30 Teams in 30 Days: Houston Astros Roundtable

Astros

Our guest bloggers is Matt Seybold from The Sporting Hippeaux and James from Astros County.

Question 1 – Will the Astros move towards a youth movement?
Matt: No, never. Ed Wade hates young people. They make him feel old.

Obviously, the Astros should be fully-immersed in rebuilding mode right now. They should be seeing if they can get anything in return for Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Roy Oswalt before the trade deadline (probably should’ve shopped them last year). They shouldn’t even be negotiating with guys like Brandon Lyon and Pedro Feliz, much less signing them. They should be handing starting jobs outright to Bud Norris, Jason Castro, Tommy Manzella, and others. Unfortunately, Ed Wade doesn’t play that way. Or, maybe, Drayton McLane won’t let him. He’s still counting on a repeat of the 2005 miracle season.

This organization is in shambles and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Eugene: It doesn’t help that they have no farm system; I haven’t finalized my rankings yet, but I know they are near the bottom, if not in last. Maybe trading those veterans will land them something, but will someone give up something of worth for Lee and his bloated contract? I don’t think he’s bad by any stretch of the imagination, but that contract would be a lot for some teams to take on; they’ll have to eat a lot of it to get a good prospect. Berkman still has worth and might be departing after the season; teams would probably line up for him. Oswalt is still a serviceable pitcher, but he’d need a solid first half to really bring his value where it was 3 years ago.

Daniels: As I mentioned in my Atlanta Braves preview — I think the Braves are going to work like hell to pick up the first good first baseman that becomes available for trade. I also think they’d fall all over themselves to get a hold of Berkman for a package of prospects from their generally high-rated farm system. Berkman gives them extra power they need for their 2010 campaign and a $15M option for 2011. Even if the Braves had to guarantee that option to get Berkman to waive his no trade clause, I think they’d absolutely do it. This gives them another full year to let Freddie Freeman (their top 1B prospect) season in the minors. The should absolutely get younger this year with multiple guys who are getting to the “I just want to play for a contender” portion of their careers. Whether that’s enough to get them to waive the full no-trade clause that Ed Wade loves to give his superstars remains to be seen. Roy Oswalt’s and Lance Berkman’s contracts are completely tradable. Carlos Lee’s — not so much.

Matt: You’re right, with three years and $55 Million left, Carlos Lee’s contract is an albatross. However, if he stays on his “normal” pace (.300, 30 HR, 100 RBI) and Wade were willing to eat some of the money on the back end (say $15 Mil.), Houston might still be about to get a decent package in return. Lee would be most appealing to AL teams, who could transition him to DH, either now or in the final years of his contract.

More tradable, certainly, are Berkman and Oswalt, but they are also the faces of the franchise, holdovers from the Bagwell/Biggio years. It will be interesting to see whether McLane is willing to part with them. The Braves would be suitors for Bagwell, as well as possibly the Giants, the Mariners, the White Sox, and the Mets (assuming, of course, that these teams are still in the race come July).

I expect Oswalt to have resurgent season in 2010, assuming his back is feeling stronger. Last season was the first time he’d every experienced a major spike in ERA and his strikeout and walk rates were still right in line with his career norms. I really think he was just trying to pitch through a lot of pain, rather than showing the early signs of decline.

James: The Astros are – in their own, bass-ackwards way – moving towards a youth movement. They shaved off about three years of the average age of the total pitching staff this off-season, and Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino (25, and 26, respectively, I think) should begin the year in the rotation. And they’re going with rookie Tommy Manzella as their shortstop this year, avoiding the urge to bring back Miguel Tejada.

What I think is preventing the Astros from totally rebuilding is the huge contracts that Tim Purpura – not Ed Wade – signed Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Lance Berkman to. You can’t rebuild with $50 million going to three players. So Ed Wade is doing what he can until their contracts come off the books, but they all have limited no-trade clauses, and Carlos Lee – probably the guy most Astros fans would prefer to see get traded – has made it absolutely clear that he will not approve a trade. With the news today of Berkman’s trick knee, he’s less likely to get traded, but he can be bought out at the end of the year if he doesn’t produce or doesn’t get over that knee injury, and the buyout would save the Astros $13 million next year.

