Spring training questions: Houston Astros

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Will the Astros get anything at all out of the catcher position while waiting for Jason Castro?
GM Ed Wade opted against spending any cash to upgrade at catcher over the winter, leaving him with ex-prospect J.R. Towles and career backup Humberto Quintero to battle for time behind the plate. Towles, who was a bust after claiming a starting job in 2008, was hurt for much of last season and didn’t show much in 14 major league starts at the end of the season. He has a 609 OPS in 234 major league at-bats. Quintero is at 600 in 548 career at-bats, but that does come with a nice defensive reputation. Ideally, Towles would impress in March, claim the starting job and play well enough to allow the Astros to keep Castro in the minors until September. Castro, though, figures to get plenty of work with the Astros’ starting pitchers this spring just in case he’s needed earlier. Maybe a lot earlier.
2. With Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins gone, can the rebuilt bullpen hold leads at the end of games?
The Astros will have three returnees who pitched very well last season (Alberto Arias, Tim Byrdak and Jeff Fulchino), plus the emerging Sammy Gervacio, so the bullpen as a whole might be solid. However, the closer candidates inspire less faith. Brandon Lyon ended up undergoing minor shoulder surgery not long after signing one of the most criticized contracts of the winter (three years, $15 million) and Matt Lindstrom is a complete wild card. Lyon will probably be reliable, but with his modest strikeout rate, he’ll never inspire the kind of confidence that Valverde did, and it’s safe to assume that Lindstrom isn’t going to match the 1.71 ERA that Hawkins had in his year and a third with Houston. Gervacio just might prove to be the best reliever of the whole bunch.
3. Will the talented Felipe Paulino get a chance to show what he can do in the rotation?
The Lyon contract had nothing on Wade’s baffling decision to pick up Brian Moehler’s $3 million option for 2010. After all, Moehler is 38 and he had a 5.47 ERA last season. Odds are that he would have had to settle for a minor league contract on the open market. The stunning commitment suggested that Moehler would have to be penciled into the 2010 rotation. The Astros, though, later added Brett Myers, giving them three pitchers for the final two spots. Bud Norris should have a big edge for one based on his performance last year, so that leaves Moehler and Paulino for one opening. Paulino came out of last year 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA, but he had an impressive 93/37 K/BB ratio in 97 2/3 innings and he has the talent to take a giant leap forward. If the Astros are going to be a surprise contender this year, Paulino would likely have to be a big part of it. The Astros need to see what he can do and treat Moehler as a fallback.

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 29: Yoenis Cespedes #52 of the New York Mets flips his bat after hitting a walk off home run in the tenth inning to defeat the Miami Marlins 2-1 in a game at Citi Field on August 29, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 1, Twins 0: Tied at zero for nine innings and then, in the tenth, the Indians use a bunt single, a single, a fielder’s choice and then a final, walkoff single by Jason Kipnis to send the Twins to their 11th straight loss. The win was fun and stuff, but Cleveland has scored one run or less in seven of its last eight games and that’s kinda concerning.

Blue Jays 5, Orioles 1: Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Josh Donaldson homered. So did Jose Bautista. Toronto keeps a two-game lead over the Red Sox, who also won, for the division lead, while Baltimore falls four games back. It’s getting a bit scary for the Orioles, who have lost four of five and are now only one game ahead of the Tigers and two games ahead of the Royals and Astros for the second wild card.

Nationals 4, Phillies 0: Seven shutout innings for Tanner Roark in which he allowed only four singles. If you’re a fan of the rebuilding Phillies take some solace that Jake Thompson pitched pretty well. Also ignore the fact that Jayson Werth, who was a member of your last World Series winning team, hit a homer against your guys.

Red Sox 9, Rays 4: Rick Porcello wins his 18th game. Brock Holt had three hits and drove in two, Chris Young hit a tie-breaking two-run double and Mookie Betts hit his 30th homer. If you’re handicapping the Cy Young race, know that while Porcello leads all of baseball in wins and tops the ERA in K/BB ratio, he is tenth in ERA in the AL, ninth in strikeouts and is first in run support. Really nice season and kudos to him to not giving up free passes, but I don’t think it’s safe to say he’s the best in the Junior Circuit.

