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Springtime Storylines: Are the Astros headed for a long stretch of rough results?

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Between 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 2011 season. Next up: Houston, we have a problem.

The Big Question: Are the Astros headed for a long stretch of rough results?

It would appear so.

Outside of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence, there isn’t much to like about the Astros’ current talent pool.

Veteran outfielder Carlos Lee can usually be counted on for 25-plus home runs and a respectable slugging percentage, but his career is trending down quickly and he doesn’t move so well anymore out in left field. The ‘Stros owe him $18.5 million this season and another $18.5 million in 2012.

The well-traveled Brett Wallace ranks high on prospect boards, but he batted just .222/.296/.319 with two home runs in his first 159 major league plate appearances last year and his move from third base to first base significantly hurt his projected value. The kid can flat out hit and should eventually figure it out in the majors. The question is whether his bat is ever going to be elite enough for the position. In the National League, most good teams get great production at first base.

Florida native Chris Johnson put together a promising rookie year at third base, but he will turn 27 years old at the end of this season and does not have good range defensively. On top of that, his minor league numbers suggest that he’s in for a regression as a sophomore.

The lack of excitement doesn’t end with the 25-man major league roster either. The Astros did not have one player in Baseball America’s Top 40 prospect rankings this winter and the entire farm system was ranked 26th by BA earlier this month. The big league team is bad, the minor league teams are bad, and there’s still a damn hill out in center field at Minute Maid Park. If there are good times ahead for Houston baseball, some serious miracles are going to need to take place first. And Ed Wade, my friends, is no miracle worker.

If the Astros want to get better, they need to start mimicking the ways of smaller market teams. Don’t give long-term contracts to aging players. Commit money to scouting and development. Draft well. Get busy on the international market. Build a top-level presence in Latin America.

So what else is going on?

  • New ownership may be on the horizon. According to a report this weekend from MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart, current owner Drayton McLane is talking to three different parties about a possible sale. McLane has toyed with selling the team in the past and not followed through, so we’ll have to wait for more details to surface before a better idea can be formed about how a new head honcho (or head honchos) would affect the direction of the team. The more money the better, but it’s not like McLane has been cheap. Houston businessman Jim Crane is thought to be a finalist.
  • The Astros are going to have to make a decision on Pence pretty soon. He is entering his second year of arbitration eligibility and earned a whopping $6.9 million this offseason by winning his case against the team’s $5.15 million bid. Right now, that’s a fine price for a player with Pence’s ability but his salary is going to climb awfully close to $10 million next winter and he’ll be a free agent after 2013. Houston will either have to write its second $100 million contract (El Caballo got the first) or they’ll have to let the face of the franchise walk. The right call there, at least with the way things look now, would be to invest that kind of salary commitment into rebuilding. That, of course, comes at the risk of hurting ticket sales.
  • The Astros have a ton of holes and problems throughout the organization, but their situation at catcher this season can safely be called the most troubling. The depth chart calls for Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles to split time at the position. Quintero posted a horrific .579 OPS across 276 plate appearances in 2010 and it wasn’t even the worst season of his career. Towles has drawn playing time in the major leagues each year since 2007 and can claim only 53 career hits for a .189 career batting average. Jason Castro was a high draft pick and may be productive in a few years, but he’s likely to miss the entire year while in recovery mode from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
  • Back in the National League Central and back in a full-time role, 31-year-old infielder Bill Hall may be someone to keep an eye on. The former Brewers regular woke his career from its slumber last season in Boston, slugging 18 homers and stealing nine bases in 10 opportunities as a highly active utilityman. The Astros are going to start him at second base over Jeff Keppinger and he might be able to do some damage on Minute Maid Park’s short left field porch.

So how are they gonna do?

Really poorly. The Astros enjoyed a nice run in the early-to-mid 2000s, but it’s going to be a while before they get the taste of .500 baseball again in Houston. This season brings 90 losses for the first time since 2000 and a close-shave fifth place finish over the sixth-place Pirates at the bottom of the National League Central.

Adams homers in 16th to lift Cardinals over Dodgers 4-3

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ST. LOUIS — Matt Adams homered in the 16th inning to lead the Cardinals to a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night for St. Louis’ season-best fifth straight victory.

It was the second consecutive game that the Cardinals won in their final at-bat. They beat the Padres on Thursday after scoring a run in the ninth inning.

Adams homer came with one out off Bud Norris (5-9), who gave up six runs as a starter in an 8-1 loss at Washington on Wednesday.

Seth Maness (1-2) picked up the win with a scoreless inning of relief for St. Louis, which was playing its longest game of the season.

Jedd Gyorko hit a two-out homer off closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth to tie the game 3-3.

Justin Turner and Howie Kendrick homered for the Dodgers. Los Angeles has lost four of six. The red-hot Turner has seven homers and 17 RBI this month. He hit two homers in a 6-3 win over Washington on Thursday.

Turner blasted his career-high 18th homer of the season off Seung Hwan Oh in the ninth to break a 2-2 tie.

Corey Seager had four hits and drove in the first run of the game. He had hit in seven successive at-bats before flying out in the ninth.

