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What are the Astros aiming for exactly?


Having finished with baseball’s worst record three straight years, the Astros have mastered the art of being bad. And it’s worked out for them; thanks to their early draft picks and some veteran-for-prospects trades, they now boast one of the game’s very best farm systems.

That left the Astros with a decision to make entering 2014. Was it time to start going in the other direction and try to put a competitive team on the field? Or was it worth going for one more No. 1 overall draft pick?

It seems like they’ve chosen the former. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe.

The Astros made their biggest signing in years when they added starting pitcher Scott Feldman on a three-year, $30 million contract. They also traded one of their youngest pitchers in Jordan Lyles for a legitimate starting center fielder in Dexter Fowler. Plus, they signed three veterans for their bullpen in Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and the rehabbing Jesse Crain.

Those all seemed like solid moves with the idea of regaining respectability. It’s certainly not the kind of transition needed to contend in the tough AL West, but it should be sufficient to avoid a fourth straight 100-loss season in 2014.

Their latest move Monday, the signing of Jerome Williams, makes it even more evident that just not losing 100 games is the goal. Williams has no upside; his function is solely to soak up innings. He’s made 40 starts and 29 relief appearances for the Angels the last two seasons, posting a 4.57 ERA. That he can alternate between middle relief and the rotation gives him value, but really, that value comes in the form of not having to throw some 22-year-old minor league prospect to the wolves instead. Basically, he takes away that worst-case scenario of having to continue starting the youngster with the 5.50 ERA.

The Astros of the past could have used a guy like that. But the 2014 Astros? After already adding four veteran pitchers? Honestly, if they think they need a guy like Williams, then doesn’t that mean they’ve failed?

The Astros have 24 pitchers on their 40-man roster. 21 of those guys are 25 or older. Two of the three that aren’t, 23-year-old Jarred Cosart and 24-year-old Brett Oberholtzer, are expected to be a part of their rotation anyway. What does it say about all of these 25, 26 and 27-year-old pitchers the Astros are carrying that the team still thinks it needs Williams around?

The early word is that Williams will be in the rotation. The pitcher he’s most likely to bump is left-hander Dallas Keuchel, a 26-year-old who struck out 7.2 batters and walked 3.0 per nine innings in 22 starts and nine relief appearances last season. That K/BB ratio, combined with a very strong groundball rate (56%), would seem to give him some upside. Certainly more than Williams has. If not Keuchel, maybe it will instead be Brad Peacock, who averaged 8.3 K/9 IP in his 14 starts and four relief appearances last season.

Perhaps the early word is wrong. Maybe Williams will be employed in the swing role that Lucas Harrell figured to fill. If so, there’s little harm in that. But that the Astros believed they needed Williams to patch a hole now speaks to the lack of faith they have in all of those options in hand.

63-99, here we come!

Report: Kyle Schwarber will return to the Arizona Fall League on Saturday

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 16:  Injured player Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs is seen in the dugout before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field on August 16, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Cubs’ outfielder Kyle Schwarber will return to the playing field on Saturday, per a report by the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales. The club’s prized left fielder suffered a season-ending injury when he collided with Dexter Fowler back in April, tearing both his ACL and LCL and undergoing intensive knee surgery later that month.

While no nerve damage was discovered during the surgery, the Cubs have kept a close eye on Schwarber during his recovery and put a kibosh on any part-time or full-time role with the team until the spring of 2017. Getting a few reps in during the Arizona Fall League appears to be the last step in the 23-year-old’s rehab process. He will be part of the Mesa Solar Sox’ ‘taxi squad,’ making him eligible for games on Wednesdays and Saturdays only.

Schwarber batted .246/.355/.487 with 16 in 69 games with the Cubs during his debut season in 2015. He will be added to the Mesa Solar Sox roster in advance of their set against the Salt River Rafters on Saturday evening.

Playoff Reset: Cubs vs. Dodgers NLCS Game 6

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 16:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers stands on the pitcher's mound during game two of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on October 16, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The Game: Los Angeles Dodgers @ Chicago Cubs NLCS Game 6
The Time: 8:00 PM EDT
The Place: Wrigley Field, Chicago
The Channel: FS1
The Starters: Kyle Hendricks (Cubs) vs. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers)

The Upshot:

We’re pulling out the big guns for this one. The Cubs took Los Angeles by storm again in Game 5, closing out their road trip with an eight-run spread over the Dodgers, and tonight they’ll try to clinch the NLCS on home turf in Game 6.

Pitching-wise, it’s a rematch of Game 2 with Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13 ERA) and Clayton Kershaw (12-4, 1.69 ERA) on the mound. Kershaw took the first set against the Cubs, going seven scoreless innings with six strikeouts in Game 2 while Hendricks held the Dodgers to a single run over 5 1/3 innings. Adrian Gonzalez was the only Dodger to capitalize on Hendricks’ cutter, going yard in his first at-bat to generate a 1-0 lead.

The Cubs’ biggest strength so far this series has been an electric offense, something the Dodgers have struggled to replicate against left-hander Jon Lester and Joe Maddon’s airtight bullpen. While they’ve already beaten Hendricks at Wrigley Field once this October, they’ll need Kershaw to go the distance in another playoff gem if they intend to keep the Cubs’ championship hopes at bay with a 3.4-run average. Should Kershaw and his crew knot the series again, the tiebreaker will fall to Rich Hill and Jake Arrieta in Game 7.