October 5, 2016

2016 Houston Astros: It Was a Rough One

Coming off the franchise's first postseason since the 2005 World Series, the Astros looked like an up-and-coming team in 2016.  Over such a long season, there were a number of things that conspired to eliminate them from the playoffs (on an off day, no less).

I'd like to start with the team's performance in April...but there were a couple of moves that occurred prior to the season that had a significant impact.  Most notable of these were re-signing Colby Rasmus, trading Jonathan Villar, non-tendering Chris Carter....

Oh, who am I kidding?  We all know what the most impactful move of the offseason was; it was the trade that "landed" the team Ken Giles.  Or as I like to call it, the worst trade since Jason Jennings came to Houston.

I'm not entirely sure what happened with Rasmus.  In April, he looked like a surefire MVP candidate.  The only problem was, that was the only month in which he actually hit worth a damn.  His season was cut short by a DL stint and then...well, he missed a good part of September for some reason that we are as yet not privy to know.  The signing looks like a waste of money but there are some clear extenuating circumstances that would have to be explained away in order to truly evaluate it.  So we'll leave that aside.

Much like J.D. Martinez, Villar and Carter left the Astros and flourished elsewhere.  Truly, it is frustrating to see.  And much like with Rasmus' situation, there isn't a whole hell of a lot to go on; some guys who perform poorly here go elsewhere and suddenly look like world-beaters.

Back to Giles, though.  To put it mildly, the trade was stupid.  What I find hilarious about the perception surrounding the team is that the brain trust is considered to be "smart".  Certainly among the smarter groups in MLB, despite the relative lack of production.  And yet, the Giles trade is another one that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow very clearly lost.  He gave up way too much for a guy who didn't fill a position of need.  There were holes in the lineup in the outfield, first base, and DH.  Those holes got filled, technically speaking, but not by guys who hit above average.  Instead the team got a guy who wasn't even the closer for the first month of the season because he couldn't stop giving up home runs. And then when he did become the closer, he still had a tendency to pitch poorly and give up long balls.  Now, the perception of Giles pitching poorly is wholly reliant on the "eye test", as it were.  The guy put some ugly outings out there even while being successful.  That is to say, he got saves while not pitching his best at all times.

Still, I doubt that trade will ever be favorably received.

In part because of Giles, in part because of general malaise, the team stumbled to a 7-17 start in the month of April.  That start essentially doomed the team, despite the fact that they were in playoff contention (mathematically, at best) until September 30th.

Another major problem was the team's performance against their in-state "rival", the Rangers.  It's not much of a rivalry given how both teams have looked in 2015 and 2016.  The Astros were 4-15 against the Rangers and really seemed lucky to get those four wins.  Had they gone at worst 9-10 against the Rangers, things would look a hell of a lot different.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The Rangers have the Astros' number at present and I saw nothing to make me think that the situation will change in 2017.

Carlos Gomez started the season with the Astros and ended up with the Rangers after his release.  Unsurprisingly, like the players I mentioned above who played better with other teams, Gomez had a nice little sample size of AB's with the Rangers wherein he hit better than he did in either 2015 or 2016 with the Astros.  I'm not sure how that happened, as I did not see many of his AB's with the Rangers.  Suffice it to say that he performed a lot better, to the tune of having an OPS over 300 points higher with the Rangers this season.  It's not a tiny difference by any means; he was much better with the Rangers and I suspect that something happened in the interim between his last game with the Astros and his first game with the Rangers.  What that is, I can't say for certain.

The rest of the story is mostly under-performance by key figures in the lineup and rotation.  Even the supposed positive of giving Gomez his release turned negative, as offensive liability (what an understatement) Jake Marisnick started practically every remaining game in center field.  Since I have nothing positive to say about him, I'll leave it at that.

What went right in 2016 for the Astros?  Well, not a whole lot.

Jose Altuve is the team's best player.  He may have been overshadowed somewhat last season with Keuchel and Correa collecting hardware (AL Cy Young and AL RoY, respectively), but this season proved that Altuve is the only hitter in the lineup that can be counted on to produce consistently.  And that includes the last month and a half when he was "slumping".

Alex Bregman was the only prospect to come up and hit above average.  His skills at shortstop translated beautifully to playing third base also.

