Sunday, December 25, 2005

We signed a bunch of players to minor league deals before Christmas, none of whom should have much of an impact next year:

Steve Sparks is a 40-year-old knuckleballer who hasn't been in the majors in a while. Didn't we learn our lesson with Jared Fernandez?

David Borkowski had a 4.34 ERA in a full season of Triple A last season. Meh.

Eric Munson and Mike Lamb are nearly identical players: lefty hit-or-miss "power" batters.

Kevin Orie had a very good season in Triple A last year (.352/.466/.630 in 349 AB), but probably won't have a spot on the bench.

Danny Klassen, who was with Round Rock last season, batted .319/.375/.532 in 342 AB. I think he can play other infield positions, so he might be an option as our 25th man.

So, two worthless starters and three third basemen. We're gonna need something more, Timmy.

Meanwhile, Brett Tomko signed with the Dodgers for two years and $8.7 million. Yikes. That is a little more than I'm willing to pay for a fifth starter. Yes, he's durable and eats innings, but come one… $8.7 million? I just hope Timmy at least inquired about him.

Jason Johnson was close to signing with the Indians on a one-year deal, but it looks like it's not finalized. If we could snag him for a good price, it's worth it for a one-year deal.

Jeff Weaver's still out there. Not much talk about him, but I'm sure he'll get $40 million from somebody. If Jarrod Washburn gets $37.5 from the Mariners...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

We tendered contracts to all our arbitration-eligible players, including Raul Chavez. Everyone else (Ensberg, Lidge, Everett, Wheeler) was a no-brainer. Chavez could have been released, but instead we gave him $400,000. Hey, it's not my money. Humberto Quintero underwent wrist surgery a few days ago, which will keep him out about six weeks. I guess we want Q to spend another year in AAA.

Jack and I said right after the World Series that this team must upgrade offensively at shortop or catcher. With Ausmus sticking around the next two years, we're left with the shortstop question. I wonder if the Orioles would consider trading Tejada for Lane, Lidge and Nieve. They'd get an everyday outfielder with 30-homer potential, a proven closer and a top prospect. We'd get Tejada for $48 million over the next four years, a bargain.

Tejada is definitely one of the most valuable players in the game. He plays terrific defense and is a tremendous middle-of-the-lineup hitter. It would suck to give up Lane and Lidge, but I think it would be worth it. Besides, trading Lane would open up more playing time for Burke and Scott in left field. Lidge is a damn good closer, but with his health risks, we'd be smart to trade him while his value is high. Qualls and Wheeler would have first dibs at the closing vacancy, or we could pursue a free agent, say, Ugueth Urbina to help us out.

Monday, December 19, 2005

No Nomar, which isn't the end of the world.

Surprisingly enough, I don't think there are any free agent hitters I'd like to sign at this point. There are no worthwhile shortstops out there, and that's our only position in need of an offensive upgrade. At this point, I don't think we could improve our Opening Day lineup of: Taveras, Biggio, Berkman, Ensberg, Bagwell, Lane, Everett, Ausmus. I don't think it's necessary to sign a 1B/LF type hitter, because he wouldn't come close to playing full-time. Even if Bagwell gets hurt, someone between Scott, Burke and Lamb is bound to have a decent year as a back-up. Plus, Purpura can always make a midseason trade for Dunn, Lugo, Huff etc. And at that point, we'll have more of an idea where Bagwell's shoulder is.

On the other hand, Purpura needs to be looking at free agent starters. There are plenty of decent pitchers out there, and that's all we'd need — someone decent. Someone like Brett Tomko or Jason Johnson, who is at least established as someone you can count on for six innings and a sub-5.00 ERA. Hopefully. With Only Oswalt, Pettitte and Backe (and probably Zeke) penciled in our rotation, we need a 3rd or 4th starter. I wouldn't mind signing a multi-year deal either.

I'm pretty sure we've been saying the same things over and over since October.

Friday, December 16, 2005

I guess it's time I gave my opinion on the Brad Ausmus signing. Forget all the numbers for a moment. Well, every number but one: 37. That's how old Ausmus will be one week into the 2006 season. Off the top of your head, how many catchers can you think of that were still productive at that age? Carlton Fisk......oops. That's it. So what does that tell you? CATCHERS DON'T AGE WELL. Yap all you want to about how Ausmus is great defensively, or 'calls a good game', or has great rapport with the umpires. I can quote stat after stat about how bad Ausmus is offensively. Let's call the two even. But the one thing neither side can deny is we just gave 7.5 million to a 37 year old catcher. And that is simply stupid.

Supposedly we're one of the finalists for the Nomar sweepstakes. Generally speaking, I think this is a good thing - Nomar is coming off a down year (and he still put up a 772 OPS when he played), so he won't break the bank, and all reports have him looking for a 1 year deal (for around 6-8 million), which is fine by me. However, I would much prefer seeing Nomar at SS than at LF. A Luke Scott / Chris Burke platoon (and that assumes Berkman would be at 1B because Bagwell can't play) could certainly put up a 750 OPS for a lot cheaper than Nomar will cost. However, Nomar would be a big upgrade at SS over Adam Everett. I don't think we should just move Everett, though - Nomar will definitely need the occasional day off. Everett would make a great defensive replacement and pinch-runner, too.

Oh yeah, Rondell White. I actually like him a lot - unfortunately, I just don't see where we can play him. Lance Berkman and Jason Lane aren't going anywhere - if Bagwell can throw, he'll be at 1B (occasionally spelled by Berkman / Lamb), and if he can't...well, then we could sign White, but we just don't know. White has played in some tough pitcher's parks throughout his career (his road OPS is a solid 842) and he's consistently hit lefties well (888 OPS). And from what I've seen of him, he looks to be a pretty dead pull hitter. He'd like that short LF porch. I think he could help the Astros - but where do we put him? So much is resting on Bagwell's shoulder. I think we have to assume he'll be the Astros starting 1B in '06 until we hear otherwise.

Jon Garland for 2 pitching prospects, eh? Andy weighed in on this earlier, so I'll keep it short: I'd be interested, as long as we don't have to sell the farm. Garland had a great year; part of that was the incredible White Sox defense, though. Podsednik, Crede, Uribe, and Rowand are all well above-average defensively. I think Garland might regress a little bit next year simply because his last year was so much better than his previous career stats. However, he is still very young, and his most comparable player at his age was Brad Radke, which sounds good to me. He'll make at least 5 million in arbitration this year, though, so it would be a moderately expensive one year rental. Still, we're going to need another starter from somewhere. And I can only recommend Jason Johnson so many times.
Well, we're still waiting for Nomar to make a decision, and it won't happen 'til at least this weekend. There's a rumor floating around that the Astros will trade two pitching prospects for Jon Garland of the White Sox.

After trading for Javier Vazquez, the White Sox have a plethora of pitchers — Beurhle, Contreras, Garcia, Garland and Brandon McCarthy, who they'd like to work into the rotation full-time. Contreras and Garland will be free agents after 2006, so they will most likely deal one of them.

Garland was incredibly good for the Sox last year, posting career highs in ERA (3.50), WHIP (1.17), wins (18), IP (221) , strikeouts (115) and shutouts (3). He came out of the gates on fire, winning his first eight starts and 12 of his first 14. He faded a bit in August, but picked it back up in September and got some deserved Cy Young votes.

Garland's superb sinker makes him an extreme ground-ball pitcher; his career ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is 1.33. He is still prone to giving up the long ball (26 is '05, 34 in '04), and still doesn't strike anybody out: His K-rate has declined in each of the past four years. He definitely benefited from having a superb infield behind him to gobble up ground balls. Garland's control really clicked last year. He walked only 47 batters in 221 innings. That 1.91 BB/9 rate was well below his career 3.35 mark. The big question is, can he keep it up? Was 2005 a fluke, or the new norm? Will he fall back down to Earth, or will he keep improving?

One thing you can count on: He'll likely stay healthy. You can't say enough about a guy who's started 131 games the past four years. And he'll obviously benefit from moving to the NL. Plus, he'll have Brad Ausmus, who's from Dartmouth, so he has his PhD: Pitcher-Helping Degree. More like Puny-Hitting Degree.

In short, Garland would be a very good improvement for us, especially now that Clemens is somewhat out of the picture. I think we could expect Garland to post another 3.50 ERA if he comes to Houston. The problems are: 1) We'd only have him for one year, 2) He'll probably make $6-$7 million in arbitration, and 3) We'd have to trade a couple of top prospects to get him.

So is it worth it to trade away two of: Wandy/Zeke/Nieve/Hirsh/Buchholz/Patton for one year of Garland? It depends on who we give up, but this might not be such a bad move. It's always risky to trade away top prospects, but as Jack has quoted, "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect." Or something like that. The point is, you just never know with young pitchers.

The point is, a rotation of Oswalt/Pettitte/Garland/Backe/Zeke would be great, and, if everyone stays healthy, could be among the best in baseball. Garland could never replace Clemens, but if we improve the team offensively, he may not have to. With Bagwell back and Lane, Taveras and Burke all improving, we might have enough bats to complement our fantastic rotation.

If this trade is indeed on the table, I urge Purpura to pursue it. Try to sell the Sox on Buchholz and Wandy, but try to get the deal done at any price. It's never good to make a move just for the sake of making a move, but it's getting damn near that point. Purp, you gota do something!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The more I think about Rondell White, the less I like him. We already have Berkman, Lane, Taveras, Palmeiro, Burke and Scott (whose status on the ML team should be all but cemented). Berkman and Burke will play occasionally in the infield, but those six are a very good outfield as it stands. White would significantly decrease playing time for Scott and Burke, and his potential talent isn't much of an upgrade.

Jack recommends we try Burke at shortstop: I really support this idea. Burke may have a breakout year in '06: I think it's important to find ABs for him.

The big question is: What will we do with Adam Everett? I've heard his name in trade rumors (to the Braves, of all teams … won't happen now that they have Renteria … ) Can you think of a team who would even consider him at short? Maybe the Mets, since they're always trying to catch up on defense. Maybe some suckers like the Royals or Twins. I'm sure the Red Sox would love to have him back, but only as a late-inning defensive replacement which, unfortunately for him, is where I see his career heading.) Defense is great — and vital for his position — but one must be able to hit to stay in the league, and AE has not shown ability to succeed in this endeavor.

If we trade him, I hope we have another playe who could fill in at short, someone besides Burke and Bruntlett. I would support Timmy if he signed Nomar with the intention of trading AE for a reliever or decent minor league starter. That way, Nomar, Burke or Bruntlett could all play short, and Ausmus would be the only "hole" in our lineup. Check this out:

CF Taveras - SS Burke - LF Berkman - 3B Ensberg - 1B Bagwell - RF Lane - 2B Biggio - C Ausmus. Or:

CF Taveras - 2B Biggio - LF Berkman - 3B Ensberg - SS Nomar - 1B Bagwell - RF Lane - C Ausmus.

