The Astros and Cubs are the new cool kids, but how did they get there?

Rise of the Underdogs!
by Jim Silva

    The 2016 hot stove league had a couple darlings, including the Cubs in the National League and the Astros in the American League. Many baseball professionals picked the two teams to face off in the World Series. Both teams are viewed as young and exciting, but only one of them has any realistic chance left of still having games to play as pumpkins are being carved as the Astros fell short of the wild card. The Chicago Cubs have captured the hearts of America, or at least the hearts of anyone who ever lived in Chicago plus a bunch of bandwagoners, while the Astros have been a disappointment for most. Why did two of the most exciting teams at the start of the season end up in such different places as 2016 winds down?
Let’s start with some franchise history, shall we, since it’s important to know where you’ve been to know how you got to where you are now? As the country celebrated its centennial, the National League version of the Chicago Cubs named the Chicago White Stockings were born. The proto-Cubs started play in the National Association starting in 1870, but became a charter member of the National League in 1876. The team, led by Ross Barnes, their slugging 2nd baseman, Al Spalding, essentially their pitching staff, and Cap Anson, their 3rd baseman, won the very first National League Pennant with a mix of good pitching and great hitting.
    In 1890, with a name change to the Chicago Colts, the National League team, playing in West Side Park, was led by Cap Anson still, but a different pitcher – Bill Hutchinson. The Colts would never finish higher than second, and by 1898 had changed their name to the Orphans. The first Orphans team featured league-leading pitching headed by Clark Griffith and his over 300 innings of 1.88 ERA work, which also led the league. Griffith, who would later own the Washington Senators, stayed with the National League club for two more seasons.
    Finally, in 1903, the team became the Cubs. Playing in West Side Park until 1916 when they were purchased by Charlie Weeghman who moved them into Weeghman Park (later purchased by William Wrigley), the Cubs took only three more seasons to make it to the third World Series ever, where they would fall to their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, in six games despite winning 23 more games than the Sox in the regular season. The Tinker to Evers to Chance Cubs would make it back to the World Series each of the next two seasons beating Ty Cobb and the Tigers both times. From 1906 through 1910, the Cubs won an average of 106 games a season, won the National League pennant 4 times, and won the World Series twice (they lost to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1910). 1910 was the last time player-manager Frank Chance would lead the Cubs to the World Series and it wasn’t until 1918 that the Cubs would win another pennant. Led by pitcher Hippo Vaughn, the 1918 Cubs fell to the Red Sox in six games, with Babe Ruth winning two of the four games for Boston as their starting pitcher.
    From 1919 through 1927 (when Cubs Park was renovated and renamed Wrigley Field), the Cubs couldn’t muster even a second place finish in the National League. But in 1928, led by “Rajah” – Rogers Hornsby – the Cubs rode their league-leading offense and excellent pitching staff to another pennant. Once again, the Cubs lost the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, this time in five games, to an A’s team packed with future Hall of Famers. 1932 came as did another World Series loss – to the Yankees this time – in a sweep. In 1935 it was the Tigers again – this time led by Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Schoolboy Rowe. The Tigers took down the Cubs, in spite of Chicago’s deep starting rotation and potent offense, in six games. The Cubs made it back to the Series, hoisting another NL pennant in 1938. Unfortunately, they once again faced a Yankees juggernaut led by DiMaggio and a cast of Hall of Famers. The Yankees outscored the Cubs 22 to 9 while sweeping them again.
    The next time the Cubs won the National League Pennant would be the last time – 1945 – with a starting rotation made up of five pitchers who won at least 11 games and a pitching staff that led the league in ERA at 2.98.  Their offense was tough too, leading the league in batting average and on-base percentage. In the Series, the Cubs leaned heavily on pitcher Hank Borowy who took the decision in 4 of the 7 games. Borowy, who was a mid-season purchase from the Yankees, was outstanding in the regular season and pitched reasonably well in the Series too, faced three batters to start game seven, but failed to record an out and was lifted. “Prince” Hal Newhouser, Detroit’s future Hall of Fame starter, got the win in a rout ending the Cubs season with a loss in the World Series for the seventh time in their last seven World Series appearances. In four of those seven World Series matches, the Cubs had won more regular season games than their opponents. The Cubs have the longest streak of World Series losses uninterrupted by a victory as well as the longest streak of seasons without a World Series win – that one stands at 108 years and counting. They haven’t even sniffed the World Series since that loss in 1945.
    In the off-season prior to the 2012 season, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be the President of the team, and Jed Hoyer to be the general manager. During the Epstein-Hoyer years the Cubs have won more games each season after their initial 101 loss season in 2012, winning five more game in 2013, then seven more games in 2014. They won 24 more games in 2015 (capturing the second wild card spot, pushing past the Pirates in the play-in game, then getting swept by the Mets in the NLDS), and six more games in 2016 for a total of 103 wins – the most in the majors. That is quite a climb from dead last five straight seasons to the best record in baseball and World Series favorites. Their excellent farm system and deep pockets have proven a deadly formula for climbing back from the dead that wouldn’t have happened without the talent of Epstein and Hoyer. Now the Cubs are about to face the winner of the Dodgers-Nats series for the right to play in the World Series. Is it next year yet?
    Houston came to life in 1962 as the expansion Houston Colt 45’s, the same year as the New York Mets. The two teams participated in an expansion draft to populate their major league rosters. The expansion draft was clearly designed to strip money from the new owners and place it in the pockets of the established owners, as the existing major league teams received hefty prices for each player taken. After taking two players from a team at $75,000 a piece, the Mets and Astros would take one more player at $50,000 and then that team who had lost three players to the Mets or Astros would have to make two more “premium” players available at $125,000 each. Just for comparison Willie Mays, who was 31 and a well-established star, was paid $75,000 in 1962. Mickey Mantle, who won his third MVP in 1962, made $90,000. As none of the players made available in any part of the draft were anywhere near the caliber of Mays or Mantle, the fees paid to acquire players were exorbitant to say the least. The fees went to the existing owners of course.
