Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday's Triumphant Return

And we're back!

After a early-season trip to St. Louis knocked me horribly behind schedule, I've finally caught up in time to talk about the Astros minor leagues in an intelligent way. Let's start off with the good stuff:

Round Rock starter Josh Banks got roughed up on Friday, allowing eight hits and six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. It was the first time Banks had not completed the sixth inning this season and still only raised his ERA to 3.69. Of course, his FIP of 4.38 shows he's been lucky to this point. Another fun fact? Banks has given up a home run in all four of his starts so far.

While Jason Castro has been disappointing this season at the plate, he has walked in 11 straight games now and his OBP of .390 is pretty solid. Imagine if his batting average were higher than .234?

Round Rock has been pretty speed this season. The Express have stolen 21 bases in 25 attempts. Granted, 12 of those 25 attempts belong to Jason Bourgeois, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Another guy having a solid start at Round Rock is Gustavo Chacin. A rough spring dropped him out of the race for a big league spot, but Chacin has rebounded nicely with a 13/4 K/BB rate and allowing just four earned runs in 20 2/3 innings. His ERA of 1.74 is probably a bit high, but his FIP of 3.78 is still pretty respectable. If his K rate were a little higher, we could be getting a little more excited about his April.

Douglas Arguello lost his first decision of the season, allowing four earned runs over six innings. Arguello struck out six while walking one, giving him a 20/5 K/BB ratio on the season. He's also got a good ground ball rate, which is one of the reasons why his BABiP rate of .304 could be sustainable for longer than a month. It's also one of the reasons his FIP of 2.21 is encouraging.

Obviously, the offensive story with the Hooks is Koby Clemens. He's created 12.18 runs this season with a wBOA of .323. his six home runs also leads the team but he's trailed closely in wOBA by Marcos Cabral, who has started at second base, third base and shortstop this season.

Unfortunately, one of the Hooks off to a slow start is T.J. Steele, who's 12 for 59 this season with two walks and 12 strikeouts. His wOBA of .193 is one of the lowest on the Corpus Christi roster and his BABiP of .255 is fifty points lower than his batting average. We're less than a month into the season and we're still only talking about 61 plate appearances, but hopefully Steele can turn things around soon.

We'll get to more minor league info Tuesday, with updates on Lancaster and probably Lexington as well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Scouting Report from Seton Hall at Texas A&M

It's been a while, hasn't it? Seems my time has been taken up lately by new gigs, new babies and not much minor league action. But, with the start of the college baseball season, I hope to get this blog revving up again. First up is a small scouting report on the Texas A&M baseball game from last Friday, February 19th.

The main guy I focused on was starting pitcher Barrett Loux. When I asked Andy Seiler over at his MLB Draft Blog who to watch for, he immediately said Loux is the guy. Coming off surgery last summer, Loux may end up falling into the fourth or fifth round, but a strong showing this spring could push him as high as the second.

For various, non-exciting reasons, I didn't get to this game until the bottom of the first and missed Loux's first inning of work. I did get to watch his next four and got some good notes. Loux threw five innings, giving up three hits and two runs, though only one was earned, while striking out eight and walking one. He used 92 pitches, but I only saw 74 of them. He did get nine whiffs that I saw for a 12.1 percent whiff rate. That's not great, but it's pretty good for a guy coming off surgery AND in his first game of the season.

Loux did run into trouble in the third. The first hit he gave up was an RBI single after an error and a walk put runners at first and second. One of the problems he ran into here was Seton Hall threw up a bunch of lefthanded hitters and Loux was not getting the calls low and away. Rather than give in, he ended up giving up some walks and a couple hits.

I posted some video of his stuff here. Go over to this excellent post on pitching mechanics first and then watch Loux.

You can see that his form holds up very well. His delivery doesn't drift into the Inverted W or Inverted L territory and shouldn't cause injury concerns. I like how effortless the delivery is too. He's a bit of a Tall and Fall guy, but he doesn't land very hard on his plant foot. I've read over at Driveline Mechanics in the past that too violent a follow-through can lead to elbow problems due to the force carrying up from the ground to the arm. The other thing to like here is his arm slot stays fairly consistent at a three-quarters angle. His high leg kick seems to hide the ball well and gives his delivery a little more deception.