If we somehow eliminate AE from our lineup, the Ausmus deal suddenly looks less horrific.

It has come to my attention that Jason LaRue, who's a free agent after 2006, will not be in an Astros uniform anytime soon. This sucks … I was hoping we'd get him for the second half of his peak years.

Oh, Nomar…

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ron-DL White visited with the Astros in Houston a couple days ago. His career parallels Austin Kearns': Very good when healthy, but somehow manages to miss 50 games a year. His career .815 OPS would be a great addition to our offensively-challenged club, but Rondell has averaged 115 games a year since becoming a regular for Montreal in 1995.

Plus, I can't see how we can sign a big-name free agent (even as big as Rondell White). With Bagwell at first, we'd have nowhere to put him. Bagwell's not going to take a seat for anyone while he's healthy, so it's not worth it to commit money to a first baseman or an outfielder if we can't find him at-bats.

The problem we've had for the last four years is the absolute black hole at the bottom of our lineup. Everyone says we need to add another bat, but Rondell White or Adam Dunn or Brian Giles would not have changed Ausmus-Everett-pitcher as our 7-8-9 hitters. Taveras, Biggio, Berkman, Ensberg, Bagwell and Lane make a very good lineup. Acquiring Rondell White or even Dunn would replace one of these hitters, not Everett or Ausmus.

Which is why we should sign Nomar. He's willing to play anywhere, but I think he can still play short. It's been over six months since he tore his groin, so that should be all nice and healed by now. Sure, he wouldn't be a fantastic defender, but he'd make up for it with the bat. And if Garner's smart, he'd play Everett for Pettitte's starts.

From what I've heard and read, we are still talking with him. I think I saw the Yankees offer him $4 million for one year, which is ridiculous. Get 'im, Tim!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Isn't it a bit silly the way team reporters skew stats and words to try and make everything sound good? Some excerpts from Jim Molony's article on the Ausmus and Lamb signings (and my expert analysis):

"[Ausmus] led all NL catchers in the second half with 55 hits." (He was good in the second half, but by no means the best catcher in the NL.)

"Ausmus [is] the only Gold Glove catcher in Astros franchise history … He is also the Houston franchise leader in games caught with 914." (So what? Games Played is not a significant stat. As for the Gold Gloves, they're nice, but I'd rather see some doubles.)

"Over 13 big-league seasons … Ausmus has hit .255 with 71 homers and 508 RBIs. (Yes, but he's 37 already, and can only get worse. He's never posted double digits in homers, and has no more than six in one season for the Astros. His career high in RBI is 54.)

"[Lamb has] been one of the Astros' best clutch hitters." (Lamb actually surprised me here: He put up a .912 OPS w/RISP. But molony never mentions his sub-.300 OBP.)

"He played in 125 games and started at five different positions…' (Molony includes DH as a "position." And is playing 125 games a good thing? with lamb's defense, absolutely not!)

"Lamb hit a career-high five triples and recorded 13 doubles. he walked 22 times while striking out 65 times in 322 at-bats." (Again, I don't know if Molony's trying to inspire confidence with these numbers. Walking 22 times in 322 ABS? And who cares about the triples? Urg.)

You see my point. I know these guys are more PR people than actual journalists, but come on! Show a little analytical thought: these guys are not good at the plate.
The bad news was inevitable: We re-signed Brad Ausmus. But it gets worse: We're giving him $7.5 million for two years. Forget the money (which is enormous) — the fact that we'll have a 39-year-old catcher in 2007 is not good news. To his credit, he performed admirably last season, putting up very good numbers for an old, "defense-oriented" catcher. He managed to have good at-bats and work walks while the rest of our team (Taveras, Lane) couldn't take a walk if their lives depended on it. Still, the man cannot hit for power. And at 38 at 39, no one's expecting a sudden surge. He may work wonders with Pettitte and Oswalt, and he may bring Clemens back … in May. But I wish we wouldn't have signed him, though everyone knew we would.

Ever optimistic, I saved the good news for last. has us bidding for Nomar, but as a left-fielder. Nomar, who has said that he's willing to switch positions for a contender, would be a great signing for us. He could play shortstop in place of Everett, or he could play left field if/when Bagwell gets hurt. This guy can still swing the bat, and he'd put up great numbers in the Juicebox. Purpura needs to sign Nomar, not just for the offense he'd bring us, but to show everyone that he can make a good acquisition. It would make up for the Palmeiro, Lamb and Ausmus debacles. I'd even overpay Nomar and give him $16 million over two years. We must get something done this offseason.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Jon Daniels, the Rangers' new GM, acquired Vicente Padilla from the Phillies for a PTBN, who most likely will be Ricardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a young reliever who might be good someday but probably won't. Padilla, as Jack and I have said before, has the talent to put up very good numbers. He'll make $4 to $5 million in arbitration, and he might only pitch half a season, but he's the type of player who can win games under the radar. He'll never have impressive stats, but he'll give the team a chance to win whenever he pitches. Yes, the Rangers are going to eat their hats if Padilla's arm falls off. But at least they're doing something. Standing pat won't work.

I've heard rumors of as Astros blockbuster. Everyone has Lidge being traded away for a slugger. I think we need to hold onto Lidge for at least another year. He won't cost more than $4 million, and his arm is not going to fall off next year (Eventually... maybe.) But a proven closer is always nice to have. I think Qualls or Wheeler would be okay in that role, but I wouldn't like to see Russ Springer pitching important eighth innings. Anyway, Lidge is a great commodity for $3 to $4 million. Trade him next offseason.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I'm not sure how I missed it, but there is an intersting article in the Chronicle about the Astros' offseason plans. Some notable quotes:

The Astros, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, have also had talks with the Texas Rangers about acquiring left fielder Kevin Mench, who would fill the club's desire for a righthanded bat.

Why do we need a righty bat? Lane, Biggio, Ensberg, Taveras, Everett, Bagwell, and Ausmus not enough for you? We need a LEFTY bat to pair with Berkman.

"That was a nice commitment on (owner) Drayton's (McLane) part to lock up a guy who's been a nice part of our ballclub and a key contributor and is great with young players and a great role model," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. "He fits with our mold pretty well."

It seems like Purpura mentions character and being a "great role model" a little too often. Ok, fine, he's a nice guy. But can he play? Note that I'm not criticizing the move, though I'm not that fond of it, but it's strange to justify it by mentioning how well he "fits with our mold".

The Astros also appear to be close to reaching a two-year contract agreement with free-agent catcher Brad Ausmus. Purpura said a deal could be worked out in the "next several days."

"We keep narrowing the gap, and everybody's working together," he said.

Kill me now. A two year deal?? Do you enjoy causing me misery? WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?? Fine, we have no good catching prospects. Trade for someone! Sign someone next year! Anything but two more crappy years of no-power, overrated-defense, "he calls a game well", 37-year old Brad Ausmus. Piss poor.

Purpura said free-agent pitchers Jarrod Washburn and Scott Elarton, who will become a free agent if he declines the Cleveland Indians' arbitration offer, could be of interest.

Washburn is a lefty fly-ball pitcher (career 0.74 GB/FB ratio, 0.97 last year.) He also only struck out 94 batters in 177.2 IP. He would get destroyed by the Crawford Boxes. DESTROYED. But what about Andy Pettitte, you say? Pettitte is a severe ground ball pitcher (1.73 career, 1.62 last year). He makes Adam Everett look really good (maybe the other way around, I guess). He can succeed at The Juice Box. I don't think Washburn can. Oh, and he's a Scott Boras guy, so expect him to command top dollar. It damn well shouldn't be from us.

Elarton is a little more interesting. He had a decent year last year:

4.61 ERA
1.30 WHIP
48 BB
103 K
181.2 IP

Unfortunately, he's also a fly-ball pitcher (0.67 GB/FB ratio last year, 0.79 career), and he's given up 65 HR's the last two years. I think he'd give up a lot of Crawford shots. Pass.

And as for my dark horse, Jason Johnson? Well:

210.0 IP
49 BB
93 K
4.54 ERA
1.74 GB / FB ratio (1.24 career)

First off, he's durable - at least 190.0 IP the last 3 years.
Second, he doesn't walk anybody anymore - from 80 walks to 60 to 49 the last three years.
Unfortunately, he doesn't strike out anybody anymore either - 118 K's to 125 to 93.
But he's redeemed himself by becoming a groundball machine. Ready for this?


Notice a trend? Those are Johnson's GB / FB ratios the last 7 years. I don't know how he's done it, but he's improved his ratio every year, and you have to assume he can keep it up. And with our infield defense (especially if we keep Everett), we can turn a lot of those ground balls into outs. Johnson is 32 years old, so we shouldn't give him a huge deal - he signed a 2 year / 7 million dollar deal with the Tigers 2 years ago - I'd be happy to give him 2 / 8 or 2 / 9. I've said it before, and I'll say it again:


Finally, there is a really cool article over at The Hardball Times which looks at pitchers' home run rates and predicts starting pitchers who are likely to significantly slump or improve next year due to unusually large increases this past year. A few pitchers of interest:

Most Likely to Regress Next Year:

7. Roger Clemens, -9
12. Roy Oswalt, -7

Most Likely to Improve Next Year:

1. Javier Vazquez, 12
10. Ezequiel Astacio, 8

So this chart is telling us that given a pitcher's career HR rate and IP last year, we would have expected Clemens and Oswalt to have given up 9 and 7 more HR's last year and Vazquez and Astacio to have given up 12 and 8 fewer HR's last year. Yet another reason why I would love to pursue Vazquez and why Astacio will end up being much better than Wandy Rodriguez.
There are quite a few Brad Lidge trade rumors going around right now.

Check out this post at Astros Daily where they ask people to guess the blockbuster trade the Astros will make this offseason - it's pretty fun. Most of them are involve us trading Lidge + prospects for either Miggy, Manny, Abreu, or Adam Dunn.

First of all: do I think we will trade Brad Lidge? Actually, I think it's fairly likely. The organization has proven in the past that we don't mind trading away closers (see Wagner, Dotel) in order to bring in prospects (Astacio, Bucholz in the Wagner deal) or superstars (Beltran in the Dotel deal). This is a great mindset to have, since closers pitch around 80 innings a year at most and are simply not as valuable as a starting pitcher or everyday player.

Of those four possibilites, I'd be most interested in trading for (drum roll) Adam Dunn. Tejada fills a bigger hole for us, Manny is a Top 5 offensive player in MLB, and Abreu would be a sweet homecoming, but they're all freakin' expensive and on the wrong side of 30. Dunn, on the other hand, is only moderately expensive (4.6 mil last year, will probably want a raise to around 7/8/9 million this year), is from Houston, and (best of all) just turned 26. Oh, and he has a career line of .248 / .383 / .518. And did I mention he's 26 years old?