    To rub dirt in the expansion teams’ wounds, since the draft happened right after the World Series, existing teams hadn’t yet culled players they would have taken off the 40 man roster anyway, or promoted players from the minors who they wanted to protect. It made for a very weak, overpriced pool, and it meant that the Astros and Mets were horrible right from the start. They weren’t able to take any top prospects unlike the American League expansions teams had done a year before. The Astros did a remarkable job not finishing last in the National League in their first season. They still managed to lose 96 games besting the Cubs and the horrific Mets who lost 120 games. One of the reasons they did as well as they did was luck. Yes, I know it sounds odd to say that the Astros got lucky when they lost 96 games, but when you consider the field from which they had to pick their beginning roster, it’s amazing that they ended up with seven players who were able to post more than 2.0 WAR in 1962, but they did.
    Turk Farrell posted far and away his best season in 1962 accumulating 7.0 WAR. He had earned no higher than 3.0 WAR in any previous season and would never put together a season after that worth more than 3.8 WAR so the Astros clearly caught lightning in a bottle with Farrell. The man who was second on the team in WAR, Don McMahon, was purchased early in the season so he doesn’t really count if you are only looking at expansion picks, but McMahon also put up the most WAR of his career for Houston earning 3.8 WAR out of the pen. McMahon had a long career almost exclusively as a reliever but never put up a year like 1962 before or after. Pitcher Bob Bruce put up his first WAR above 1.0 with a 2.1 WAR in 27 starts and five relief appearances. Bruce would go on to put up even better seasons, but 1962 was definitely a breakthrough for the then 29 year old hurler. Right fielder Roman Mejias in his age 31 season cobbled together his first and only WAR above 0.7. With a WAR of 2.5 mostly based on a good offensive year, Mejias clearly exceeded expectations. The Astros wisely flipped him after the season for All Star shortstop Pete Runnels who unwisely stopped playing well and was done for good after two seasons in Houston. Still, the Astros knew they had gotten lucky and cashed in their chips. Jim Umbricht was 31 when the Astros acquired him and had never posted a positive WAR in the majors to that point. Houston got his best two seasons from a WAR standpoint as he posted 2.4 WAR in 1962 and then 2.0 WAR in 1963 but died – yes died – before the 1964 season, succumbing to cancer. Umbricht was primarily a reliever with good control, who would likely have become a mainstay in the pen had things broken differently for him. 1962 was not Ken Johnson’s best year, but it was his first season with a WAR over 1.5 as he put up 2.6 WAR as a 29 year old starting pitcher. His next season with Houston was the best of his career as he posted 4.1 WAR. Johnson pitched until he was 37 and accumulated over 20 WAR for his career, but he was done as a rotation stalwart at 35. Bob Aspromonte was the 7th man on the Astros to put up more than 2.0 WAR in 1962 (he managed 2.1 WAR) – his first positive WAR season of his career. It was the second best season of his career from a WAR standpoint. Aspromonte was a starter for Houston for seven seasons before heading to the Braves.
    That’s either good scouting or excellent luck when you pick that many guys off the scrap heap and turn them into something better than a replacement level guy you would find in triple-A, so the Astros really should have been much worse than they were. They wouldn’t make the playoffs until 1980, their 19th season, and they wouldn’t get to the World Series until 2005 where they lost to the White Sox. To date that is the Astros only trip to the Series. They are most definitely moving in the right direction having won 86 and 84 games in the last two seasons. The average age of their hitters is 26.6 years old (that should go up next year), and while their pitchers averaged 28.9 years old this past season, they are likely to get younger on the mound as they sift through the wreckage of their rotation and incorporate their young guns charging from the minors.
    How did the Astros reach these new heights? Part of the formula involved tanking it for several seasons. Obviously, when you move up in the draft you still have to pick well and trade well to make the better picks pay off, and the Astros have mostly done that. Starting with the 2010 season (and you could argue for even earlier) the Astros scrapped their roster and chose not to compete in order to rebuild their roster through the draft. The ‘Stros had the very first pick in the draft for three straight seasons (2012 through 2014) and used those picks to nab Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Brady Aiken. They “earned” those picks by losing 106, 107, and 111 games from 2011 through 2013. But it isn’t just those first rounders who have turned the team around. Their current roster is sprinkled with draft picks from those lean years – Carlos Correa and fellow first rounder George Springer topping the list – as well as players who were acquired via trades (like Evan Gattis) using some of their draft hauls. Now the Astros have a core that they can ride for quite a while – remember the position players’ average age of 26.6 mentioned above – and a middle of the pack farm system that would rank higher if they hadn’t just graduated several players to the big club.
    So is tanking the way to play it when it is clear that you don’t have enough horses to compete for the next season or two? Should everyone try to compete every year? I guess that question is up to the fans who buy tickets and merchandise, and the commissioner/owners to answer since it seems to be de rigeur in MLB and the NBA these days. It has worked for the Cubs and the Astros as both teams are poised to compete every year for the next few seasons at least. It is certainly painful for the casual fans to watch their team lose 100 games a year, and it could certainly be addressed by MLB if they wanted to make it harder to tank in the future. Perhaps they should look at fantasy baseball to find measures taken to prevent tanking in the future, but that assumes that baseball thinks tanking is a bad thing. In the meantime it is a great time to be an Astros fan and the best time in the last century to be a Cubs fan, so enjoy the ride!

