If your response was “Who?,” that’s completely natural. Tarrik Brock isn’t a well-known baseball name, so this is my attempt to tell the kind of true Tarrik Brock story using his baseball cards. Enjoy.
By now you’ve probably heard his name, but if not, get ready to hear it a lot in the coming days/weeks/months. Masahiro Tanaka. He’s the 25 year-old Japanese pitcher who many are comparing to a second coming of Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish. Tanaka, if posted, likely represents the best starting pitcher on the free agent market in a fairly thin class this winter. Could the Houston Astros, who are in desperate need of a front line starter and have money to spend, be a potential player in signing the young pitcher? Let’s look at some of the obstacles they’ll face.
First, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really anyone’s guess as to whether Tanaka will even be posted by his parent club, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Under current Nippon Pro Baseball free agency rules, Japanese players have two free agency groups: “Domestic,” meaning signing among teams in the NPB, and “International,” which is what typically applies to players wanting to play in the MLB. A player can become a domestic free agent after seven to eight years or become an international free agent after nine. Tanaka, who has already spent seven years in the NPB, can be posted by his parent club now, but he is at Rakuten’s (or another other NPB team’s) mercy until those nine seasons have been fulfilled. That’s important here because of what happened one month ago.
In November 2013, the Rakuten Golden Eagles shocked the Japanese baseball establishment by winning their first ever Japan Series title over the vaunted Yomiuri Giants. Masahiro Tanaka was brilliant, posting a 1.27 ERA over 212 IP with a perfect 24-0 record during the regular this season. In addition to the series trophy, he took home a Sawamura award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young award) for his pitching efforts. Rakuten, no doubt seeing the value in their ace, may be more focused on trying to replicate their success in 2014 versus selling now and having to fill that void on the less-than-robust Japanese free agent market for the upcoming season.
Another disadvantage to Rakuten is that they’d be forced to accept a reduced $20 million posting fee for Tanaka. Even though that amount would likely pay for the team’s entire 2014 payroll (and then some), it might not be enough to sway parent company Rakuten, which is quite successful in Japan as the #1 online good retailer, and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, who according to Forbes sports a net worth of $6.4 billion. Long story short: Rakuten is not hurting for the money the way that other NPB teams are.
But, just for fun, let’s assume the cards align and that Tanaka is posted. That $20 million posting fee means that it’s possible a lot more MLB teams might be interested than when it was assumed Tanaka’s fee might be somewhere in the $50-75 million range earlier this year. The Yankees have already expressed interest and there’s no doubt that the deep pockets of the L.A. Dodgers could also be in play. And those are just the teams we do know about. Could ten MLB teams make a bid? Could twenty? Without the posting fee going against a team’s luxury tax, and without a team having to forfeit a high draft pick to sign an international free agent, there’s no doubt that the competition will be intense for Tanaka’s services.
By now, we’re assuming that the Astros are at least going to agree on the $20 million fee. The next obstacle is actually putting up the money to sign Masahiro Tanaka. Let’s look at his closest comp, Yu Darvish, and see what he received in 2012:
Nippon Ham received a posting fee of $51.7 million from the Texas Rangers for exclusive negotiating rights. The Texas Rangers then paid Darvish a six year, $60 million contract. All together, Texas spent $111.7 million.
That’s important here because Tanaka’s agent will, most likely, be looking for something similar to the total value of Darvish’s contract. With a lower posting fee of $20 million this year, a winning contract might look something like $90-95 million over six years. That works out to around $15-16 million a year. The last Astros player to make anywhere remotely close to that amount was Carlos Lee, who was paid $19 million in 2012. Is a rebuilding club like Houston ready to make that sort of financial commitment again and could they even afford it with CSN Houston not generating any revenue?
At this point, a couple of things need to go right. Rakuten has to post Tanaka (which is no guarantee at this point) and Houston has to be aggressive enough to be the top bidder amongst a throng of other interest teams. But there’s one other issue we haven’t looked at yet and that’s whether Masahiro Tanaka even wants to play for the Houston Astros. A few things we know:
1) Houston has lost 100+ games each of the past few seasons and isn’t predicted to be a .500 team for 2014.
2) Houston isn’t a well-known destination for international free agents. The first (and last) Japanese player to play for the Astros was Kazuo Matsui from 2008 to 2010 and that was an absolute disaster of a contract for both the player and team.
3) Houston does not have any other Japanese players on the team nor does Houston have a large Japanese population the way other large American markets (e.g. L.A., San Francisco, and New York) do.
The point of this exercise is to show that, while in theory, signing Tanaka would be possible, the Astros have a lot of obstacles to overcome in order to do so. (And that’s even assuming that Rakuten posts Tanaka in the first place.) Eventually, I do think Houston will be at a place to where they can draw top international talent. A dedication to winning and an increasing payroll will help to prove that. But right now I wouldn’t hold my breath that this will be that year that happens. Masahiro Tanaka will be playing somewhere in 2014, but it’s unlikely to be for the Houston Astros.
December 14, 2011. It’s edging closer to two years now. That’s the date that the Houston Astros sent reliever Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox in return for shortstop Jed Lowrie and a rookie pitcher named Kyle Weiland. The trade is notable as it was the first ever trade conducted by current Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and it also marked a continuation of a rebuilding plan set forth by Luhnow’s predecessor, Ed Wade.
The 2012 season represented a coming-out of sorts for Lowrie. Although he had trouble shedding the “injury-plagued” label, he set a then career high for games played (97) and home runs (16). The relatively successful 2012 season resulted in Lowrie then being flipped again the following offseason to Oakland (which, in turn, netted the Astros three other promising young players).
But the 2012 season wasn’t as kind to Kyle Weiland. After starting three games for the Astros, Weiland suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and he has yet to pitch an MLB inning since. Through his wife, Rachel, I was able to catch up with Kyle Weiland via email and ask a few questions. Below is his response.
Kyle Weiland in the dugout for the OKC Redhawks (Astros AAA affiliate), August 2013.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. I think a lot of Houston fans will be excited to hear an update from you. First off, how are you? Where are you?
