Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Houston Astros

Houston Astros:

2009 Record: 74-88

General Manager: Ed Wade

Manager: Brad Mills

Organizational Philosophy: Current GM Ed Wade has a long history as a baseball executive, sabermetricians hate him and traditionalists love him and he has never been afraid to trade for someone attached to a big contract (Miguel Tejada). His history of acquiring big closers (Billy Wagner, Todd Jones and Ugeuth Urbina during his Phillie days and Jose Valverde, LaTroy Hawkins and, recently, Matt Lindstrom for the Astros) can be debated due to its mixed success but his tenure with the Phillies does make him seem successful in the long run despite that team never making the playoffs while in office.

Wade is an anomaly; on one hand he is a major spender (as exemplified by the fact that since 2001, payroll has increased every year he has been a GM) and the current Astros owner, Drayton McClane, has long denied that his team needs to scale back and rebuild making a dive into the free agent bin a necessity.  But on the other hand, Wade is quite the shrewd talent evaluator (or at least he employs a good and capable crop of scouts and player development officials) and his drafting and handling of players like Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, J.A. Happ and Jimmy Rollins needs to studied and applauded.  Of course, current Astros ownership doesn't put that high of a priority into the amateur and minor league market but I would keep an eye on how Wade handles some of the Astros top minor league talent that were gathered under his watch (Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles, Jiovanni Mier, Jay Austin and Jonathan Gaston).  The 'Stros may hover in mediocrity for the next few seasons but they may be slowly and quietly be building quite the corp of young talent capable to consistently compete in the NL Central (Phillie fans never saw it coming, why should Astro fans?).
2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Roy Oswalt ($15M)
Wandy Rodriguez ($2.6M; arb eligible)
Bud Norris ($400K)
Felipe Paulino ($405K)
Brian Moehler ($3M mutual option)

Roy Oswalt has seen his innings steadily decline since his career high of 241 IP in 2005.  Oswalt has always been flagged as an injury risk based on his "diminutive" size and frame (he is offically listed as 6 feet tall but those who work with him say he is closer to 5' 10") and he did struggle with a series of back injuries in '09.  Oswalt still has excellent command which offsets his usual low K rate.  He has upped his usage on his slider over the past four seasons but at 32 years of age one has to wonder how effective he will be as a #1 starter next season.

Wandy Rodriguez has displayed two excellent seasons in a row despite having a fastball that barely cracks 90 mph.  Rodriguez works mostly with a fastball/curveball combination (over 90% of all pitches the past two seasons were either of these pitches) yet he has been able to keep his command in check.

If the Astros elect to grab another starting pitcher I would imagine that Bud Norris may be the odd man out.  Norris does have an above average fastball/slider combination but that is all he has.  His control has been shaky (4.04 BB/9 in 55 MLB innings) which suggests that bullpen work may maximize his value.

Felipe Paulino has become the anomaly du jour among some very smart baseball analysts.  Looking at his basic stats, Paulino looked like another underachieving young pitcher; he posted a miserable 3-11 record with a 6.27 ERA and gave up a shocking amount of HR's (20 in 97 IP).  Of course, he was hounded by some obvious bad luck: his BABIP registered at .368 and his strand rate was lowish at 67.6%.  His above average K rate (8.57), average control (3.41) and leanings towards the GB (1.08 GB/FB) suggests a major bounceback next season. 

The Astros mutually agreed on Brian Moehler's service for one more season. He does nothing outstanding but his low BB totals does leave the door open to a decent season if he could find a little luck in 2010. Last season he did fall victim to a high-ish BABIP (.325) and low strand (66%). If those numbers averaged out, Moehler would be a decent #5.

The Astros are looking to add some depth to this rotation.  Talks have surrounded around Brett Myers, Aroldis Chapman, and Ben Sheets (although I suspect the final two names to be a bit expensive and risky in 2010).  I think adding an innings eater like Myers or Jon Garland for a single season would be a wise move.  Of course Myers is coming off a few minor injuries but if he could string together 160+ average innings, that would help.


Matt Lindstrom ($410K; arb eligible)
Brandon Lyon ($4.25M)
Jeff Fulchino ($400K)
Alberto Arias ($400K)
Tim Byrdak ($1M; arb eligible)
Chris Sampson ($450K; arb eligible)
Samuel Gervacio ($400K)

In a financially driven move, the Marlins agreed to trade Matt Lindstrom to the Astros for two minor leaguers (RHP Robert Bono, SS Luis Bryan).  Lindstrom comes into next season after having an up and down season in 2009 due to early season injuries to his rotator cuff and elbow (surgery was not necessary in both cases).  Lindstrom has seen his K rate and BB rate trend the wrong way since his callup in 2007.  Last season, Lindstrom struggled with his command early and posted a 4.56 BB/9 while his K rate registered at 7.42.  He did return to form during the second half and posted a 2.0 BB/9 but his shrinking K's could be a problem.

