Thursday, January 18, 2007

Every year, Baseball Prospectus comes out with their annual PECOTA projections, which estimate what every major league baseball player will do in the coming year. They're more than estimations, really; year after year, PECOTA is by far the best projection system out there. I thought I'd take a lot at a few of their Astros projections, and analyze what I think of them.

In alphabetical order, here are the Astros hitters with their position, age, BA / OBP / SLG lines and then their VORP (Value Over Replacement Player):

Brad Ausmus, C, 38: .227 / .296 / .294, -5.7

It'd be funny if it weren't so sad. We're paying something like $3 million for this? Oh, and just for giggles, PECOTA doesn't even give him a defensive advantage anymore, rating Ausmus's defense as a "0", which is exactly average.

Lance Berkman, 1B, 31: .308 / .421 / .573, 57.8

Sweet. Fat Elvis is still solid. That 57.8 VORP is one of the highest in the NL (well behind Albert Pujols's massive 81.4, though)

Craig Biggio, 2B, 41: .256 / .322 / .413, 6.8

That OPS projections of .735 actually isn't terrible, but PECOTA doesn't like Biggio's defense (it rates him as a -4) much. Hopefully Craig gets to 3,000 quickly so it doesn't get ugly if we start playing Mark Loretta often.

Chris Burke, CF, 27: .278 / .348 / .452, 19.6

Sweet! I'll take that line, which puts Burke at exactly an .800 OPS. PECOTA isn't really sure what to think of Burke at CF; neither am I. We'll just have to hope for the best.

Brooks Conrad, 2B, 27: .274 / .345 / .493, 29.2

The "Free Brooks Conrad" campaign continues, with nothing to show for it. Conrad is an excellent offensive prospect - he led his league in extra base hits last year, which isn't too shabby for a 2nd baseman. Chase Utley is one of his top comparables. And none of it matters, because he's behind Biggio, Loretta, AND Burke at 2nd. Hopefully that will be down to just Chris Burke by 2008. Sadly, it looks like Conrad will join a list of Astros hitting prospects that the Astros promoted too slowly and didn't reach the majors until their upper 20's (Ensberg, Lane, Burke). PECOTA even likes his defense, giving him a +3 rating at 2B. One more time: FREE BROOKS CONRAD!

Morgan Ensberg, 3B, 31: .263 / .374 / .484, 27.3

That .374 OBP sure would look nice at the top of the order, wouldn't it? PECOTA likes his defense (+2). I'm really glad we've held on to Ensberg - he's a big offensive and defensive upgrade over a Lamb / Loretta platoon, both of whom should get plenty of AB's anyway.

Adam Everett, SS, 30: .255 / .302 / .385, 6.6

Hard to believe Everett is 30 years old - he still looks about 17. He's still got that defense (+5), but I hope we don't view him as a long long-term solution at SS. I can only take so much of that offense. A Chris Burke / Brooks Conrad combination would be pretty sweet in 2009.

Mike Lamb, 1B/3B, 31: .275 / .338 / .461, 11.2

That's just fine for a backup corner infielder - emphasis on backup. Lamb just doesn't have the complete package to be a starting corner infielder in the majors. That's not meant to be a huge putdown - he's still valuable. PECOTA doesn't mind his defense as much as I do (0).

Jason Lane, RF, 30: .249 / .331 / .475, 8.9

Poor Lane. He ups his walk rate and power numbers last year, but because he hits around .200 for most of the year, people say he had a terrible year. Batting average is notoriously inconsistent. He's been jerked around a bunch by the Astros, including wasting in the majors for a couple of years when he should have been brought up much earlier (see Conrad, Brooks for more of this). He'd make a fine RF platoon with Luke Scott / 4th outfielder, but instead we signed washed-up Richard Hidalgo, who will probably get the job, while Lane gets screwed. I hope we at least get some value back if we trade him.