Beyond that, the Tim Purpura years were even more disastrous in that their drafts from 2005-2007 were bad. Legendarily bad. So aside from a few key guys (Norris and Paulino, Manzella…maybe), there’s just nothing going on at the Triple-A level. With Ed Wade (and scouting director Bobby Heck’s) last two drafts, the Astros young talent has skyrocketed, just not on a level that can be measured right now. The Astros have three pitchers – Jordan Lyles, Ross Seaton, and Brad Dydalewicz – who dominated last year at Single-A, and may skip High-A to start 2010 at Double-A.

So I think that help is on the way, and the current state of the Astros’ system doesn’t rest on Ed Wade’s shoulders. On my blog (Astros County – join me, won’t you?) I posted a poll asking for the approval rating of Ed Wade. His approval rating? 94%. So there’s a disconnect between what Astros fans – at least the ones who frequent Astros County – and the national media feel about the job Wade is doing.

As for Oswalt and Berkman, it sounds like Oswalt would approve a trade, but to teams like the Braves, Cubs, and Cardinals. And there’s no way Drayton McLane would allow that to happen. It does seem as though Oswalt is energized by the hirings of Brad Arnsberg and Brad Mills, so maybe that will play a role in his resurgence. With Berkman, he’s never played a home game outside of the state of Texas, and while I imagine the Astros would buy him out and try to sign him to a more reasonable contract at the end of the year, it’s doubtful that McLane would allow Wade to trade him.

So with help coming down the road – about the time Lee and Oswalt’s contracts expire – the Astros will be moving in a more youthful direction. They tried – and got 3rd degree burns – with the signings of Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton. It won’t happen again.

Question 2 – Was the Brandon Lyon signing the worst deal of the off-season?
Matt: It’s certainly in the running, especially if you’re among those who believes that the Astros should be fully immersed in rebuilding mode. It was made to look particularly silly when Dombrowski (Tigers GM) turned around and signed the Astros former closer, Jose Valverde, for approximately the same amount of money (although for one less year). Valverde, of course, has a much better track record saving games and significantly better (and more consistent) overall numbers. That said, Lyon has been really good in two out of the last three seasons (in both he worked primarily as a set-up man) and is only 30-years-old, so he should be useful throughout the tenure of his contract, although it remains to be seen whether he’ll be the closer or the primary set-up man. If I were awarding worst signing, I’d probably be slightly more tempted by Marlon Byrd in Chicago, John Lackey in Boston, or Mark DeRosa in San Francisco.

Eugene: I agree that it’s up there. They gave him a lot of money to set up for Matt Lindstrom or be the closer if Lindstrom falters (again). Neither seems to be an over imposing closer. Like Matt said, Valverde signed for near the same dollar amount; he would have been a better option for the price in my opinion.

James: I don’t know about that. I think, ultimately, it wasn’t a great signing, but I don’t think it’s the worst. I had this post wondering if Ed Wade signed Brandon Lyon to force the Tigers to sign Valverde, to whom the Astros had offered arbitration. Because Rodney had left for Anaheim, the only real in-house option at closer for Detroit was Lyon, who was not offered arbitration. So when the Astros signed Lyon to the three-year, $15 million contract, it left the Tigers with no real options beyond Valverde. When the Tigers signed Valverde, the Astros got the Tigers’ 1st round pick and a compensation pick, and will have the #8 and #19 picks, and a supplemental pick between the 1st and 2nd round. Is that worth over-paying for Brandon Lyon? I think so.

So if you want to look at the Lyon signing solely from the “good signing/bad signing” angle, it may not turn out so great for the Astros come 2012, but there’s more to it than that. Jason Kendall’s two-year/$6m deal gets my vote.

Matt: It’s true. The ‘Stros are in some ways the beneficiaries of Dombrowski’s schizophrenic offseason. First he traded away Granderson and Jackson, failed to offer arbitration to Polanco, and let his top two relievers walk (although he did offer arbitration to both Lyon and Rodney, so he will get compensation picks), implying the team was steadfastly dedicated to rebuilding. Then, come January, he realized they still had a legitimate shot at the division, so he signed Valverde, Everett, and Damon, thus yielding a couple of his own draft picks.

I do not, however, believe that Wade was slyly “forcing” him to sign Valverde by giving Lyon $15 Million. If Dombrowski hadn’t decided to go for it again in ’10, he easily could’ve turned his bullpen over to Joel Zumaya, Ryan Perry, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth. The Astros were going to get a draft pick from somebody, with or without Lyon, because Valverde is just too good to go unsigned (especially once he was willing to give teams a discounted price).