The Astros releivers – are they the problem or the solution?

The Nucleus of A Pen Moving Forward
by Jim Silva

    It wasn’t that long ago that closers were thought to be magical creatures who had special abilities not possessed by mere mortals. It wasn’t just that they had a big fastball or some other swing-and-miss pitch, it was more about a certain look or perceived mental toughness. What this means was that once a pitcher was labeled a closer once, he would forever wear the label much like your tattoo of Daphne from Scooby Do – once marked, always marked. I’m not saying that this perception has completely left us, but there is more change in the role these days and managers don’t seem to be as afraid to swap out a guy part way through the season as they used to be. That said, the Red Sox are considering re-signing Jonathan Papelbon which leads one to head scratching. But the Astros have now changed course a couple of times with their pen in an effort to find the magic. Their new/old closer is Ken Giles. To be fair, he was never the anointed closer, although that is clearly why the Astros gave up a lot (five prospects) to get him. Do you think Houston wouldn’t like to have Vince Velasquez back right about now? Let’s take a look at what the Astros are dealing with currently to see why there has been some shuffling in their relief corps this season.
    Ken Giles is the classic two pitch closer with a hard fastball – and by hard I mean it averages 96 MPH and touches triple digits – and a slider. He strikes out everyone, and yes, even their brother. In the 11 innings since Mr. Giles was anointed as the team’s closer he has allowed four earned runs, two home runs, eight hits, and two walks while striking out 16. That is essentially what the Astros thought they were getting when they traded so much to get him – a guy who will blow you away with his heat and finish out the game without too much excitement. The home run rate is way up from his usual numbers and if I were the Astros I would be a little worried. One of the benefits of the current closer model where you only see the closer at the start of the 9th with the bases empty is that if the closer gives up the occasional home run, it shouldn’t hurt you too much as long as he doesn’t walk many guys or give up a lot of hits. A solo homer won’t usually lose you the game. So Giles should be fine as long as his control stays sharp – it doesn’t hurt that he fans almost 14 batters per nine either!
    When Giles arrived, it was initially assumed that he would displace the incumbent closer, Luke Gregerson. Gregerson is not your typical fire-balling closer. His fastball came in at just over 89 MPH on average last season and he throws it more often than his slider. The reason the 6’3” former 28th round pick is so effective is that he has excellent control and sinks the ball, inducing grounders (over 60% of the time last season). This season has been an odd one for Gregerson. He made it clear after the Giles trade that he still wanted to be the closer and he got his wish at least to start the season. The righty from St. Xavier University has seen his strikeout rate skyrocket to 10.4 per nine, up from his career rate of 9.0, while walking more than a batter an inning more than last season. At 2.6 walks over nine innings, Gregerson is just 0.1 over his career walk rate and he still keeps the ball in the park (0.7 home runs per nine) and batters off the bases (a WHIP of 0.89 so far). So why is he no longer the closer? Gregerson lost his role partly because of an ill-timed ankle injury, partly because of a streak of blown saves, partly because of a prejudice against closers who don’t throw super hard, and partly because of the effectiveness of Giles. When your team trades valuable parts for a guy to pitch in relief and that guy throws five MPH faster than you on average, the writing is on the wall. There is no way the Astros were going to leave Giles in the setup role after trading away good players to get him. You could certainly make the argument that Giles is more valuable pitching with men on base in arguably higher leverage spots than coming in to pitch the 9th with nobody on and a lead, but closers have a magical aura to them, and finishing out games when you have a lead in the 9th is psychologically important to a team, or so they say. Either way, Gregerson will now pitch the 7th or 8th, making him arguably more valuable than Giles although his agent will have a hard time selling that to a general manager.
    The other guy in the Astros pen who has garnered a goodly number of save opportunities this season is Will Harris. Harris was unbelievably difficult to hit last season allowing only 5.3 hits per nine innings. With a career strikeouts- per-nine-innings average of 9.4, it wasn’t too surprising that he became the main closer for most of June and July. Most teams would be thrilled to have a guy like Harris, who throws pretty hard – a fastball averaging around 92 MPH, and who mixes in a curve about 20% of the time with good swing and miss rates. Ok, so maybe Harris has had a wee home run problem in the past. By wee, I mean he averaged one homer per nine innings pitched last season, although this season he has kept the ball mostly in the park allowing only 0.5 long balls per nine innings. Harris appeared in the All Star game this season, has managed a career best strikeout to walk ratio of 6.00 and could close, but lost the job likely due to a stretch of three blown saves in five appearances in July. Those were his only three blown saves of the season so Giles mostly just supplanted him and will be given more chances to fail than the 32 year old journeyman reliever. Harris is now the 7th inning guy who hands the ball to Gregerson, the 8th inning guy, who hands the ball to Giles, the closer. Those three make for a nice end game strategy for the Astros.
