Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I can't decide whether I hate the Jennings trade or just dislike it. No matter how you look at it, we overpaid. But big-league experience is crucial in evaluating pitchers. I'm not saying I value 'veteran presence,' but Hirsh's minor-league dominance might not translate into major-league success. At least not for a while.

Jennings is hard to evaluate: His walk totals over the course of his career have been scary, but all the signs are there for an improvement on last year's breakout performance. Here's hoping he pitches well and likes the ballclub enough to re-sign here.

The funny thing is, we immediately improve at centerfield. Burke, who struggled mightily in the second half, is easily a better offensive player than Taveras. He'll likely be the new lead-off man, and a .280/.360/.440 line should be attainable. Burke is one of the handful of players who will determine the Astros' success next year. We all know Oswalt, Berkman, and Lee are goig to dominate, and we know Everett and Ausmus are going to suck. Biggio will start off hot before declining rapidly, and Wheeler, Qualls and Miller are going to be steady in the bullpen. Last year, we relied on Ensberg, Pettitte and Lidge, and as they went south, so did our team. This year, we still need Ensberg and Lidge, but a few other guys need to come through and produce.

• Morgan Ensberg. I've ranted enough about The Ensberg Situation, so I won't go into great detail here. Basically, we know he's capable of hitting 30 bombs and putting up a .950 OPS. But he's also capable of getting into extended slumps and frustrating everyone with bad swings and letting good pitches go by. If he can put up another .380 OBP and stay healthy enough to keep the slugging up, he'll have a good year by my book.

• Brad Lidge. Hoo boy. Here we go again. Lidge has always had the potential to be the best closer in baseball, but two things can implode on him: his control and his mental toughness. He really had problems commanding the fastball last year, so hopefully he can correct that. His 1.40 WHIP scares me more than his 5.28 ERA from last year. The early going will be critical for him. If he starts out hot, getting his first 9 of 10 saves or so, I think he'll do okay on the year.

• Woody Williams. It's not his talent I'm worried about: He's a lock for a mid-4 ERA. The question is how many starts he'll make. Two hundred innings is asking a lot, but 25 starts and a 4.20-4.50 ERA would be fine.

• Jason Jennings. I wonder if he'll benefit from Ausmus catching him. Either way, his sinker should benefit from being at sea-level. Unlike Woody, his health isn't an issue. Can he get the job done in a much better offensive division? Our playoff hopes may hinge on that question. I hope he can produce a 4 ERA over 200 innings, but 4.30 is more likely.

• Chris Burke. Like Ensberg, he had injury problems that clearly affected his production last year. If he stays healthy, and is able to pull himself out of slumps more quickly, I think he'll have a fine year. I worry about his arm and his ability to catch on the run. I still have nightmares about the ball that got over his head in left field in the 2005 NLCS. Man that was ugly. Anyway, I'm still hoping for a 280/.360/.440 line.

• Luke Scott. OK, Luke. You carry a gun and you have ridiculous TV ads about your relationship with Darth Vader. You've also got a starting corner outfield position. Can you dominate like last year? Obviously he was over his head last year with his 1.047 OPS, but a .290/.350/.500 would be perfectly acceptable.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

OK. Deep breath. Purpura just traded Willy Taveras, Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh to Colorado for Jason Jennings and Miguel Asencio. My first impression was that we got absolutely ripped on this trade. We panicked after losing out on Pettitte and overpaid for a 'quality starter' who's only had two decent years. We gave up a terrific prospect in Jason Hirsh and two improving young players.

But after sitting with the trade for a few hours, it's not as bad as I first thought. First of all: Willy is not an above-average centerfielder. Even with his tremendous defense, he simply doesn't get on base enough for him to be effective. We've all heard the rumors of him trying to improve his discipline and batter's eye this offseason, but we shouldn't have expected a dramatic upswing of his offensive numbers. Plus, we have finally found a spot for Chris Burke. Yes, we're taking a step backward on our defensive outfield, but the offensive improvement will more than make up for it. Essentially — and Jack and I have stated this several times — Taveras is really a defensive replacement/pinch runner.