Chris Devenski, in a just world, would be a full-time starter in 2017.  His numbers were phenomenal across the board, despite being kept out of the rotation in favor of ...Mike Fiers?  I can't say that Devenski was "more valuable" than Altuve, but he was damn near as valuable.

As far as 2017 goes...there are still holes to be filled in the outfield, first base, and DH.  I imagine that Gurriel will be playing somewhere every day.  Gattis will probably cede the DH position to another player most days if he takes over as everyday catcher.  And Bregman should sow up third base with no problem. That leaves left field and center field (and DH, but that seems like it'll be by committee).  My pick for left or center would be Teoscar Hernandez.  The only problem he's got is accuracy with his arm.  If he can shore up his throwing, while hitting slightly better (he was only slightly below average as opposed to every other newbie not named Bregman, who were all stunningly below average), he should be an asset.

My main problem in 2017 is that Marisnick will likely be handed center field because he plays "great" defense.  I have my doubts about that, but defensive stats as kept currently don't really give me enough to debunk Marisnick's supposed "value" in the outfield.  The eye test tells me that he's probably better than average, but in order to make up for his utterly anemic bat tool, he'd have to be Ken Griffey Jr. out in center.  Obviously, he's not that good.  So to me it's a mistake to give Marisnick center field unless he makes noticeable strides with the bat.  I don't see it happening, but I would be totally unsurprised if Marisnick is the starting center fielder in 2017.

As for how the team will do in 2017, that's anyone's guess.  They were supposed to build on the success of 2015 and contend for the AL West.  That didn't happen and they were five wins short of the 89 needed to win a Wild Card as well.  If it shakes out that 89 wins gets a Wild Card next year as well, I think the Astros will probably be left out in the cold again, barring significant improvement from their current non-Altuve players or a huge impact signing in free agency.

That's that for 2016.  Enjoy the playoffs.

May 16, 2016

Off-Day Scuttlebutt (5-16-2016)

The Astros have made a couple of moves, so I thought I would take a little time on this off day to look at them.

Tucker and Kratz are moving down while Gattis and new call-up Tony Kemp are moving up.

I'm a bit torn on Tucker moving down; while he has potential to be a good hitter and showed it last season, something is not right this season and lately (that is, the month of May) he has not hit much at all.  Still, Tucker has been more or less a part-time player, with a mere 89 PA's as of today.  Was it a numbers game in terms of options and resources invested?  Of course.

I'm not sure why Tucker and not Marisnick, though, or why Marisnick wasn't sent down in another move.  A part-time player with even fewer appearances (and a trip to Fresno already taken), Marisnick is a very bad hitter whose defense doesn't make up the difference.  If he were merely below average, I'd have no problem; after all, this team has plenty of below average hitters who haven't pulled their weight so far.  Marisnick is so poor that his OPS+ is below zero, which is just unacceptable.  For the team to not deal with this is short-sighted and makes it look like Tucker's demotion was scapegoating.

So while neither Tucker nor Marisnick have gotten enough PA's to be considered full-time, they have woefully underachieved when given playing time.

Evan Gattis returns from Corpus, newly invested in his role as backup catcher. When he was up with the Astros previously, he was similar to Tucker in terms of output.  As DH or backup catcher, I would not expect great numbers from him because he will not likely get enough PA's to establish a steady groove.

Tony Kemp comes up from Fresno with an ability to get on base.  For this team, that just might be enough to get him playing time, especially if he can bolster the bottom of the lineup.  The 7-8-9 hitters have been notoriously bad not only in terms of hitting with RISP, but in getting on base to start rallies in the first place.  While I don't expect Kemp to duplicate his gaudy OBP from Fresno in Houston, pretty much anything will help.

Of course, the elephant in the room and the reason for Kemp's promotion is Carlos Gomez.  Were Gomez playing well, comparable with even White or Rasmus (who have both fallen off in recent weeks), there wouldn't be much of a problem.  I don't expect Gomez to hit like Altuve, Springer, or Correa.  I don't really expect a Gold Glove caliber effort in CF, either, though it'd be nice.  What I do expect is for him to be competent offensively and defensively.  So far, he's been competent in neither area, grounds into too many double plays and strikes out far too frequently.  Much like other hitters on the team who have been scuffling, his approach is ass-backward, swinging as hard as he can more often than not and usually not making contact.  It seems easy to say that he should shorten his swing and attempt to hit more pitches to the opposite field, but much more difficult for it to bear fruit.