Carlos Lee, LF, 31: .296 / .359 / .530, 36.6

Pretty good, but not GREAT. People are talking about Lee bashing 40 HR with 130 RBI - even batting behind Berkman, I don't know about that. He's solid and doesn't miss much time, but an .889 OPS isn't extraordinary for a corner OF and his defense is pretty bad (PECOTA: -5). Not worth $100 million, but we do need offense.

Mark Loretta, 2B, 35: .276 / .341 / .388, 12.7

I guess his power outage last year is for real. Loretta's OPS is actually lower than Biggio's, although is superior OBP and defense should help him get some playing time. I'm pretty disappointed by this projection, to tell the truth (I was hoping for .280 / .360 / .400, maybe), but 35 year old 2nd basemen don't normally rebound (right, Ray Durham?....oops.)

Hunter Pence, RF, 24: .278 / .338 / .489, 21.1

That's a good projection for a 24-year old RF, but, kind of like Carlos Lee, not a great one. Pence isn't going to be a superstar, but he should be an above-average RF / CF for maybe 5 years. PECOTA likes his defense (+3), so maybe he can play CF next year. He needs to be starting in the majors full-time by 2008, if not before.

Humberto Quintero, C, 27: .263 / .304 / .397, 5.0

That's not a spectacular line, but it's still 100 points of OPS higher than Brad Ausmus, and Quintero can actually play defense, as opposed to just having a good defensive reputation (PECOTA - +7!!). He's got a great throwing arm, and although he doesn't walk much, doesn't a .400 SLG from a catcher sound nice? If he's not starting over Ausmus in the 2nd half of the season, I'll be shocked and disappointed. There'd be nothing wrong with Quintero as our starting catcher for a few years.

Luke Scott, RF, 29: .270 / .353 / .495, 22.1

Nice! PECOTA doesn't think Scott's 2006 was a total fluke, and if he puts up that line, he'll make a great addition to the Ensberg / Berkman / Lee offensive core. PECOTA doesn't really care for his defense (-1), so a defensive outfield of Lee / Burke / Scott will certainly be an adventure. Throw groundballs, pitchers.

Ok, that's all the major offensive players. Taking all of that into account, let's take a look at our projected 2007 lineup (or at least what I'd like it to be), with their OBP / SLG:

Chris Burke, CF: .348 / .452
Morgan Ensberg: .374 / .484
Lance Berkman: .421 / .573
Carlos Lee: .359 / .530
Luke Scott / Jason Lane: .353 / .495 (.331 / .475)
Craig Biggio/ Mark Loretta: .322 / .413 (.341 / .388)
Adam Everett: .302 / .385
Brad Ausmus / Humberto Quintero: .296 / .294 (.304 / .397)

Those #1 - #5 spots are actually pretty good, huh? Ending with Biggio / Everett / Ausmus hurts a lot, unfortunately. But what are you going to do? Hopefully play Loretta and Quintero often, since they're both good players and to keep Biggio / Ausmus fresh. Next time, I'll look at what PECOTA thinks of our pitchers. Sneak peek: they really don't like Woody Williams.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The offseason isn't over yet — and with only three legitimate starters, let's hope it isn't — but I thought I'd take a look at our team's moves so far this winter. Pretty much all of our major moves were of the "good news/bad news" variety. That is, each of them had value, but with a cost.

The Carlos Lee signing was a big boost for next year's offense. We haven't had a decent lineup since 2004, and it was nice to see GM Tim Purpura address our most glaring weakness. Lee is a masher, and though we'd all like to see him take a few more walks, he'll be a welcome addition to a weak lineup. That's the good news. The bad is that, historically speaking, bulky outfielders of Lee's body type age poorly. If they lose reaction time or bat speed, they really start struggling. The home run balls that once left the yard now only reach the warning track. And Lee's defense is nothing to speak of, and will likely regress throughout the contract.