Second: Buchholz was not an integral part of our team's future. Doubts about his health cast a shadow on his future, and with Sampson, Nieve, Patton, Albers, Wandy and Astacio in the minors, Buchholz wasn't exactly a jewel on the team's depth chart.

In other words, Buchholz and Taveras are easily replacable. I'm not sure what their VORPs have been, but I'm guessing they're both pretty neutral.

I don't know much about Miguel Asencio other than the Royals didn't want him. He's apparently got a live arm, but I don't see him as a bullpen option anytime soon.

This trade was all about Jennings for Hirsh. Jennings had a very good year in 2006. He finally got a handle on his walk rate, and produced a 3.78 ERA with a 1.37 WHIP in 32 starts and 212 innings. If he can do that for the Astros, I'd be happy. In short, Jennings isn't going to go nuts and win 20 games. And he likely won't fall apart and post a 5+ ERA. There are a lot of uncertainties, but in all likelihood, he'll post an ERA around 4 while producing a ton of groundballs for Everett and Biggio.

Hirsh was the man last year. He'll probably be the man for a few years, too. He was inconsistent in the majors when he finally got called up, but you know he'll figure it out and become a very good pitcher very soon. He'll probably be better than Jennings before too long.

So I guess it was a question of proven-ness versus potential. The Astros apparently weren't sold on Hirsh as a quality starter for years to come, so they dealt him for someone who has the experience and — supposedly — the ability to be a consistent regular.

Purpura said he hadn't spoken with Jennings about a multi-year deal. He was born in Dallas and went to Baylor, though, so it's possible he'll become one of those good ol' Texas boys. Let's just hope everyone stays healthy. I guess only time will tell the degree to which this trade was a bust.

We still have two wide open rotation spots... scroll down to see my candidates for free-agent and trade targets.

Monday, December 11, 2006

If you missed my rundown of free-agent starting pitchers the Astros should target, scroll on down to check it out. My mind's been rambling this Monday, so I decided to investigate possible trades the Astros might be looking to work out. There are quite a few teams with a plethora of pitchers — the Dodgers, Phillies, White Sox, Pittsburgh and Florida. We should definitely explore our options with these teams to see who's available and for what price.

Let's keep in mind, though, that Jason Hirsh is penciled into our rotation for 2007. To trade him for a starting pitcher practically negates our objective of solidifying the rotation. Our trade candidates are few and — to be honest — not too great. Taveras, Burke, Ensberg, Lidge, Wheeler, Buchholz and Scott should be on the table. Hirsh, Pence and Patton should not.

Rumors have been circulating about Colorado's Jason Jennings. The Rockies tried but failed to sign him to an extension, so they're supposedly focusing on trading him. Jennings had a remarkable campaign last year, but let us not forget about his past three years and his 5.00+ ERAs. He was finally able to find his command and lower his walk totals. Away from Coors, he's put up a 4.37 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in his career. Not exactly stellar. Let's not put him on a pedestal before we trade for him. In other words, just because we're desperate for starters doesn't mean we should cough up Hirsh or Wheeler.

The Dodgers are allegedly shopping Brad Penny after acquiring Jason Schmidt. Penny is a quality starter when he's healthy, but he's a regular on the disabled list. He came out of the gates smoking and started the All-Star Game in July, only to post a 6+ ERA over the second half of the season. Penny will make $7.5 million in 2007 and $8.5 million 2008, with a club option for $8.75 million in 2009 or a $2 million buyout. The Dodgers don't appear to have many needs at starting positions; they're probably going with Wilson Betemit as their full-time thirdbaseman to start the year. They could use relief help or prospects. Maybe Dan Wheeler and Buchholz could be a starting block.