The Reds, as always, need pitching - I would do something like Backe + Lidge or Astacio + Lidge or Nieve + Lidge in a heartbeat.

Oh, and just in case you were interested, Adam Dunn's two most similar players through age 25? Darryl Strawberry and Reggie Jackson.

Brad Lidge's? Ken Tatum and Mariano Rivera. Ok, Rivera is pretty good.

You might not know Lidge is about to turn 29, and he still has some injury concerns. Dunn has no such concerns, and actually has an above-average Range Factor in LF. I admit that I have a bit of a baseball crush on Adam Dunn, but, one more time:

Age: 26
Career line: .248 / .383 / .518, 158 HR

Ignore the .248 and focus on the 901 career OPS. Yum.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Matthew Reed pointed out that the Ramon Hernandez signing is now official: 4 years, 27.5 million from the Orioles. I guess they'll be trying to move Javy Lopez or maybe mix him in at DH / 1B? Either way, this is a good signing for the O's, though it would be a lot better if it were something like 3 years / 21 million. That extra year for a catcher who will be 33 is dangerous. Hernandez has hit in pitcher's parks his entire career (Oakland, San Diego), has truly good defensive statistics (as opposed to the unprovable 'he handles a staff well' Ausmus nonsense), and has been durable (and hit well after his wrist injury last year). I probably would have given Hernandez this exact same contract for the Astros if I knew that he would take it. It looks like we may have to sre-sign Ausmus - who else is there?

Ever since the Rangers traded Alfonso Soriano to the Nationals for Brad Wilkerson, Termel Sledge, and a PTBNL (which is an absolute steal, because Soriano has sucked away from Texas, is poor defensively, and is expensive), there have been rumors regarding their outfielders. As of right now, they have Kevin Mench, Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge (yep, two r's), David Dellucci, Laynce Nix, and Gary Matthews Jr. They're going to trade a few of those guys, and it looks like Kevin Mench is drawing a lot of interest from teams, including the Astros.

Let's take a look at Mench's career stats:

Home: .286 / .356 / .505, 92 XBH, 72 BB
Away: .256 / .310 / .461, 79 XBH, 52 BB

Those away numbers aren't quite as attractice, are they? I don't mean to say Mench isn't a decent player - he'll be 28 to start the '06 season, and still has one more year of arbitration, so he won't break the bank. But he is partly a product of his home field.

I'd be more interested in Brad Wilkerson or Terrmel Sledge, for different reasons:

Wilkerson is a walkin' fool. 89, 104, and 84 walks the last three years. He has a career .365 OBP (and with Biggio, Lane, and Taveras in the line-up, we need some OBP from somebody), and a career 817 OPS. He's bettre defensively than Mench (he's played games in CF). It looks like he had a down year last year because he only had 11 home runs, but he had 42 doubles and 9 tripled in a huge home park, and part of that was due to an ugly 2nd half. Oh, and he even hits lefties well (career .837 OPS). The only bad news about Wilkerson is he earned 3.5 million last year compared to Mench's 345,000. He's worth it if he keeps drawing 80 walks a year, though. Just make him stop running (45 SB, 38 CS).

Ah, Terrmel Sledge. He's basically a poor man's Jacque Jones with more patience and less defense. He only got 37 AB's in the majors last year but he had a solid year in '04: (.269 / .336 / .462, 41 XBH, 40 BB in 398 AB). He's 28, just like Mench and Wilkerson. He rips on righties (career 832 OPS) and is still 2 years away from arbitration. He can't hit lefties but he and Chris Burke would make a kick-ass platoon in LF. Unfortunately, it might take Burke to get Sledge.

I'd rank them like this:

1. Sledge (cheap for at least 2 more years, poor man's Jacque Jones)
2. Wilkerson (tons of walks, the most expensive)
3. Mench (cheap for 1 more year, not that great away from Texas)

Keep talking to people, Purpura!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Astros news:

The Astros sign OP to a 2 year / 1.9 million deal. Meh. I don't much care for it. Yeah, Palmeiro is all right - he plays solid defense, works counts, and has put up OBP's of .336, .344, and .341 the last three years, which aren't terrible for a bench playear (though he has no power). But he's also 37 and we gave him a two year deal? Where does that leave Luke Scott? It's not a terrible signing, but if we give Ausmus this exact same deal I'll be pissed.

Astros rumors:

Taveras + ?to the D-Backs for Javier Vazquez

Scott Barzilla is fighting the good fight on the Astros Daily message boards for this trade. Go check them out if you want more info. Here's my take:

Taveras is a young CF who is likely to improve, but he just put up a .666 OPS with 25 walks and 20 extra base hits in 592 AB's. He has value since he's cheap and plays good defense and steals bases at a decent clip, but he's not that great.

Javier Vazquez has demanded a trade from the D-Backs, and he's set to make 15 million over the next 2 years. His numbers don't look that great (4.91 ERA with the Yankees last year, 4.42 ERA with the D-Backs this year), but he's pitched in some tough parks and his BB / K ratio (a great indicator of future success) is superb. He is a bit of a flyball pitcher, so he'll give up his share of HR's at Minute Maid, but the guy is only 29 years old, extremely durable, and has a career BB/ K ratio of almost 3.5. If we did this trade without throwing in too much else, I would like it quite a bit. A front three of Oswalt / Pettitte / Vazquez would be really nice.

There have been rumors that a few teams have been interested in Adam Everett, but we've told them forget it. WHY??? At least listen to what they're offering!!

Miguel Tejada wants out of Baltimore. I don't think they're going to trade him, but if he wants out, look into it. He's making 48 million the next 4 years but he'd be a huge upgrade over Everett at SS. I don't see it though.

More later, gotta run.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The first truly good move by Tim Purpura:

Astros declined to offer arbitration to infielder Jose Vizcaino.
We're surprised the Astros couldn't work anything out with Vizcaino, who had been with the club the last five years. He'll land a reserve job elsewhere. The Astros said they haven't decided whether to offer arbitration to Brad Ausmus or Orlando Palmeiro. Negotations are ongoing. -Rotoworld

This just in:

Mark Sweeney has agreed to a two-year, $1.8 million contract with the Giants, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.The Giants could platoon Sweeney and Lance Niekro at first base and get pretty reasonable production, but they'll probably keep looking for another left-handed-hitting first baseman, allowing Sweeney to be used primarily as a pinch-hitter. Sweeney hit .294/.395/.466 in 221 AB for the Padres last season.

And there goes another guy that I would have liked to have signed. 2 year / 1.8 million for a guy that has put up .377 and .395 OBP's the last two years. By contrast, Mike Lamb has put .356 and .284 OBP's the last two years for a similar salary. Hell, offer Sweeney the same contract but remind him that Jeff Bagwell is going to need plenty of time off, so he'll start more here! Gah.
Let's get right to the Astros moves for today.

Non-Move 1:

Braves acquired RHP Lance Cormier and RHP Oscar Villarreal from the Diamondbacks catchers Johnny Estrada. Cormier and Villarreal were about the last relievers we would have selected from the Arizona pen, but the Braves deserve some benefit of the doubt in cases like these. Cormier, 25, had a 5.11 ERA in 79 1/3 IP last season. His offspeed pitches are pretty good, but he only works at 90-91 mph and he doesn't have great command. He's just a middle reliever. Villarreal had a very promising rookie season as a 21-year-old in 2003, but after pitching 98 innings in one start and 85 relief appearances, he started suffering from arm problems and he's failed to contribute the last two seasons. He's already arbitration eligible, making him expendable in Arizona. We're not especially optimistic that he'll ever bounce back. - Rotoworld

So the Diamondbacks traded two mediocre young relievers (one of whom has been hurt the last two years) to the Braves for Johnny Estrada?? There goes a 29-year old catcher who had a .828 OPS in '04 who we could have had for cheap for the next several years. Hell, if the Braves took those guys, I guarantee they would have taken Dan Wheeler or Wandy Rodriguez + Mike Burns or some deal along those lines. What a disappointment. I never heard that we were even interested in Estrada. I just don't get it.

Move 2:

ESPNews is reporting that the Astros have told Roger Clemens they won't offer him arbitration.This rules out the possibility of him rejoining the Astros before May 1. Clemens is said to be leaning toward retirement, but he still wants to pitch for the U.S. in the WBC. Perhaps this opens the door for Clemens to join the Yankees, Rangers or Red Sox on a one-year deal or maybe he'll re-sign with the Astros later on. The Astros now become much bigger players in free agency and trade talks. - Rotoworld

I understand you don't want to offer Clemens a huge one-year contract, have him accept it, and then he gets hurt or decides he's going to retire. But couldn't we just offer him something like 1 year / 10 million (he's worth that in ticket sales / advertisements alone) and if Clemens rejects it then at least we get a draft pick if he decides to sign with another team. Moving on without Clemens? Fine. Not getting at least a draft pick for him if he goes elsewhere? Stupid.

A possible silver lining is that we use the money from the Clemens deal and get in on signing Ramon Hernandez. Too bad he's a Scott Boras client, so we'll probably have to go to at least 3 years / 24 million. I'd do that or possibly a bit more, though - we have NO good catching prospects, and Hernandez has had 3 good years in a row.

I'll talk about some of the other moves later (Juan Pierre to the Cubs, Mark Loretta to the Red Sox, etc.), but for now let's se some action, Purpura. Looks like you have a little more leeway now. Oh, and Austin Kearns is probably off the trade block now since Sean Casey is going to the Pirates (so the Reds will likely move Adam Dunn to 1st base).

Go Tim go!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

There are a lot of Winter Meeting rumors out there right now. It sure if fun talking about them, but they're ultimately just rumors. Case in point - I said it looked like the Cardinals had Burnett signed, but now it looks like it's the Blue Jays for 5/55. 102 million combined on B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett? At least they both have two-initial first names.

The D-Backs have supposedly shown interest in Brad Ausmus, to which I say: YES!! The more teams that show interest in him, the higher his price goes, and the less likely it becomes that we sign him. Or maybe we give him a 2 year / 7 million dollar deal and I cry. Either way.

Other players that might be available in trades that I'd be interested in: Bobby Abreu, Austin Kearns, Jason LaRue, Johnny Estrada. I'd especially like to give Kearns a try - he had a rough year last year, but he's a 25 year old with a career .821 OPS.

Players that the Astros could trade that either I wouldn't mind trading or their current trade value is at its peak: Brandon Backe, Dan Wheeler, Adam Everett, Wandy Rodriguez.