Gomez has 132 PA's through 34 games so far.  For his effort he has produced a .486 OPS, not only one of the worst on the team, but magnified greatly by the fact that he is regularly penciled into the lineup yet rarely does anything while in it.

If Kemp were coming up to solve the problem in CF, the Astros would still have an issue at 3B.  The general platoon at 1B of White and Marwin Gonzalez is okay for now, tolerable because both guys are hitting above average (again, as of today).  All that says is that 1B is not as big a problem as 3B or CF, but the team could certainly be getting more production out of the position, especially given the expectations.

Also, it's worth noting that neither of the moves affect the rotation or bullpen. In the case of the starting rotation, the solution might just be to wait it out and see if they can give up fewer runs as a whole.  The bullpen has been solid overall, despite having a rough go of it in Boston.  I don't expect that kind of struggle, because few teams are as offensively gifted as Boston appears to be.

Still, the rotation and bullpen aren't so good that each and every guy can be thrown out there and expected to perform well.  It has to be managed carefully. So far, I'm not sure that Hinch is the right guy to do that.  There have been a lot of questionable decisions in terms of managing the bullpen and making out the lineup every day.  While I tend to think that it's up to the players to get out of the extended slump most of them find themselves in, it would be beneficial if Hinch could put them in better positions to win.

May 13, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Round 2

I guess Game 7 isn't automatically the most exciting thing in sports.  Or maybe the two iterations in the 2nd Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs just stunk.

Also, I picked the Stars to win, so I look like a boob again.  I did better on the whole, getting 3-of-4 teams right.

As expected, Dallas' goaltending "tandem" failed them miserably.  Neither of them showed up in Game 7 and the Stars got thumped as a result.  I'm surprised they actually made it to Game 7 given how weak the goaltending was, especially relative to the other teams.  So now St. Louis is moving on to the Western Conference finals.  Not exactly the development I was looking for; after they got out of the 1st round, I was hoping they'd be on the outs, given that Dallas was the #1 seed going in.

The other finalist out west is San Jose.  I'm not sure how this team is so much different from other Sharks teams of years past (much like with St. Louis). It would appear, though, that elevating Joe Pavelski to captain had tangible results.  It also didn't hurt that Nashville G Pekka Rinne fell apart in Game 7 (though he was definitely aided and abetted by the Predators' top defensive pairing).  Martin Jones, on the other hand, has looked very good through two series.  He doesn't seem prone to the meltdowns that the Dallas goalies suffer on a regular basis, for example.

In the east, we have what should have been the expected conference finals all along.  Before the playoffs started, everyone was on the Capitals' bandwagon. I thought that was stupid and short-sighted.  After all, just last year they got knocked out in the 2nd round by the Rangers in memorable fashion (well, memorable for the Rangers' part in it).  Yet thanks to winning the Presidents' Trophy, the Capitals were the chic pick to make the Stanley Cup Final.

So when Nick Bonino scored in OT in Game 6 to eliminate the Capitals, I was pretty pleased.  While I'm not crazy about the Penguins moving on, I figure anything is better than seeing the Capitals move on and have to deal with all the people kissing up to them.

Unsurprisingly, the Lightning are in the conference finals again.  Even though they are missing two key players, they still have Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman.  Hedman is getting most of the pub as he's a defenseman with a notable offensive skill set.  But to me, it's Kucherov that is the team's best player at present.  He's pretty much unstoppable and has shone brightest when it counts the most.  There seems to be a lot of gum-flapping about players being shut down as though it happens to pretty much everybody.  Kucherov, like Tyler Johnson last season, has shown up in the playoffs and done significant damage. So while some players do get shut down by the opposition in the playoffs, I don't think it's a matter of some esoteric "goal-scoring climate"; it's just that some guys show up when the moment is huge, like Kucherov and Johnson, and others don't...like, say, Ovechkin.

The 3rd round should be entertaining.  I'm picking the Sharks and Lightning, personally, but any match-up in the Stanley Cup Final would be an interesting one.