The only quirk I noticed is that he pitched out of the stretch almost exclusively. I'll watch for that next time I go and may have to find out why that is.

The only other two notes I had from the game were about Brett Parsons and Adam Smith. I saw some of Parsons last summer with the Brazos Valley Bombers, a local wooden bat team in the Texas Collegiate League. He played the field pretty well then but didn't show a whole lot with the bat. In the game last Friday, Parsons was 0-for-3 and finished the weekend 1-for-6 with a double and a strikeout. His swing looks too long to me and might be an 'aluminum bat swing,' as the scouts like to say.

Smith is very intriguing. The 6-foot-3, 200 pound sophomore came in last season as a defense-first guy, but ended up hitting .267/.364/.489 with nine home runs in 180 at-bats. He also had a fielding percentage of .923 in 248 chances. All in all, he had a great freshman season and I was intrigued to see what he could do in 2010. The first thing that jumps out at you is how tall he is. Traditionally, shortstops are not this big, but if Cal Ripken could make it work, so can Adam Smith. He's got a pretty good glove and showed a solid swing. On Friday, he singled up the middle with a short stroke that didn't get much loft on the ball. He still took a good approach and looks like a sleeper for next year's draft. Plus, I've already nicknamed him 'The Economist.' Who doesn't love a history reference and a LOST reference in one?

For a guy who was named Big 12 Player of the Week, newly minted center fielder Brodie Green didn't to anything to jump out at me. Of course, we left right before his big hit Friday night and I didn't see him in Saturday's doubleheader. Apparently, he made a spectacular catch in center, running back and to his right before diving flat out to catch the ball right at the warning track. My writer friend who covered the game was pretty impressed. Not bad for a guy who played second base last season.

That's about all I have this time. I'll definitely try to make more games as the season wears on and report back here what I see.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jason Castro in the AFL Rising Stars Game

So I finally got around to watching the Arizona Fall League's Rising Stars Game (the All-Star game for the AFL). Jason Castro played 5 1/2 innings and came up to bat twice. Here are my impressions of a VERY small sample size.
  • First at-bat: Castro swings at the first pitch he sees, a slow curve down in the zone. Castro hits a weak grounder to second for the second out of the inning. His bat looked very slow going through the zone, almost a little heavy.
  • Third inning: Castro hosed Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown at second, popping up quickly, making a clean transfer and putting the throw in a good spot for shortstop Triunfel. Just showed why Castro is considered such a good defensive player, especially since Brown is one of the faster players in the AFL.
  • Second at-bat: Castro sees four pitches, swinging at an inside slider on a 1-2 count that he hits to the second baseman again. Castro's swing didn't seem as long as in his first at-bat, but it definitely didn't have any speed getting through the zone.
  • Fourth inning: Castro blocks a breaking pitch nicely in the dirt, but the Cub's Starlin Castro took off for second base. Castro had to get the ball and make a quick throw, which was not good. The ball sailed on Castro too far to the right of the second baseman and skittering into center field.
  • Sixth inning: A's speedster Jemile Weeks led a double steal. Castro took a fastball down in the zone and fired a laser to third but Weeks beat it by a hair. It was definitely a bang-bang play.
And that's it. Castro was supposed to come up in the bottom of the sixth, but was lifted for pinch-hitter Travis McBride, a catcher from the Cleveland organization.

All in all, it was a mixed bag for the Astros top prospect. Castro did not look good at all at the plate, showing a heavy swing and topping both balls he made contact with to the right side of the infield. His defensive play was spot on, making a good throw for one caught stealing and one bad throw on the Starlin Castro play. The third was kind of a toss-up, as it wasn't Castro's fault the pitcher didn't hold the runner on second better.