Backe picks it up in the playoffs, but as Scott Barzilla as pointed out, ALL his rate stats are below league average. He simply cannot be a decent pitcher with his current walk rate and K rate.

Dan Wheeler's trade value could not possibly be any higher. He has to come back to Earth eventually.

Adam Everett is overrated - his counting stats (11 HR, 54 RBI) obscure his .654 OPS. Good defense, but we can do better.

Wandy Rodriguez is actually in similar to Jeriome Robertson from a few years back - superficially good record (10-10 as a #5 starter) despite an ugly ERA (5.53, 1.46 WHIP). Deal him.

Backe for Austin Kearns and Dan Wheeler for Estrada - you can do it, Purpura!

Monday, December 05, 2005

One of the main misconceptions with Moneyball is that it's all about on-base percentage (OBP). In fact, the main idea presented in the book was the idea that the best way to have success in baseball is to take advantages of qualities that the market undervalues. At the time that the Oakland A's were putting a mini-dynasty together, those qualities were on-base percentage. However, they've adapted. Last year they were 14th in the majors in OBP, yet they still won 88 games despite injuries to Bobby Crosby, Rich Harden, and Octavio Dotel. How? It's too general to say "pitching and defense", but that's in part how they did it: with a pitching staff built to not allow home runss and a truly outstanding defense to take care of anything put in play (they finished 2nd in baseball in Defensive Efficiency, behind the White Sox.)

Why am I talking about this? Well, what is undervalued in the baseball market these days? OBP? Nah. Defense? Maybe. Starting pitching? Never. I do like what the Cardinals have done, though - assemble one ace and back him up with a bunch of guys that can give you 4.00 to 4.50 ERAs. I still think a guy like Jason Johnson could do that for us. But truthfully, so far this offseason, very little is being undervalued. In fact, of all the signings made so far, I would have made exactly one (Brian Giles, 3 years, 30 million.) It looks like A.J. Burnett (career 3.73 ERA) is about to get 5 years / 50 million from the Cards. It seems like all the big-name free agents are getting huge deals, and even some mediocre players (Hector Carrasco, Kyle Farnsworth, etc.) are getting fairly big deals. What to do?

If I'm Tim Purpura, I don't make any big moves. Sign a 4th OF if you like, (Matt Lawton, Rondell White if he's healthy, Todd Hollandsworth, Mark Sweeney) in case Bagwell can't play and Berkman has to move to 1st. Don't re-sign Viz, Ausmus, or Palmeiro - let Chris Burke and Luke Scott be the backup OF's if you don't sign anyone. Bruntlett can take over Viz's utility spot. And only sign Ausmus if Clemens gives you an absolute ultimatum that he won't come back without him. Look to make trades (the Braves supposedly offered Johnny Estrada to the D-Rays for Julio Lugo. Show interest in Estrada! The Phillies might be looking to move Jason Michaels...etc.) Small, smart moves, and at least look into possible trades.

I'm doing a presentation on baseball statistics (a.k.a 'Sabermetrics') in my statistical theory class on Wednesday. I'm going to talk about how it got started (if you're interested, check out 'The Numbers Game' by Alan Schwarz), how I got into it, and new developments recently. It should be fun.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Astros news:

Houston re-signed Russ Springer for 2006. I've read he's making $750,000, but it hasn't been confirmed. Springer was better than advertised last year. His 4.73 ERA wasn't pretty, but a 1.19 WHIP and 54 strikeouts in 59 innings sure is. He's 37, so let's not expect any miracles. The price is decent, although we could have saved half a million by calling up a rookie like Hirsh or Nieve. Still, it might be in our best interest to keep those two in the minors for another year.

Luke Scott is Barry Bonds' cousin. He's batting .439 / .536 / .930 in 57 at-bats in Venezuela. And he's playing centerfield. Intersting…

The D-Backs have an interest acquiring Brad Ausmus. Whatever. If anything, this is good news. It might drive his price out of our range.

Other intersting trades and signings:

• Giles re-signs with San Diego. I didn't think we had much of a shot at him. We'd have trouble playing Lane, Berkman, Bagwell and Giles, and we couldn't afford him. But props to a guy who takes a significant pay cut to play where he wants to.

• Hector Carrasco to the Angels for two years, $6 million. It's looking like Pual Byrd has a 3-year, $20 million offer on the table from some mystery team. I can tell you who it isn't: the Astros.

• Tom Gordon to the Phillies for 3 years, $18 million. He's a lot cheaper than Billy the Kid, although three years to a 38-year-old is about as secure as asking a little old lady to watch your stuff while you go break a twenty.

• Kyle Farnsworth to the Yankees for 3 years, $17 million. This for a guy who put up a 4.72 ERA in 2004 (Not to mention his two fantastic innings in NLDS Game Four)? Pass.

• Tim Worrell back to the Giants for 2 years, $4 million. Not

• Luis Castillo to the Twins for prospects. One, Travis Bowyer, is decent. Ninety-six strikeouts in 74 innings decent. He might close soon. Castillo will help the Twins, but unless Morneau and Hunter return to form and the Twinkies find another pitcher besides Santana, it won't be enough

• Manny, Abreu, LoDuca, Benson, Soriano, Pavano, Bradley, Blalock, Pierre and Jason Michaels are staying put. For now.

• Millwood, Burnett, Byrd, The Big Hurt, Nomar, Hoffman, Morris, Molina and Hernandez are still available...

This, from Baseball Insider:

"Houston's rising salary structure has prompted Purpura to explore trades rather than free-agent signings as a possible way to upgrade the Astros' offense. Baseball sources told the Astros have expressed interest in Texas outfielder Kevin Mench and Philadelphia's Jason Michaels, but backed off when the Rangers and Phillies asked for starter Brandon Backe in return. Houston would be more receptive to trading pitchers Ezequiel Astacio or Wandy Rodriguez for a hitter.

The Astros are working to retain backup outfielder Orlando Palmeiro and catcher Brad Ausmus, who has a choice of returning to Houston or signing with San Diego."

This is all good news. Not great, but good. It's good to see that Purpura is looking into available players, trying to cash in on second-tier players for bargain deals. But given our status and roster, I wouldn't give up Backe for Michaels, though it'd be tough to say no. Palmeiro would be fine as a fifth oufielder again, so long as he doesn't block Luke Scott. The more I read about him, the more I like Luke Scott. I like saying Luke Scott.

The Reds are still noncommital on LaRue. What could it take to snatch him? A pitching prospect, perhaps? Maybe Dunn and LaRue for Lane, Burke and Nieve? Looks like an even trade to me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The White Sox signed Paul Konerko today: 5 years / 60 million. Konerko is not really a great player, but he's been healthy so his RBI totals look nice. He's not really a 12 million / year kind of player, but he's popular in Chicago and there weren't any other great options available. This almost certainly means the end of Frank Thomas as a White Sox. If you have some spare time, check out his career stats. Don't let your jaw hit the floor, particulary his '94 year. He is a 1st ball Hall of Famer. Anyway, a reasonable move for the White Sox to make. 60 million is a lot of money but I'd rather spend it on Konerko than on a guy like B.J. Ryan.

Speaking of 1st baseman, a topic that I haven't really addressed is the Astros' need for a 1st baseman. Obviously this comes down to whether or not Jeff Bagwell can play in '06, but I'm willing to bet we won't know for sure if he can play the field until near spring training, and by then most of the decent 1B's out there will be come. We don't need a guy like Konerko or Delgado, but a solid backup who could definitely start and do fine would fit the bill. In other words, someone better than Mike Lamb, who has his uses but I think is much better suited as an off-the-bench bat than starting 50/100 games at 1B. Let's take a look at what's out there, keeping in mind that whoever we sign needs to able to start if (when?) Bagwell gets hurt or needs time off (and we should give him and Biggio extra time off, hopefully):

Kevin Millar - hasn't hit at all away from Fenway. Pass.

Erubiel Durazo - I like it. Was injured last year, so he might have fallen off the radar a bit, but check out his OPS the 3 years before: 944, 804, 919. He's played in the NL, so he can field at 1B. He's older than you think (30), and he made 4.7 million this year, but he'd probably be willing to sign a deal with incentives - maybe a base salary of 2 million with a chance to get up to 6 million if he does well?

Travis Lee - actually not as bad as you think. A not-terrible OPS (757 last year, 751 career) and what is generally acknowledged as one the best gloves in the game. Think the anti-Lamb (some patience, little power, great glove). Worth 1 year / 1 million (he made 1.3 million last year).

Eduardo Perez - I think he had a bit of a career year last year, and he can't hit righties. He and Lamb would make an interesting platoon if Bagwell got hurt, though.

Olmedo Saenz - Too old, and he doesn't really do it for me.

Mark Sweeney - He's always been a pinch-hitting specialist, but he's been solid the last two years. Thumbs up.

J.T. Snow - Nah.

Frank Thomas - can't field.

I like Durazo, Sweeney, Perez, and Lee the best, in that order. Durazo in particular would fit in just fine if Bagwell went down - think Berkman / Ensberg / Lane / Durazo. Not bad. Gotta run.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

From the Chronicle:

The Astros have started exchanging offers with their own free agents, including catcher Brad Ausmus, who along with free-agent pitcher Roger Clemens are among the Astros' biggest priorities this offseason.
Ausmus, who will turn 37 in April, hit .258 with three home runs and 47 RBIs in his fifth consecutive season as the club's regular starting catcher.
"We talked a couple of times on numbers, and we certainly don't have an insurmountable gap between us," Ausmus said.

Ick. I know, I know, I've said it before, but re-signing a 37-year old catcher with no power and a declining arm? The silver lining, I suppose, is that he might convince Clemens to come back, but even if we get both Ausmus + Clemens, I hope we at least play Quintero more often (maybe twice a week?) Even then, an Ausmus / Quintero platoon has an excellent chance of giving us the worst offense in baseball at the position. And I've read that Ausmus wants a multi-year deal. Please, please, please, for the love of God, NO.

Another great Scott Barzilla article is up at Astros Daily. This one talks about the Astros plans for 2nd base this coming year. Scott gets right to the point:

Craig Biggio is the Astros second baseman in 2006 and will be for as long as he wants to be.

This is absolutely true. And he certainly looks like he will want to be at least until he gets to 3,000 hits (probably early 2007). Having Biggio as our starting 2nd baseman is not a bad thing by itself, but he's blocking our top offensive prospect Chris Burke, who struggled early last year, but came back to hit .270 / .335 / .446 in the 2nd half, while Biggio really struggled in the 2nd half. The best solution, in my opinion, would be to give Biggo more time off early in the year so he doesn't collapse in the 2nd half. This is easy to do - just give Burke a start or two a week. Find him some playing time elsewhere (LF, maybe SS) also, and we should be able to get him to 300/400 AB's easy. Just don't let him rot.

