Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I think it's time for an Aaron Gleeman-inspired Link-O-Rama:

I think it's hilarious that Roger Clemens gave up a first-pitch HR to his son Koby and followed that up with a high-and-inside fastball the next time they faced off. Good job, Rocket.

I had forgotten what a tough year Adam Everett had last year - and it had nothing to do with baseball. Here's wishing him the best for this coming year. And maybe an occasional walk or two.

Nice chat with Dayn Perry of Baseball Prospectus here - he tabs Roy Oswalt as one of the ten most valuable commodities in baseball. I hope he's an Astro for a long time.

The Hardball Times doesn't like our offseason, ranking us 26th out of 30 teams in this list.

My Dad's in town for a few days to check out a house that they somehow bought without ever seeing it in person! This is very unlike my parents. Maybe they're becoming risk takers in their old age.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

As major league baseball players everywhere start reporting to camp, I'm starting my fantasy baseball research for this year. I'd be the first one to admit that the categories in fantasy baseball (BA, R, HR, RBI, SB for hitters, W, ERA, WHIP, SV, K for pitchers) don't correlate very well to real-life success, but I can adapt. Plus there's money and trash-talking involved.

Here's what my favorite fantasy baseball magazine has to say about the 2006 Astros:

"By standing pat over the winter, the NL champs have weakened themselves. Houston needed a combined 675 innings from their top 3 starters at a 2.43 ERA to win the wildcard. Roger Clemens claims he's not returning...If the Big Three can't repeat, another starter has to step up...Brandon Backe is not recommended...The back end of the rotation only needs to reach the sixth inning because of Houston's excellent bullpen. Minute Maid Park makes any righty hitter a good bet...Craig Biggio looks like he's had it, as evidenced by his age and his .235 - 7 - 20 line away from home...Don't expect Jason Lane or Willy Taveras to get much better."

Well, I may be pessimistic, but I have to agree with most of their comments. We certainly haven't gotten better this offseason - even if Clemens returns, the Big Three can't be as good as last year and we're still looking at Taveras, Everett, and Ausmus in the lineup. If everything breaks right for us we could still be right there in the hunt, but that could be a big if. An injury to Berkman or Ensberg or Oswalt or Pettitte spells doom, and we need Jason Lane, Wandy Rodriguez, and Ezequiel Astacio to be solid all year. Don't get me wrong, I'll root like hell for this team, and watch as many games as I can, but it will be an uphill climb. Then again, that seems to be our preference these last few years.

I was supposed to fly down to Baton Rouge for a reunion with some old friends this weekend. I got about 30 miles from Flagstaff (I was flying out of Phoenix) when my front left tire blew out and took a hefty chunk of my front left fender (directly above the tire) with it. I called AAA, and they said it wasn't safe to drive - too much exposed wiring. I had to get towed back to Flagstaff. I called the folks to see if there were any later flights, but nothing worked out well and I still would have had to figure out a way to get back to Flagstaff at midnight on Sunday night. On the bright side, it's been time for me to get a new-ish car for a while now - no more putting it off.

It's a beautiful day outside (up to 55/60 degrees in Flagstaff these days), so off I go.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Andy's latest post was #450 at The Juice Box. Huzzah! I am also thrilled that baseball is back, and I'm pumped to start reading spring training updates, preparing for my fantasy baseball draft, and start posting every single day (or more) again. It has been an interesting offseason for our family - it looks like my parents will be moving out to join me in Flagstaff, which I'm sure they'll enjoy. It will be nice having them around, especially because their house has an indoor hot tub.

I will indeed have a big decision in May. I will graduate from NAU with a Master's Degree in Statistics, and don't plan on starting a PhD program anytime soon, so it looks like I'll have to find a real job. Or will I? At the moment my most likely next step would be to get a job as an instructor in the math & statistics department here. I've enjoyed teaching, it's an excellent department, I can keep doing a few river trips in the summer, I stay in Flagstaff, I get summers off....the list goes on. It makes a lot of sense. Maybe too much sense? Another option would be to try and find a job as a baseball statistician. I've been really lazy with this, and I haven't sent out any resumes lately. I have a feeling that as much as I like writing about and reading about baseball statistics, I might not like working in that field nearly as much. Maybe it's just my imagination? The third main option would be some kind of service to the country. Peace Corps / Teach for America / etc. - something in that vein. I'd like to give something back although I don't agree with a few current political situations. And the dark horse would be to take a year off and travel around the world, writing updates on my blog and having a great time. The sensible answer would be to do that later since I just did that 2 years ago, but the romantic in me says that once I start a real job it won't be so easy to get away. All right, that's enough about that. We'll see what happens.