I put up this little study on The Crawfish Boxes the other day, noting how many innings Castro has played in the past few years. He was sent home shortly after this all-star game due to fatigue, but should be ready to go for spring training in February. Here's what I put at TCB:

The following are rough estimates on the number of innings played for Castro in the past five seasons. You can see the huge spike in the season he got drafted. It's also worth noting that for the first few years there, those innings were spread out through the entire year, as Castro played in the Alaska Baseball League, the Area Code Games, the Cape Cod League and other events throughout his career that made playing baseball year-round a possibility.

2005 - ~500 (mostly infield)

2006 - 673 (mostly first base)

2007 - 536 (mostly first base)

2008 - 900 (first season full-time at catcher)

2009 - 1,100 (including spring training, minors, World Cup and AFL)

Castro is used to playing year-round, but tired out right around the time he hit the 1,000 inning mark. The Astros top two catchers last season combined to catch 1,175 innings. Maybe Castro just needs to get his legs underneath him. He's only caught for two seasons now, much like Posey and should be fresher than someone who caught all through high school and college. Still, if we're thinking of using Castro at some point next season, it's worth asking if he'll have anything in the tank when he is called up.

No other Astros were in the AFL Rising Stars, but one former Aggie did play. Atlanta Braves shortstop prospect Brandon Hicks was inserted in the game in the sixth inning. Hicks made a couple sterling defensive plays, but struck out and hit a grounder to third in two at-bats. This was pretty much what he did at A&M, so it's no surprise. The scouts are still split on whether he'll ever have enough bat to make the majors, but man, can he throw the leather around.

One final note: I realize this blog hasn't bee updated much since September. That's mostly because I've been working a LOT for the Eagle and have been bumped up to a regular writer for The Crawfish Boxes. In addition to my regular job and the new gig of being a dad, I just haven't had the time to do proper analyses of prospects here. My schedule will thin out some and you will get more posts on the minor leagues. Just bear with me.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Money, Wins and the Draft

I've posted before about how I thought the Astros were fooling people by telling them they've committed to the farm system, when this year's draft class came in at 96% of the recommended slot prices and the Astros spent less than all but a handful of teams in the 2009 draft. Well, I've done some more research. Using data from Baseball America's draft databases and from Cot's Baseball Contracts, I've put together a couple of spreadsheets to analyze team spending and number of wins. The first spreadsheet (here) looks at the amount teams have spent on their opening day payrolls for the past decade and how many victories they have gotten for their money. I've averaged the payrolls to get a sense of how much money each team has spent and then looked at how much each team has spent per victory.

Then, in another spreadsheet (here) I tracked all the team's signing bonuses for players in the draft from 2009 through 2006, with 2003 added to round out the group. I had intended to include 2004 and 2005, but that data was not available on Baseball America's site and I haven't been able to find it anywhere else.

So, what did I learn?

The Astros haven't changed.

Out of those five seasons, the Astros have spent the least amount of money on draft picks of any team. That's dead last. I took the average of the median bonus spending in each of those five drafts and the Astros aren't even within a million dollars of that average. In fact, there are only four teams that are over 1 million short of the league average for slot spending: the Angels, the Mets, the White Sox and the Astros. It's not all about position in the draft either. Among the highest spending teams are Boston, San Francisco, the Yankees, Atlanta; all are teams that regularly contend for the playoffs. Oakland is under that average of $4,900,000, but that's including a 2006 draft where they spent just $1,910,000. If you exclude that year, the A's have averaged $5,481,700 in bonuses each year.

It's not just about the money either. Looking at the Organizational Rankings that Baseball America puts out, the Astros rank last over the past four seasons and third to last since 2001. That's how bad the organization has been. Granted, that doesn't take into account the work that has been done the past two seasons, but it shows the general trend to which this lack of spending can lead.

I'm also not trying to show that spending money is the answer. I will point out, however, that of the top 15 teams in talent ranking from 2006 to 2009, only three spent below the league average on bonuses. On the other hand, five teams spent more than 6 million per year and are still in the bottom half of the organizational rankings.