Winter meetings start on Dec. 5, I believe, so hopefully there will be some moves to write about pretty soon.

Monday, November 28, 2005

More crazy signings the last few days:

B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays, 5 years / 47 million
Billy Wagner, Mets, 4 years / 43 million

Look, I don't care how good your closer is, he's only going to pitch 70-90 innings a year. And a combined 90 million is a goddamn lot to spend on that. Wagner's elbow could explode. Ryan could fall back to earth. I just don't know. I hope we don't give Brad Lidge anything close to these deals eventually. I'd rather trade him.

Esteban Loaiza, A's, 3 years / 21 million

An interesting move for the A's - I've read that they would now like to move Barry Zito and get some kick-ass prospects in return. If so, wouldn't it be fitting if next year was the year they finally won a playoff series - without the Original Big 3 (Hudson, Zito, Mulder)? I'm a big fan of Billy Beane's (surprise, surprise, a stats grad student likes the Moneyball GM), particularly his willingness to trade anybody to keep his team competitive every year with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. To be fair, this signing does cost the A's their 1st round draft pick, but with closers getting 40 million, signing Loaizia to 7m / year seems ok to me. His road stats away from RFK were iffy last year, but the A's play in a pretty good pitcher's park also (huge foul territory, good defensive CF in Kotsay, lotsa room in the OF), so he should be ok.

Kenji Johjima, Mariners, 3 years / 16.5 million

This is an old one that I missed. Big thumbs up to the Mariners. I think Johjima has by far the best upside of the FA catchers, including Ramon Hernandez and Bengie Molina. He is 30 years old, but he should be solid. His numbers in Japan have been ridiculous, but Baseball Prospectus did a little research and his translated stats still look excellent (around .280 / .360 / .450 or so, with good defense).

The Astros haven't done much at all; I'm starting to get nervous that Clemens + Ausmus will do to us this year what Beltran did to us last year. Andy and I talked about the Astros a lot on our 16 hour drive back to Texas so he could start his new job (today was his first day), and my main point was this:

Tim Purpura needs to make a move that shows me something. It doesn't have to be a huge move. I like the fact that he has confidence in our prospects (Taveras, Lane, Astacio, Scott, Burke, etc.), but so far his only notable new Astro signings have been John Franco and Turk Wendell. You don't need to sign Garciaparra to a huge deal, Tim, but some small moves (signing Chris Hammond to a short deal, trading for Estrada, signing Jacque Jones) would go a long way to me thinking of you as a top GM.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Wow - a lot of big-name moves recently. Let's talk about them:

Phillies get:
Aaron Rowand
2 pitching prospects

White Sox get:
Jim Thome

I really like this trade for the Phillies. They desperately needed to unload Thome and his massive contract (he's still due a ton of money - maybe 60 million over the next 4 years or so?) so they could play Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard, and in exchange for getting rid of their millstone, they pick up an excellent defensive CF in Aaron Rowand who struggled offensively this year but is only 28 years old. Oh, and he's not making much money. The two pitching prospects are just a bonus for the Phillies. Great move for them.

I don't understand this trade for the White Sox. Does it signal that they won't be re-signing Konerko? Because Jim Thome and Frank Thomas would be the most expensive DH platoon ever. Maybe they'll be trading Thomas? I don't know. Strange move. And a lot hinges on whether Thome can get back to his '01-'04 form.

Mets get:
Carlos Delgado

Marlins get:
Mike Jacobs
Yusmeiro Petit

And the Marlins start their 3rd fire sale in the last 8 years or so. Delgado is due a bunch of money over the next 3 (or is it 2?) years, but the Mets need a 1B. The Marlins pick up an excellent pitching prosepct in Petit; it just seems strange that they would become sellers right now. I thought they had an excellent team last year, but instead it looks like they're going to trade Beckett / Lowell / Delgado, and start re-building again. Weird.

As for the Mets, they're still looking to sign a catcher (probably Molina) and I've heard they might trade for Soriano, so they're not done yet. A middle of the order of Beltran / Delgado / David Wright / Floyd is intimidating, though.

Red Sox reportedly get:
Josh Beckett
Mike Lowell

Marlins get:
Hanley Ramirez
Anibal Sanchez
1 other pitching prospect

I don't think the Red Sox will keep Lowell; if this trade goes through I bet he gets traded again. Beckett, however, they will keep, unless his shoulder is still bothering him. He's also got blister problems, but when he's healthy, he's one of the top 10 young starting pitchers in baseball, maybe higher than that. They give up a lot to get him (Ramirez is a good shortstop prospect, and Sanchez is an excellent - though fragile - pitching prospect), but there is no such thing as a can't miss prospect and Beckett has shown he can get done when he's healthy. I like it for the Red Sox, especially if they can get something reasonably useful for Lowell when they trade him and start Kevin Youkilis at 3rd.

For the Marlins, if you're going to rebuild, you might as well go all the way, and this trade lets them move Cabrera back to 3rd and play one of their prospects in LF / RF.

That's all I have time for now, and those are the big deals. Apparently the Cubs like throwing gobs of money at slightly above-average relievers.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A neat little observation over at U.S.S. Mariner:

"One of the neat little things I’ve discovered recently that I’m shocked I didn’t know earlier is that on a team basis, runs scored are basically equal to team OPS. Seriously, it’s that simple. If you have a .750 OPS, you’ll score somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 runs. It’s not exactly 1:1 (the actual factor for 2005 was 99.2), but it’s darn close. How close? Last year, the M’s had a .703 OPS and scored 699 runs. That’s pinpoint accuracy from what should be a rough tool. And, it’s right for every team in baseball within 10 percent. The other factors besides OPS that go into run scoring (baserunning, clutch hitting, random luck) account for 10 percent variance on either side. So, this hypothetical .750 OPS team would be expected to score 750 runs, with the actual range being 675-825. We think they’ll score around 750, but we know they won’t score less than 675 or more than 825. It might seem like a big range, but dealing with realms of possibility rather than trying to predict what will happen is a much better way to get an actual view of likely outcomes."

Let's test this with the NL Central:

Cards, 805 runs, .762 OPS
Astros, 693, .730
Cubs, 703, .764
Brewers, 726, .754
Reds, 820, .785
Pirates, 680, .723

Well, it's not that close, but if you run a test for linear regression on that data, you get a correlation coefficient of 0.66. This means that 66% of the variation in team's runs scored can be 'explained' by differences in team OPS. Kinda wordy, but here's the short of it - OPS is an excellent predictor of runs scored. I admit that it's not as great a predictor as I thought (at least for the NL Central - I might run the data for all of baseball later), but it's still probably the best we have.

Kinda neat, huh? With that in mind, let's look at a projected '06 Astros lineup and my best guess at their OPS:

The No-Moves Team:

Ausmus - .650
Bagwell - .800
Biggio - .750
Everett - .700
Ensberg - . 900
Lane - .850
Taveras - .700
Berkman - .900
Pitcher - .400

Team OPS (I know this ignores the bench, but let's go with it for now): .739

I think those projections are reasonable; obviously, Bagwell is the hard one to predict, but I'm calling for Ensberg and Berkman to still be excellent, Lane to improve, and Ausmus / Everett / Taveras to all still pretty much suck.

The Trade-for-Estrada and sign Nomar-to-a-short-deal Team:

Estrada - .750
Bagwell - .800
Biggio - .750
Nomah - .800
Ensberg - .900
Lane - .850
Taveras -.700
Berkman -.900
Pitcher - .400

Mmm. We're just a trade for Estrada and a 2 year / 12 million dollar deal to Nomar away from a team OPS of .761. This might not seem like a huge difference, but it could be, particularly since our pitching cannot possibly be as good as last year's. 22 more runs Anyway, something to think about. This lineup is also much more balanced, with no Ausmus / Everett / P to kill rallies like last year.

Oh, and I don't understand why we let the Reds claim Mike Burns off waivers. That's two guys we lost this year(Todd Self and Burns) that would have helped the Astros a lot at the league minimum. Bad moves.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ensberg finished fourth in the NL MVP voting. He didn't get any first, second or third place votes, but finished ahead of Marlins Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado. Pujols won for the first time, Andruw finished second and Lee finished third. Lee had the best year statistically -- even better than Pujols, so he probably should have gotten at least second. And what the heck? Burrell, Carpenter, Giles and Jimmy Rollins finished ahead of Bay, Griffey, Berkman, Dunn, A-Ram, Utley, Abreu and Edmonds. That ain't right.

In other news, Hideki Matsui signed the first big deal of the offseason. The Yankees re-signed him to a four-year, $52 million deal. Matsui is a very good hitter, but at 31 he's only going to get worse. The Yankees definitely overpaid, and this will set the standard for other big free agents like Furcal and Giles.

I've done some more thinking on the Ausmus situation. It really wouldn't be all that bad to re-sign him for '06. Yes, he won't be a help to our offense, but how many NL teams have a productive catcher? Barrett, LaRue, LoDuca, Hernandez, Estrada, Lieberthal. That's about it. And only LaRue had a better OBP than Ausmus last year.

If we can get him for under $2 million for one year, it wouldn't break my heart. So long as Quintero gets some playing time... maybe twice a week. Plus, Clemens would be more inclined to return, and this time maybe at a discounted price (it'll have to be).

If we do re-sign Ausmus, I really hope Purpura looks long and hard at Nomar. Since the Cubs told him to get lost, his options are limited. Teams looking to acquire a shortstop are: Seattle, Minnesota, Atlanta and Arizona, and maybe Toronto, Washington and the Mets and Dodgers. Of those teams, only Toronto and the Mets have the flexibility to sign a guy of Nomar's caliber. If we get after him early, I'm sure we could work out a deal. Maybe even offer him a two- or three-year extremely incentive-laden deal. He is 32, but can still mash if he's healthy. I think he's said he'd be willing to play left field for a team if need be. (Plus, we'd still have Everett if Nomar did get hurt).

Things are getting boring... let's make some moves.
Morgan Ensberg finished 4th in the NL MVP voting. Not bad for a guy who was one of the biggest disappointments in baseball a year ago. I probably would have had him 6th (behind Lee, Pujols, Bay, Clemens, and Andruw Jones), but in any case it's a great honor for him. I don't quite see why Derrek Lee got exactly one 1st place and one 2nd place vote, since he and Pujols had nearly identical statistics, but whatever. Pujols has certainly been the 2nd best player in the National League the previous three years, and he deserves it. Good for him.