A: I am well. Still making a lot of progress with rehab here in Austin, where I have been since the end of last season.
Q: Has playing baseball professionally always been a goal of yours or was this something you decided to pursue later on?
A: Like most boys, I always dreamed of becoming a Major League Baseball player.
Q: Being that you were born and raised in New Mexico (Albuquerque, to be exact), is it safe to assume you’re a fan of the TV show “Breaking Bad”?
A: Yes, it is one of my favorites and not just because it is filmed in Albuquerque. The show has some great writers and I am looking forward to see how it all ends for Walt and the rest of the characters.
Q: You went to college at Notre Dame; which, some might be surprised to learn has produced quite a few good baseball players over the years. One that Astros fans, in particular, might know of is Brad Lidge. Have you ever spoken with Lidge before and what’s it like playing “not-football” in South Bend, Indiana?
A: No, I have never gotten the opportunity to speak with him. Baseball is obviously not the sport anyone thinks of when you talk about ND. However, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience of playing a sport in college. There are so many positive things I have taken with me from my experience at Notre Dame. The single best thing ND gave me is my wife, Rachel, who double majored in English and Chinese. Rachel has been such a blessing in my life and has been such a rock for me during these last few years. I am also thankful for the many lifelong friendships I formed with teammates and other ND students during my time at school. Shout out to Mike Howard, my freshman year roommate, thank you for serving our country. I am truly thankful for my experience at ND.
Q: July 10th, 2011. What do you remember about that date? (Weiland’s MLB debut.)
A: Every single detail. It was so surreal that I had actually accomplished my childhood dream. I took it all in and will remember it the rest of my life.
Kyle Weiland’s 2012 Topps Heritage baseball card.
Q: Less than a year later, April 21st, 2012, was your last appearance in the Majors. You had, arguably, your best start to date when you went 7 innings, giving up 3 runs, with 6 strikeouts and a walk. How and when did you know that you were injured?
A: Yes, and unfortunately, after that last start, I had felt that I had finally crossed the point where things started to click for me on the mound. My whole career, I notoriously had a rocky first couple starts to the season. It was usually by the 3rd or 4th start that I settled into a groove and found myself on the mound. Of course after I got the infection, I never was able to continue and build off that last start. I knew there was a problem with my shoulder about 3 days after my final start, when I could no longer move my right arm due to the amount of fluid pushing out on my joint. It was only a few days later that I was in for emergency surgery to flush out the infected area and was placed on IV antibiotics.
Q: Can you give us a glimpse in to what your life has been like the past year and a half and, also, what is your status currently (from a physical standpoint)?
A: Hmmm…it’s such a long story, but I’ll do my best to summarize it for you. I’ll start from the beginning, talking about going from a high to a low; I started out on an ultimate high, realizing that my childhood dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player had actually become a reality when I broke camp with the Astros to an ultimate low, as I found out later (via my at home nurse), fighting not just for my career, but for my life from a shoulder infection. Three surgeries and months of IV antibiotics later, with a new hole in my rotator cuff, demolished cartilage, and a removed biceps tendon, here I am today. Following my second surgery, doctors told me my career was now just a question mark, which was one of the hardest things I have ever had to hear in my life. Regardless, I decided that my life and career were not in any human hands, and I made a deal with God that if I made it back to baseball, it was because it was what He wanted, and that if it was His will, I would give all the credit to Him. So every single day I continue to progress, I thank and give credit to God who has made it possible for me to be where I am. Currently, I am throwing 3x a week up to 120 ft and plan to be ready to compete at spring training (God willing).
Q: Finally, we (the fans) have had such little news about your status over the past year and a half that some of us began to wonder if there’s a conspiracy theory to forget Kyle Weiland. One Astros blogger, quite creatively, came up with the idea of “Weiland Island,” a remote desert island where all injured pitchers in the Astros organization go and are never heard from again. Assuming you are one day on your own desert island, what are the three things and one person that are coming with you?
"Weiland Island," as created by Astros County.
A: My wife, Rachel, the Bible, a knife, and a flint.
Thank you very much for your time, Kyle. We hope to see you back on the field and pitching very soon!
I’d like to give a very special thanks to Rachel Weiland for her time and assistance in setting up this interview.
Around lunchtime today news came that the Philadelphia Phillies were calling an unscheduled press conference. Rumors quickly spread through social media that the team planned to fire manager Charlie Manuel and, indeed, they did. I was very surprised to hear this because Manuel has been with the team for so long it seems hard not to associate him now Philadelphia. He arrived in 2005, shortly after being fired by the Indians as their skipper, and had incredible success in Philly. From 2007 to 2011, the Phillies won five NLDS titles, two pennants, and a World Series in 2008. But success is fleeting and—as we’ve seen many times before—the core players eventually get older, more expensive, and more injury-prone. The perennial playoff contender starts under-performing, so the organization makes a move to try and shake things up.
Charlie Manuel’s situation reminds me a lot of Phil Garner’s when he was the Astros skipper. Sure, he didn’t have quite the run that Manuel did, as Garner only coached the Astros from 2004-2007, but he certainly experienced the same kind of highs and lows that Manuel did. The Astros had never even won a playoff series before Garner took over, but in his first year, 2004, the team won the NLDS before being defeated in the NLCS by the Cardinals. In 2005 they went all the way—almost. NLDS, NLCS (barely), and then swept in the World Series by the Chicago White Sox. But 2006 was a failure and then in 2007, with team sitting 15 games under .500, Phil Garner was fired. Like Manuel, both firings occurred after failing to make the playoffs in consecutive years.
Garner’s replacement was Cecil Cooper and, honestly, his tenure as Astros manager isn’t particularly memorable to me. He was a very good baseball player in the 1980s, but Cooper had a prickly personality and didn’t seem very well-liked in or outside of the clubhouse in Houston. The 2008 Astros, Cooper’s first full year on the job, hardly resembled the 2005 team that went all the way. Biggio and Bagwell were gone. Familiar faces Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt were still around, but the 2008 team was propped up by aging vets and a few unproven youngsters. That said, they made a second-half push towards the playoffs and narrowly made it, too, before collapsing in late September. (Had Hurricane Ike not hit the Houston area in 2008, who knows what could have been?) But that was it. 2008 is where winning baseball currently ends for the Astros organization. As for Cecil Cooper, he lasted most of one more season in Houston before being shown the door in September 2009.