It's not about the gross total of money, it's how you spend it. The Astros don't need to give Scott Boras a blank check for prospects, but good organizations take shots on players late in the draft. For instance, the Astros picked Chad Jones in the 13th round of the 2007 draft, even though Jones was committed to LSU and was a good cornerback prospect. In that disastrous draft, the Astros had already failed to sign their top two picks (a third- and fourth-rounder). Instead of channeling that money into Jones to get a top talent signed no matter when he was drafted, the Astros let him go. Good teams will take advantage of the system that is in place, which leaves talented players dropping into the middle of the draft because of bonus demands. The Red Sox do this, the winningest team this decade does this (the Yankees); hell, even the Pirates do this.

Yes, the Astros did go above and beyond last season to sign Ross Seaton, Brad Dydalewicz and Luis Cruz. They did what was necessary and took some chances. This season, though? Where was the risk? Where were the interesting signings late in the draft? As I said, the Astros paid less than recommended slot price for their draft in 2009. In all the hype that they got 16 of the top 17 signed so early, let's not forget WHY they got them signed. They didn't take anyone as talented as some of the harder signs.

I believe in Bobby Heck. I think Ed Wade is doing a good job of not rushing the farm system guys. I don't like the organization feeding me chicken feathers and calling it chicken salad. If Wade does get fired after this disappointing campaign is done and if Heck loses his job, I wonder if they'll be relieved. I have a suspicion that they found the wallet closed a little tighter this season as people forgot the 2007 draft disaster. If we gave them truth serum, they might tell us that 2008 was the abberation and that 2009 is the way it's going to be. Living at the bottom of the league in money spent but expecting results like you're at the top.

Some other thoughts:
  • Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox always outspend the competition, both with their MLB payrolls and in the draft. I'm not saying the Astros need to spend 10 million a year in the draft, but the Yankees consistently find bargains in the draft, paying a little more here and there but still spending only 2 million more than the Astros on average. You'll also note that since the Yankees averaged nearly 95 victories per season this decade, they've usually finished behind the Astros in the draft order.
  • The Red Sox have also had success, but here's an example of how money doesn't provide everything. In 2006, the Red Sox drafted Matt LaPorta late, but couldn't get him signed, even though they were willing to offer him big money for that late in the draft. LaPorta signed with Cleveland for 2 million after the Indians drafted him in the first round of the 2007 draft.
  • The Astros 2007 class was disastrous on a number of levels, but the most damning evidence is this: Out of 150 possible draft classes, the Astros spent the least money of any team in any season over that time span.
  • Even though the Washington Nationals doled out a 7.5 million dollar bonus and 15 million in total money to top 2009 draft pick Stephen Strasberg, they still found the money to sign two draft picks outside the first 10 rounds for over-slot money. It only came out to an extra $350,000 dollars, but sometimes that's the difference from having a productive farm system and being barren as the desert.
  • Following that same line of thought, the Pittsburg Pirates, who picked Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez fifth overall because of his signability, signed two late-round picks for a total of half a million dollars. As I said, I'm not advocating spending money wantonly, but there is a way to spend money smartly in the draft. It just appears the Astros cannot do this.
  • The median draft value for 2009 should also rise a bit once Kansas City and Texas come to terms with Aaron Crow and Tanner Scheppers, respectively. Each will get deals worth a couple million dollars, which will skew that $5,066,450 number upwards.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Trade Review: Astros-Padres Megaswap

I know I haven't been my usually prolific blogging self lately, but both jobs have been slamming me with work, giving me very little time to update my spreadsheets and track the end of the minor league season. Never fear, though, because I have been doing some work. You should get two blog posts today, this trade review and then a pitching profile on Chris Hicks. So, without further ado, let's jump into this trade.

When it happened, I was 12 and Ken Caminiti was one of my favorite players, but I don't remember getting terribly upset when he was shipped off to the Padres. If anything, I was angry that he was going to San Diego, which was the favorite team of a good, but obnoxious friend. Of course, I had to dislike any team from San Diego because of it. Still, I wasn't sure what I'd find when looking at this trade, since Derek Bell did have some good seasons and the Astros went to the playoffs with him. With that as your context, here's the analysis of the Padres and Astros mega-deal.