    At the end of a nearly un-hittable 2014 season where Tony Sipp only allowed 5.0 hits every nine innings he pitched, the then 30 year old reliever found himself relied upon to pitch the 8th and to sometimes close the game for the Astros. It was the peak of his career to date. Sipp was looking like a possible closer and the Astros were about to get good. It isn’t that Sipp began a wicked steep decline or anything but he no longer has a clearly defined role. Sometimes he pitches the 7th, sometimes the 5th, and sometimes he comes in to get one guy. This has been a rough year for the unpredictable lefty as his ERA has jumped to 5.65 while he has allowed almost 12 hits per nine innings and 2.9 home runs per nine. The Astros are losing faith in Tony Sipp and he is going to have a hard time regaining it as younger harder throwing cheaper pitchers move up from the minors. If the Astros sneak into the post-season it is unclear whether Sipp will even make the playoff roster as he has allowed five home runs in his last 10 appearances.
    One of the most valuable arms out of the Astros pen this season has been rookie Chris Devenski. The 2011 25th round pick has started five games and relieved in 10 posting a WHIP of 0.918, and ERA of 2.13, while striking out 4.53 hitters for each man he has walked. Devenski vaulted over triple-A from Corpus Christi of the double-A Texas league after putting together a good season in 2015 but his stats did not portend what he has done in 2016. Since 2014 the 6’3” righty from Cal State Fullerton has demonstrated excellent control, and that is when his overall numbers started to make him look like a viable prospect. So how to use him? In four of his five starts in the bigs, “The Dragon” pitched well. His control was excellent in his starts as it was in his relief appearances. Interestingly, in his starts he appeared to get tougher to hit as the game went on. When batters faced him a third time their batting average dropped to .059 and they slugged .059. Yes, these are small sample size warped stats, but if I am the Astros and my rotation is a mess I want to stretch Devinski out and see if he can maintain those numbers with more starts. When you cherry pick stats it is easy to make almost any point you want and there are certainly numbers that support Devinski coming out of the pen, but his OPS allowed as a starter is .672 versus his OPS allowed as a reliever – .517. Most pitchers will see a statistical benefit from getting to go max effort for a short stretch, but not that many pitchers can succeed as starters. The Astros should consider moving Chris Devinski to the rotation.
    Pat Neshek has found himself at 36. I don’t mean that in the breathy, spiritual way, although I’m sure the Neshek family is quite lovely and enlightened. Neshek has found his control and a team that values him. This is Neshek’s 5th team, which isn’t surprising considering his funky delivery. (See the clip below.)
Teams are reluctant to risk taking on players with unorthodox approaches like Neshek’s. At the first sign of trouble they tend to cut and run, which in baseball means trade the guy or let him sign elsewhere. What Neshek currently (and apparently every other season – only the evens – since 2012) offers to a team is low hit totals, currently 5.9 hits per nine innings, low walk totals – he has allowed 1.7 per nine so far, and an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio which is currently at 4.88 to 1. Neshek does get touched by the long ball from time to time, but this season he has kept that at a reasonable 1.0 home runs per nine innings pitched. With an ERA of 2.51 and a WHIP of 0.837 he looks, from his numbers at least, like a closer but has had zero save opportunities with the 2016 Astros. I’m not suggesting that the Astros need to unseat Giles or Gregerson and install Neshek and his whip weirdness, but sometimes oddness blinds teams to results and that has mostly been true with Neshek who has never really had a shot to be the closer for a team beyond 10 save opportunities he experienced with St. Louis in 2014. That is not likely to change for the 36 year old and that’s too bad because it would certainly be entertaining to watch someone like Neshek come in to close out a big game in the playoffs or World Series.
    Michael Feliz is an intriguing arm who was mostly a big, hard-throwing starter with decent control as a minor leaguer. What’s not to like there? A mid-90’s fastball and a strikeout to walk ratio in the majors of 4.18 this year working out of the pen to go with his 13.3 strikeouts per nine makes for a compelling package. He is only 23 and only has two games pitched at triple-A so working from the pen is probably a solid plan at least for now, but if you are struggling to find viable options for your rotation why not give Feliz a shot? It is spilt milk now, but why didn’t the Astros stretch him out and try him in the rotation? They have mostly used him for an inning or two at a time (20 of his 44 appearances have been for more than an inning) and, especially in the second half, low-leverage situations. It appears that the Astros don’t really trust him and that may have come from a rocky start to the season where he got lit up in his first two appearances. Felix then went 19 and a third and only gave up one earned run in a stretch that took him to early June. His ERA got as low as 3.23 but is now sitting at 4.62. It will be interesting to see what Houston does with Feliz next season. They aren’t lacking young, hard-throwing pitchers coming through the system, but their view of Feliz will determine whether or not they give him a shot at their rotation going forward.
    Putting together a viable pen to get you to and through the post-season is complicated and the Astros pen has been in the middle of the pack. With Giles under team control through 2021, Harris until 2020, Devenski still a rookie, and Gregerson around at least through next season, the Astros don’t have to panic about their pen in the off-season. There is a fair amount  of talent in the Houston pen, and if they can figure out a way to get to the pen with a lead – and that is mostly on the rotation, the Astros will be contenders to unseat the Rangers as soon as next year.