I was going to write about what my favorite fantasy baseball magazine said about the Astros and their top players, but I left it at home. Oops. Next post coming soon.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Pitchers & Catchers!

Baseball's back! Finally! It's been a cold and miserable weekend in Houston, but my heart is aglow with baseball fever. Oh, what joy I felt when I saw Roy, Brad, Andy and Brandon in Astro uniforms again! It really was a surreal moment knowing that the next eight months will be filled with our great national pasttime.

It has been a weird offseason, both for the Astros and the Wade family. The team didn't do a whole heck of a lot, making their customary conservative and modest — if not downright boring — moves like adding Trever Miller and re-signing Brad Ausmus. We took a gamble not offering Clemens arbitration, but I truly think he's only seriously considering two clubs: the Astros or the AARP. Our most productive move was the addition of Preston Wilson. He immediately improves our lineup ad our bench, but his presence alone won't solve our offensive woes.

In the Wade family, things were a little more shaken up. Jack will have a big decision coming up after graduating this Spring. The parents will be joining him after buying a house in Flagstaff this week. Andy, meanwhile, will be the lone Texas representative come summer after taking a job with a newspaper in Bryan.

But back to our favorite ball club. In the Chronicle and on local television coverage, all the pitchers and catchers mentioned the short offseason, referring to the extra month of baseball they played in the playoffs.

Chad Qualls: "It came too quick. This is the shortest offseason I've ever had. … I might actually need these six weeks to get back into shape a little bit."

Mike Gallo: "It feels like I just got done playing about a month ago."

What are these guys talking about? To me, it feels like years since the World Series ended. I've been waiting months for Spring Training, and it'll probably feel like another few months 'til the season actually starts.

Pettitte specifically mentioned the absence of his partner in crime: "For the last seven years we've been sidekicks. There's no doubt I miss him being down here, for sure." Many players, coaches and regular folks around Houston appear confident Clemens will return in May, but it's anything but a sure thing. He says he won't know until after the WBC if he's going to play, so we'll just have to wait it out...

A few hilarious tidbits from Kissimmee:

• Garner received a gift from a friend in Russia: a bulava, which is a war club with a sharp points on the head (think Final Fantasy). "It's a symbol of power," Garner said. "I'm going to use this on reporters and players." (Sometimes I think Richard Justice could use a little macing…)

• Garner also didn't recognize Russ Springer when he walked into the manager's office. "Wheels? Did you lose some weight?" Garner asked, referring to Dan Wheeler. Apparently Garner's old anf confused and sometimes mixes up those two. Hope that never happends during close games.

Chris Burke was the first position player to roll into camp. Of of our hitters, I think Burke has the most to prove. Right now, he's our No. 1 option off the bench if anyone gets hurt. He's doesn't have a starting job this year (or even a platoon position), so he's got to earn every at-bat he gets. Burke has been asked to play shortstop on occasion this spring in addition to second base and the outfield.

The Chronicle had a nice piece on Lidge's mentality heading into 2006. He's saying all the right things and really doesn't seem upset on his disappointing postseason. Unlike everyone else, he's more focused on the upcoming season than the finished one.

Lastly, I'll list some random personal thoughts about Spring Training and the season as a whole:

• Don't simply ignore the elephant in the room that is Bagwell's shoulder. He should be examined and cleared to participate before every workout. He's a great player but also a very large investment, and we need to make sure he's taken care of. And if he's unable to participate, an ultimatum has to be reached.

• The back of the rotation should be open to everyone. In my mind, neither Wandy nor Zeke pitched well enough last year to earn "frontrunner" status entering 2006. Give Hernandez, Hirsh and Nieve equal opportunities to prove themselves.

• Let Preston Wilson play some centerfield. I know he'd be a disaster in The Juicebox, what with all the nooks and crannies. But If Bagwell can play, Taveras should under no circumstances take at-bats away from Lane or Wilson.

• See what the younguns can do. Luke Scott played like a bat out of hell in Venezuela. If he keeps it up, how can we leave him off our roster?

• Backe finally has pressure on him. Right now, he's our third starter, which means he needs to be a) good and b) reliable. Everyone knows he can pitch great games, but he has yet to pitch well throughout a whole season. It's about time he chanelled his playoff energy into every start. If he can't, he might not have a chance to make another great postseason start.

