Springtime Storylines: Will the Astros ever rebuild?

Leave a comment

Colt .45s logo.gifBetween now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: The ‘Stros. I’ll explain my use of the logo to the right in a moment.


The
big question: Will the Astros ever rebuild?

Houston has been treading water for a few years now, not good enough to compete and not bad enough to rebuild. Well, not bad enough to convince them to rebuild, anyway.  And not that they could effectively rebuild even if they wanted to given that the most marketable trade candidates — Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee* — all have full no-trade clauses and none of those guys have shown the slightest inclination to waive them. And not that the Astros have really asked them to do so, because Drayton McLane has a famous fetish for veterans. It’s a loyalty that, while admirable on some level, has really hamstrung this team.

As have years and years of poor drafting and scouting, leaving their system near the bottom of everyone’s organizational rankings.  Law says that things are slowly on the upswing, but he still has them at 28.  As a result there is very little help on the way.

Because they still have Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman the team will still portray itself as trying to win now — thus the pickups of Pedro Feliz and Brandon Lyon, each of whom could be spare parts on a contender but do not themselves a winner make — but with their current talent (more below) they’re not going to come close to winning anything.  They should have torn this thing down two years ago and started again, but that’s just something the Astros never, ever seem to want to do.  

*Lee isn’t marketable as-is, but if the Astros picked up loads of that salary of his he could bring something in the way of prospects. 

So what
else is
going on?

  • While the talent is declining the mood of the place should improve. Gone is Cecil Cooper, who lost the clubhouse approximately seventeen minutes after being hired and in comes Brad Mills, who is enthusiastic and apparently quite popular so far. The Astros may be one of those rare teams that lose 90+ games and gets lauded for having good chemistry.
  • The rotation looks like so: Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Bud Norris
    and Felipe Paulino. I think Oswalt will bounce back after a poor 2009 and Wandy Rodriguez should be OK assuming is brutal spring was just one of those spring things and not evidence of an injury or something. Beyond that, ick. Myers is capable of excellence on one day and putridity the next. Norris is a power guy who strikes out a lot of guys but walks a lot of guys too. Paulino has an injury history and got beat up last season.  Whatever that amounts to, the rotation is the team’s strength, it would seem.

  • The offense is nothing if not ugly. The Astros were 14th in scoring in the NL last year and did basically nothing to get better offensively this year. Oh, and Lance Berkman is hurt. Given that they play in a hitters park, this is an attack that simply won’t play.
  • Check out the anniversary patches the Astros are wearing. Sweet! Except the franchise didn’t begin in 1965. It began in 1962 and played for three seasons as the Colt .45s. I realize we all hate gun violence and everything, but celebrating 1965 as the team’s anniversary is like my wife and I celebrating our wedding anniversary on the date she got her social security card with her new last name in the mail. Weak. Which is why I have decided to go with their old logo. Never forget, Colt .45s fans. Never forget.

So
how
are they gonna do?

It’s going to be an ugly season. If Berkman manages to get healthy there will come the time when it dawns on him that the team isn’t picking up his big option for 2011. If Oswalt bounces back he will be pestered to drop his no-trade clause. They won’t score, there aren’t many young players to get anyone excited and the only thing keeping them out of last place will be a terrible Pirates team which, perversely, will likely post a winning season before the Astros do.

Prediction: Fifth place, NL Central.

Click
here for other Springtime Storylines

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Leave a comment

A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez defected to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.