The Phillies are overloaded with starters. They have Myers, Moyer, Lieber, Hamels, Garcia and Eaton. They're probably shopping Lieber and Myers. Lieber will make $7.5 million in 2007; Myers made $3.3 million in 2006 and will be a free agent after 2008. The Phillies are also shopping Pat Burrell, but now that we have Lee, I don't think we'll be interested. They appear to need a right-fielder, but Jason Lane is not exactly a hot commodity. It' possible they would be interested in swapping centerfielders, and that's something I think is worth pursuing. Lane-Taveras-Nieve for Lieber-Rowand would be interesting.

Would the Mets be willing to part with Aaron Heilman for Chris Burke? They need a right-handed-hitting secondbaseman, and Heilman has expressed interest in starting. That could be a very interesting target. I seriously hope we inquire about this.

Florida is rich in young talent, and Willy Taveras somehow impresses them. I'd deal for Josh Johnson or Scott Olsen. Of course, if we wanted Dontrelle Willis, we'd have to pay the price.

Pittsburgh, like Florida, has the young studs, and appears willing to deal them. Paul Maholm's name has surfaced, and Zach Duke would be an interesting target. They're looking for a left-handed right-fielder or firstbaseman, so perhaps Luke Scott would be a good fit?

Cleveland would appear to have its rotation set with Sabathia-Lee-Westbrook-Byrd-Sowers, but they may try to test the trade waters to see what they can get. After getting Borowski and Hernandez, their bullpen might be set, but maybe Lidge would interest them. They allegedly offered Westbrook for Lidge this offseason, and it would be interesting to see where those discussion lead.

Baltimore probably wants to rid itself of Rodrigo Lopez, and they probably don't want a whole lot. Would a prospect get it done?

Oakland has dangled their starters Blanton, Haren and Harden, and Billy Beane loves Chris Burke. He's no dummy, though. If Harden's healthy, could we get him for Burke and Lidge?

I don't think there's much truth behind the Peavy rumors, but it's worth investigating. They want a righty secondbaseman to pair with Todd Walker, and they could use an outfielder or a thirdbaseman, depending on how they view this Kouzmanoff guy. But c'mon... it's Peavy.

Washington's John Patterson is a stud if he's healthy, but the Natties are looking to add pitching depth, not deal it. They could use a corner outfielder, but I don't think we have what it takes.

The Angels' John Lackey would make sense. But is he worth trading away Ensberg?

Of course, the Garland deal could always be revisited, but hopefully Hirsh will be off-limits.

Good deal. Let's get trading...
Geez... I leave town for a weekend and we lose Andy Pettitte. I'm actually not sure what to make about this whole deal. One thing's for sure: People are making way too big a deal out of it. Players leave all the time. Maddux and Glavine left Atlanta, after all. Houston shouldn't feel like we're different from other ball clubs just because we have this "hometown team" image.

Here's what I know about the Pettitte situation: Pettitte said he wanted to pitch next year. We offer $12 million for one year. At some point, the Yankees offer $16 million with a player option for the same deal in 2008. Pettitte asks the Astros to improve their offer, but ends up going to the Yankees.

Here's what I don't know: I don't know if the Astros offered $14 million for one year, a deal that reportedly would have lured Pettitte back to Houston. I don't know if Purpura and McLane were adamant about not offering a two-year deal or a one-year deal with a player option. I don't know what kind of contract it would have taken to sign Pettitte. I also don't know what condition Pettitte's elbow was in.

I do remember being upset when we non-tendered Wade Miller. He was a good pitcher for us, but had constant arm problems. Non-tendering him was actually a smart move business-wise.

I don't know why everyone's upset. I don't think Pettitte did anything wrong, and I don't blame Purpura for avoiding a bidding war with New York. Pettitte probably wanted another year or a player option, but I don't think the Astros were willing to give him that. Yes, Pettitte will be sorely missed in the Astros' now-depleted rotation. He was a good pitcher when healthy, and maybe we'll see him back in Houston someday.