Ryne Sandberg is now Philadelphia’s Cecil Cooper. He has an unenviable task of trying to take an old roster and make them a winner again. And who knows? Maybe he has better success than Cooper did and is able lead the Phillies back to the playoffs for one last push. But like the Astros in the years following 2005, with core players (Howard, Lee, Utley, etc.) on the wrong side of thirty and no impact minor leaguers on the horizon to replace them, the window for winning grows increasingly small. Houston finally realized it wasn’t working, but it took until 2010 to start a very modest rebuild that, now three years later, seems close to ending. The Phillies aren’t quite ready yet to throw in the towel, but eventually they’ll have to face the same reality the Astros have. And no manager will be able to fix that.
Bud Norris sporting the Colt .45s uniform during the 2012 season. (photo: Houston Chronicle)
If you haven’t noticed already, it’s that time of the year again. No, not the All-Star break. July. Or, more importantly for Astros fans, trade season. Not so long ago, this used to be the time of the year when we all looked forward to the Astros being buyers, adding pieces here and there for a playoff push. But we’re in lean times now and, with the Astros in a fourth year of rebuilding, we get used to another season of Houston listed under the “sellers” column. Although all the big trade chips are gone, the team has a few chips left to deal. They are Carlos Pena (to a limited extent), Jose Veras, and Bud Norris.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m totally on-board with the rebuild. I don’t agree with everything the Astros front office has done over the past few seasons (most notably, the Jed Lowrie trade), but I’m pretty much on board all the moves as a whole. Carlos Pena and Jose Veras are two players who help the Astros in the short-term, but they are also veterans on one-year deals. They don’t really figure in to the plans of the franchise past this season, so by all means the team should be looking to move them. But that’s where I stop. Bud Norris should not be traded. Here are a five reasons why:
1. Norris likes playing in Houston. Yes, it’s true. Bud Norris didn’t come to this organization via trade or free agency. He was drafted by the Astros in 2006 and has known only this franchise as a pro-baseball player. It’s easy to forget that sometimes. He made his debut in 2009 (making him one of the longest-tenured players on the current roster) and, although he’s seen a lot of turnover and bad baseball in the years that have followed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more upbeat and positive influence on the team. Norris is a fan favorite, too, and many folks would be sad to see another familiar face go. If you want to go back to the article that caused controversy (where Bud said he would love to play for his hometown San Francisco Giants), fine. But I would also like to point out an excerpt from this MLB.com article:
"As far as Houston goes, I love the city,” Norris said. “The people are very nice and very friendly, and it’s big. There’s a lot to do, and you’re not going to get bored. There’s always a new restaurant to try, which is nice, or always new steakhouses.”
2. He’s effective. Norris, after years of frustrating up-and-down performances, is finally growing in to a good Major League pitcher. His 3.63 ERA, .6 HR/9, and 2.8 BB/9 this season are all career bests. He’s not striking out as many batters as he used to, but he’s pitching deeper in to games than at any point in the past. He is also, without question, the best starter on an otherwise dreadful Astros rotation. He’s in the prime of his career at 28, but he’s been fairly durable and is finally starting to produce the results the Astros had hoped he was capable of doing. Do you really want to lose that now?
3. The Astros can afford him. Houston’s payroll this year is in the $26 million dollar range, making it the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball by a fairly large margin. Norris, who’s the most expensive player on the 25-man roster, is earning $3 million this season and that’s still $2 million cheaper than what Wandy Rodriguez is getting paid by the Astros to pitch for the Pirates! 2013 was Bud’s first year of being arbitration eligible, so his salary will continue to increase in the years to come, but he’s under team control (meaning he’s not eligible to be a free agent) until 2016. The Astros can not only afford to pay his salary now, they should continue to do so. And if they are worried about him getting more expensive, then now is the time to work out a potentially team-friendly contract extension that will buy out his remaining arbitration eligible years (similar to what they did with last week with Jose Altuve).
4. No team values Norris as much as the Astros do. This might be the biggest issue I have with trading Norris, because while he’s a good player for the Astros, some consider him no better than a fourth starter on most other teams. And, I’m sorry to say it, but a potential #4 (even with team control) is not going to net the same sort of high-upside prospects that came in the Hunter Pence deal. That is a potential game changer.
5. Do we really need more prospects? By some accounts, the Houston Astros have one of the top five best farm systems in all of Major League Baseball—and that doesn’t count the crop of players taken in the Rule 4 draft last month. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow recently said this:
"I wouldn’t say we’re at saturation but we certainly can’t do what we did last year and just add depth for the sake of increasing our depth," Luhnow said. "Because we feel like we have a robust system - there’s not a lot of spots to put people."
Where do you stick the guys you’re acquiring and, more importantly, who are you cutting from the current minor league rosters in order to do so?
Another issue with this is MLB teams value their farm depth much more so now than they did in the recent years. Teams don’t want to give up the type of Major League ready talent that the Astros desperately need, but they are willing to deal players in A or AA ball. We’ve seen this with many of the trades Luhnow has completed over the past couple of seasons. The further down the minor league ladder a baseball players is, the less likely they are to end up as big leaguers. I’m not convinced we take on more risky bets at this point. The Astros’ AAA affiliate, the OKC Redhawks, could use a talent infusion the most, but getting a GM to part with near Major League ready players at full market value might be a difficult task.
Bud Norris should remain a Houston Astro for many years to come. He’s good, he’s cheap, and the fans like him. If nothing else, he’ll be a good stop-gap type piece in the rotation until some of the bigger name prospects are ready to take their spots, which will hopefully be before 2016. More relevant to today, however, Norris might help prevent the 2013 Astros from doing the unthinkable and losing 120 games this season. I think that’s pretty important and you should too.