On December 28, 1994, the Houston Astros sent five players to the San Diego Padres for Derek Bell and five other players. The 1994 baseball strike was still chugging along, though Astros General Manager Bob Watson and Padres GM Randy Smith (son of current Astros president Tal Smith) decided to swap the meat of their roster in the kind of high-volume trade that just doesn't happen anymore. The Astros were coming off a shortened 1994 season where they won 66 games and finished a half-game behind the Reds in the NL Central. The Padres, however, struggled to win 47 games and allowed more runs than they scored. Here are the players involved:
    From the Astros
  • Ken Caminiti, a 32-year old third baseman

  • Steve Finley, a 30-year old center fielder

  • Andujar Cedeno, a 25-year old shortstop

  • Roberto Petagine, a 24-year old first baseman

  • Brian Williams, a 25-year old right-handed pitcher

    From the Padres
  • Derek Bell, a 26-year old center fielder

  • Doug Brocail, a 27-year old right-handed reliever

  • Ricky Gutierrez, a 24-year old shortstop

  • Phil Plantier, a 26-year old left fielder

  • Craig Shipley, a 32-year old utility infielder

  • Pedro A. Martinez, a 26-year old right-fielder reliever

With this many players changing hands, let's look at how many seasons each team got out of their haul. The Padres controlled their players for 11 1/2 seasons and paid $30.337 million in salary to their players. The Astros got 13 1/2 seasons of control out of their side and had to pay $21,077,500 to them. On the surface, this appears to be a straight salary dump. The Astros paid out $4.3775 million in 1995 to their players while the Padres paid $10.64 million. It also appears that the Astros were getting the 'prospects' in the deal as three of the six players were drafted in the first or second round, while two of the Padres' new players were in the final season of their contracts and needed pricy extensions after the season. Part of the Astros' 4 million came from Plantier, who was traded back to the Padres in July of 1995 for two pitchers (Jeff Tabaka and Rich Loiselle). Plantier had the highest salary of all six players the Astros received at $2 million, but I'm not sure how much the team assumed of that in the trade.

Clearly, the Astros gave up quite a bit of salary for a couple of young guys in Bell and Gutierrez. Bell was a star player for Houston, finishing 14th in MVP voting in 1995 and leading the team to three straight playoff appearances at the end of the decade. Gutierrez was a decent player, but never won the starting job from either Orlando Miller or Tim Bogar. On the other hand, the Padres picked up the 1996 MVP in Caminiti and an all-star center fielder in Finley. Caminiti also won Gold Gloves in 1995, 1996 and 1997. Both players helped get the Padres into the playoffs in 1996 and into the World Series in 1998.

The other interesting part of this trade is both teams played in pitcher's parks, but only three of the 11 players included in the deal were pitchers. Houston's Astrodome had a park factor of 93, 92, and 93 from 1995 to 1997, while San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium had park factors 97, 95 and 94 over that same time frame. The Astros logic probably went something like this: we want a high-average hitter who can take advantage of those gaps in the outfield, but can also play one of the corner outfield spots and cover a ton of AstroTurf (which is exactly what they got in Bell, a center fielder until joining Houston). They also picked up a former first round pick in shortstop Gutierrez to shore up their infield defense. For the Padres, they fought their pitcher's park by improving their infield and outfield defenses while gaining some power for the lineup.

Speaking of power, we should discuss the elephant in the room with Cammy. His life and death was one of the saddest and most cautionary tales you can find in professional sports. He admitted before his unfortunate demise that he was a steroid user in 1996 when he had 41 Win Shares and won the MVP. Caminiti did see a power jump after the trade, hitting 66 home runs in two years, but part of that could be attributed to leaving the 'Dome. Current Padres GM Kevin Towers, who was the team's scouting director in 1994, said he suspected Caminiti was using performance-enhancers at the time, and now feels guilty about what happened to him. Towers had a ton of respect for Cammy and since the team was winning, didn't say anything. For Caminiti, the steroids may have helped him overcome the injuries that constantly plagued him, or caused more injuries. One thing is sure: Caminiti was a tough, tough man. My favorite story was during a two-game series the Padres and Mets were playing in Monterrey, Mexico, Caminiti was attached to an IV due to dehydration, diarrhea and nausea, but all he needed was two bags of fluid and a Snicker's bar before hitting two home runs in the second game to key a Padres victory.