Crafty starting pitchers with hard-throwing youngsters on the way; do the Astros having enough in the rotation?

Like Playing Tennis With Your 70 Year Old Uncle
by Jim Silva

When a team rebuilds from the ground up where do they start? Where would you start? It is certainly more exciting to draft a bunch of young hitters because that’s what most fans want to see – offense. But, as my wife tells me all the time, pitching is too important in baseball. And she’s right of course, although she says it as more of a complaint because she prefers a good 9 to 8 barn-burner, whereas I am a fan of a nice 3-2 or 4-3 game. What my lovely wife means is that pitchers have too much power over the game – right again. When you look at the franchises around the league giving absurd amounts of money and multi-year contracts to starting pitchers, who more and more often don’t finish the contract without undergoing arm surgery, it is clear that baseball agrees with my wife. The Astros probably agree with that aphorism as well, but it doesn’t look like it when you look at the young players who have made it to the majors in the wake of their current rebuild. Their rotation is only just now seeing the fruits of their tanking efforts where they had top draft picks year after year. When fans and writers alike were saying that the Astros were ready to compete already, it was because they saw the exciting position players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Jose Altuve. But what really drives a team to success in the post-season is the depth of their starting rotation, and the effectiveness of their bullpen. So are the Astros really “here” or are they still a season or two away from being perennial playoff participants? Let’s look at their rotation and ponder that question as they push down the stretch to grab a wild card spot.
Is there such a thing as a Cy Young hangover? Dallas Keuchel won the AL Cy Young in 2015 and ended up 5th in MVP voting but started this season looking like a guy you might want to send back to triple-A. He was getting lit up and his control had clearly slipped. One very bad sign is the fact that he had already given up 14 home runs in his first 17 starts – only three fewer than he had given up all last season. Since then he has given up only five home runs in his last eight starts, which is an improvement. In short, the Astros ace has been horribly inconsistent for most of his first 25 starts. It seems like maybe, just maybe he is figuring it out. His ERA for the season was over 5.00 but has dropped to 4.64. It’s not pretty especially when you compare it to his last season – it boils down to Keuchel trying to figure out what made him the Astros ace in 2014 and 2015. Keuchel this season has looked like the guy in 2013 who hadn’t quite figured it out. He is not now, nor has he ever been, the type of pitcher who can get away with missing spots relying on power to save him. If he isn’t sharp with command and control he will flat out suck. His fastball averages a tick under 90 and he mixes it with three other pitches. Looking at his game logs, he seems to have it for a start or two and then appears to lose it. For the Astros to get to the playoffs and to do anything once they get there, Keuchel has to figure it out and time is running out for the bearded Oklahoma native.
    Colin McHugh doesn’t blow his fastball by hitters either. He is a mixmaster, throwing his fastball, slider, curveball almost equally often. He seemed to put it all together when he got to Houston in 2014, but has given up more and more hits as the league gets to see his slippery stuff more and more. Along with the blossoming hit rate (2013: 6.9 hits per 9 innings pitched, 2014: 9.1, 2016: 11.1 so far), his home run rate has increased from 0.8 each of the last two seasons to 1.4 through his first 15 starts in 2016. At this point, McHugh’s ERA is sitting at 4.99 and is just getting worse as his ERA in his last five starts is at 9.00. The Astros, who are sitting in third in the AL West and starting the day in sixth in the battle for the two wild card spots have to make some tough decisions. Do they continue to watch McHugh get lit up every night wasting star quality offensive performances as their playoff chances fade into the steamy Houston twilight, or do they cut bait and find another answer?
    Mike Fiers was acquired last season in a deal with the Brewers and closed the season with nine starts that included a no-hitter and an ERA of 3.32. So entering 2016, Fiers – who had sported ERA’s in the twos and threes in each of his stops, except one since his debut in 2011 – seemed like he would slot in nicely in the third spot in the rotation. The righty, who will be a free agent at the end of this season, has been healthy all season, but has been unable to duplicate his past success so far. His ERA has bounced around a bit and currently sits at 4.48 after a month where he went 2-2 in five starts and managed an ERA of 3.72. If you arbitrarily break his season into blocks of five starts going back to his first start on April 7th, Fiers has reached the 6th inning in exactly two of every five starts. The former Brewer’s 22nd round pick in the 2009 draft mixes four other pitches with his 89 MPH fastball but is hard on the bullpen. The Astros have to use at least three other pitchers in most of his start as he hasn’t made it into the 8th once this season. So even in his best starts the Astros are likely to use at least two more relievers to finish the game. If Fiers can keep his ERA in the threes the rest of the way, the Astros will deal with the exhausted pen.
    If results dictate who the ace is, then Doug Fister is the Astros ace in 2016. I’m not sure why the Astros went out and cornered the market on soft tossers, but none of the top four Astros starters cracks 90 MPH with their fastball on a regular basis, and Fister is the softest tosser of the bunch sitting around 86 MPH with his “heater”. Interestingly, the oversized righty (he is 6’8”) throws his fastball about 70% of the time mixing a slider, a changeup, and a curve the other 30% of the time. Fister’s five starts this past month have been even better than his season totals with an ERA of 3.00, a WHIP of 1.267, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.43 – all better than his season totals to date, and boy are those solid numbers needed by the Astros! Some of Fister’s results are luck and having the backing of a good offensive team as most of his peripherals are a touch below his career numbers, except for his hits allowed per nine (8.5 this year versus 9.1 for his career). At 12 and 8, Fister is holding down the fort until another starter can step up and do what they were expected to do.
    Lance McCullers the younger is the freak in the Astros rotation who can actually break glass with his fastball which averages a notch over 94 MPH. His curve and change also contribute to his high strikeout totals. In 22 starts last season as a 21 year old, McCullers averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine. That rate jumped to 11.8 in his 14 starts this season before he landed in the DL with elbow issues at the start of August. While his strikeout numbers make him look dominant, McCullers’ control has taken a big step back this year. His ERA is exactly what is was last season at 3.22, but he has walked 5.0 per nine this year as opposed to only 3.1 free passes per nine last season – his first in the majors. McCullers hits per nine have also jumped this season moving from 7.6 last year to 8.9 so far this season. His home run rate has remained stable at 0.6 home runs per nine (0.7 last year), to best the rest of the starting staff. McCullers will be the ace someday soon, but he has to get off the DL and stay off the DL for the ‘Stros to have any chance of fighting their way into the post-season.
    The Astros youth movement has paid off quite nicely in the last few seasons with stars as well as talent that has filled in admirably. Joe Musgrove falls in between these two marks as he is the 7th ranked prospect in the Houston system according to Keith Law, and he has carried the flag for Lance McCullers while the flamethrower is on the DL. Musgrove can throw the pill with alacrity – perhaps not quite as rapidly as Mr. McCullers – and is stingy with the free passes. The 23 year old, 6’5” righty from El Cajon has fanned 25 batters in five games while only walking three. His minor league control shows that his control is not a fluke. Here’s a weird stat – Musgrove’s career walk totals in the minors (41) are just barely ahead of his home runs allowed plus hit batsmen (a total of 39 – 24 home runs plus 15 men plunked) in the same time period. He has amassed this totals in just over 337 innings and has struck out 320 men in that same span for an amazing strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.8. With control like that you have to wonder if Musgrove is particularly grumpy and hits batters because he doesn’t like their walk up song. In a small sample size of five games in the majors (four starts) Musgrove’s weakness has been the long ball as he has allowed five of his pitches to leave the yard. As his minor league ratio is 0.64 home runs per nine, that issue is likely to correct itself over time. Depending on how Musgrove’s next few starts go the Astros might have a tough decision to make when they get McCullers back from the DL. Do you keep the hard-throwing youngster in the rotation and jettison one of the vets like McHugh, or do you send Musgrove down and hope that the team can get there with the guys they started the season with.
    The only other pitcher who the Astros have in their top ten is Francis Martes, their 2nd best prospect and the 40th best in baseball. Only 20 years old and already chucking it in the mid to upper 90’s, Martes has reached double-A and after having a dominant season last year where he managed an ERA of 2.04, he is competing admirably this season. His ERA is 3.52, he has limited home runs to four in 115 innings, and his strikeout rate is actually up – above nine per nine innings pitched. From such a young hard-throwing pitcher, Martes’ control is a good sign as he has averaged 3.1 walks per nine – not Musgrovian, but good numbers for a youngster who can bring it. At 20, Martes is unlikely to break into the rotation this season in spite of the needs of the big club, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him called up in September to bring his heat from the pen.
    The hard throwers are coming, and when they reach the majors, the soft tossers might be disposed of, ushering in a new era in Houston. But for now, the Astros have to hope that they can make do with deception and trickery (plus McCullers if he can make it back) because that is their only reasonable choice at the moment. Having painted themselves into this particular corner by not trading for a conventional hard-throwing ace, the Astros are showing their hand a bit. Their reluctance to give up on their youngsters implies that while they are hoping to reach deep into the post-season this year, they believe that their true time is near, but not yet here. Don’t be surprised if they go out and get a big nasty ace before they go to battle next season. 2016 isn’t over, but the writing is on the wall for the Astros with too many teams to climb over, and inconsistent starting pitching. Their patient approach, while likely frustrating to many fans, will pay off soon, but for now the Astros players view of the post-season is likely to be from their sofas.