Astros at the All Star Break: A First-Half Roster Recap
The 2013 Astros: Houston’s worst ever team? (Getty images)
Well, the Astros made it. Barely. 61 losses in the bag, another perfect game nearly thrown against them (Thanks, Marwin!), shutout 9 times, and a -143 run differential—easily the worst in the majors. The team is rebuilding, yes, but I’m not sure anyone expected it to be quite this bad this year. It’s not 1962 New York Mets bad, but it’s not far off. So how, exactly, did we get here again? Inconsistency, poor defense, player regression, injuries, ineffectiveness, poor strategy—you name it and the 2013 Astros probably failed spectacularly at it during the first few months of the 2013 season. Below is my breakdown of the roster, in three tiers, based on first-half performance.
Catcher – Jason Castro: He has been one of the few bright spots this season and is the team’s sole All-Star selection. His 12 home runs are tied for second best among all AL catchers and his 2.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) according to Fangraphs is also second highest for the position. In other words, Castro just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing.
First Base/Designated Hitter/Left Field – Chris Carter: The centerpiece of the Jed Lowrie deal has pretty much been as advertised. He’s hitting for power (his 18 home runs and 44 RBI lead the team) and also striking out a TON (his 123 strikeouts lead the Majors). His fielding is poor, so he is tailor-made to be the Astros DH of the future—assuming he isn’t once again traded.
Second Base – Jose Altuve: Altuve just received a 4-year, $12.5 million contract extension with options. He hasn’t been nearly as good as his 2012 season, when he hit .290 with 34 doubles and 7 homers, but he’s only 23 and remains one of the better offensive pieces on the team. He’s not the type of player to carry the team, but he remains the best top of the order bat the Astros have.
Starting Pitcher – Bud Norris: He’s having his best career as an Astro (with a team-leading six wins, 81 strikeouts, and a 3.63 ERA) which means, inevitably, he’s on the trade block. If there is one guy the Astros should be extending this season, it should be Bud. He’s about the only sure thing in an otherwise inconsistent and inexperienced rotation.
Jose Veras – Closer: How good has Veras been this year? Before Jarred Cosart had his debut on Friday, Veras was tops on the team in the team in Batting Average Against (BAA) .201 and Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP) at 1.07. He’s striking out over a batter per inning and has 18 saves in 21 opportunities. The time is now to SELL, SELL, SELL!
Honorable Mention: Jose Cisnero, Brandon Barnes, Jordan Lyles, Carlos Corporan.
I’m Just Here for the Paycheck
Third Base – Matt Dominguez: The slick-fielding third-sacker has looked very good at times this season and bad at others. His 11 home runs is third best on the team and seventh among AL third basemen. That said, his .257 On Base Percentage (OBP) and -.6 WAR (Fangraphs) rates him as one of the worst in the league. Even his reputation as a defensive whiz has taken a hit: His 9 errors are 2nd highest on the team and Fangraphs rates his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR 150) at -8.8. Yeesh.
First Base – Brett Wallace: Wally started off the season with the Astros, but was demoted after a brutal first two weeks in April where he posted an unbelievably bad .157 On Base Plus Slugging (OPS). After mashing in AAA for awhile, which Wallace has always done well, he was called back up on June 25th. He’s hit much better the second time around, with 4 home runs and 13 RBI. The knock on Wallace is that he has never been consistent. Will this be the year he proves the naysayers wrong?
First Base/Designated Hitter – Carlos Pena: Pena has eight homers on the year and his .325 OBP is fourth best on the team. He’s been okay this year—not good, not great. Okay. And that makes me wonder exactly why he’s on this team. “Veteran presence” only goes so far when you’re on pace to set a team record for losses.
Names On A Screen: J.D. Martinez, Dallas Keuchel, Marc Krauss, Erik Bedard.
Burn It With FIRE!
Short Stop – Marwin Gonzalez/Ronny Cedeno/Jake Elmore: a.k.a “The Black Hole of Talent.” Since trading Jed Lowrie to the A’s in the offseason, the Astros have struggled mightily in filling the void. Gonzalez, a Rule 5 pickup prior to the 2012 season, looked good at times as a back-up to Lowrie last year, but increased playing time hasn’t translated to success this year. He was demoted to AAA OKC on June 25th. Cedeno is a 30 year old journeyman on his third team in as many seasons. He is playing in the majors this year because that’s how desperate the Astros are. Elmore, who has a fantastic record of getting on-base in the minors, has a .310 OBP in his limited stay with the big-league team. None of these players has done much with the stick—or glove—this season.
Relief Pitcher – Josh Fields: He was advertised as being a solid middle to back-end relief piece when selected in the Rule 5 draft during the offseason, but he’s been anything but. His 5.65 ERA is the worst on the team. He’s given up nine earned runs, including four homers, in 14.1 IP. Because of his Rule 5 status, he can’t be demoted by the team to AAA unless injured. Maybe it is time to make up an injury.
Relief Pitcher – Wesley Wright: What the hell happened to Wes? He’s been good over the past couple of years, but decidedly bad this year. His 8.3 and 2.5 strikeouts and walks per nine are more or less within his career norms, but his 10.5 hits per nine are way up. Wesley is the longest tenured player on the team, but if he continues his current ways he won’t be around much longer.
Starting Pitcher – Lucas Harrell: Ditto with Harrell. He really stepped up last year, emerging as one of the best starters on the woeful 2012 team, but has regressed horribly this season. His 5.07 ERA is one of the highest on the 25 man roster and his 15 home runs and 57 walks are a team worst. It’s been so bad for Lucas that he was recently demoted to the bullpen.