Daniels: This free agent featured Matt Holliday getting $120M for six weeks of solid work the season before the Cardinals (or someone) have to pony up A-Rod’s contract for Albert Pujols. $15 million for Brandon Lyon pales in comparison for the simple reason that it will turn out to be much more tradeable than Vernon Wells 2010’s.

Question 3 – Which player has will have a breakout season?
Daniels: Aren’t 23 of the 25 Astros who will get the nod on opening day over 30? Isn’t that a bit too late to apply the “breakout” term?

James: There are plenty of players under 30! There’s, uh. Well, Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Tommy Manzella, J.R. Towles (or Jason Castro, depending on who wins the catcher job)…

But the Astros who has the best chance of breaking out, or at least the player the Astros need to break out is 26-year old Felipe Paulino. He had an up and down year in 2009, showed flashes of brilliance in the rotation, and then was inexplicably pulled to the bullpen, where he sucked. When he was put back in the rotation, he did alright. Paulino’s problem wasn’t his stuff, it was his command. And his weight (it’s real easy for me to say that, what with eating my Cheese and Meat Hot Pockets at my desk at work). However, with new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, he’s learning how to harness his control, and has apparently dropped about 30 pounds during the off-season. He’s challenging Brian Moehler for the fifth spot in the rotation, and I think every Astros fan really hopes he comes out on top of that battle.

Matt: Does he have to come from the Astros?

Actually, there are a couple of ‘Stros who I like long-term, namely Jason Castro and Bud Norris. In my opinion, both should be on the Opening Day roster, but something tells me that won’t happen, especially for Castro, whose fate this seasons depends largely on whether J.R. Towles proves to be worthless or only nearly worthless.

Castro isn’t a top-flight offensive product, like Matt Wieters and Carlos Santana, but he has the potential to hit .290-.300 with good plate discipline and excellent defense. Yadier Molina is the upside, which is pretty frickin’ good.

Norris took people by surprise last season by dominating AAA and then pitching fairly well in Houston. He’s already 25 (which is kind of old for a rookie) and his minor league numbers prior to ’09 were mediocre. However, the gas has always been there, so if he really has found a way to permanently harness it, he could be a real nice 6th-round discovery.

Eugene: I think Hunter Pence is really going to take a step forward. He’s shown that he can play at the Major League level, but I don’t think he’s hit his ceiling yet.

Question 4 – Which place with the Astros finish in?
Matt: If everything were to go perfectly for the Astros this season, they might be able to aspire to third place. But there are a lot of unanswered question on this roster and I think this might be the year that finally forces them into full rebuilding mode. Last place. That’s right, behind even the Pirates.

Trent: It’s difficult for anyone to realistically see them make huge strides because of the way this division is set up. They’ve certainly got the power hitters (when healthy) to battle with the upper half of the division, but unless the pitching has shored up enough to take a game here and there against the upper echelon of teams, they aren’t going to be in a position to compete at the top all season.

For example, towards the end of the season, they had a stretch where they played five consecutive series against NL Central teams. (Home w/Pitt, @ Cinncy, @ Milwaukee, Home w/St. Louis, Cinncy) In that stretch, they beat Pitt in the first two games, lost the next nine, and won four games total in the stretch, going 4-11 over that time. They only won five series in the last two months and change of the season (naturally including a four game sweep of Philly) and must figure out a way to keep the buzz of the early season going through out the full season.

Given that they get injured often and they only had one pitcher with more than 10 wins, 4th in the division would be an optimistic place to be. 5th seems more likely, though things will more than likely be determined on their early season gains.

James: I’m an optimist, sometimes ridiculously so. And reading reports of how Brad Mills has energized everybody, even the concession guys, has me excited. Not so excited that I’m willing to proclaim them contenders, but I do think they’ll battle for fourth place with the Brewers. Because I just can’t live in a world where the Pirates finish higher than the Astros.

Daniels: I don’t think they’re going to finish worse than the Pirates. Just worse than everyone else. Eventually the baseball people have to convince the owner to either spend a lot of smart money or convert their older contracts in to younger guys. What they have is not nearly enough to compete with the Cardinals, the smart group in Milwaukee, or the new ownership group (if they’re not cheap) in Chicago.

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