The recent signing of Brandon Lyon may have been the Astros way of hedging their bet with Lindstrom but a closer look at Lyon's numbers he may competing with Lindstrom as the team's closer.  Lyon struggled early last season but aided by an extremely low BABIP (.229) and high strand rate (80.8%) he was able to post a successful ERA of 2.86 in a set-up role in 2009.  This was also achieved with a low K rate (6.52) and a career high in BB's (3.55 BB/9).  With all these variables it would be foolish not to expect some regression.

After years of stinking it up in AAA with three different organizations, Jeff Fulchino put together a very effective season in 82 MLB innings in '09.  Fulchino posted a 7.79 K/9 and a 2.96 BB/9 and used his groundball tendencies (47%) to keep the ball in the park.  He mostly works with a fastball/slider combination and his low contact % and ability to induce batters to swing outside the zone at an above average rate further added to his success.  Fulchino will be 30 next season and if these skill stick he'll probably find himself in more high pressure situations in 2010.

Alberto Arias took his extreme GB tendencies and put together a solid year out of the bullpen.  His fastball averaged out to 93 mph last season but he does pitch to contact and will depend on a very capable defense behind him.  He'll be an intriguing option next season.

Tim Byrdak will be the main LHP option out of the bullpen next season.  In 2009, he took his usual high K rate but lousy command and found himself as the beneficiary of a lot of luck last season.  His BABIP was an incredibly low .201 while his strand rate came in high at 85.9%.  Next season I expect Byrdak to strikeout his fair share of hitters but he'll be doing it with less impressive surface numbers.

Chris Sampson is another GB specialist who excells at keeping the ball in the park (only 2 HR's allowed in 55 IP) but was stung by a high BABIP as he found a lot of hits falling through.  Sampson tended to go with his slider a lot more last season, he doesn't strike out a lot of batters on average but his command was a bit off which could account for his slider as an out pitch missing its mark.  If he can harness his command back to earlier levels he should be fine.

Sammy Gervacio showed flashes of being a future closer in just 21 IP last season.  He'll be 25 at the start of next season and does have a lot of promise despite his small frame and side-arm delivery.  His K rates and GB trends have been excellent in the minors and he has shown the ability to improve his command despite a delivery that could cause him to open up too soon before releasing (this link over at baseball-intellect goes a bit further in examing Gervacio's delivery).

The Astros also have two other intriguing prospects who seem destined as key players in a MLB bullpen despite struggles with their command.  Wesley Wright had an impressive winter and may be getting a shot as a starter this spring.  Wright's always had impressive K rates (9.47 K/9 last season in 44 MLB innings) but his command is shaky.  Wright will be 25 next season and his ability to strike out many batters as an LHP will always make him valuable but his small frame and shaky BB rates may make Wright as a starter a short-lived experiment next season.

Chia-Jen Lo was recently signed out of Tawain and at 24 is in talks as being the next Astros closer.  Lo also has shown struggles with command but he is expected to start the season in AAA and could see a call-up during the midseason.

On the field:

C: Humberto Quintero ($610K; arb eligible)
C: J.R. Towles ($400K)
1B: Lance Berkman ($14.5M)
2B: Kazuo Matsui ($5.5M)
SS: Tommy Manzella ($400K)
3B: Pedro Feliz ($4.5M)
INF: Jeff Keppinger ($427K; arb eligible)
LF: Carlos Lee ($19M)
CF: Michael Bourn ($435K; arb eligible)
RF: Hunter Pence ($439K; arb eligible)
OF: Jason Michaels ($800K)

The catching position doesn't look too promising with light-hitting Humberto Quintero set to be the starter in 2010.  Quintero took over a major share of the catching duties late last season after J.R. Towles struggled to hold on the starting job.  Towles may have been rushed through the system after going from high A to the MLB in one season but after a few prior seasons of dealing with various injuries, the Astros are showing some impatience as Towles struggles with injuries and frequent strikeouts. 

Towles will be 26 at the start of next season and does show promise in terms of power but his inability to command the strikezone and the emergence of Houston's newset star prospect, Jason Castro, could close the book on Towles' career in Houston very soon.

Lance Berkman has shown no slowing down in terms of peripheral stats but after years of consistent playing, the injury bug did creep up a bit last season.  After being relatively healthy, Berkman struggled with a sore calf that cost him 20 days along with frequent back spasms during the second half.  Next season, Berkman should still hit at the same level of production fans expect but, at the age of 34, injuries may become more and more frequent.