Outfielder – Jimmy Paredes: I was honestly looking forward to this one the most because, although I have had my theories that Paredes is REALLY BAD, I now have official confirmation that he is a horrible Major League Baseball player. Per Fangraphs, Jimmy’s -.8 WAR makes him THE WORST PLAYER FOR THE 2013 HOUSTON ASTROS. (Yes, worse than Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rick Ankiel, and anyone else you can think of.) He’s been a defensive liability on the field (taking out Altuve AND Elmore in ONE WEEK!) plus, over 37 games, has given us a team-worst .178 batting average. He’s not getting on base (.229 OBP) nor is he hitting for any power (.248 SLG). So, congrats to Jimmy on being the physical embodiment of Houston’s first-half suckitude.
Dishonorable mention: Phillip Humber, Rick Ankiel, Robbie Grossman, Xavier Cedeno, Hector Ambriz…and many more.
A phrase I sometimes hear among the fan base is “there’s no place to go but up,” but I’m not so sure about that this time around. This is a flawed, poorly constructed team with inexperience and a lack of talent throughout the Major League roster. If the Astros front office is serious about putting a winning product on the field, or at least just trying not to set the all-time record for losses in a season, the time is now to call up some potential difference makers from the minors and make things interesting for the second-half. That list includes Jonathan Villar, George Springer, Jarred Cosart—among others. It won’t make the 2013 Astros a .500 club, but it’ll at least provide some hope for a fan base that has taken more than its fair share of losing baseball.
It was late last night that this article from the New York Times came up on my twitter feed. It was yet another doom and gloom piece on the baseball card industry; which, sadly,has been all too frequent over the past decade or so.
But let’s flashback to a brighter time. For me, that was 1990. My father had collected baseball cards from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s and, over one weekend, we went through all of them. I was instantly hooked. I bought my first issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly magazine and I remember it clearly because it had a slightly concerned looking Jose Canseco on the cover. Canseco, man! That was the absolute peak of the craze, when you practically couldn’t go anywhere in the United States without being bombarded by baseball cards. I think we had around twenty(!) baseball card shops in my hometown of Austin, Texas. You could buy packs at the grocery store, the drug store, the gas station. Baseball cards were given away at Denny’s and came packed inside of your favorite cereal. Baseball card shows happened on a monthly basis and, at least for the big ones in town that occured bi-annually, it was not uncommon to have to wait 1-2 hours to get inside the doors. I met Chipper Jones at a baseball card show in Austin, as well as Warren Spahn. The big shows in Houston, namely Tri-Star, drew the biggest names. Mays, Williams, Mantle. Baseball Gods. They were all there and so were the people who desperately wanted to be a part of the action.
Fad isn’t really a fair word because fads don’t produce industries. Baseball cards were, and in a limited capacity, still remain an industry. But things began to change in the 1990s. There was more competition than ever before and card companies, to try and stand out to a now more discerning customer, began to rework their product in to something more special. Cards also got more expensive. Upper Deck, Fleer Flair, Topps Finest were just a few of these new luxury brands. Limited-edition “rare” inserts were introduced. Collecting as a source of income began to get out of hand. It changed the game. A lot of folks just couldn’t afford to collect anymore and, honestly, it just wasn’t fun. Also, personal video gaming systems suddenly got way better and this thing called the internet came along. I got older and, just like that, the idea of collecting cards just didn’t seem as important as it once did.
2008, a full decade after I had stopped, was the first time I bought a pack of cards again and, honestly, it was a blast. A more expensive blast, yes, but I was making more money now and could finally afford it. A lot of other guys have similar stories and started collecting baseball cards again, too. But it’s a bit different now than it was before. It’s not about collecting for the pure joy of collecting or to trade among friends. It’s all about the hits. What sort of value-to-hit ratio does one Topps product have over the other? Gambling for the big hit. That’s what it’s all about these days.
My new found enthusiasm has petered out and I’ve pretty much stopped buying cards—again. I’ve become disillusioned with the baseball card industry as a whole and underwhelmed with too many lackluster products from the Topps monopoly. Prices have stabilized some, but it’s still way too expensive for anyone to just want to start collecting. Kids certainly don’t have $100 lying around to buy a box and, honestly, even if they did why spend it on baseball cards?
Just like stamp collecting, baseball cards will never truly die out. There will always be that die-hard group of collectors out there who will manage to keep the hobby on life support. I will continue working on finishing my 1953 Topps baseball set here and there, just as I’ve done for the past couple of years, but the thought of spending any more money on something I don’t really need just doesn’t have the same appeal it once did. The fun is gone, folks, once and for all.
Leading up to the 2012 draft, many wondered whether Houston would go with the talented college pitcher out of Stanford, Mark Appel, or the high school phenom Byron Buxton.
What nobody knew was that the Astros had another plan: Take a player many suspected would go a bit a lower in the draft (Carlos Correa_, sign him at a below market deal, and then use the savings to draft talented high school players who had dropped down draft boards for sign ability issues (Lance McCullers and Rio Ruiz). When the dust cleared, the Astros ended up with three potential first round picks for the price of one. It was pure genius.
Almost as soon as the 2012 ended, fans and pros alike, tried to figure out how the Astros would try to beat the system the next time around with everyone now knowing their strategy.
Of course, predicting what this Astros front office will do is futile. They zig when others zag and the 2013 draft ended up being no exception.
Mark Appel: The Safe Bet
On June 6th, the Astros selected Mark Appel—the player they passed up in 2012—first overall. It was a surprising pick in the fact that the team this time went for the best player available instead of trying to re-incorporate the strategy used last year.
It’s hard to fault Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and crew for this pick. Appel actually improved his stock this year by lowering his 2013 ERA to 2.12, hitting 130 Ks for a second straight time (in seventeen less innings than 2012), lowering his walks, batting average against, etc.
The two knocks against Appel are that he’s previously refused to sign with the team that drafted him (the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012) and his agent is the divisive Scott Boras. Appel, however, is a Houstonian and has expressed his desire in the past for playing for his hometown team. One tweet might just say it all:
Ultimately, this looks to be a win-win situation. The team gets a bona fide front-line college starter in the system that’s weak on pitching. He’ll also be able to contribute at the major league level sooner rather than later. Appel gets what he wanted in 2012—to be drafted first overall—and will now be able to pitch in front of his hometown crowd.