Anyway, there's no use crying over him. He's a Yankee now, so let's keep this offseason party rolling. If nothing else, it's sure been an exciting ride so far, eh?

Time to play "Let's Find A Starting Pitcher!" Most of the top free-agents starters been signed, but there are still several options. Here's a list of pitchers that will cost us next-to-nothing. At first glance, they're not very appealing, but bear with me: Tony Armas, Bruce Chen, Shawn Estes, Rick Helling, Jason Johnson, Brian Lawrence, Ohka, Ramon Ortiz, Chan Ho Park, Mark Redman, Aaron Sele, Jeff Suppan, John Thomson, Steve Trachsel, Jeff Weaver, Jamey Wright. I've left off a few starters that I think we have no chance of signing, for better or worse (Zito and David Wells). Several of these pitchers won't get a major-league deal, and they don't deserve one. But there are a handful that might surprise you. Check 'em out:

Pitcher A: Career 4.11 ERA, 1.32 WHIP in 4.5 seasons. From 2002-05, averaged 33 starts and 204 IP. Over his career, creates nearly twice as many groundballs as flyballs (a 1.86 GB/FB ratio). Career 5.58 Ks per 9, 2.45 BBs per 9. Will turn 31 in May.

Pitcher B: Career 4.58 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in 8 seasons, averaging 30 starts per year. Slight ground-ball pitcher (1.16 GB/FB). Career 6 Ks per 9, 2.45 BBs per 9. Will turn 31 in August, and has a World Series ring.

Pitcher C: Career 4.65 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in 6.5 seasons, averaging 30 starts over the past 5 years. Pretty much even ground-ball ratio (1.08 GB/FB). Career 5.47 Ks per 9, 2.93 BBs per 9. Will turn 33 in January, and has a World Series ring.

Player D: Career 4.69 ERA, 1.39 WHIP in 9 seasons. Has made 32 starts the past 2 seasons. Career 5.69 Ks per 9, 2.61 BBs per 9. Alight ground-ball pitcher (1.28 GB/FB). Will turn 34 next October.

Player E: Career 4.68 ERA, 1.38 WHIP in 9.5 seasons. From 1998-2003, averaged 32 starts and 200 IP. After injury took away his 2004 season, he's posted a 3.21 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 84 IP the past two years, mostly as a reliever. Career 6.24 Ks per 9, 3.32 BBs per 9. Totally a fly-ball pitcher (0.67 GB/FB). Will turn 36 on Friday.

Player F: Career 4.60 ERA, 1.39 WHIP in 7 seasons. Has worked about half his career out of the pen. Career 7.17 Ks per 9, 3.48 BBs per 9. Flyball pitcher (0.73 GB/FB). Will turn 30 in June.

Player G; Career 4.45 ERA, 1.42 WHIP in 6 seasons. Played a whole season for the first time since 2002, posting a 5.03 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP. Career 6.59 Ks per 9, 4.30 BBs per 9. Dead-even groundball-to-flyball ratio (1.03 GB/FB). Will turn 29 in April.


Player A: Brian Lawrence. All those stats are awesome. Unfortunately, he had surgery on a torn labrum. He was waived by the Natties, though, so it might be a good idea to pick him up and see if he can get back to a decent level.

Player B: No, it's not Jeff Suppan. It's Jeff Weaver, who had a horrific year before his postseason heroics. Still, teams might be scared off by that nasty 5.76 ERA last year. I'll look at the 4.01 and 4.22 ERAs he put up the previous 2 years with the Dodgers, plus the fact that he's avoided the DL.

Player C: No, this isn't Jeff Suppan either. This one will shock you: it's Mark Redman. He's changed teams every year the past 5 years (Tigers, Marlins, A's, Pirates, Royals). Also, he posted a 5.71 ERA with the Royals in 2006 but was an All-Star! He's been pretty bad the past couple of years, but his career numbers aren't too bad. And a glance at his game log last year indicates he's prone to the bomb-shell starts. In September, for example, he gave up 9 ER and got one out. That'll touch up the ERA.