Tigers 4, White Sox 3: Jarrod Saltalamacchia homered with a runner while the Tigers were down one in the eighth inning to put them ahead for good. Big day for Salty yesterday as he also got on record saying “it’s pretty disgusting” for someone to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Mets 2, Marlins 1: Yoenis Cespedes hit a walkoff homer in the tenth to bring the Mets into a tie with the Marlins, two and a half back of St. Louis for the second wild card. New York got five shutout innings from Rafael Montero to help balance out Jose Fernandez’s six scoreless frames for Miami. Jose Reyes scored on a wild pitch to tie things up at one in the eighth. It looked pretty ugly too, as Reyes slid in head first as the Marlins pitcher covering came in sliding on his knees, slamming into him:

Cardinals 6, Brewers 5: Down by two, the Cardinals scored two in the eighth and then one in the ninth when Jonathan Villar‘s throw to first to nail a bunting Yadier Molina was wild, allowing Stephen Piscotty to score from second. Mike Matheny after the game, commenting on that play:

“Put pressure on them. That’s it. Make them make plays.”

Because he knew that would happen and not result in a double play, which it almost did?

Rangers 6, Mariners 3: Yu Darvish allowed three runs – two of them were on base when he left and were allowed to come around by the reliever who inherited them —  but struck out nine in six and two thirds innings while Carlos Beltran had three hits including a homer.

Cubs 8, Pirates 7: Chicago rallied for two in the eighth and one in the ninth to force extras and then, down by one in the bottom of the 13th, rode four singles to score two and win the game in walkoff fashion. Miguel Montero‘s bases loaded pinch hit to left field off of Jeff Locke plated the game-winner in the form of Kris Bryant. This was a five hour game that went after midnight on the heels of the Cubs not getting back to Chicago until the wee hours Monday morning due to a delayed flight from Los Angeles.

Astros 6, Athletics 0: Joe Musgrove and four relievers combined for a four-hit shutout. “Joe Musgrove” would also be an excellent name for a backup quarterback. You know, that senior who, outside of garbage time in blowouts, has held the clipboard for all four years but who, when that golden boy recruit who was supposed to be so special stumbles in week three vs. Tulsa or whoever, you are convinced would be a better choice. Face it, dude: he’s not that good and will likely be a graduate coaching assistant next year. Maybe some CFL time at most on the power of him coming from this program and working in this system, but you’re spending too much of your time laying your wishes on his blank canvas of a college career. It’s a nice fall day for crying out loud, enjoy the game if you want to, but maybe spend some time outside before and after and gain some perspective.

Royals 8, Yankees 5: Close until the seventh inning when the home team struck for five. Alicides Escobar of all people hit a three-run homer that inning and Kansas City added two more to make it 8-1. They then held on as the Yankees rallied for four in the eighth. The Royals won for the 18th time in 22 games, closing to within two games of the second AL wild card.

Rockies 8, Dodgers 1: I repeat, close until the seventh inning when the home team struck for five. This time Alicides Escobar did not hit a three-run homer because he wasn’t there. DJ LeMahieu hit a two-run double, though. Earlier Nick Hundley hit for a two-run homer.

Angels 9, Reds 2: Mike Trout, Albert PujolsKole CalhounC.J. Cron and Jefry Marte all hit homers. Trout, Calhoun, Pujols and Marte all were a triple shy of the cycle. Which, as I noted the other day is not really a thing, but it’s a thing when four different dudes do it, I think.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s 2017 option vests, but salary still undetermined

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 13: Hisashi Iwakuma #18 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the bottom of the third inning at the Oakland Coliseum on August 13, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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With last Wednesday’s start against the Yankees, Mariners hurler Hisashi Iwakuma pushed his 2016 innings total up to 2016. That clears the 162-inning hurdle for his 2017 option to vest at $14 million. However, as Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors reports, the language in Iwakuma’s contract also stipulates that the right-hander finish the season without suffering a specific injury.

Iwakuma, 35, was in agreement with the Dodgers on a three-year contract back in December but failed the physical, which nullified the deal. He ended up signing with the Mariners on a one-year, $12 million deal with a full no-trade clause and club options for 2017 and ’18 that vest at specific inning thresholds (162 each or 324 for both seasons).

This season, Iwakuma has stayed healthy, making 26 starts to the tune of a 14-9 record, a 3.81 ERA and a 118/36 K/BB ratio in 163 innings.