So, who were the winners in this trade? On the player side, Caminiti, Finley and Bell all got long-term contracts, which is definitely a victory for them. On the team side, the Astros did win 32 more games over the next five years, but that included 102 and 97 win seasons in 1998 and 1999. Houston improved their win total every season until 1999, while the Padres see-sawed above and below .500 over that same time, with two 90-win seasons and three 70-win seasons. Both teams increased their runs scored totals over the next three seasons and each one outperformed their actual records by a bit. The Padres, though, jumped from 479 runs scored in 1994 to 668 runs scored in 1995. Granted, they played 27 more games in '95, but it's still a significant jump, from 4.09 runs a game to 4.63. The Astros, on the other hand, went from 5.14 runs scored to 5.18.

In the short term, the Padres had a higher winning percentage at .526, compared to the Astros .516 clip over the next two seasons following this deal. The Padres total was also due to a 91-win season in 1996. The Astros won in the long-term with a .557 winning percentage in the five years following the trade compared to the Padres' .516 winning percentage. The Padres made the playoffs twice and the World Series once while the Astros made the playoffs three times. I also calculated a rough Win Share total for 1995 and 1996 with these two teams and the advantage was hugely in the Padres favor. San Diego had an edge of 120 Win Shares to 74, led by almost 70 from Caminiti himself. The Astros, of course, struggled to find a third baseman after trading him away. Over the next ten seasons, Dave Magadan, Sean Berry, Bill Spiers, Caminiti himself, Chris Truby, Vinny Castilla and Morgan Ensberg all started games at the hot corner, with no player starting more than two consecutive seasons.

In the end, this trade was a salary dump through and through. Yes, the Astros did get better, but that was also due to a young rotation emerging and a couple of smart trades by new GM Gerry Hunsicker. The Astros got rid of a couple older, more expensive players but basically just got Bell in return. They got two good years out of Doug Brocail, but shipped him off to Randy Smith, who was then the GM in Detroit. The Padres got an MVP and a World Series loss out of it, so it's safe to say they got the better end of things. It's also telling that two years later, both GMs were looking for new jobs.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Links, Thoughts and a Trade Review

I just wanted to let you all know I haven't abandoned the gig just yet. I churned out four stories for the paper this week, had a doctor's appointment and a Meet the Teacher night for the Son of the Blog, and went through my busiest time with the day job by kicking a moderate number of kids out of school. Thus, the blog darkness for much of the week. Fear not, fair citizens: I shall be back with more goodness for you. Unfortunately, some of that contains more whining by me about the Astros commitment to the farm system.

First off, some links culled from the past few days that I thought you should read:

This one is brought to you by commenter baseballnerd, and is a really interesting read:
-Did you see the part when Greenwalt mentioned the Astros want to jump the whole rotation up to Double-A next season? Or the part where he mentioned the pitching coordinator wants the guys to throw strikes and give up hits instead of being too fine with their pitches. Could explain some of the lower strikeout rates for Greenwalt, Dydalewicz and Seaton.

If you haven't checked out Farmstros lately, you really should. He's been on a roll the past couple of weeks, being on top of the Mitch Einertson and Gabriel Garcia suspensions, blogging about the Alaniz signing and posting a truly comprehensive database of every player in the Astros system with biographical information and data on when and how they were signed. It's pretty spectactular and a credit to all the work he puts in over there and for the Crawfish Boxes.

Here's a really nice scouting video breaking down Albert Pujol's swing. I don't see this kind of analysis very often, but it's exactly what I'd like to do more of with the kids in the farm system.
Finally, here's a link to an article by MLBTradeRumors where they mention that Padres GM Kevin Towers admitted his team spent 10 million on amateur talent this season (including the draft and international signings). This is what I wanted to touch on before my trade review.

