Friday, February 16, 2007

Great day. My roommate Chris and I went to the batting cages to get ready for our slow-pitch co-ed D-league softball season that starts next week. Man, those pitches come slow. You gotta WAIT! Afterwards, we went back home and tossed the baseball around. My right arm has been pretty banged up since I ran into David Pillar playing ultimate three weekends ago. But it's feeling better, and I should be 100 percent by our first game on Thursday. I'm really excited, especially because I'm the captain/coach, so I get to do the lineup and fielding positions. The key is the girls: There has to be a girl in the battery, two girls in the infield and two in the outfield. Ideally, we'll have a girl who can catch at first base.

While I'm getting ready for softball, the Astros are slowly getting ready for spring training. Here are the most important things to watch for this spring:

• Who's starting? After Oswalt, Jennings and Williams, we have two question marks. Garner said a few days ago that Wandy has the experience, and his 19-20 record in his two years is decent. Well I got some not-so-pretty numbers for you, Phil: 5.58 and 1.53, Wandy's career ERA and WHIP. I don't want that. Chris Sampson, Fernando Nieve, Matt Albers, Dave Borkowski, Brian Moehler and Zeke Astacio will be considered for starting spots. I like Sampson, Nieve and Albers, but their major-league experience is minimal.

• How's Burke doing in center? He'll obviously be playing there constantly, and it will be interesting to see how he's doing on adjusting his routes and making long throws. I saw another blog discussing the best outfield "arms" in 2006. The dude got stats on every outfield throwing situation: "holds" and "kills" on runners advancing from first to third on a single; trying to score from second on a single; trying to score from first on a double; etc. And Willy Taveras had by far the best "arm" of major-league centerfielders. His kill rate was ridiculous, and his hold percentage was not spectacular but still above-average. The blogger's assumption was that since Taveras was still relatively young, more coaches and baserunners tested him arm. I can remember a couple of assists at home plate, and I generally held Willy T in high regard when it came to his arm, but I didn't think he was top in the league! I assume runners will be testing Burke's arm this year, too, so hopefully he can hold his own out there.

• Who wins the Lane vs. Hidalgo battle? There's just not enough room to carry both of them. Hidalgo is clearly the sentimental favorite, but Lane has been working hard this offseason to earn his spot on the spring. Hidalgo had a monster winter league in Venezuela, while Lane shat the bed. Hidalgo has the better arm in right field, but Lane *supposedly* can play center, which might be important if we don't carry Bruntlett.

• How can we possibly carry 12 pitchers? Garner says he needs 12, but I don't see why. He overuses his main relievers anyway, and the Astros got rid of Russ Springer specifically because they said he couldn't pitch multiple innings. Oswalt, Jennings and Williams are locks in the rotation, and Lidge, Wheeler, Qualls and Miller are locks in the pen. If, say, Albers and Nieve are the fourth and fifth starters, we could carry Borkowski and Sampson as the spot starter/mop-up guys. That would seem to work, at least for the first few months of the season.

The reason I'm against 12 pitchers is because of our bench. After our starters (Biggio, Burke, Berkman, Lee, Ensberg, Scott, Everett, Ausmus ... in some order), we'll have either 5 or 6 bench spots. Lamb, Loretta, Palmeiro and a backup catcher (see below) are locks for the bench. If we carry 12 pitchers, that leaves exactly one bench spot left between Hidalgo, Lane and Bruntlett. See what I'm getting at here?

Bruntlett's versatility, particularly his ability to play CF and SS well, make him practically necessary on the roster. If he doesn't make the team, who'd play center when Burke rests? Who'd play short to spell Everett? Burke and Everett won't play everyday, and I do NOT like the idea of Lane in center or Loretta at short, even briefly. We'll have a better idea of the roster in a few weeks, but I can't see a way around carrying 11 pitchers. Maybe — and this is a long shot — we can release Palmeiro. I like him more than Jack does, because I think there is some value to a pinch-hitter who, if nothing else, will make contact. But he really is the weakest link on our bench, especially with Loretta as a contact specialist and Lamb as our lefty off the bench. Of course, we'd have to eat his 900K.

• Who's the backup catcher? We got Humberto Quintero, Hector Gimenez and Eric Munson. To be honest, I'm not too excited about any of them, especially Munson. He's got some pop, but he didn't exactly make the most of his opportunity last year. Oh, and his career line? That'd be .211/.286/.400. Stay away.

Humberto and Hector are both out of options, so whoever doesn't make the team out of ST will have to clear waivers before they can accept an assignment. Gimenez, 24, was OK at Round Rock in 2006, hitting .273/.331/.389 in 275 ABs. But he tore it up in Venezuela this winter, hitting .302/.377/.547 in 53 ABs. He's a switch-hitter, and I think his defense is decent.

Quintero is older (27) but has a better track record. He posted an .800 OPS in 200 ABs at Round Rock in 2005 before getting 59 mostly worthless ABs for the Astros that year. He followed that up with a .298/.352/.425 line in 292 ABs at Round Rock in 2006 before going 7-for-21 with the Astros in the fall. Q also performed well in Venezuela, hitting .302/.324/.475 in 139 ABs. PECOTA lists him with a +7 defensive rating, which is about as high as they go.

So it's hard to say who we should hold onto. Neither appears to be any sort of long-term solution, but both could serve as an adequate transition from the Ausmus years to the J.R. Towles/Max Sapp generation. I think both Quintero and Gimenez are capable of posting a .270/.330/.400 line in 100-200 ABs, which is a hell of a lot better than Ausmus' line. Gimenez's age makes me think he could improve with time, but Quintero's defense and track record make him pretty attractive. Either way, this is probably the least important decision the Astros will make this spring.

I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am about baseball right now.

And to make me even happier, The Houston Chronicle reports that Tim Purpura has discussed a contract extension with Jason Jennings' agent. This is great news. Jennings will make $5.5 million this year, and I think Purpura is open to the idea of paying him more this year in order to lock him up for 2-3 more years. I doubt Jennings will want to settle for 4 years, $40 million, given what Gil Meche and Ted Lilly made this offseason. But I really hope that they keep the communication lines open. After trading Jason Hirsh for him, I'd really like to see Jennings as an Astro through 2010.

How awesome is 'The Office'?

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