With all due respect to the "Willy T deserved Rookie of the Year!" talk, he wasn't even the best rookie on the Astros. Chad Qualls was still technically a rookie, and I'll take him and his 3.28 ERA in 79.2 IP, including an awesome 2nd half and great playoff run (besides one memorable pitch to Mr. Konerko) over Willy T's 666 OPS any day. One interesting thing I did see is that Baseball Prospectus had a short article up about Gold Glove predictions and they had Taveras as a top-5 defensive CF. That is a HUGE asset, particularly with Lane and Berkman likely to be lumbering around in the corner OF spots in '06. We can expect his offense to improve somewhat (.350 OBP? Please?), and with his speed and defense, I want Willy T as our starting CF for the next few years. Period. But he absolutely was NOT NL Rookie of the Year this year.

I really hope anyone that reads this blog has been checking out Scott Barzilla's position-by-position scouting reports for this offseason. His latest, "Scouting the Relievers", is typically excellent. I don't want to spoil it (go read it here!), but let's just say he ends up recommending a guy that I liked a lot last year and still like. Go get him, Tim!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

No News is Good News?

Andy (Andres to you guys) and I just got back from a weekend in Vegas, which was awesome (and the best). Nothing serious Astros-related happened, although Andy tells me that Luke Scott is tearing up winter ball and that Tim Purpura hasn't contacted the agents for Molina and Hernandez yet because resigning Ausmus is "our first priority". One of these pieces of news is good; the other is bad. Betcha can't guess which one!

I would really like Luke Scott as our 4th or 5th OF next year. Although he really struggled in his time in the majors this year, he still had some great AB's (anyone remember the walk he drew against Farnsworth to set up Berkman's grand slam against the Braves in the playoffs?). He's got power and patience and he's left-handed, three attributes our offense desperately needs. He's not young (I think he's 27 or 28), but he's definitely good enough to be a bench player right now, and perhaps start in the OF down the road.

Re-signing Ausmus scares the crap out of me. Ausmus had a superficially good year last year (.350 OBP!), but he's a 37 year old catcher who hasn't slugged .350 in years, is overrated defensively, and....HE IS A THIRTY-SEVEN YEAR OLD CATCHER!!! I don't want to sign him, period, but if he gets a multi-year deal we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Trade for Estrada, sign Molina, start Quintero...any of these would be better than paying a 37-year old catcher a few million for the next couple of years. Let him go, Purpura. Let him go.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Well, Willy T didn't win Rookie of the Year. His offensive stats sure didn't merit his winning the award, but his superior defense in center and his speed on the baspaths may have helped his cause. Unforunately, it wasn't enough, as Ryan Howard claimed the award, and probably rightfully so. I know voters aren't supposed to factor the postseason into their thinking, but didn't Willy's team go to the playoffs, while Howard's team watched from home? I know many Cy Young voters are swayed a little by how a pitcher's team did with regard to making the playoffs. (Example: Chris Carpenter won the NL Cy Young today, though Dontrelle Willis won more games and had a better ERA. The reason: The Cards went to the playoffs, while Florida stayed home). I'm just saying.

Anyway, Willy T exceeded my expectations in 2005. Going into the year, I didn't know if he'd stay at the major league level all year. But he bunted and hacked and chopped his way on base, and played admirably all year. Sure, his .666 OPS was second worst on the team (above only Everett's .654 OPS), but i really think Taveras has nowhere to go but up.

The problem heading into this offseason is the same problem we had all year in 2005. Our lineup is very productive from our corner positions and second base. Bagwell, Berkman, Ensberg, Biggio and Lane will form a solid core of hitters. It's our middle positions -- catcher, shortstop and centerfield -- where our weaknesses lie. And unless we upgrade offensively at these spots, we'll once again have three starters posting sub-.700 OPS for the year.

I'm not worried about Willy T. If he works hard to improve for next year, I don't think it's a stretch for him to post a .300 / .350 / .350 line as our leadoff man. That's acceptable. It's Everett and Ausmus I'm concerned with. Everett will be 29 by the time spring training rolls around, and it's an uphill battle to get back to a .260 / .320 / .380 line. If he can do that, I'd be ecstatic. One note: Everett had never played a full season at the major league level: He'd never played more than 130 games or taken more than 390 ABs in a year. He definitely dropped off in the second half: His .520 OPS in Septemeber proved that. He might be ready for a full season in 2006. But I hope he won't be starting.

Ausmus had his best year at the plate since 2000. And it will be near impossible for him to repeat it. Honestly, he looked very comfortable at the plate. His strike zone judgment was great: He actually had more walks than strikeouts! By September, Ausmus was having better at-bats than Ensberg, Biggio and Lane. He took his pitches, fouled a few off -- made the pitcher work to get him out. But he still couldn't pull the ball and more often than not ended up grounding out. His .682 OPS was much better than anyone could have hoped for, which is scary going into the offseason: We might be more inclined to re-sign him and hope that he puts up another .350 OBP in '06. He won't.

Conclusion: We cannot afford to go into the 2006 season with Taveras and Everett and Ausmus as three of our eight starters. Even if Bagwell's out and we manage to sign Brian Giles, it won't be enough to compensate for the futility of these three batters. While I expect modest improvements from Taveras and Everett (the latter only because he can't get any worse), I cannot reasonably expect Ausmus to put up another .350 OBP. Purpura needs to understand this and upgrade at least one of these positions, preferably shortstop or catcher.

At catcher, trading for Johnny Estrada or signing Ramon Hernandez would be a significant improvement. At shortstop, I don't think we should rule out Nomar. The question isn't whether or not he can still hit (he posted an .878 OPS after coming back from his injury). The question is his health, and if he can still defend adequately at shortstop. If we could give him an incetive-laced contract with a low base salary, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Other random thoughts : Why is everyone forgetting about Jason Lane? The man put up an .815 OPS for the year despite an abysmal month of May. He's only 28, and this was his first full season. He absolutely tore it up in the second half, which bodes well for his immediate future. Yes, he has a weird-looking stance, and he swings at everything, but I won't be surprised if he leads the Astros in homers next year.

Chris Burke put up a .781 OPS in the second half. I don't expect much power from him, but I do think he'll be an above-average second baseman for several years after Biggio reitres. Finding him a full-time position (Purpura has mentioned that he will give Burke some playing time at short in ST) isn't our first priority, but giving him 350 or 400 ABs sure would be nice as we groom him for an everyday role in 2007 and beyond.

The more I see of Kevin Millar, the more I like him. Yes, he's old (34) and he had a down year in '05 (.753 OPS), but his career numbers are solid and he hit a lot better in the second half. He'd be a cheap signing -- under $3 million -- and he'd be a much better backup for Bagwell than Lamb. I have a feeling he and Berkman would become best friends.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Johnny Estrada

Jack and I have decided: this is our No. 1 dream trade this offseason. Here's why:

1. With Bagwell's monster contract, it's a small upgrade we can make to improve the team. Without the flexibility to sign Giles or Nomar, we could make this seemingly subtle trade and improve quite a bit.

2. Estrada's very underrated. He's a switch-hitting catcher with power and patience. He's not really a home run hitter, but he's got gap power and can drive runs home late in the order. A career .273 / .326 / .393 line, but his career year in 2004 (.828 OPS) is still attainable in the future.

3. The Braves don't want him. They have McCann ready to start and Brayan Pena waiting in the wings. From what I've seen on Braves message boards, their fans can't wait to get rid of him (See below). Obviously management may think otherwise, but they still might try to use Estrada as trade bait.

4. He was injured nearly all of last year. He took a wicked collision from Darin Erstad in June and his back and neck never fully recovered. After a nice long offseason, he should be ready to put up numbers again.

5. He's great with runners on. His career .807 OPS with men on base would be a big boost to the team which struglled to get timely hits. Batting him behind Berkman, Ensberg, Bagwell and Lane would give him several opportunities to drive home runs.

6. Estrada, still arbitration eligible, would actually come cheaper than Ausmus, who would probably make at least $2 million. Ramon Hernandez and Bengie Molina are way out of our league. Estrada would be a clear upgrade over Ausmus offensively, and might have comparable stats to Hernandez and Molina.

7. An offensvie upgrade at catcher, in my eyes, would allow us to keep Everett with few repurcussions. Instead of a 7-8-9 of Ausmus-Everett-pitcher, which was more or less futile, Estrada would add a dangerous bat to the seventh spot. A lineup of Taveras-Biggio-Bagwell-Berkman-Ensberg-Lane-Estrada-Everett would score many more runs that last year's card.

8. He can spell his name correctly, unlike Jonny Gomes or Jhonny Peralta.

Of course, we would have to trade someone to acquire Estrada. They need bullpen help, but they're always in the market for good young arms. I wouldn't mind parting with Dan Wheeler, who had something of a career year. Chad Qualls is ready to assume the head setup role, and we could fins snother solid bullpen contributor via free agency. I'd also be willing to give away a prospect such as Nieve, Buchholz or Hirsh, or even Zeke or Wandy.

Several Braves message boards have called for trading Estrada. Some excerpts:

"McCann is ready to be an everyday starter defense will get better as the season progresses."
"Estrada will lose his value if he does not get to start regularly."
"Estrada will make more than 2 million with arbitration"
"The Braves can trade Estrada for a quality reliever, 2nd baseman or shortstop and use the money saved for Furcal."
"Estrada was the slowest catcher with a healthy back now he has a bad back and he is even only going to be slower."
"He's not a threat with RISP anymore. In 2004, he was almost automatic in that category. He was Mr. Clutch that season. Now he's just dead weight. I hate losing a switch-hitting catcher, but he's no longer an asset to us."
"I don't think we'll get much in return for Estrada ."

Theses are all reasons why we should acquire him! Look into it, Purpura.

Monday, November 07, 2005

There isn't a whole lot of baseball news these days besides all the young stat-oriented GM's (Epstein and DePodesta) resigning or getting fired. I can't understand the DePo firing at all. The Dodgers make the playoffs in his first year, then they are absolutely decimated by injuries his 2nd year (Drew, Gagne, Dreifort, Bradley, Valentin, Perez, etc.) and....he gets canned?? The Dodgers' farm system is incredibly good, and they are positioned to do very well in the NL West for the next 5+ years at least, with no bad contracts (only Drew, Kent, and Perez are signed to long-term deals, I think). Whoever replaces DePo is going to get a lot of credit that they don't deserve, because the Dodgers are in great shape, and have money to spend.

Scott Barzilla has several excellent articles up at AstrosDaily: one on the catching situation this offseason, and one on the shortstop situation. Criticizing Ausmus and Everett is dangerous but correct; many people believe these are defense-first positions, but you need to take each player's offensive and defensive contributions. And, frankly, you don't get many offensive contributions from either of those guys (yeah, Ausmus had a .350+ OBP this year - anyone want to bet that he'll do that next year?). I say look elsewhere if at all possible. I'll let Andy talk about Johnny Estrada, but I will be so freakin' happy if the Astros trade for him and platoon him and Quintero. So very very happy.