• Lastly, Ausmus and Everett better recognize that we almost replaced them this winter, and for good reason: They can't hit. I am sick to death of the "defense-minded" cop-out. It's fine if Ausmus doesn't hit for much power, but he needs to contribute at the plate by having good at-bats, taking pitches, making contact and driving the ball. He did this last year, but can he keep it up? And I wish Everett would finally get it through his head that we don't want him hitting home runs. We need him to get on base, and that means not trying to pull the ball all the time. Hell, take a bunting lesson from Willy. Get. On. Base.

I just finished watching the NBA All-Star Game. It was cool being in Houston and all, but the actual game was preposterous. I think Shaq dunked a ball in the fourth quarter and hung on the rim until his team came back to his end of the court. Admittedly, the game meant absolutetly nothing. Also admittedly, basketball is something of a showboat sport, at least more so than baseball. Players often hang on rims and pump up the crowd with various antics. This never happens in baseball. The closest thing I can think of is Barry Bonds lifting up Torii Hunter for robbing him of a home run. But at least that was between innings. In the MLB All-Star game, people watch to see great players play baseball, and it's often a great game. In the NBA All-Star game, many people watch to see a great game, but at least as many watch to see who's going to bring down the house with a huge dunk or a stylish lay-up. This isn't necessarily a bad thing — I don't think it takes away from the game either way — but the NBA ASG seems like more of a laugher than anything else. At least in baseball, they play for home-field advantage, but I don't think this would change a whole lot in the NBA. Oh well...

Spring Training!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Is anyone excited about the World Baseball Classic? Does anyone care? I'm not losing any sleep over it, but fan interest seems to be virtually nonexistent. At least in the States. But what's more disgraceful is that players don't want to represent America. I keep seeing guys pull out of the WBC because they want to be ready for Spring Training. They signed a big contract, and they want to honor it. They want to make sure they're completely healthy. What a load of crap. I can understand pitchers who've undergone surgery, but come on! Grow a pair. I think starting pitchers will only throw three or four games anyway. As for the hitters, there's no excuse not to get out there and play your heart out for your country. That's what all the other countries are going to do.

What's really going to bug me is when we lose to Belize or Ecuador or the one-man team that is The Netherlands, everyone will get all pissed off about it. Of course we're going to lose. But only when we do will people whine about not playing. This could be the best baseball gig in decades, but the players are making it the worst.

Meanwhile, the Astros still face a rotation conundrum. As in, who starts after Oswalt, Pettitte and Backe. We got Wandy and Zeke, our (Ha!) experienced pitchers; Hirsh and Buchholz, our true rookies; and Carlos Hernandez, our ace-in-the-hole finally back from injury. We ought to give Carlos as much of a chance as everyone else. I'm sure we will. I've heard he's back up to the low-90s on his fastball. This guy was pretty good way back when in '02 and '03. It's taken him a lot longer than normal to recover, but he might be the guy that steps up and performs.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Andy and I met up for some fun in the sun in Las Vegas this past weekend. We were there to play ultimate for Northwestern, despite the fact that neither of us currently go to that fine university. It was a great time; we played 4 of the top 10 teams in the country and played them close, including a sweet JWade-to-AWade connection for a score against #1 Wisconsin. I, of course, take all the credit. I also won a mighty $8 at poker - watch out, world. Oh, and no strip clubs, sadly. But In-N-Out Burger? You're goddamn right.

Not too much to talk about regarding the Astros. Pitchers and catchers report in 3 days! Holy crap. I better start doing my fantasy baseball research (JT's already started). Lance Berkman says he doesn't care if he plays OF or 1B, which is good, 'cause we might not know for a few weeks yet. Phil Garner says Wandy and Zeke are the favorites for the #4 and #5 spots but Jason Hirsh, Carlos Hernandez and Fernando Nieve will be looked at (good), and he still prefers two lefties in the bullpen (despite teams such as the Angels and...someone else...doing just fine without any lefties). Bagwell is still iffy, Chris Burke should get some AB's at shortstop, and Opening Day can't come soon enough.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Astros avoided arbitration with Morgan Ensberg, agreeing to a 1 year / 3.5 million dollar deal. This is a good move, obviously - the question is whether we should have tried to sign Ensberg to a longer deal. I'm a huge Ensberg fan - he hit .283 / .388 / .557 with 36 bombs and 85 walks, which is absolutely huge. However, he is already 30 years old, and I believe he doesn't reach free agency until after '08 (edit: it could well be '07, though). I don't think a multi-year deal is necessary at this point. If he puts up another big year or two, then go for it. Of course, it might cost us more then...