The Astros outfielders can beat you and your family in a race, but can they help guide the Astros to a Pennant?

Talented Athletes & A Frustrating Puzzle
by Jim Silva

    Do you need a reason to hate the Houston Astros? Well, here are three: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, AND George Springer are both on their major league roster. When a team has one young (under 27) potential superstar on their roster you should envy them. When they have two it’s ok to hate them a little. But three? That is just too much to endure! Since this article is about the outfield we will focus on Springer and his outfield mates.
    George Springer was signed with the 11th pick of the first round in the 2011 draft. He will be eligible for arbitration for the first time after this season, but under team control (not a free agent) until 2021 even if the Astros don’t buy out some of those free agent years before then. Springer was Carlos Correa before Carlos Correa was Carlos Correa – he was one of those prospects that Astros fans knew about and drooled about before he even reached triple-A. The 6’3” right-fielder has very few holes in his game and has been the starter since he came up midway through the 2014 season. Since he first came up the one knock on George has been his high strikeout totals – 114 in his first season in 345 plate appearances, then improvement to 109 in 451 appearances. So far this season he has fanned 84 times in his first 386 plate appearances again showing improvement. Another good sign of Springer’s improving plate discipline has been his increasing walk totals – he is only two short of last season’s total in 50 fewer at bats. As with many young ball players, his power numbers are getting better as he makes pitchers throw him more strikes. Springer’s calling card is his terrific power. He already has 55 home runs through his first 1182 plate appearances – really fewer than two full seasons and is looking at a 30 plus home run season this year if he continues his pace from the first half.
    Springer is also fast with 27 career stolen bases to date. In fact the Astros have batted him exclusively in the one or two hole so far this year – a testament to both his speed and his ability to get on base. Springer’s speed has not equated to big range numbers in the field, in fact he has posted slightly below league average range numbers for his career so far. He still managed to put up positive DRS numbers last year, saving the Astros 6 runs with his glove. He is already a 3.5 to 4.0 WAR player and he is only in his second full season having just turned 26. With his athletic ability and his apparent ability to learn at the major league level, there is still room for growth – a scary thought for other American League teams.
    8.5 WAR. That’s what Carlos Gomez produced as a 27 year old Gold Glove centerfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013. Those are numbers to build your franchise around especially when they come from a 27 year old five tool player in center field. It seems that the Astros traded for the 2013 Carlos Gomez when they shipped a boatload of prospects to get Gomez along with Mike Fiers at the deadline last year. The big question all Astros fans want answered is which Carlos Gomez is patrolling centerfield in 2016. So far the answer appears to be that the guy who managed those two magical seasons in Milwaukee is gone. The frustrating athlete the Brewers had before his breakout is the one who the Astros received. Gomez no longer looks like a Gold Glove centerfielder and his power seems to have disappeared altogether. The former Brewer All Star is striking out often and walking only in moderation. The results so far are a centerfielder who is playing slightly below average defense and making a ton of outs with no power to show for it. His slash line as of this writing is .221/.291/.333 which would be bad for a backup shortstop, much less a starting outfielder who once appeared capable of carrying an offense. Remember that 8.5 WAR? Gomez is currently porting a WAR of negative 0.4. Why has he fallen so far? That is the question the Astros would pay a million dollars to answer. ‘Nuff said, eh?
    Having a left fielder who can also play right, and more importantly, center is quite a luxury. Colby Rasmus, another athletic Astros outfielder, was the first player ever to take the qualifying offer. Yes, ever in the history of the universe! So maybe the rule has only been around for a few years, but still – first ever. Qualifying offers are made to players who can become free agents. The amount of the qualifying offer is the average major league salary for the top 125 players from the past season. Teams make these offers so that if/when the player declines the offer and signs with another team, the original team gets a high pick in the draft as compensation for losing the player. I think teams were getting cocky knowing that nobody had taken the offer so they were gambling by making qualifying offers to players they didn’t really want back at that price. The qualifying offer this off-season was $15.8 million, a hefty price even it was just for one year. Surprise – a few players actually took the offers this time, including Colby.
    Rasmus is not a bad player, in fact he is quite useful and has posted WAR of 2.6 and 4.8 in two of the last three seasons sandwiched around a down year where he only accumulated 1.0 WAR. He is currently on track for another WAR in the twos but is slumping mightily with the bat. Defense runs hot and cold with Rasmus. He saved only two runs last season and actually cost the team six runs in his down year, but in 2012 and 2013 he saved his team seven and 12 runs respectively. His bat is capable of producing serious power. In 2015 he had his best power year banging 25 homers and a total of 50 extra base hits. But Rasmus tends to be an all or nothing hitter and last year was no exception as he struck out 154 times, walked 47 times and only managed a .314 on-base percentage. His career slash line is about what teams should expect from him now with a bit more power possible: .245/.315/.440. The glove/bat combo and the versatility makes him a good guy to have on your roster, although not for $15.8 million. The Astros are using his as their starting left fielder and can count on him to hang around two WAR. If they could make him their 4th outfielder, still get him the at bats, and upgrade in left, that would be a great development for their playoff chances.
    While Colby Rasmus would be a special 4th outfielder, Jake Marisnick is the actual 4th outfielder, a job that he has held onto because of his glove and his speed and the belief, based on his status as a one-time top prospect with the Marlins, that his tools would turn into something. He also has bit of pop to go with his speed and his glove, but his hit tool is weak and his plate discipline is in the horrid range. Marisnick is only 25, and built like an NFL wide receiver (6’4”, 220), so it’s possible that he will develop a bit more given playing time. Last season, it looked like Jake might be establishing himself, but he still couldn’t get his OBP to .300 and his strikeouts to walks were a frightening 105/18 in 372 plate appearances. His minor league numbers portend a bit more for Marisnick, but after about 850 plate appearances in the majors, you have to think that you are seeing the true Jake. If he can cobble together more 2.0 WAR seasons then he helps the Astros win. If he does what he is doing this season with a slash line so far of .173/.233/.255, then he will have to move on to find more opportunities for playing time as the Astros push for a playoff spot.
    Of the young outfielders toiling away in the high minors, only Teoscar Hernandez is doing much to be excited about. At 23, Hernandez is just getting his first taste of triple-A. 2015 was ugly for the speedy and powerful outfielder. He got mugged by double-A, but started 2016 back in the same spot and got his revenge. Upon his promotion to triple-A, Hernandez has kept up the good work with a batting average over .300, albeit in a very small sample size. If he can keep his on-base percentage up then he might be worth auditioning in Houston this season. He has some power and excellent speed plus enough glove to not be a disaster manning all three outfield spots – he has played center and right. As long as triple-A pitchers don’t run him over in the next month, Jake Marisnick should fear for his roster spot.
    The Astros have a good, but unpredictable outfield with one budding star (Springer), one fading star (Gomez), and one expensive, athletic, flawed, versatile player they didn’t expect to have back (Rasmus). It’s an interesting group with Springer likely to be the only one who will still be on the team next year as Gomez and Rasmus are both going to be free agents. It is unclear what they will do down the stretch or next year as their best options might still be a year or more away. If the Astros think their time is now, then they might make a move outside the organization. If they still think they are a year or two away then they will likely go with internal solutions or just stand pat with their outfield. No matter what they do, their outfield will be athletic and fun to watch in 2016.