Player D: John Thomson. He went to Blinn College in Brenham. Go Bucs! He seemed to have a resurgence in Atlanta, but the injury bug caught him again the past two years. When he's healthy, he's capable of being a solid starter.

Player E: Rick Helling. Won 20 games for Texas in 1998. He's done a great job in Milwaukee, and I'd take a gamble on him. He likely won't cost much.

Player F: Bruce Chen. Weird dude. He seems to either bring it (13-10, 3.83, 1.27 for Baltimore in 2005) or suck it (0-7, 6.93, 1.74 in 2006). He was on the Astros for 11 games in 2003, and he's from Panama, like Carlos Lee.

Player G: Tony Armas. his health is the concern, as he's been fairly consistent (and slightly below average) over the course of his career.

OK, hope you enjoyed that. I know I did. Till next time....

Thursday, December 07, 2006

I spent much of Wednesday throwing up. Thanks a lot, cajun catfish. I was well on my way to recovery when Jack text-messaged me this morning: "Garland!" I raced to the computer to check the wires: Different sites and sources were claiming different deals, but as soon as I saw Jason Hirsh's name thrown around, I nearly wanted to puke again.

Yes, Jon Garland is a good pitcher. I might go so far as to say "pretty good." He's not a dominant pitcher by any means, but he's proven that he's durable (at least 32 starts and 190 innings in 5 straight campaigns), consistent (between 3.50-4.89 ERA). He keeps the ball on the ground, but he gives up a fair shar of homers. He's been very good the past two years with control, but opposing batters hit .294 off him in 2006, a career low.

I suppose he'd be a good addition to our rotation, but not if he's going to cost us a lot in terms of players and money. And the long and hort of it is this: If we get Garland, we are not signing Pettitte. Somehow, I think this might have been a ploy by the Astros front office to shake things up with Pettitte. Richard Justice wrote something along those lines: That Purpura and McLane were tired of being pushed around by free-agents playing the waiting game.

Still, there's no WAY Garland is worth Jason Hirsh. I don't mind giving up Willy Taveras, although I will miss his superb defense in an otherwise subpar outfield. Buchholz reminds me a lot of Kirk Saarloos: They show flashes of genius (like when Barstool and I saw Buchholz's should've-been one-hitter against the Pirates). But everyone in baseball can hit slow fastballs, so they get absolutely hammered when they can't get the heater across. Oh yeah, and they both have really weird names.

Hirsh has got to be off-limits. I know they say there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, but the Astros system is not exactly stacked. Purpura's got to recognize the value in Hirsh, Patton and Pence. I could understand letting one of them go in a monster deal ... Tejada, anyone? But not for an average pitcher like Garland.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Holy crap there's been a ton of rumors around the league lately. Manny Ramirez could go anywhere, and teams are lining up to throw gobs of money for crappy starters like Gil Meche, Ted Lilly and Jeff Suppan. J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo appear to be headed to Boston, but you never know. Maddux is a Padre. Jason Jennings, Adam LaRoche, Pat Burrell, Kevin Mench, Jon Leiber, Jorge Cantu, Craig Monroe and Mike Gonzalez are being tossed around in trade speculation. And there are still free agents like Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt and a guy named Bonds.

The Astros, meanwhile, are likely caught (again) waiting for a pitcher. It's a tough situation — we cannot make any significant signings because we know Andy Pettitte will require more than $10 million a year. If he ends up signing with us, great. But if he goes to the Yankees — and there are rumors to that effect — we've wasted a lot of time.

The big news in Astros deals have been incredibly intriguing but unfortunately unlikely (yeah, alliteration). The Chronicle reports that we've inquired about Jake Peavy. That's great, but he's not going anywhere. I don't consider him Oswalt-quality, but he's close. And for the Padres to give away one of the most valuable players in baseball would be foolish.