Ken Rosenthal thinks the Rocket will return to the Astros on May 1. If so, GREAT! Wandy and Zeke both starting all year...yikes. I like the idea of Wandy and Zeke having a 'tryout' in April and whoever does better becomes the 5th starter at that point, with the other moving to the bullpen. This might just help Clemens stay strong all year - he looked tired in September and October. And he is 43.

Purpura and Garner have finally decided to try playing Chris Burke at SS occasionally. This is awesome. Burke needs playing time wherever he can get it, and it looks like that will be at 2B (where I hope he starts once a week, to pace Biggio) and SS. Management has said that Burke doesn't have the arm for SS, but 1) he played there in college and 2) David Eckstein is still in the majors, isn't he? It's definitely worth a shot, particulary with 654 OPS Adam Everett there otherwise.

I'm heading to Vegas this weekend to watch (and play in) a big college ultimate tournament. Hopefully I won't lose too much money while I'm there - you'd think my statistical background would prevent that. You'd think....

Monday, February 06, 2006

Astros avoid arbitration with Ensberg, who signs for the midpoint at $3.8 million. Huzzah. by the way, he made 500K last year! Should we consider a long-term deal? Not necessarily. The big fella's already 30, and he'll be an Astro for at least three more years. Whether we sign him to a deal that takes him through those years or not doesn't really matter. If Morgan dominates each year, he'll get more money from the organization, which is what I fully expect him to do.

After the boring Super Bowl, I can't stop thinking about baseball. Only four weeks 'til pitchers and catchers! In my spare time at work, I thought I'd talk about a few teams I think might surprise next year. We start in Toronto:

Blue Jays
Rotation: Halladay, Burnett, Chacin, Lilly, Towers
Lineup: Johnson/Catalanotto, Aaron Hill, Wells, Overbay, Glaus, Hillenbrand/Hinske, Molina, Rios, Russ Adams
Bullpen: Ryan, Chulk, Downs, Frasor, Schoeneweis, Speier, Walker

I love it when owners 1) have a plan about their team and 2) are honest with their fans about it. I loved it when the Indians said it was time to rebuild and dumped Thome, Colon, Alomar, and all their stars that led the team in the late '90s. They made smart trades, got a bazillion prospects and, after only three or four years, are back among the AL elites.

The Blue Jays are similar, but opposite. Management finally said the time is right to increase payroll and construct an exciting, competitive team. They couldn't have asked for better timing. The Red Sox and Yankees are on the verge of self-destruction, and the door is open for a run at the AL East.

The Jays' offseason moves were a little, shall we say, over-the-top. Forking over $100 million dollars for two pitchers is a bit Steinbrenner-esque. Nonetheless, management lived up to its promise to sign playmakers, and A.J. and B.J. certainly fit that bill. Now, after waiting for Bengie Molina's price tag to drop a few million dollars, they collected three of the top free agents available.

On the trade market, the Jays were also big players… almost too big. They snagged Overbay from the Brewers and traded the still-young Orlando Hudson to Arizona for a rejuvenated Troy Glaus. For 2006, they're probably better off. But the trades left them with about twenty-two corner infielders. They traded Koskie to the Brew Crew, but they still have Glaus, Overbay, Hillenbrand and Hinske.

Meanwhile, their middle infield is less than proven. Russ Adams was decent in '05 at shortstop, and would give the team a boost if he repeast last year's .700 OPS. Will LSU grad Aaron Hill assume full-time second-base duties with Hudson's departure? He has upside after a .727-OPS rookie campaign, but is he ready? Wells can be an all-star, but he's been on the decline since 2003. If Alex Rios can live up to his potential and Catalanotta and Reed Johnson don't drop off, the Blue Jays can definitely do some damage.

Last year the Jays' lineup was unbelievably consistent: Every hitter posted an OPS between .700 and .800. With Glaus, Overbay and Molina, the middle of the lineup will be able to score a few more runs.

The rotation is definitely top five in baseball. Burnett may not win 20 games, but he most likely won't implode. Chacin and Towers were great last year, but can they do it again? Lilly posted the worst numbers (5.56, 1.53) since he became a regular starter in 2001, but he might bounce back to league-average. Schoeneweis can make a spot start or two.

If the rotation and the lineup are as stable as last year's and the new additions live up to their billing, the Jays are money. In either case, management has set the team up for an exciting run in '06.

Rotation: Prior, Zambrano, Maddux, Rusch, Williams, (Wood?, Wade Miller?)
Lineup: Pierre, Walker, Lee, Ramirez, Jones, Murton, Barrett, Perez/Cedeño
Bullpen: Eyre, Howry, Ohman, Williamson, Wuertz, Dempster

Yea, I know… they're the Cubs. They've had great teams on paper since 2002, but it really seems like they just don't want to win. Or maybe they don't know how. Still, with guys like Prior, Zambrano, Lee and Ramirez, it's hard to count them out.