The Astros are on the brink of having an unbelievable young infield, but will it be in time for this season?

Shoot, Luke, or Give Your Dad The Gun.
by Jim Silva

    When the Astros put together an 86 win season in 2015 many people spoke of them having arrived early and being poised to make an even bigger jump in 2016. The leap from winning 70 games to winning 86 games is impressive and surprising, but when teams make leaps like that, they don’t always hang on to all of the gain. There is often some regression to the mean that bites them in the butt. But after making that huge jump – and make no mistake, 16 wins is a huge jump – the Astros were the hit pick to emerge from the American League to face the Cubs in the 2016 World Series. The young and exciting Astros were pre-season darlings in large part due to their fabulous double play combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. While those two youngsters are certainly worth the ticket to watch play, does the rest of the Astros infield have enough to support a realistic run at the post-season?
    What does it take to win an MVP these days? Take a look at Jose Altuve’s start to 2016 and you might find the answer. The 26 year old second baseman is leading the league in hits, batting average, on-base percentage, and stolen bases while playing good defense up the middle. He will almost certainly eclipse his previous high in home runs (15) as we are not quite halfway through the schedule and he already has poked 13 long balls. Arguably an equally important improvement in his game is that he is already within one walk of his previous season high. If we want to get into a chicken v. egg argument here, it would be reasonable to point to the walks as the reason he is hitting so many more home runs. It is certainly the reason why he will demolish his previous high in runs scored (86) as he already has scored 60 times. The Astros fans can say, “My second baseman is better than your second baseman” to pretty much any team in baseball with smug certainty.
    Carlos Correa came into 2016 with hugely unfair expectations heaped upon his shoulders. Part of it is his fault because he had such a great three-fifths of a season in 2015 while still unable to go to a bar and order more than a Roy Rogers. People, and by people I mean people who talk and write about sports for money, were picking Correa to win the MVP. It is easy to understand why Correa is expected to carry the entire team on his shoulders at 6’4, but he just turned 21 this season. He looks even taller when standing next to his double play partner Altuve who is only 5’6, but that doesn’t mean he can fly or hit five run homers. He should still face some kind of development arc. You can’t help but feel like people are disappointed by Correa’s start. He is striking out more and not hitting for quite as much power, but his walks are up significantly and so is his on-base percentage (up 20 points at this moment) so he is clearly showing development. If he keeps this pace with no improvement he will end the season with 30 doubles and 25 home runs, 80 runs scored, and 100 runs batted in all, while playing at least league-average defense. Is there a team in baseball who wouldn’t take that from their 21 year old shortstop in his first full season in the majors? No, there is not.
    The middle pair are not the guys anyone will worry about – at least nobody wearing an Astros uniform. It’s the corners that keep the Astros brass up at night. Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena have covered first and third respectively for most of the games in the first half of the season. Valbuena did his Luis Valbuena thing last season, which is hitting a lot of home runs, hitting for a low average and walking some, all while playing average defense at the corners. He had a 2.1 WAR season, his best to date, so he was useful and barely adequate as a starter. His splits were bipolar as he hit 19 home runs in the first half but with only a .285 OBP, then slowed his home run rate in the second half but increased his OBP to .359, which is quite good. This season, our man Luis has picked up where he left off in the second half, hitting nine long balls so far and managing a nifty .359 on-base percentage. Valbuena is mostly playing 3rd base and is on pace to have his best season. He has been on a tear of late, but he is far from a sure thing. If he can hit the same mark he hit last season – a WAR above 2.0 – then the Astros should be content. If they are counting on more than that then they are delusional as Valbuena is 30 years old and is what he is at this point.
    Like Valbuena, Marwin Gonzalez is positionally flexible. In fact, while Valbuena has played first and third plus one appearance at second, Gonzalez has played every infield position except for pitcher and catcher, and has played some outfield as well. Having someone on your team who can do that is what allows teams to keep 13 pitchers and not get into jams where you have to put your pitcher in left field. He is slightly better than average with the glove and can hit enough to play for long stretches without costing the team. Unlike Valbuena, he doesn’t walk enough, but he does hit for some power – a 10 to 15 homer full season is easily in reach – and he hits enough doubles to keep his slugging percentage in the 400s. He also manages to keep his on-base percentage acceptable because he hits for a decent average.
    The two men together cover the corners for the Astros without hurting them, but also without driving them toward the pennant. They are best suited for part-time work and in that role supporting a stronger bat ahead of them, they would definitely be championship caliber ballplayers. The Astros farm system is good and players continue to come up to compete for the corner jobs, but so far Valbuena and Gonzalez have hung on to the lion’s share of the work load. That is unlikely to last forever, especially if the Astros have plans of winning the World Series. I’m not saying that a team can’t win without stars at the corners, but the Astros offense is currently slightly below league average in runs scored and they are playing in a neutral park (no real advantage to hitters or pitchers in terms of runs scored). They will not change out their two stars in the middle, nor do they need to, but corner infielders, especially first basemen, who can produce runs are not particularly difficult to come by.
    The Astros made some trades involving some of their best prospects during the off-season, but still were ranked as having the 17th best farm system by Keith Law in the spring. One of their youngsters who challenged for the first base job is Tyler White. After a solid start, White fell off and was sent back to triple-A. White has hit all through the minors and hit with power as his .308/.416/.489 slash line attests. He also has contributed 38 home runs in 1076 at bats, so he will get another shot to show that he can hit big league pitching.
    Colin Moran plays third base and has hit for average everywhere he has played throughout his minor league career. He is currently at triple-A and looks like he might be good for ten home runs in a full major league season, so he is solid but unexciting. In a brief visit to Houston he struck out six times walking once but without hitting anything for extra bases in 19 plate appearances for a .105/.150/.105 slash line. Yes, it was a very small sample size but the point is the Astros would love someone to wrest a corner job away from Gonzalez and/or Valbuena and Moran didn’t.
    Jon Singleton is only 24 and was a very exciting power-hitting prospect as he made his way through the minors. Boy, can he hit for power! He has 111 minor league home runs in 2493 at-bats. He has also learned to take a walk and currently holds a .379 career minor league on-base percentage. That is even more impressive when you learn that his career minor league batting average is only .268. And therein lies the problem – Jon Singleton can’t hit enough to stick in the majors. He strikes out too much, and while he would likely hit a lot of home runs, he would struggle to hit .200. He already has 347 at bats in the bigs and his slash line is not pretty – .171/.290/.331. While he has hit 14 home runs in that time, he has struck out a daunting 151 times. As a testament to how far he has fallen, he hasn’t been called up to the majors this year even when White and Moran were sent back down.
    The other Matt Duffy is 27 and belongs to the Astros. He is currently struggling at triple-A and in spite of a record of success in the minors it looks like he is destined to toil away in triple-A until he retires or moves on to another club as a minor league free agent. Duffy hits for some power and gets on base enough to be an asset, but for some reason the Astros have only given him 11 at bats in the majors even though they need an upgrade at third base and he might fit that description. This is his third season at triple-A and the Astros might benefit from trying him even if it is only to give him exposure so he can be traded for something they want since they don’t appear to want him.
    And then there is Alex Bregman who just reached triple-A. He was just drafted last year and has had an excellent 2016 after a good 2015 in his first try at professional baseball. Bregman was drafted as a shortstop and has played there almost exclusively. You may have heard of this Correa fellah the Astros have on their team – he’s kinda good. So what do the Astros do? They could certainly get a lot for Bregman in a trade in light of his speedy rise through the minors. Or, you know, they could teach him to play third base, which, it turns out they are doing. He has only played 11 games at third – all at double-A – but don’t be surprised if he gets more time there now that he is in triple-A. Bregman hits for power, doesn’t strike out, and gets on base. In his short professional career he has walked 72 times while only fanning 57 times. He started the season as the 19th best prospect in all of baseball and will likely start next season as a top five prospect after his 2016 campaign.
    The Astros recently called up A.J. Reed from triple-A, and while he has struggled to control the strike zone so far, he is only 23 and in his third season of professional baseball. What young Andrew Joseph Reed has done so far in the minors is hit like nobody’s business. He has hit for power, gotten on base frequently, drawn plenty of walks and hit for average while playing acceptable defense at first base. His career slash line from the minors so far is .311/.399/.566 and if that sounds like a cleanup hitter to you then you are a wise human. However he may not be ready yet, if his start in the majors is to be believed. After all he only had 222 at bats at triple-A and started last season at single-A. He has struck out in almost half of his plate appearances while notching two home runs. Reed is likely the long term answer at first, but maybe not the answer for now. If he can rally, then he makes the lineup more scary and the bench much deeper by pushing Gonzalez or Valbuena out of the starting lineup. An infield of Bregman and Reed at the corners and Correa and Altuve up the middle is a terrifying thought for the rest of the AL – thank goodness that won’t happen for a bit longer (or will it?)
    With so many answers – some good, some exciting, and some neither, what do the Astros do? The answer has a lot to do with how close they are to a playoff spot at the trade deadline. They are currently winning at a furious pace which just makes things harder. Do you stick with what you’ve got and hope it is enough? Do you patiently try some of your youngsters who should, but haven’t yet done the job in the majors? Do you bring up your best prospect and have him switch positions even though he is only 22 and has yet to spend a full season in the minors? Do you put your young beast at first and let him struggle until he figures it out so he is ready for the playoffs? Certainly any time you have a chance to make it to the post-season, you do what it takes to maximize your chances of that happening. The Astros are very young and should have several opportunities to make the playoffs so they don’t have to choose the nuclear option and trade all their young players for veteran sluggers. A measured response would be appropriate and it should be interesting to watch what the Houston Astros do as they try to catch the Rangers and fulfill all the pre-season prognostications made about them.

The Astros catchers aren’t awful, but are they championship caliber?