A Shift in Strategy
The Appel pick seemingly set the tone for the rest of the draft: College domination.
The first round of 2012 June amateur draft saw thirteen college players taken in the first round. This time around, only fourteen high school players were taken in the first round.
The Astros drafted seven college players in the first ten rounds of the 2013 draft, so the next question is “why?” Did the organization feel the high school crop this year was exceptionally weak or the college class exceptionally strong? Did they feel a sense of urgency with too many top prospects in the lower levels of the minors, perhaps not ready to contribute soon enough? Did they think the Appel pick wouldn’t give them any financial flexibility to go after the high school players with sign ability issues? Houston’s scouting director, Mike Elias, offered that this draft “injected quite a bit of polish” as a sort of supplement to last year, but we may never know the real motivation for the team choosing this path.
Kemp Picks Raises Eyebrows
Delino DeShields Jr., Houston’s first overall pick in the 2010 amateur player draft, had a rough start to his amateur career before a breakout 101 steal season last year between Houston’s Low A and High A affiliates. Although he’s adjusting well at High A Lancaster in 2013, his progress is perhaps not where some thought he would be at this point.
Enter Tony Kemp, Houston’s fifth round selection in 2013. The 5’7, second-bagger has already been compared to a left-handed hitting Jose Altuve. Kemp was the SEC player of the year in 2013 and seems like the ideal top-of-the-order bat Houston has desperately needed. Kemp’s a junior, and that could make him a difficult sign, so there’s a chance Houston isn’t able to reach a deal. If Kemp does sign, he might start at Low A ball (similar to what the Astros did last year with Nolan Fontana). It’d be interesting to see what sort of effect this would have on DeShields. Will he continue to excel or wilt from the pressure?
Odds & Ends
That name sounds familiar. Cavan Biggio, son of Craig, was projected by some as a high second-round pick leading up to the draft. He fell precipitously down draft boards before finally being taken by the Phillies in the 29th round on Saturday. He’s a Notre Dame commit and Dad has been quoted as saying he’s “going to school.”
Kacy Clemens is now the second Clemens of Roger to be drafted by Houston, going 1037th overall. Unlike Koby, drafted by the Astros in 2005, Kacy follows in his father’s footsteps as a pitcher. He’s a commit to the University of Texas Austin, and might be another difficult sign, but was perhaps worth the lottery ticket pick this far down in the draft.
Speaking of the University of Texas Austin, the Astros drafted Nathan Thornhill in the twenty-fourth round (707th overall) over the weekend. I bring this up because Thornhill is the first player drafted by the Astros out of UT in nine years. (The last was Anthony Adler taken in the 46th round of the 2004 draft.)
Finally, the winner of the best name in the 2013 Astros draft class award goes to 857th overall selection, Arkansas pitcher Randall Fant.
“There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body. Now you stick to that, and everything else is cream cheese.”—“Coach Finstock,” from “Teen Wolf”
Predicting the 2013 Houston Astros Opening Day Roster
We’re 10 days from opening day and, while battles are still being fought for some positions, most of the dust has cleared and players have begun to emerge as favorites for a coveted 25 man roster spot. Below, I have listed the players I believe will make the 2013 Astros team with a few short sentences as to why. I have also listed a few players at the bottom who will likely not make the team.
“Whenever I slid, I always dusted myself off. Because if you look like you’re safe, the umpire thinks you’re safe. If you slide and then look at it him like, ‘What is it?’ He’ll say, ‘You’re out!’ So looking safe is a big part of it. One time, I slid into second, Ozzie Guillen was covering the base. It was a real close play, but I just started wiping. The ump goes, ‘Safe! Safe!’ Ozzie yells, ‘Why?’ The ump says, ‘I don’t know!’”—Former Kansas City Royal Willie Wilson on the art of stealing bases, from "Grand Theft Baseball."
Now, I know I probably wasn’t the only person who will told you this, but I kind of saw this coming. You know that price you paid for the team back in 2011? $680 million? That was a lot of dough! And, sure, you got Major League Baseball to knock $70 million off of that price as a bribe…err…compensation for switching leagues to the American League, but I can understand how you might’ve gotten in over your head here. It’s not always easy to make money in this day and age with a damaged asset like the Houston Astros. Heck, Drayton McLane, who many of us affectionately refer to as “Uncle Drayton,” left the team in a shambles for you. He didn’t spend any money at all on draft picks and, when he finally did open his coin purse, he spent it all on expensive free agents who weren’t good enough to make this team a contender again.
Mr. Crane, I feel your pain. I know how you’ve worked hard for everything in your life. I know about how you took that $10,000 loan from your sister in 1984 and eventually built that in to EGL (Eagle Global Logistics, Inc.), a company with 400 facilities and 10,000 employees worldwide. I know that using the profits from selling your stake in that company, you were able to spin that off in to even more successful ventures like Crane Capital Group and Crane Worldwide Logistics, LLC. I know how, in 1996, you were named Forbes’s “Houston Entrepreneur of the Year.” You’re a very savvy and smart business person, Mr. Crane. But owning a pro sports franchise? Well, that’s a pretty tough way to make your living.
Then there’s that whole Comcast Sports Houston debacle. It’s not really going as you had planned, is it? Nobody—other than Comcast cable subscribers—seems to carry it and because of this you’re falling even deeper in to debt. Hey, I get it…Kevin Eschenfelder’s salary doesn’t pay itself.
The good news, though, is that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. You see, down here in Texas, we’re a very friendly bunch of folks. We’re willing to lend a helping hand to our neighbors when they need it most and, by golly, I think that time is now. I’ve decided that we, the fans, are going help you and your organization get back in the black by taking collections that we will later give to your organization. I know it sounds too good to be true, but I can promise you it isn’t. There’s just one tiny, little eensy-weensy catch.
Now, I know you would never do anything so devious as to lie to the public about your financial situation to help try and win support for your sagging sports network, so all I’m asking for in return is for you to release the financial records for the Houston Astros organizations from the past five years. Let’s show everyone how much money you have lost, so there won’t be skeptic in the bunch. Also, it’ll give us fans a better idea of how much cash we’ll need to help you fund raise.