In my post on Wednesday, I talked about whether the Astros are really committed to rebuilding the farm system, or if Drayton is still not committing the money he should be. Now, the signing total laid out was just for draft picks. It didn't include the money for A.J. Alaniz, Kirk Clark, or any of the international free agents. Still, that's a little less than a million total for all the non-draft signings, which leaves the total player development budget at around 4.5 million. The Padres more than doubled that. Of course, San Diego is also in rebuilding mode right now and traded away their most valuable asset at the July 31st deadline in Jake Peavey.

Why should I care if a team that has 52 wins and a 43 million dollar payroll outspends the Astros? At that salary, they're on pace to pay $641,000 per victory this season. They are not making the playoffs, so that seems a reasonable figure. The Astros are also not making the playoffs this season, but with a 103 million dollar payroll, they are on pace to pay 1.275 million per victory in 2009. That's a heck of a lot of money for a sub-.500 team.

The main problem with this comparison is team outlook. The Padres know they are not competing this season, so they shaved payroll, let team icon Trevor Hoffman walk as a free agent, traded away their most expensive players and are stocking up on talented kids to throw against the wall and see who sticks. The Astros, on the other hand, have an entirely different philosophy. As has been chronicled in many, many places, owner Drayton McClain wants to win now and build for the future, so the Astros have to invest in high priced free agents as well as make good decisions in the draft. All this does is slow down the inevitable rebuilding process, which should have begun a couple of years ago.

I know, I know, I'm beating a dead horse. Everyone knows what an uphill battle it is for the Astros to ever invest the kind of money they need to into the farm. I guess we should be happy they are doing as well as they can and not worry about what might have been.

Let's end this post with a quick review of another trade. Since former Astro Billy Wagner is making news in the rumor mill by being placed on waivers, let's look back at the 2003 trade that sent him to the Philadelphia Phillies for Ezequiel Astacio, Brandon Duckworth and Taylor Buchholz.

Like many of the Gerry Hunsicker trades, he got value outside of the trade's jewel in Buchholz. At the time, the then-21-year old was considered one of the better pitching prospects in baseball. Pitching for Double-A Reading that season, Buchholz went 9-11 with a 3.55 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. He also struck out 119 and walked 33. His numbers were sparkling, and would have placed in among the top 50 pitching prospects in the game.

Duckworth was 27 at the time and coming off a season where he went 4-7 in 24 games and 18 starts with an ERA of 4.94 and 68 strikeouts to 44 walks. Astacio was the least well-known at the time and had pitched in the High-A Florida State League in 2003, going 15-5 with a 3.29 ERA and an 83/29 K/BB ratio. Both were viewed more as filler than anything, but the club did control both Astacio and Buchholz for the next six seasons.

Wagner, on the other hand, was a proven commodity. He was coming off a season where he picked up 44 saves in a league-high 67 appearances with an ERA of 1.78 and a 88/22 K/BB ratio. Wagner was due to make 17 million over the next two seasons, which wasn't a problem for the Astros payroll at the time, which went from 71 million to 75 millon from 2003 to 2004. The problem with Wagner were comments he made right after the Astros were eliminated from the playoff race for the second straight season. Wagner was critical of owner Drayton McClain's willingness to spend money, which angered the owner a great deal. Drayton then allegedly ordered GM Gerry Hunsicker to trade Wagner.

It's impressive that Hunsicker was able to get as much as he did for the best closer in Astros history. With a bullpen that contained Wagner, Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge, the Astros certainly didn't lack for closer options. Still, it's hard to get value for someone when other teams know you need to trade him.

Now, let's look at what kind of value the teams got from these players. Wagner was worth 6.7 million in 2003 and earned 8 million. In 2004 and 2005, the closer was worth 4.6 million and 7.1 million, meaning he underperformed his contract by 5.2 million dollars. The Astros got negative value for both Astacio and Duckworth. