should have room to make a pick if the right player or players is available.”

During the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft, players left unprotected may be selected for $50,000. The selection rules provide that a player must remain on the drafting team’s active Major League roster during the following season or be offered back to the original club at half the original price. The Astros pick ninth this year.

Internally, team officials aren’t too concerned about losing any players in the Draft.

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Wade told MLB.com last month the team was going to consider putting left-hander Fernando Abad and right-hander Henry Villar in the starting rotation. Villar’s stock has risen so much that he’s considered one of the club’s top three prospects.

Jordan Lyles, another one of the team’s top prospects, is likely to come to Spring Training to compete for the fifth starter job, perhaps along with Villar and Abad. Nelson Figueroa was signed to a $900,000 contract and will be in the mix for that spot.

“I’m always willing to listen and can be persuaded, but philosophically I’m of the mind that if a guy’s got a chance to be a good starting pitcher, you exhaust that opportunity before you decide to make him a bullpen guy,” Wade said. “I’d like to run the string out with the guys we have until we know they can’t. With the way we set up right now, Abad, if healthy, and he’s healthy right now – I always says that with pitchers – that’s a pretty significant left-handed arm in our bullpen. But if he can win 11 games in our starting rotation, we’ll figure out the left-handed, right-handed stuff to deal with.”

The Astros are still on the hunt for a low-cost starting pitcher, and despite recent reports don’t have “quiet interest” in not-very-low-cost Cliff Lee. That’s just not going to happen.

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Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith has been to nearly every Winter Meetings for the past 54 years and has seen incredible changes in the event. Smith missed a Winter Meetings in the early  1960s when he was involved in the building of the Astros.

“I can’t think of any others that I may have missed,” he said.

The biggest change Smith has seen has been a lack of personal touch. General managers aren’t on the floor of the lobby as much as they used to be. Many GMs now stay in their suites and send members of their staff out to poke around about potential deals.

And technology has changed things as well.

“So much is done by cell phone or email or text message, and a lot of the personal contact has been lost,” Smith said.

 

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