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...
Way, way, way off topic, and I know this is a baseball blog, but this bears reading (from, October 26):

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The U.S. military death toll in Iraq reached 2,000 Tuesday with the reports of three new deaths, and President Bush prepared the nation for more casualties, saying the "defense of freedom is worth our sacrifice."

2,000 fallen American soldiers. And most people are more concerned with celebrity gossip. I'm not going any further into politics - your views are your views, and probably better expressed in other forums / blogs / etc. But 2,000 Americans dead? My God.