Much like the Blue Jays, they overpaid a couple of pitchers. Unfortunately for them, Eyre and Howry might only combine for 150 innings. Still, those two are pretty good. When all is said and done, it's really not about the money, it's about the talent. Dempster was better than expected last year, but he's no elite closer.

I don't think even the Cubs realize how good their rotation can be. Prior and Zambrano are amazing pitchers. Rusch and Williams aren't spectacular but are capable of 4.00 ERAs. Greg Maddux is slipping, but he is Greg Maddux. Obviously, Kerry Wood isn't going to pitch 200 innings anytime soon. Probably not even 100. But as soon as Dusty stops screwing around with his arm, he can be effective out of the pen.

The Cubs actually traded prospects to the Marlins so that they could pay Juan Pierre $6 million for one year. That's not a terrific idea. Of course, Corey Patterson wasn't about to be good again. Not at Wrigley anyway. And after Rafael Furcal went to La-la land, the Cubs needed to move fast to acquire a leadoff man. As long as Dusty keeps Neifi Perez as far away from the top of the order as possible, Lee and Ramirez will actually have runs to drive in.

It's hard to say what the Cubs' outfield will do in 2006. Murton was fantastic in his limited time last year, but it may have been a fluke. Everyone knows Jacque Jones can't hit lefties, but will Dusty use him accordingly? Chicago doesn't really have a good platoon partner for him yet, although Murton would seem to be a perfect fit. Maybe they'll make another move, such as signing Richard Hidalgo.

The middle infield is also up in the air. I'm a big fan of Todd Walker. He's posted an .820 OPS in his two years with the club, but no one in the organization seems to care. Dusty might even sub him out for Jerry Hairston, a mistake. At shortstop, the Cubs are in trouble. Ronny Cedeño is a decent prospect, but he probably isn't ready to be a regular shortstop.

Michael Barrett is awesome. I know, I know… we're supposed to hate him because of the Oswalt thing. But how many catchers in the NL can put up an .800 OPS consistently? Maybe I'm just jealous since we got Ausmus and all.

It's going to take a lot for the Cubs for make the playoffs in 2006. They have the personnel to do it, but can they all keep it together? After all, they are the Cubs.

Rotation: Millwood, Eaton, Padilla, … … … John Wasdin … … um … … Kameron Loe?
Lineup: Young, Wilkerson, Teixeira, Blalock, Mench, Nevin, Barajas, Delluci/Nix, DeRosa
Bullpen: Otsuka, Cordero … … … Leicester … … … R.A. Dickey … … … Benoit … … and that's about it.

It only took five years for the Rangers to step up and sign a decent pitcher. Orel Herscheiser can only do so much. Kevin Millwood probably won't lead the AL in ERA again, but he will bring stabilization to a pitching staff that desperately needed it. Eaton and Padilla are capable of being winners, even though Chris Young would have been the better option. I honestly don't know much about the back of the rotation starters. I remember hearing Loe's name a couple of times last yearm but I doubt he'll be a ROTY candidate. They just need a couple of guys who can step up consistently and hopefully keep the game in single digits. Now, if they go out and sign Jeff Weaver, the rotation will be set. (They desperately need Clemens, but I won't even comment on that possibility).

Michael Young was the best shortstop in the game last year. He's knocked in 190 runs in two years as the Rangers' leadoff man. For any other team, Soriano would be hard to replace. The Rangers might actually be better off without him. DeRosa's nothing special, but Soriano wasn't a top-of-the-order guy. Wilkerson or Dellucci will fit better in the #2 spot. We all know what Teixeira can do, but he'll need more balance from the rest of the lineup. Blalock must return to his 2004 form, and Nevin must prove he can still play. If that happens, and Mench doesn't let his all the trade banter go to his head (ha, ha), the Rangers' lineup will once again be among the best in baseball.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the AL West will remind us of last year's NL West. The Angels are considerably worse, and and the Mariners aren't getting a whole lot better. The A's did almost won 90 games last year, but I'm skeptical of Frank Thomas, Milton Bradley, Dan Johnson and Mark Ellis. The A's actually have a decent rotation and bullpen, which is more than the Rangers can say. All Texas has is Kevin Millwood and Orel Herscheiser.


These three teams could all make the playoffs in October. It's much more likely that none of them does. The Jays have the best chance, but I wouldn't count the Cubs and Rangers out — if nothing else, they could surprise a lot of folks.