Kaz Matsui has also been affected by injuries for the sceond year in a row.  Last season, Matsui had a major step back in terms of commanding the strike zone as his BB% went down as his K% went up.  Another troubling trend is the decline of his speed and as Matsui enters his age 34 season; what this will do for a player who depends on outrunning so many frequent groundballs?
At SS, the team (as of early January) seems determined to have Tommy Manzella be the everyday player.  Defensively, Manzella can hold his own but offensively he can be a liability. After carving out a career in AAA, Manzella has averaged less than .400 slugging and his BB% is considered below average.  As an everyday player, Manzella will be expected to strike out quite often and will weaken the bottom of the Astros batting order.

Depending on who you talk to, the Astros have arguably thrown away $4.5 million dollars in the vain effort that Pedro Feliz  will hit 20 HR's again.  Last season, Feliz hit a feeble .266/.308/.386 in 580 AB's.  He has never been good at commanding the strike zone (BB rate averages at 5.1% while his his K rate hovers around 15%) and his power has dropped significantly the past three seasons (.121 ISO in 2009).  Feliz will be 35 next season and now projects as a backup corner INF.

After three seasons of frequent injuries and below average defense, Jeff Keppinger's status as a projected starter has finally faded.  Tommy Manzella's bat and Kaz Matsui's injuries may force him into the fold but not much contribution will be expected.

Another aging piece of Houston's offense is Carlos Lee.  In 2009, Lee came back from a broken pinkie that sidelined him during the second half of '08.  Lee is no longer a stolen base threat and his regressing defense do have others mentioning Lee as a better AL option at DH; however, his contact rates still measure above average and his power and ISO rates still suggest that he is still good for 25+ HR's next season.  Lee still has three full seasons left on his contract and his desire to stay in Texas makes him very hard to trade (not that that Houston would do anything foolish like properly rebuild or anything...).

Michael Bourn has made some offensive strides since being traded to Houston in the 2007 offseason.  Bourn will be 27 next season and after hitting the ball with a little more force last season (LD% increased from 16% to 21% in '09), Bourn also used his speed to beat out the high frequency of GB's he hits for a line of .285/.354/.384.  Of course a high BABIP (.366) played a huge part in elevating his batting average but increases in his BB% and improvements vs. LHP do point to some positive trends to look forward to in 2010.

In my post about the San Francisco Giants a few months back, I proposed a few trade scenarios involving Matt Cain and I did mention Hunter Pence as a possible piece (although I did mention my reservations about Pence's long-term abilities).  Over the past few seasons Pence has displayed decent offensive output with a stat line of: .282/.346/.472 with 25 HRs and 14 stolen bases in 2009. During this timespan, Pence's batting average and BB% has increased but what I find most troubling is his high GB% (52.8%) in relation to his low LD% (14.6%). These numbers can be a cause of concern especially with his high FB/HR rate of 16%. Despite all these ground balls hit Pence has never been the lucky recipient of a high BABIP (mostly due to his low LD rate) but to ever see him as a future .300 hitter would be a bit of a stretch. So, where does that leave Pence in terms of value? I would venture to say that his value lies in his ability to hit HR's and steal a few bases but those numbers I mentioned above involving LD's and GB's can be pretty good predictors in terms of future power.

In Pence's defense, he will be 27 at the start of next season and doesn't represent much of a financial gamble since he doesn't qualify to be a free agent until after the 2014 season but to expect him to be a consistent 20+ HR hitter and follow the same hitting trends he has over the past few season would be impossible and something no other major league player (to my mind) has ever done.

Next Season's Forecast:  In terms of pitching I think Houston will be fine as competitors in the NL Central.  Both Oswalt and Rodriguez represent excellent options at the top of their rotation and the depth they have bullpen-wise should help offset any future problems they may have should Lindstrom and/or Lyon regress in sny high leverage situations. 

The main problem I see with the Astros is their aging offense and the question marks they have at SS and Catcher.  The projected batting order for the (as of now) 2010 Houston Astros looks like this:

1. Michael Bourn - L
2. Kaz Matsui - B
3. Lance Berkman - B
4. Carlos Lee - R
5. Hunter Pence - R
6. Pedro Feliz - R
7. Tommy Manzella - R
8. Humberto Quintero - R

If Bourn continues to make improvements in his plate judgement and consistently hit LD's (a good indicator of healthy BABIP rates) then the top of the order will be fine.  However, hitters 6-9 will be a problem and this will cause the team to hit a wall as offensive struggles become the main cause of concern for the Astros in 2010.

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