Thank you, Mr. Crane. I know you’d be understanding. We’re here to help you and I look forward to receiving those financial documents back from you soon!
Interview with Houston Astros Assistant GM David Stearns
You may not know who David Stearns is. Heck, even if you know who he is, you might not even recognize him. He’s in his late 20’s, doesn’t dress flashy or have an out-sized personality, and isn’t physically imposing. But Stearns is already quite a powerful figure in baseball, having been named assistant general manager during the 2012 off season by the Houston Astros. He’s a Harvard grad and in very short time has shot his way up the ranks of baseball while working for both the Cleveland Indians front office and for the commissioner’s office of MLB. The latter is where Stearns had a part in crafting the new collective bargaining agreement that has had an effect on the way major league teams conduct business and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I was fortunate to be able to catch Stearns at the Academy Sports location in Austin, Texas during the recent Astros CAREavan stop and ask him some questions. Below is my interview.
I should preface this interview by saying that I am a HUGE J.R. Richard fan and have been ever since my parents used to tell me stories about the man as a young boy. My Dad and I would be watching a baseball game on TV and I’d ask him something like “Who was the best pitcher you ever saw?” That’s when he would tell me (and my Mom overhearing the conversation would also chime in) about some guy I’d never heard of named J.R. Richard. Richard, for those who aren’t aware, had amazing talent and was just coming in to his prime when he was cut down by a stroke during pre-game warm-ups on July 30, 1980 (an event, it turns out, which occured only a few short hours before I was born). I’d hear about how that 1980 Astros team—the first ever Astros team to reach the playoffs—lost to the Phillies three games to two in a best of five. What if J.R., who was having his best ever year in 1980, had been around? It’s one of those questions that many Astros fans continue to ask themselves to this day.
Above: J.R. Richard, with a Travis County sherrif’s hat on, holding court at the Astros CAREavan tour stop in Austin, Texas on January 25th.
This past week, J.R. Richard joined a handful of other Astros players on the team’s annual winter CAREavan tour and the organization was kind enough to grant me an interview during their stop in my hometown of Austin.
It only took a couple of months, but we’ve finally seen the complete package—the 2013 Houston Astros uniforms are now completely unveiled. The team, coming off the worst season in their collective 50 years, has a new owner who’s looking to break away from the old ownership and what better way to do that than with new uniforms?
Since we’re on the cusp of a new uniform era in Astros baseball, this seems like the perfect time to look at the past to see where what the most influential designs were in team history. Below is my list, ranked from worst to best, with the notable players who wore each set, a few notes about each design, and my thoughts on why I like or dislike them.
Signing of Pena Creates More Questions than Answers
Well, the Houston Astros made their big splash today. Carlos Pena—the Tampa Bay Rays castoff and partial storyline of “Moneyball”—was signed to a one year, $2.9 million deal to fill the team’s first-ever designated hitter spot. It’s a surprising signing for a team that, until now, has done very little in the off-season free agent market. Phil Humber, the Texas native and perfect game winner of 2012, was signed for $800k last month and that’s been about it. Pena, it should be noted, does have something going for him: He is a major league baseball player with a track record of hitting, but the question marks it creates for Houston are interesting.
For starters, how does Pena improve the team? The organization will likely tout Pena as a veteran with leadership qualities who hit 39 home runs in 2009. But what can Pena do in 2013? Does Carlos, a player with declining numbers who turns 35 in May of 2013, still have anything left in the tank? You could say that his 19 home runs last year will be greatly appreciated on an Astros team starved of offense and you’d be absolutely right. But Pena’s slash line last year of .197/.330/.354 is hardly pretty, nor are his strike-out numbers: 182, a career high. Combine Pena with Justin Maxwell, another big strikeout guy, in the middle of the lineup and the potential for wasted RBI opportunities becomes a very real issue. The Astros are hoping Pena can bounce back to his 2011 version and be a major offensive contributor, but even if he does, it creates another issue.
What now happens with Brett Wallace and Nate Freiman? Wallace, a former top prospect who has yet to play a full season in the majors, seemed like a lock to be the team’s starting first bagger, but now that is in question with Pena also in the mix. If we are to assume that Wallace is still given the keys at first, with Pena now the fulltime DH, what does that mean for Nate Freiman, the Astros’ rule 5 selection earlier in the month? Freiman is an intriguing candidate for the DH position due to his power potential (back to back seasons of 20+ home runs at High A and AA ball the past two seasons) plus the fact he only cost the team $50,000. If the Astros are truly rebuilding, shouldn’t they be giving guys like Wallace and Freiman every opportunity to succeed vs. a player at the twilight of his career, like Pena?
Lastly, is this the best use of a limited 2012 payroll? With a projected payroll of $30 million for next season, the Astros really have no margin for error for filling vacancies throughout a roster of questionable talent. Wouldn’t the $2.9 million be better spent on shoring up one of the worst rotations in baseball or perhaps upgrading a depleted bullpen? Who will be the team’s right fielder for 2013? Can the Astros, with only two catchers on their 40 man roster, rely on a gimpy Jason Castro or unproven Carlos Corporan for an entire season?
Only time will tell if the money spent on Pena will be money well spent, but he seems like a risky investment at this point in his career and someone who now creates a conundrum with regards to the current roster. The Astros have a plan for 2013, and we hope it will work out, but I am left scratching my head with this latest acquisition.
Ten Ways to Improve the Fan Experience at Minute Maid Park
I’m not going to BS anyone: It sucks being an Astros fan right now. The team is going through a full rebuild, there’s been an exodus of talent (both on and off the field), and fans aren’t showing up to games anymore. Oh? You wanted to watch the games on TV? CSN Houston channel is only available to three subscribers at one time. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Thing is, Astros fans are actually pretty lucky in one respect: Minute Maid Park is actually a really nice place to watch a baseball game. It’s much more intimate than the Astrodome ever was and the traffic situation (getting in and out) is 100 times better. Oh, I know. There’s lots of unnecessary quirk scattered throughout, but the facility itself and the viewpoints of the field are excellent. Hey, you know what else is nice? Sitting in air conditioning during the dog days of Texas Summer. How’s that Arlington weather treating you, Rangers fans?