Gotta run. I got my 2nd-ever hole-in-one in frisbee golf this weekend. It was awesome.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Dodgers signed Jose Cruz Jr. to a 1 year deal with an option today. Cruz will get 2.91 million in '06 and the Dodgers have a 4.5 million dollar option for '07. I guess that makes the total contract 2 years /7.41 million . Nice pick-up by the Dodgers - Cruz is a low batting average but high OBP / SLG switch hitter who is younger than most people think (31). I think this might start to set the market for free-agent outfielders. Actually, Cruz Jr. was worse last year than Brian Giles, Reggie Sanders, Jacque Jones, etc., so they should be looking at bigger contracts.
Free Agent Catchers (Or, Ausmus Again?!?)

Ausmus' stats improved dramatically from the black hole he'd become in '03 and '04. While he still couldn't hit with any power whatsoever, his ability to draw walks and hit singles gave him an above-average year in terms of OBP. His 2005 numbers (.258 / .351 / .331) marked his best years since his 2000 campaign with the Tigers. Some significant splits in '05:

Against lefties: .293 / .409 / .424 (.833)

In the second half: .275 / .373 / .365 (.738)

At home: .280 / .363 / .355 (.717)

Of course, that just means he was terrible against righties, in the first half and on away games. The fact of the matter is, Ausmus exceeded expectations last year and he'll probably never match those numbers again. Already 36, we can't expect him to improve again in 2006.

Purpura has suggested that re-signing Ausmus is one of the team's top priorities. He should rephrase that statement, perhaps to: "Finding a solid catcher is paramount." We shouldn't feel like we owe him anything. Re-signing him out of loyalty, while perhaps a good P.R. move, will not improve the team in the short term. Better teams — teams we're contending against — will acquire better players and become better teams in doing so. We shouldn't be content simply standing still, much less becoming older and slower and, really, worse.

At this point, Ausmus should be considered a free agent, just like Ramon Hernandez or Bengie Molina (or the mystery man, Kenjie Jojima, from Japan — more on him later). Ausmus has said he'll only play again for the Padres, his hometown team, or the Astros next year. In my mind, this simply buys us more time to assess other free agent backstops or explore the possibility of acquiring one in a trade. That way, if Hernandez and Bengie prove too expensive (which they will) and Estrada and Zaun are too costly to trade for, then can look at the Ausmus option. So here are our catcher options, as I see them:

Ramon Hernandez
Why he's good: He brings power to a position where it is a rare commodity. Besides, a dozen home runs in Petco is still pretty good. Hernandez was the 10th-best offensive catcher in the league last year, playing half his games at the most pitchy of pitcher's parks. He'll pass Javy and Piazza next year, and possibly Posada, Molina, LaRue and Barrett. He actually had a reverse split in '05: a .684 OPS against lefties and a .797 OPS against righties. I guess this is a good thing. He'll be 30 in May, so whoever signs him to a short (i.e. three-year) deal will be getting the last half of his prime years.

Why he'd fit well with us: He'd provide us with marked improvement in an area where we haven't had a decent player in years. Decades even. He'd give us balance across the lineup. Pettitte and Clemens have raved about Ausmus' other skills: defense and game-calling, for years. Hernandez, according to ESPN, is also a pitcher's catcher, calling good games and earning the trust of his pitchers. He could help with the development of Wandy and Zeke, who communicate better with other Latinos.

Downsides: He isn't as patient as you'd like. His career .325 OBP and .743 OPS aren't what you want to get from a guy you're going to spend a lot of money on. Plus he spent a lot of time of the DL last year.

Let's talk money: In a down year for free agents, he is one of the top commodities. If he sells himself out to the highest bidder — and there will be many — he just might get $10 million a year. I'd go as high as $7 million a year for three years.But that won't get it done.

Bengie Molina
Why he's good: He peaked at the right time, setting career highs in most of his counting and averaging stats. He improved his walk rate, but 27 bases on balls in 410 at-bats is still disturbing. He slugged .446, well over his .397 career average. In short, his last year was phenomenal, and probably a big step above what you'd get from his next couple of years.

Why he'd fit well with us: Despite his misleading stats, he does have power. And his .273 career average is nothing to scoff at. Like Hernandez, he would provide us with a good hitter at catcher. Oh, and his defense and arm: fabulous.

Downsides: He's already 31 and has played six full seasons. Catchers age poorly, so he;d be a risky signing. He's clearly not in top shape, though he does tend to stay off the DL. He still wouldn't be an asset on the basepaths.

Let's talk money: He too will look to make the big bucks. We shouldn't offer more than $20 million over 3 years, and that also won't get it done.

Well, that's about it in terms of catchers. There is a guy named Mike Piazza, but something tells me you'll see him in the broadcaster's booth before you see him on the field again. This Jojima guy looks alright. But he doesn't know English, and would take a long time to adjust to America, not to mention Houston. Can you imagine Wandy trying to talk to Jojima?!

I'm tired, but tomorrow I promise more on Johnny Estrada. A preview: Braves message boards are all calling for him to be traded! (It's an embarassment of riches over there). And
Uh oh.

I woke up this morning to a troubling site: In the Houston Chronicle, it appears Purpura has been talking with the agents of Ausmus, Vizcaion and Palmeiro. He has an interest in bringing them all back.

No! Please, no! In 2006, they will be a combined 112 years old! This team can't handle becoming any older, it'll die! Ausmus isn't such a bad option: A one-year deal with him allows us to pursue Jason LaRue after 2006. But now that I think about it, I don't know if I can handle another whole season ending in Ausmus - Everett - pitcher. That makes me cringe.

Palmeiro also wouldn't be such a bad signing. He can still put the bat on the ball, and despite a weak finish, he still had his best season in years. He still can't hit lefties, although he rarely strikes out and can play anywhere in the outfield.

I will kill or kick something if we re-sign Viz. He can't possibly get any worse, and yet he probably will. If he plays for us next year, it will undoubtedly be the worst million dollars EVER spent. He's withering away at the plate and defensively. I loathe him.

Thankfully, the Chron also said Ramon Hernandez and Bengie Molina are on the team's radar, as is Scott Eyre. That makes me happy.

And apparently, we're still trying to "keep the lines of comunication open" with Clemens. But at this point it's obvious we can't afford him with McLane's $85 million salary cap.

Check this out: Bruntlett actually had a better OPS than Lamb last year. But their stats were nearly identical:

Lamb: .236 / .284 / .419 (.703 OPS)
Brunt: .220 / .292 / .413 (.705 OPS)

Why then, did Lamb seem like such a more powerful threat? I guess they both just suck.

Later today: Why we should trade for Johnny Estrada.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Free Agent Sluggers (or, The Bagwell Dilemma)

My, my we need offense. And I'm not just saying that because we didn't score a run in the last 15 innings of the World Series. We struggled scoring runs all year, and everyone know it's our biggest weakness. Get through (or around) Berkman and Ensberg, and we might get blanked. Like we did 18 times last year.

A healthy Jeff Bagwell would fill this void. But he is not healthy. He's a shell of his former self — his OPS has dropped each year for the last seven years. Slowly, but steadily. And now, rapidly. Most of his falling stats have come from the slugging side. After slugging .615 in 2000, he fell to a career-low .380 in 100 at-bats in 2005, including a whopping seven extra-base hits. But we ought to throw out the numbers from last season.

One stat, though, still was remarkable despite the immense pain Bagwell was going through: His walk rate. His career-low .358 OBP last year was still third-best on the team. Even when he couldn't pick up a baseball bat — even after he altered his stance to take pressure of his shoulder — he could still draw walks like nothing else.

So as a disclaimer to this little aside on free agents, let's make a point clear: Bagwell is awesome. If he rehabs his shoulder and comes back strong, he'll be better than 99 percent of anyone we could sign to replace him. At 37, the man can still play ball. (Even Todd Jones thinks so)

So: If Bagwell can return, he will play first base. Berkman will play left, Taveras center, Lane right, Biggio second and Ensberg third. Those spots are essentially guaranteed. (I hesitate to put Everett up here because he was absolutely terrible last year. He should feel ashamed. If Purpura has a spare minute this winter, he should ask about Furcal and/or Nomar.) We might look to sign a catcher with pop, like Ramon Hernandez or Bengie Molina. But that's it for posible changes to our lineup. It will no doubt be improved by Bagwell's presence.

However, if Bagwell cannot return, we have several hard calls to make. Like what to do with Bagwell. If he can still hit but not field, he may want to be traded to an AL team where he could DH. I would not hold it against him. If he wants to try to hit 51 more homers to get to 500, I wish him the best of luck. It would be very hard to unload a significant portion of his contract on anyone: We'd no doubt be stuck paying nearly half of it. (Real quick: what teams might want him? Baltimore? Minnesota? Detroit? Kansas City? Anaheim? Seattle? Could you see him playing for any of those teams? Me neither).

If for whatever reason he couldn't hit, he might decide to retire. How about becoming our bench coach? Maybe Jason Lane will adopt his stance! Seriously, we could give him some sort of 10-year special services deal that we've given Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. The problem — and it's always a problem — is his contract. I believe I'm correct in assuming that Bagwell will collect the $24 million owed to him over the next two years (he has a $7 million buyout option for 2007). But I have a fool-proof plan that everyone will enjoy: re-negotiate his contract to pay him $3 million over the next eight years. Bagwell still gets his $24 million promised by his contract. The Astros get a huge financial break, and are awarded an extra roster spot. Everyone wins! (Obviously, this will never happen.)

(Another disclaimer: I am in no way hoping that Bagwell can't come back. I'm just speculating on what can be done if he can't.)

Disirregardless of what is done with Bagwell's contract, Purpura must find a way to bring another bat to the lineup. As mentioned above, Lane, Berkman, Taveras, Biggio, Ensberg and (sigh) Everett are in the lineup for sure. Which leaves our only potential positional upgrades at first base, corner outfield and catcher. (Since the catcher quagmire is also long and laborious, I'll leave that to another post).

So what are we looking for? Essentially someone who can replace Bagwell in the lineup. Someone who can provide protection for Berkman and Ensberg and sort of bridge a gap from those two to Jason Lane. Preferably a left-handed bat. Someone with good numbers w/RISP. If we don't have enough freedom of our budget, someone who can for a platoon with Chris Burke out in left field. (Luke Scott, in my opinion, is not ready. Although the clock has already begun ticking on his six years under club control, he needs more time in the minors.) Here are my picks: Brian Giles, Jose Cruz Jr., Bernie Williams. I'll mention , Jacque Jones and Matt Lawton too, but they aren't candidates we should be looking at.