What say we? Not that the Padres would even consider it, but some combination of Ensberg, Burke/Pence/Lane, and Hirsh/Nieve/Buchholz/Patton would have to be the starting point. Honestly, I would do a lot to get Peavy. He good. I would trade Ensberg, Lane and Buchholz but not Ensberg, Pence and Hirsh. Funny... I wonder if the Padres know as much our prospects as we do. I'm sure they do. (By the way, I just want to comment about the guy who posted on AstrosDaily who said he didn't want Peavy because his windup would lead to arm problems. This guy then suggested we pursue Dontrelle Willis, who's got the funkiest wind-up since Satchel Paige.)

The Padres don't really need Ensberg, since they traded for Kevin Kouzmanoff already. He's a rookie, though, so it's conceivable they could keep both on the roster. But if by some miracle we pulled off a trade, giving up, say, Ensberg, Burke and Buchholz, we could slide Mike Lamb over to third base, and pray he doesn't go .284 OBP on us again. We *might* have enough left in the bank to resign Pettitte (since we'd essentially be trading Ensberg's salary for Peavy's). That'd give us Oswalt-Pettitte-Peavy-Williams-Hirsh. That's the shit.

Quick note: I absolutely do not comprehend our third-base "problem." There shouldn't be a problem here. Ensberg is awesome, and he's our starter. What's the problem? He was crushing the ball, until he started slumping. Then he hurt his shoulder, but didn't want to stop playing, so he stayed in and his stats suffered. He got benched down the stretch, but still posted a .396 OBP and hit 23 homers. Here's the comparison between Ensberg and Lamb:

ME: .235/.396/.463, 23 HRs, 58 RBI, 101 BB, 96 Ks, 387 ABs
ML: .307/.361/.475, 12 HRs, 45 RBI, 35 BB, 55 K, 381 ABs

Don't know about you, but I'd say Morgan was better. Over their careers:

ME: .270/.372/.486, 97 HRs, 304 RBI, 288 BB, 347 Ks, 1848 ABs
ML: .280/.335/.423, 57 HRs, 273 RBI, 171 BB, 325 Ks, 2110 ABs

Yep. Morgan is still better by a long shot. He'll probably cost $2 million to $3 million more, but factor in defense, and he is worth the price. I just cannot understand the reasoning behind trading Ensberg. I guarantee he'll rebound in 2007. Perhaps not to his 2005 levels, but damn near.

Houston has also been linked with the Padres' catcher, Josh Bard, who had a pretty remarkable year, hitting .338/.406/.537 in 231 ABs last year. Not bad. He's definitely the kind of platoonmate (I hesitate to call him a back-up) we could use at catcher. He's not expensive, and we would have control of him for a few years (3?). I wonder what the cost would be for just Bard. I'd think about trading Lane or Buchholz for Bard straight-up. And maybe Ensberg/Burke/Buchholz for Peavy/Bard. Man, there is no way in hell the Padres do that.

Jason Jennings has been the topic of trade rumors to several teams, including the Cubs and Twins. Jennings is good, durable and a Texan, but he would be a free agent after 2007. The Rockies need a centerfielder, and they seem to like Chris Burke for some reason. I would do this trade straight-up right now. It's really a no-brainer. Trade a back-up whose at-bats are going to plummet for an above-average starting pitcher. We could still sign Pettitte for a rotation of Oswalt-Pettitte-Jennings-Williams-Hirsh. Not bad. I think, however, the Rockies would want more. Brad Hawpe is a good player, but the pieces don't appear to fit, not with the Astros holding onto Luke Scott for the forseeable future.

If I had to make a wager, I'd bet we make two more major moves this offseason: Signing Andy Pettitte and signing another lefty reliever. There's actually quite a few free agents out there: Alan Embree, Kent Merker, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes, J.C. Romero, Scott Schoeneweis, Ron Villone. But it's cool to speculate. And it's also cool to surf baseball rumor Web sites all day instead of working.