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. Here are ten ways to improve the fan experience at Minute Maid Park.
10. Fix the jumbled mess otherwise known as the video board.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the new HD video board in center field. It is a massive upgrade over the old one (both literally and figuratively). The problem is it’s a jumbled mess. There’s way too much information, so it’s difficult to take a quick glance to get the most important information a scoreboard provides. So, here’s an idea: Take away some of the less pertinent information (like pitcher stats, run expectancy, player facts) from the big board and relocate that info to other smaller boards throughout the stadium. Increase the size of the area showing the innings, outs, and balls/strikes. The design of the big board should be clean, uncluttered, and easy to read (that also means a limited color palette of white on black—or vice versa—that’s high in contrast).
9. Replace the home run train already.
It’s cheesy and now partly blocked by the new, hideous community partners billboard in left field. My suggestion? A Saturn V rocket. You know—the thing that got us to the Moon? Here’s a refresher:
Because the real rocket is gigantic, make a scaled replica, laid on its side, that fills the entire area where the train tracks are currently. You can have it light up and smoke during a home run if you really want some sort of home run display.
The point is that Houston has a very special thing with its association with NASA and outer space. That’s something no other pro-sports team can claim, so it really makes sense for the Astros to try and play that up.
8. Hire a few familiar faces to meet and greet fans.
You know what would be cool? If the Astros brought back some of their more memorable faces in franchise history just to mingle with the fans. No, I’m not talking about a pre-game autograph session. I mean just hire guys like Jose Cruz or Larry Dierker to walk the concourses, shake a few hands, and maybe sit an inning or two in the stands with the fans. Considering all the familiar faces lost since new ownership has taken over, I think many fans would really appreciate this gesture.
7. Improve the food and drink situation.
The City of Houston is a vibrant, growing city with nationalities from all over the globe. And because of that, there are tons of great ethnic restaurants throughout the metro area. Thing is, when you go to a game at Minute Maid Park, you’d never know that. The majority of the food offered is bland and unimaginative: Nachos, popcorn, hot dogs. Sure, there’s a few small kiosks (if you can find them) serving Texas BBQ or sliders (small hamburgers), but that’s about as exotic as it gets. Astros, it’s time to step your culinary game up. You want to cater to a rising Latino market, but you don’t offer elotes or have anything resembling an authentic street taco? You want to be a world class organization, but you don’t serve any sort of Asian food (even though Houston has a giant Asian population)?
Additionally, let’s talk about the alcoholic beverage selection—or lack thereof. I’d love to have a good beer (by that, I mean something not made by Budweiser, Coors, or Miller) at the game but I don’t feel like waiting in line an entire inning from the three kiosks in the stadium to get one. Serve good imported and/or local beers at the game and have it readily available everywhere. Heck, you could even BREW your own beer on site, that’d only be available at home games, and really give the fans a treat!
6. Or, heck, just park a few food trucks near the front gate.
Okay, I can be a realist. Maybe the better food and drink thing really isn’t possible with your food services contract through Aramark? Then give the fans the next best thing by allowing 5-10 gourmet food trucks to park outside the main gates for games. You already have an open food policy, so what’s the problem here? Give the fans better options for food and drink and you will end up with a more loyal fan base.
5. Go wild with the promotions.
Nobody is showing up to the games because the team is horrible? Then it’s time to get really creative and come up with some great promotions. Bobbleheads and souvenir jerseys, but they’ve been done to death. Here’s a few new ideas:
-Killer bee plush dolls with the faces of some of the more memorable “Killer B’s.” The Tampa Bay Rays already did something similar with the Don Zimmer teddy bear (see above), so why not do something similar for Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman?
-Have a contest to let fans design a uniform (or uniforms) to be worn later in the season. A few professional baseball teams have done this before and I think it’s a pretty neat way to get the fans involved. Last summer, Uniwatch (a sports uniform website) asked its readers to “redesign the Astros.” Have a look at some of the submissions here.
-Give the fans a point card system that can be redeemed for prizes. The more games you attend, the more points you accrue. You could then redeem these points for a prize. Perhaps one game gets you an Astros pencil and all home games gets a pro-model jersey or team signed ball?
4. Let fans sit wherever they want after the 5th inning.
Give those who attend games the option to buy a cheap ticket and allow them move down to any unoccupied seat of their choice after the 5th inning. If there’s plenty of open box seats during a home game, what’s the big deal? It’s a nice perk for the fans and, for the benefit of the organization, will make games look a little bit more occupied for those watching on TV.
3. Offer free wi-fi throughout the stadium.
I can’t tell you how annoying it is that I come to a game, try and look up something on my phone, and have it search endlessly before eventually timing out. This is not rare occurrence either. Setup a free wi-fi system so that the fans can stay more connected.
2. Retire J.R. Richard’s uniform number.
Look, Richard was not just another player. He had the potential to be something special, maybe even a Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, he had a stroke—resulting from a misdiagnosis by team doctors, mind you—and nearly died while warming up BEFORE A GAME.
Jim Umbricht died of cancer while a member of the Colt .45s. His number was retired. Darryl Kile died while a member of the CARDINALS and got a small plaque INSIDE Minute Maid Park. J.R. Richard? He lived—and got a tile on the sidewalk outside the stadium. This seems hardly fair or right.
(I recommend reading John Royal’s take on the situation here. He does a much better job of arguing the case for Richard than I ever could.)
1. Last but certainly not least, SPEND SOME DAMN MONEY ON THE PAYROLL!
Mr. Crane, we all know you’ve got money to spend. This team has $800k in payroll commitments and clearly needs an infusion of talent just to notlose 110 games next year. I’m not saying we should abandon the rebuild effort—far from it, actually—but the Astros really could spend $20-40 million this season on short term free agents to at least make the team somewhat interesting and competitive. Think about it, will ya?