The Jennings/Pettitte moves were obviously impacted by the Lee contract, which went all the way to $100 million. No one was suggesting anything over $90 million before the press conference, and the nine-digit contract really left us hamstrung when it came to addressing the pitching staff. I don't know the exact status of Pettitte's elbow, but I wish we could have kept him for another year. The Jennings trade, in my opinion, was a little rushed. I think we were in freak-out mode since we lost Pettitte, and decided to acquire Jennings at any cost. I don't think Hirsh will ever devlelop into an All-Star, but he had the makings of a workhorse who could put up decent numbers and throw a lot of innings. You know, someone like ... Jason Jennings. I suppose time will tell the outcome of this trade.

I have to say, the decision to keep Ensberg was one of my most appreciated moves made this offseason. We could have signed Huff to put up inferior numbers for almost twice the price, but we decided to stick with Morgan, who could possibly rebound to post a .900 OPS. I think that's how lots of teams succeed: They collect a bunch of players with upside, hoping that they can all get hot and put up numbers and help the team win. Check out the 2006 Tigers or the 2003 Marlins. There weren't any superstars (except for the 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera), but the GMs collected a bunch of decent players who all got hot and won a lot of games. Ensberg is sort of like a gamble. Yes, he could suck and bat .230 again. But he could rebound and post a .950 OPS. And for a $5 million contract, that's worth the risk.

Woody Williams, like Lee, was expected to sign with the Astros when the 2006 season ended. He's a fly-ball pitcher who's no good against righties, so he wouldn't appear to be an effective pitcher in The Juicebox. But you never know. He's produced couple of "rebound" years before, where he's posted really good numbers from out of nowhere. I don't expect 18 wins or a 3.50 ERA, but I hope he stays healthy and doesn't mind a really crappy outfield defense.

The Loretta deal is the best deal so far this offseason, but, sadly, also the least important. I'd be surprised if he gets 250 ABs, so the impact on the team will be minimal. I doubt he can play shortstop effectively. Rather, I should say I doubt Garner will let him replace Everett on a regular basis. The unfortunate aspect is that he's eerily similar to Biggio — an old second baseman who's suddenly incapable of hitting on the road. He is a definite upgrade over Bruntlett, but his impact will be minimal.

I think our lineup, even with Everett and Ausmus, has vastly improved from last year. Burke, Scott and Lee essentially replace Taveras, Lane and Preston Wilson in the starting lineup. That's a tremendous plus. Our bench improves: Lamb, Lane, Loretta, Bruntlett, Palmeiro and Quintero is solid, although I'd like to see a solid defensive replacement in center.

Our pitching staff, though, has taken a hit. Oswalt, Jennings and Woody form a decent front three, but it would be nice to see more depth there. There are still TONS of unsigned pitchers out there. Only some of them require a major league deal. Ohka, Redman, Lawrence, Weaver, Armas, Chen, Helling, Park, Trachsel, Jerome Williams, Paul Wilson ... I'm not saying they're gonna take us to the World Series, but it would be nice to make some moves that could pan out to be real steals.

Oh, and there's also that Clemens guy.

Anyway, I don't think I've written anything here that I haven't said before, but it's nice to talk baseball.

Monday, January 08, 2007

I think I'm going to get a Mark Loretta Astros uni. The funny thing is, I don't own any Astros jerseys. Berkman or Biggio would be my other top choices... maybe Burke or Oswalt. But just reading about Mark Loretta over the past week has really excited me. The fact that he really wanted to sign here despite the lack of a starting position really signals that he's in it for the right reasons. He likes Garner and Ausmus, likes the stadium and the fans and the city of Houston. What else could you ask for?

Not only that... the man produces. His last year was arguably one of his worst, yet he put up a .345 OBP. He is 35, but he seems to be the type of hitter — making contact, driving balls into the gaps — that ages well. Plus he won't have too heavy a defensive workload, at least not at first. Mabe that'll keep him fresh. Check out his career numbers: 513 Ks to 462 BBs. A .363 OBP. An .886 OPS in Petco in 2004.

Most importantly, though: Loretta was a Northwestern Wildcat. So you know he's on the level.