Strong Up The Middle?
by Jim Silva

    The Astros are one of the youngest, most exciting teams in baseball in spite of their ugly start, but their catching is neither particularly young, nor especially exciting. In fact, (yawn), their current catching cohort of Jason Castro and Evan Gattis might be the biggest weakness the Astros have. That puts the Astros in a tough spot. Do they dance with the one that brought them or find a prettier date to go to the fancy dress ball (where the fancy dress ball is the post-season)? As the Astros surge and make themselves appear relevant again, the trade deadline gets closer and Jeff Lunhow will need to decide if this season is a wash, is their catching enough, or do they have a shot at a playoff run that will be worth trading for an upgrade at catcher. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – first a look at the current state of catching in Houston.
    Jason Castro was once young and exciting as he won a berth in the All Star game in 2013 at the age of 26. When your catcher makes the All Star game that is something to get excited about. There is an aphorism about being strong up the middle, which says essentially that your team will be as good as your catcher, middle infielders, and center fielder, so you can see why the Astros may have shown a bit of enthusiasm about young Mr. Castro. But Jeff Lunhow is not one to fall in love after one good date, and when Castro’s bat went the way of Pterodactyls and Betamax, the Astros GM went and traded for Evan Gattis, who was at the time, young and exciting, although only marginally considered a catcher. In fact, Gattis spent his first year with the Astros not catching and it looked like he had hung up the tools of ignorance for good, but catching is hard to find – even marginal to bad catching, so Gattis put on the steel cup and the other accoutrements of the job and started squatting again this season, at least from time to time. It wasn’t so much that all of a sudden Gattis learned some tricks from Johnny Bench as Castro learned some from Mario Mendoza, i.e. how to hit around .200, and that is where things stand today.
    What happened to Castro? Well, for starters, his glove is still excellent. He currently leads MLB with nearly 13 runs saved – most of that comes from his excellent pitch framing. His arm is usually around league average, although he has been awful this season allowing 18 steals in 22 attempts. His career caught-stealing rate is 26% where league average is 28%. Bottom line, he is near the top of the class for defensive catchers. What made him an All Star in 2013 was adding the bat to the arsenal. Seemingly out of nowhere he put up 4.1 points of offensive WAR (Wins above what a replacement level player would contribute). He had never, and has never ventured out of the single oWAR except for that shining Camelotesque 2013. Expectations are not your friend – once you’ve done something once, everyone expects you to do it again since it appears to be part of your skill set. Another reason that Castro’s hitting inspired people to say, “Yep, knew he was going to hit like that in the bigs,” was his success in the minors. His career minor league slash line is .293/.382/.422. He looked like a guy who would get on base with doubles power and at least a decent average. Package that with his framing ability and a solid arm and you have a perennial All Star, right? Even before his breakout 2013, Castro looked like that would be the norm for him in the majors. He drew walks and hit enough to make it so the Astros could plug him in and forget about him. Unfortunately, since 2013 Castro’s numbers have dropped each season to the point where he is now batting in the low .200s. In 2014 and 2015 he hit .222 and .211 respectively and today carries a .209 average.  In the past two seasons he didn’t draw enough walks to push his on-base percentage close to .300. At least this season he is walking more which has boosted his on-base percentage to .333 so far. Bottom line: he is making way too many outs and now looks like a catch and throw backup or at best a glove first catcher who can hit a homerun from time to time. That is not what the Astros thought they were getting when they took him with the 10th pick of the 2008 draft or when they saw him wear the Astros’ jersey in the 2013 All Star showcase.
    Evan Gattis is what he is – a power-hitting, uh power hitter. Yep, that’s what he is. He hits home runs – 81 of them in his first 1593 major league plate appearances. The problem with Gattis is that he doesn’t seem to get much of a chance to wear a glove that isn’t for batting and that depresses his value to a team quite a bit. In 2015, at the age of 28, it had already been decided that not only was Gattis not even an emergency catcher (zero games behind the plate), but he was only an emergency left fielder (11 games in left), which left him as a young designated hitter. There is very little room for decline if you are already at the very end of the defensive spectrum. His bat, and only his bat, would decide his fate. Good thing he hits lots and lots of home runs, eh? Well, yes, but there are problems. Problems like not getting on base. His on-base percentage for each of the last three seasons has been damning – .291, .317, and .285 respectively. Much like Mr. Castro (Jason, not Fidel) Gattis makes way too many outs. Castro has the advantage of a stellar glove where Gattis had no glove at all, or did he?
    Someone in the Astros stat head room (that’s gotta be a thing, right?), must have looked at Gattis’ pitch framing numbers from his time in Atlanta and noticed that he was actually a pretty solid pitch framer, having saved 6.1 and 3.5 runs in 2013 and 2014 by his framing efforts. In fact, in 2013 his relatively soft hands saved his team 6.2 runs – solid work from a guy who can crush the ball. In 2014 his throwing cost him and he only saved 0.9 runs, which is not good work for a defensive catcher, but again, if the guy can smash the ball why not use him back there as your backup catcher? Apparently the Astros agreed as they have been using him and his essentially neutral D this season. His throwing in the 14 games behind the plate has been surprisingly good as he has nailed six of the 13 runners attempting to steal on him – well above league average in a small sample size. The only problem with this situation, which would seem like a win if he can play at least neutral defense behind the plate, is the apparent death of his bat. He is still hitting the ball hard when he makes contact; unfortunately he is striking out at the rate of 25.7%, after a 2015 rate of 19.7. This has led to a batting average of .212, which is unacceptable, especially when his increase in walks has only bumped his on-base percentage to .286 so far.
    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That seems to be where the Astros are in the catching department. Castro is an excellent defender with a hole-filled bat, while Gattis is at best a neutral defender with power who doesn’t get on base enough to warrant his playing time. Max Stassi is the guy who you’d think would get the next chance to be the backup catcher, should the Astros decide an all catch/no-hit approach is the way to go for the second half. Stassi really can’t hit. He can’t hit major league pitching, he can’t hit minor league pitching; he can’t hit in a boat or in a moat; he just plain can’t hit as his career minor league slash line of .244/.310/.413 attests. He has a reputation for being a good defensive catcher, but his career caught stealing rate of 28.5% is just solid. His overall defensive statistical totals look good so I have to assume he is a good pitch framer, but I can’t see the Astros seeing him as part of a championship club.
    There is another guy at triple-A, Tyler Heineman. Heineman is in his first full season at triple-A and has eventually hit everywhere he has played leading to a career minor league slash line of .285/.364/.402. With a 39.4 career caught-stealing rate in the minors it looks like the arm is there. Based on his development pattern to date, it would be nice if the Astros could leave him at triple-A for at least a full season. Do the Astros have enough time to wait?
    Their catching is a place where they could improve. If the Astros intend to improve it somehow, there are currently two avenues to get the job done: promote one of the minor leaguers or trade for a veteran they know can do the job. Everybody is looking at Jonathan Lucroy who is back from wherever his game went last season. But the Brewers will ask for the moon and a planet with an atmosphere to trade him, as they should. Instead of looting their minor league system to get a Lucroy-level catcher, the Astros should look at someone like Stephen Vogt. Vogt isn’t a great catcher but he is essentially league-average as a defender with good throwing numbers (34% caught stealing rate this season) and he isn’t off to his best offensive season. That said, he won’t be costly to obtain, he will hit better in Houston than in the cavernous Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, and he is already hitting better than the catchers the Astros are running out there everyday. Another advantage that Vogt brings to the table is his positional versatility. Vogt can play left and first base. It doesn’t have to be Vogt, but Lucroy will be incredibly expensive and the Astros catching won’t kill them as is.
    Whatever the Astros decide, it had better happen in the next few weeks. If they decide to stand pat, then fine, but if they want to look toward next season, they need to get Gattis right and ship him to a team that needs a DH. I doubt many teams see him as a catcher anymore since the Astros didn’t use him there last season. Once they move Gattis they have a chance to look at their two triple-A backstops before the off-season so they can decide if there is anything there worth using as something other than a “break glass in case of emergency” catcher.