Kendrick’s solo shot in the sixth tied the game 2-2. He has hit in 14 successive games trying Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon for the longest current streak in the majors.

Los Angeles starter Brandon McCarthy allowed one hit and two runs over 6 1-3 innings, the longest of his four starts this season. He left with leg cramps. McCarthy struck out four and walked three.

St. Louis starter Michael Wacha allowed two runs on 10 hits in six innings. He struck out four and walked one.

Dodgers reliever Adam Liberatore recorded his 28th successive scoreless outing by retiring two of four batters in the seventh. He has not allowed a run in 41 of 42 appearances this season.

Minor League Players’ Wage Suit against Major League Baseball suffers a huge setback

The judge's gavel is seen in court room 422 of the New York Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East
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A judge handed minor leaguers looking to hold Major League Baseball liable for underpaying and exploiting them a huge setback today, ruling that the case cannot go forward as a class action. Minor leaguers who want to sue over their pay and treatment still can, but they’ll have to do it individually. The ruling saps the minor leaguers of their leverage, as Major League Baseball would likely be able to fend off individual cases which, by themselves, might only amount to several thousand dollars per claim.

The background: in 2014, former Miami Marlins player Aaron Senne sued Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, and three major league clubs claiming that minor leaguers are underpaid and exploited in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. He was later joined by former Royals minor leaguer Michael Liberto and Giants farmhand Oliver Odle. Eventually others joined and the suit had been expanded to 22 teams as defendants.

The upshot of the case is that, while the minor league season lasts only part of the year, players are required to do all sorts of things outside of merely playing games for which they are not compensated. Training, meetings, appearances and the like. When all of that time is added up, the players claim, their already low salaries are effectively far below minimum wage in violation of the law. Major League Baseball has countered this by claiming that minor leaguers are basically part time seasonal workers — like landscapers and pool boys — who are not subject to federal labor laws.

Last year the judge gave the case conditional certification, allowing the players to try to establish that it should go forward as a class action. This would streamline the case from the plaintiffs’ perspective and give them the power of collective action by asserting hundreds or more similar cases into one proceeding. The judge’s ruling today, however, was that the cases really weren’t factually similar and thus collective action was not appropriate because figuring out how many hours each player worked and what was required of him varied too greatly among the players.

From his order:

“The difficulties associated with determining what activities constitute ‘work’ in the context of winter training are compounded by the fact that there appear to be no official records documenting these activities. Because it may be impossible to determine from official records the types of conditioning activities in which the players engaged, membership in the state classes based on winter training would depend largely upon the players’ ability to remember, with a reasonable amount of detail, what they did during the off-season (often for multiple years and for many, several years in the past) to stay fit.”

The judge said that, in light of this, each case would be unique and would require “individualized inquiries” to find damages and liability. That phrase –“individualized inquiries” — constitutes magic words which sink would-be class actions. If a company overcharges all of its customers by $8 due to an error repeated a million times, it’s easy to look at one set of facts and judge them together. If you had to look at a million different wrongs, that’s no class action. And so it is not a class action for the players.

As many courts who have dealt with these sorts of cases have noted, for many plaintiffs, a class action is the only practical method of adjudicating Fair Labor Standards Act cases because individual plaintiffs are frequently unable to bear the costs of separate trials. They are, by definition, (allegedly) exploited workers. They’re not going to be able to pay legal costs and fight off a multi-billion dollar business in order to collect the few thousand dollars they were underpaid. At the same time, however, the defendants have rights too and, if the facts of each players’ treatment truly differ (e.g. the Yankees make their minor leaguers do more than the Brewers do) it’s not fair to bind one defendant’s defense to the acts of another.

So, where does this leave the players? Not dead. Not yet, at least. Their claims have not been dismissed on the merits. They have only been denied the right to act collectively. The individual plaintiffs can now file separate lawsuits against their former employers and Major League Baseball under the same theories. It would be harder to land a big blow in such a scenario, but if enough do, it could end up being death by a thousand cuts for the clubs and the league. Their legal fees might go up and, eventually, if they lose enough of these cases, more might be filed. There are a lot of former minor leaguers, after all, and once there’s some blood in the water, more of them — and their lawyers — may enter the frenzy. Decertification is certainly a win for the league right now, but it’s not necessarily a permanent win.

There are likewise some other quasi-collective forms this case could take such as multi-district litigation in which the cases, while individual, are coordinated in a loose fashion. That could lead to some efficiencies for suing players even if it’s not as robust as a class action.

We’ve written quite a bit about minor league pay and treatment in this space by now, so you probably know where we stand on it. We believe that minor leaguers are exploited and underpaid and we believe that Major League Baseball has been happy to exploit and underpay them for some time. Ultimately we believe that this state of affairs cannot and will not persist and that eventually, somehow, baseball will either see fit to pay its workers fairly or, more likely, will be forced to do so by a court or by collective bargaining of some fashion.

Today, however, was a big setback for the minor leaguers. Today’s ruling will give Major League Baseball and its clubs more time and more comfort in which to underpay them. There’s no doubt about it.