Also on my mind: Starting picthing. Once again, we get to ride the Clemens rollercoaster. If we have a deal worked out where he signs in June and pitches in the second half, I suppose I could live with two months of Wandy and Nieve/Sampson/Albers. But if he signs elsewhere, we NEED one more starter. Brian Lawrence, Tomo Ohka and Jeff Weaver are still on the market. Brad Penny and Jon Lieber are likely to be traded. Any one of these guys would be a good acquisition.

Man I can't wait for baseball. In the meantime, I'll have to focus on ultimate and disc golf.
It's good to be back in Flagstaff. I'm ready for the new semester, I'm ready to drive my new car (a white 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid) all over the place, and I'm ready for baseball!....but I'll have to hold off on the last one for a while longer. How are the Astros doing these days?

I really like the Mark Loretta deal. He's great insurance for Biggio, and Everett to some extent. I really hope he doesn't see much time at 3B, because we need Ensberg's OBP and Lamb is a fine backup there. But once Biggio gets to 3,000, he really shouldn't be starting more than 3 times a week. That should leave plenty of playing time for Loretta. And if an infielder gets hurt, we've got a great backup guy ready to guy. It's less time for Bruntlett, which is fine by me. He's not very good offensively. I'd like to see Jason Lane make the team over him, because a Scott / Lane platoon in RF would be sweet, but I don't know if it will happen.

I like the idea of the Jennings trade, but not the execution. Hirsh is good but overrated, Buccholz is actually a pretty decent prospect (his BB/K ratio was solid last year - I think he could be better than Hirsh), and Taveras had his uses as a cheap defensive CF / pinch-runner, but none of them are THAT valuable. Neither is Jennings if it's only for one year, unfortunately. The most depressing thing about the trade is when Tim Purpura said he "hasn't even thought" about signing Jennings to a long-term deal. Trade three decent young players for a one-year rental without even thinking about it? BAD.

I'd like to see the 'Stros explore trading for a Phillies starting pitcher. They've got too many, and they've been dangling Jon Lieber. He doesn't walk anybody, and although he'd give up his share of hits and HR's in Minute Maid, he'd be a great #3 or #4 starter with Woody Williams. They're looking for bullpen help - I'd rather not trade Qualls / Wheeler / Lidge, but that's probably who they'll want. Nieve for Lieber? Qualls for Lieber? Something to think about.

Our current OF will almost certainly be bad defensively. Lee is below-average in LF, Burke hasn't played much in CF, and Scott is ok at best in RF. Oh well. Don't be surprised if a few of our pitchers don't do quite as well this year. Woody Williams in particular is a flyball pitcher. Yikes.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Hope everyone had a nice, relaxing holiday season. The Astros didn't do much over the break until this morning, when they *allegedly* signed Mark Loretta to a 1-year, $2.5 million deal. Apparently only Loretta's agent has announced it, so the deal is far from official, but if it's true, I like the signing a great deal. Loretta hasn't slugged much over the past two seasons, but his career .299 BA and .363 OBP will be a great addition to the club. We traded for him back in 2002 at the deadline, and he performed very well for us. I think the front office has always liked his work ethic and baseball skills. Hopefully he won't mind an initial back-up role.

This signing also means that Burke has an evern stronger hold on centerfield. I assumed he might start once a week or so at second, with Bruntlett or Lane filling in at center. But Loretta now will probably get all the extra starts at second, leaving Burke as our clear everyday centerfielder.

Eric Bruntlett must not be too happy about this deal, but that's OK. Yes, he's had some big hits over the past two years, but he hasn't put up the numbers to guarantee him a roster spot. He and Lane are now battling for one spot with the team, unless we decide to go with 11 pitchers.

Haven't heard much from the starting pitching front. Richard Justice wrote in his blog that the Astros were considering inviting a couple of invitees to spring training: Paul Wilson and Pedro Astacio. I like the idea: Everyone know these guys have had the stuff to compete at a high level, but injuries have hampered their careers. If it doesn't cost us anything, give them a chance. I'd still like to pursue other guys, like Brian Lawrence or Tony Armas, but they might require major league deals. A And we should keep our eye on Jeff Weaver, just in case his price falls.