Brian Giles
Why he's good: Career .950 OPS. Led the majors in walks last year. He hit only 42 homers in two-and-a-third "disappointing" seasons in San Diego. The only real disappointment came when Giles had to bat at home. He hit only .267 / .378 / .417 in Petco Park, a huge contrast to his 1.008 OPS on the road. No wonder he didn't resign with the Pads. There's no doubt he is declining, but last year he countered the downward trend with an upswing in all his averages. His .423 OBP was higher than his career stats (.413). He's very durable, sitting out only seven games in two years with San Diego. And his defense is above average.

Why he'd fit well with us: His power numbers, most noticeably his home run totals, have dwindled since the trade to San Diego. He'd get his confidence — and swing — back with the Juicebox's short porch in right. More importantly, at least to Drayton, Giles is a hard and serious worker with a good attitude and great approach to the game. He's a gamer — the kind of guy the Astros will want on their side. The teammates, as well as the city, will embrace him.

Downsides: He'll be 35 in January. But has not the city of Houston discovered the fountain of youth? His power numbers have taken a dive since he slugged .622 in 2002. His speed isn't what it used to be, on the base paths or in the outfield. His arm is accurate, but I don't know if he'd play right over Lane or not.

Let's talk money: He hasn't gone unnoticed by any means. But if Giles ever hit 30 homers for a contender, he'd be a rich man by now. His 15 homers in a contract year really cost him a couple million. Now, instead of making what he deserves to make ($10 million/year), a fortunate team can nab him for a bargain ($8 million/year?). He nixed a three-year, $21 million extension from the Padres, which was really an insult more than anything. We should be willing to go as high as $18 million for two great years. Unfortunately, we most likely will not be able to sign him if Bagwell doesn't restructure his contract.

Jose Cruz Jr.
Why he's
good: Correction: He used to be good. He hit 64 homers in two years with the Blue Jays! Sure, he's only hit 77 in the four years since, but he seems to have found his power stroke at the tail end of the year with the Dodgers. At 31, he might be on the verge of a breakout year. Also, the man takes a ton of walks and hits from both sides of the plate, making him a dangerous asset. He's used to playing centerfield, but he can play any outfield spot, and likely will in Houston.

Why he'd fit well with us
: Yes, his pops coaches first base. Yes, he went to Rice with Lance Berkman. Those things shouldn't suddenly make him a great hitter again, but they'll definitely allow him to fit in more comfortably. He'll like the "Cruuuuuuuz" chants. He'd be a great fit in the lineup between Ensberg and Lane.

Downsides: He's definitely a question mark in terms of offensive production. His optimum performance could be as good as .280 / .380 / .450, which would be a tremendous improvement to our offense. But he could sink to the .750 OPS -guy we've seen the past three or four years.

Let's talk money: He may have priced himself out of our range with his offensive outburst in Los Angeles. But the Yankees won't sign him, and the BoSox already gave up on him. So it's doubtful anyonewill give him more than a 2-year, $7 million deal, which is what I'd gladly give him.

Bernie Williams
Why he's good: Jack says he's a borderline Hall-of-Famer. I doubt that, but check out his career stats: an .863 OPS on average is phenomenal. Yes, he sucked last year, posted career0lows across the board. But some of his craptitude can be attributed to injury and possibly pressing. Over his career, he's showed patience and power from both sides of the plate. And his home and away splits are nearly identical. In 2004, he posted a .262 / .360 / .435 line, which I think is still reasonable for him if he stays healthy in '06. (By the way, his .688 OPS in 2005 was better than FOUR of our starters: Ausmus, Burke, Taveras and Everett. As bad as people said he was in NY, we had four guys worse than him. Ha.)

Why he'd fit well with us: He wouldn't have to play center, and his lack of speed would be excusable in our short left field. He'd give us another switch hitter with power from both sides to complement Berkman. He's a stand-up guy, a clubhouse guy, someone the Astros always look for in their signings. And he'd be our first black player since — who? Mike Jackson? Tony Eusebio? I guess Gipson is black... Anyway, he could really make a second home down here and I'm sure the team would welcome him.

Downsides: He's 37. That's old. Really old. He put up at least a .900 OPS for seven straight seasons from 1996 to 2002. He hasn't posted an .800 OPS since. His decline could be drastic, and he might well fall off the face of the earth. Also, injuries are a huge risk: his knees are no more. He might be looking to sign with an AL team to try and be a full-time DH.

Let's talk money: It's hard to say what kind of contract this guy will get. His great career stats conflict with his horrendous 2005. I wouldn't be surprised if some dumb team inked him for $8 million a year (Texas? Baltimore? Detroit?). Assuming the conditions are right, I'd give him a one-year contract stuffed with incentives. Start him at $4 million and let him play his way up to $5 or even $6 million. But who knows, he might even retire.

Jacque Jones
I don't like Jacque Jones. Actually, I don't like the idea of signing a player who is that worthless against left-handers. It really limits his effectiveness. I usually like platoons, but Jones will want to start everyday and will command a contract that will make it seem stupid not to start him everyday. He can't be had for less than $5 millon a year, and a platoon player is not worth that much.

Matt Lawton
He's a good player, and we could probably get him cheap. But he took steroids, so there's no way the Astros will ever touch him.

Keep in mind, everything hinges on Bagwell. His contract is a big issue, but perhaps even more so is his spot in the lineup. I mean: If he can play, our outfield is pretty much set: Berkman, Taveras, Lane. There's almost no point in signing any of these guys if Bagwell's playing. (Maybe Cruz, to split time with Taveras?) In any case, everything hinges on Bagwell, and hopefully we will know his status sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Free Agent Starting Pitchers

If Roger Clemens comes back, we won't be on the lookout for another starter. Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt, Backe and Zeke or Wandy would make another tremendous rotation and be among the best in baseball. The problem, of course, is that Clemens would command a figure higher than the $18 million he made in 2005.

Now then, if he doesn't come back, we must make a move to fill in a replacement. I don't want both Wandy and Zeke to have spots in the rotation. Nor do I want another rookie like Fernando Nieve or Jason Hirsh rushed up to the majors too quickly. We should be on the lookout all winter for a serviceable third or fourth starter. We don't need a premier free agent pitcher, nor can we afford one. We need an innings-eater. Someone who can go out there, maybe give up three or four runs, but keep it close and consistently go at least six innings.

The top three guys I have in mind are Paul Byrd, Jason Johnson and Brett Tomko. I'd also hope we take a look at Vicente Padilla and Tony Armas Jr., but those guys come with huge injury risks. So here are my top three candidates:

Paul Byrd
Why he's good: He hasn't posted an ERA over 4.00 since 2001. He spent all of 2003 and half of 2004 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but showed no ill efects with the Braves and last year with the Angels. He has pinpoint command: He walked a mere 28 batters in 204.1 innings last year. He also cut down on the long balls, only giving up 22 last year.

Why he'd fit well with us: Byrd is a veteran who knows how to win. He was born in Louisville and went to LSU, so he'd probably enjoy Houston. He makes batters put the ball in play, and with our excellent defense at short and center, we'd record outs for him. And since he's controlled the homers he gives up, batters probably wouldn't take advantage of the short porches in the Juicebox. He goes deep into ballgames: only three times during the regular season did Byrd fail to go six full innings.

Downsides: He doesn't strike anyone out, which Jack will tell you is bad. He's not great against lefties (.811 OPS compared to .639 against righties). And with Edmonds, Dunn, Griffey, Overbay, and Jenkins in the division, he might get hit.

Let's talk money: He might actually be too expensive for us. After his marvelous season with Anaheim, I think some teams might offer him three years at $6 or $7 million apiece. That's more than I'd be willing to give him. If we did sign him, I wouldn't want to give him more than two years at five, maybe six million per year.

Brett Tomko
Why he's good: Like his 2004 campaign, Tomko turned it on down the stretch last year, with a 3.78 ERA after the break. He gave up much fewer homers (39 over two seasons in San Fran) than he has in previous years, but this is obviously a factor of playing in the spacious and soon-to-be-renamed SBC Park. None of his stats are particularly impressive or alarming, except for one: innings pitched. He's averaged 198 innings over the past four years. That's durability. He's never strayed too far from his 4.50 career ERA. So with Tomko -- unlike with Forrest Gump -- you know what you're gonna get.

Why he'd fit well with us: Hard to say exactly. He's been everywhere in his nine-year career: Cincinnati, Seattle, San Diego, St. Louis, San Fran. So maybe he's still looking for a place to call home. Or at least a team he feels comfortable with. Tomko seems like the kind of guy who could have a monster year if he just had the right combination of coaches, teammates and manager. With Nolan Ryan, Andy Pettitte, Jim Hickey and a guy named Clemens in the ballpark, who knows what he could do.

Downsides: He's never been been great and he'll be 33 in April, so there's no reason to expect a real breakout year. He also doesn't get too many strikeouts, and his walk rate is a tad high. He wasn't consistent throughout the year, sometimes going eight innings, sometimes not making it past the third.

Let's talk money: I doubt many teams are going to throw gobs of money at him. If we could get him for $6 million over two years, I'd do it.

Jason Johnson
Why he's good: See above. Johnson is mysteriously similar to Tomko: He's been a consistent starter, throwing over 190 innings in each of the last three seasons. Johnson's walk rate has dropped significantly: only 49 in 210 innings. He was money at home: batters had a .639 OPS against him there. Like Tomko, Johnson is somewhat inconsistent. But he's economical. In five straight starts from May 10 to June 3, he went eight innings. His number of pitches thrown in those starts: 90, 98, 108, 100, 101. That's good stuff.

Why he'd fit well with us: Obviously, his talents have been wasted in Detroit and Baltimore. He's had only one winning season, and his career record of (brace yourself) 52-86 is more a factor of those bad teams than his abilities. And this guy is a ground ball machine. He induced 375 ground balls last year, compared to only 216 fly balls. With our well-above-average infield, I think we'd convert more of those ground balls into outs.

Downsides: He's faded in the second half the past few years, which may have something to do with his diabetes. And he'll throw in a two-inning start every now and then, so we should be careful.

Let's talk money: I honestly don't think too many other teams would want him. Something in the vacinity of 2 years for $5 or $6 million would probably seem like we're overpaying.

So there you go. Byrd, Tomko, Johnson. In that order. It's hard to say it, but I'd take 200 innings of 4.50 ERA for $3 million over 200 innings of 2.00 ERA for $20 million. When you can spend that extra money on another hitter like Brian Giles, it's definitely worth the downgrade.

Speaking of which, I'll do a preview of the top free agent outfielders available. Giles, Jacque Jones, Jose Cruz Jr., maybe (but most definitely not) Nomar. Plus, why Todd Hollandsworth and Chris Burke would form an admirable platoon in left field...