Are Astros Nearing the End?

The Houston Astros are a household name in Major League Baseball as a result of reaching the playoffs four of the past five seasons. In 2017, they won their first World Series championship, and last year battled seven games in a classic World Series against the Washington Nationals. This past November came the bombshell revelation of their 2017 sign-stealing scandal, tainting the sole title they have.

After a tough start to 2020, the Astros rebounded from a 7-10 start, climbing to a record of 14-10 going into Thursday afternoon’s game in Denver against the Colorado Rockies. Beating up on bad Giants, Mariners and Rockies teams has propelled them to a seven game winning streak.

All is not well, as José Altuve is barely hitting his own weight with a .180 average and .241 OBP. George Springer is struggling at .215 on the season, while ace Justin Verlander is shelved as a result of a forearm strain. Josh James, a 27 year old with a 100 mph fastball is no longer in the rotation because of inability to throw strikes. James’s bloated ERA of 11.17 has relegated him to mop-up duty. Lance McCullers, Jr’s ERA sits north of 5.00 in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.

Only Zack Greinke and 24 year old rookies Brandon Bielak and Blake Taylor have provided reliable mound-work in Verlander’s absence. On the offensive front, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley have picked up the slack. Josh Reddick is an active contributor to the Astros cause as well.

Yesterday, Astros beat-writer Brian McTaggart announced last year’s rookie sensation Yordan Álvarez is out for the season with a partial tear in his right knee.

The Astros have many questions going beyond this season. Springer (30 yrs. old), Brantley and Reddick (both 33) will become free agents. Behind the plate, Martín Maldonado gives excellent defense and is cheap (3.5 M through 2021), but a poor hitter and better as a back-up.

The aforementioned Justin Verlander, now 37, faces an uncertain future. He went on the shelf after his Opening Day win with a forearm strain. This type of injury to a pitcher is an ominous sign, and often leads to Tommy John surgery. Greinke’s outings are as good as ever, however, he is 36 years old and the velocity is declining. Young José Urquidy (on 10-day IL) is ready for a spot in the rotation. 22 year old Forrest Whitley may be ready sometime in 2021.

The Astros owe Verlander a prorated portion of his 33 million dollar salary for this year and the full amount in 2021. Greinke has a price tag of 35M this year and next. However, 10.33M is paid by Arizona, resulting in a little financial relief. Altuve’s contract runs through 2024 at 29M/year. Gurriel is still productive, but enters arbitration this winter. Because Houston owes so much in active contracts, it may result in them trading the 36 year old Gurriel and go with 23 year old Abraham Toro.

If 2020 were a normal season, the team’s budget would have been just over 230 million dollars. For 2021, eighty-nine million dollars is dedicated to Verlander, Greinke and Altuve. New general manager James Click has decisions to make about Astros future. Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker can fill in if Click moves on from Brantley, Reddick, and Springer,

Will owner James Crane further distance himself and his team from the disgrace from the sign-stealing scandal? Former manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow are history, and letting Springer, Reddick, and Brantley will remove a few more pieces. But Altuve, Greinke and Verlander aren’t likely to go anywhere unless Crane is willing to eat most of their contracts.

Correa and Bregman are young superstars not yet in their prime. It remains to be seen if the Astros keep one or both upon entering free agency. Winning games fixes a lot of problems, moreover, Houston seems to be back on track for the time being. However, if they fall apart, it will be interesting to see what ownership decides to do.

 

What is with Angel Hernandez?

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has been working for some time to improve the quality of games and speed up pace of play. This has been well documented, and Manfred has proposed and added several new rules to “improve” the game.

Another way to speed up MLB games is having consistent and fair umpiring, especially behind the plate. Case in point, yesterday’s game between the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals. Angel Hernandez, everyone’s favorite ump this side of Cowboy Joe West, was behind the dish. Astros pitcher Forrest Whitley threw a close pitch that should have rang-up Harrsion Bader to end the top of the first inning, but Angel didn’t give him the call. Hinch began chirping about the non-strike call. Bader eventually reached base on an error, prolonging the inning. Hernandez, a notoriously terrible umpire, ejected Astros manager A.J. Hinch for arguing balls and strikes. Hinch was so irate and incredulous from being tossed that he had to be restrained.

It’s bad enough that Hernandez felt the need to make himself the “star”, ejecting a manager in a spring training game. Making it worse, Hinch claims Angel “said some condescending things that are inappropriate, unprofessional.”

Believe it or not, when umpires create their own “umpshows”, it adds unnecessary time to a ballgame. If MLB goes ahead and begins use of Trackman doppler radar in the future, some umpires will eventually need to find a new line of work. Angel Hernandez should be among them.

MLB Non-Roster Invitees – AL West

Well, something finally happened — Manny Machado agreed to a ten year contract with the San Diego Padres, first reported by Jeff Passan and Mark Feinsand.

Once Machado passes his physical, the deal will become official. Before long, Bryce Harper will choose where he plays for the next several years. Everyone….BREATHE!

Okay, back to why we’re here. Last time out, we examined some interesting non-roster invitees in the AL Central Division. Today we head west and finish off the American League West, starting with the Astros.

Houston Astros

  • J.B. Bukauskas (RHP) – Bukauskas, a 22 year old right-hander, was Houston’s first round draft pick in 2017. He was drafted out of high school in the 20th round of the 2014 draft by the Dbacks, but decided to go to college at the UNC. Bukauskas began ’18 with one abbreviated start in Rookie ball, made 13 more starts across various levels of A-league ball. He made one brilliant six inning start at AA Corpus Christi to finish the season. Overall J.B. pitched well, amassing a combined ERA of 2.14, walking 24 and striking out 71 over 59 innings. Bukauskas will most likely spend the larger part of 2019 in Double-A. If he does well, look for him to be promoted to Triple-A Round Rock late in 2019
  • Yordan Alvarez (LF/1B) – Yordan is the Astros number three rated prospect in their system, a power-hitting 6’5″ hulk of a man. The 21 year old Cuban played 88 games in 2018, almost evenly split between AA and AAA. He hit 20 home-runs in 379 plate appearances, with an overall slash-line of .293/.369/.534. Not too shabby. Expect to see him soon, probably later this season.
  • Forrest Whitley (RHP) – Things are looking better for the Astros second ranked prospect than a year ago. In early 2018, he was suspended 50 games for violating the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. After returning, Whitley made eight uninspiring starts for Double-A Corpus Christi. He put up a 3.76 ERA over 26.1 innings, striking out 34. Forrest also added another 26 innings of work in the Arizona Fall League with similar results. This young man has a lot of catching up to do to justify his being the organization’s number-one pick in the 2016 draft.

Los Angeles Angels

  • Jo Adell (CF) – Jordon Scott “Jo” Adell is a 19 year old center-fielder from Louisville, KY, the tenth player taken in the 2017 amateur draft. He spent most of 2018 playing in A-level ball in Burlington, Iowa. Adell was promoted to High-A Inland Empire (San Bernadino) after 25 games, and was again promoted to AA Mobile to finish the season. He stumbled in Double-A, hitting .238 in 17 games. Jo finished with 20 HR’s, and his power will only increase as he fills out. Adell, the top-ranked prospect in their system, plays all three outfield spots. Good thing, since the Angels CF spot is currently occupied by Mike Trout
  • Griffin Canning (RHP) – Canning, a 6’2″ righty out of Mission Viejo, CA is the second-ranked prospect of the Angels. Originally drafted in the 38th round by Colorado in 2014, he decided to go to college at UCLA. Re-entering the draft in 2017, the Angels selected Canning in the 2nd round. He rose quickly through the minors in 2018. He made two scoreless starts in High-A Inland Empire and was promoted to AA Mobile. Ten starts and a 2.17 ERA later, the 22 year old was promoted to Triple-A Salt Lake. The competition was stiffer in the Pacific Coast League. Canning was hit hard in Salt Lake, surrendering 68 hits and 22 walks over 59 innings, posting a 5.49 ERA. Chances are he spends most of the summer in AAA.
  • Peter Bourjos (OF) – A blast from the past! The rail-thin 31 year old vet played the first four seasons of his career in Anaheim. After 2013, Bourjos bounced from St. Louis to Philly, Tampa and Atlanta. The Braves released him in July, and shortly after he signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants, finishing the year in AAA Sacramento. Bourjos doesn’t have the same speed he once had, but can steal a few bags and be a good defensive replacement. If you’re looking for offense, well, you’re dreaming.

Oakland Athletics

  • Sean Murphy (C) – Murphy is an athletic (see what I did there?) 24 year old strong-armed catcher. Murphy, a third round draft pick in the 2016 draft, had a productive season on both sides of the ball until he suffered a broken bone in his right hand. He recovered at the very tail-end of the season, and was promoted to Triple-A Nashville. Murphy played three games before the season ended, then went to Winter league ball in the Dominican League. He struggled in the Domincan Republic, hitting .185 with two home-runs and 13 RBI in 23 games. A’s fans can look to see him play this year in Las Vegas, the team’s new Triple-A affiliate.
  • Jesus Luzardo (LHP) – Luzardo, the first ranked prospect in the A’s system, was acquired from the Washington Nationals a part of the 2017 trade that sent Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to D.C. The 21 year old southpaw began last season in High-A Stockton (Calif.) where he dominated opponents for three starts. Luzardo was promoted to AA Midland in the Texas League, posting a 7-3 record and 2.29 ERA, with 86 K’s in 79.2 innings. He was bumped up to Triple-A Nashville, where he was lit-up to the tune of 25 hits and 13 runs over 16 innings (7.31 ERA). Expect Luzardo and his mid-90’s fastball (he can reach back for 97-98 mph) to spend 2019 in AAA Las Vegas.
  • Jerry Blevins (LHP) – 35 year old Jerry Blevins started his major league career way back in 2007 with these same Oakland A’s. He enjoyed a long and productive career, primarily as a LOOGY (lefty one out guy). Blevins made 60 or more appearances in seven different seasons, proving his durability. He’s not a strikeout pitcher, rarely topping 90 mph but gets outs by mixing his ordinary fastball with a low-70’s looping curve. Jerry had an off-year, logging a 4.85 ERA, but can be very useful on the cheap for the perpetually cost-efficient A’s.

Seattle Mariners

  • Dustin Ackley (OF/2B/1B) – Ackley hasn’t appeared in a MLB game since an injury-riddled season in 2016 with the Yankees, but he’s still around. He signed a minor league deal with the M’s on January 24, after spending the last two seasons with the Salt Lake Bees, the Triple-A affiliate of the Angels. Ackley, soon to be 31, was the 2009 first round pick of the Mariners. At best, Dustin will be a very useful piece at a low price if he makes the big-league club. At worst, he will be experienced minor league filler at the AAA level.
  • Kyle Lewis (CF) – Lewis was the Mariners first round draft pick (#11 overall) in 2016. His career was slowed by a right knee injury that he suffered in late 2016. It cost him the majority of 2017 after re-aggravating it, eventually leading to his knee being scoped in February 2018. After he returned, the 23 year old center-fielder split last year between High-A Modesto (Calif.) and AA Arkansas, posting a combined .244/.306/.405 slash-line. In 86 games, Lewis hit 9 home-runs and drove in 52 RBI. If his knee problems resurface, he will be likely destined for a corner outfield spot. Expect him to begin 2019 in Double-A Arkansas.
  • Ichiro Suzuki (OF) – Amazing. Simply amazing. Those were my initial thoughts upon discovering that this will be Ichiro’s 28th season in professional baseball, when you include his nine seasons in Japan. At age 45, he isn’t expected to play very much if he makes the team. If so, Ichiro won’t embarrass himself out there. I won’t bet against him, as no one takes better care of his body.

Texas Rangers

  • Tim Dillard (RHP) – Dillard was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002’s amateur draft, and spent the next 16 seasons in the organization, mostly in the minor leagues. The 35 year old Dillard made 73 appearances over parts of four seasons in a Brewers uniform, mostly in 2011 and 2012. He hasn’t made a big league appearance since, but became a beloved figure among fans in Milwaukee in large part because he’s one of the funniest people on Twitter (@DimTillard – you should follow him).
  • Jason Hammel (RHP) – The 36 year old from Greenville, SC has seen better days. Hammel spent the last two seasons with the Kansas City Royals, including a record of 4-14 with a 6.02 ERA last season. He began the year in the starting rotation and pitched himself out of it by the All-Star break, thanks in large part to a particularly gruesome four-start stretch where he surrendered 27 runs in 17.2 innings. He does not throw hard enough to overcome mistakes as he did in earlier years. At the big league level, he’s nothing more than a warm body to eat insignificant innings.
  • Hunter Pence (RF) – Pence has had a long, productive career and wants to keep playing, so he signed a minor league deal with the Rangers on February 7. He spent time re-working his swing over the winter after a rough 2018 when he hit a career-worst .226. Pence only hit four home-runs in 97 games. It didn’t help that he missed more than six weeks with a sprained right thumb early in the season. Another great follow on Twitter (@hunterpence), by the way.

Before we close, I want to pay respect to San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who is retiring after the 2019 season. I have long admired Mr. Bochy for the way he goes about things. He just carries himself as a friendly professional. Here is a very a proud moment for him, handing the ball to his son, Brett Bochy for the first time.

And with that, we have looked at each team in the American League. In a few days, we will delve into the National League, beginning with the NL East Division. Who know, maybe even by then Bryce Harper will have found a home — I still think it’ll be the Phillies. We’ll found out. See you then!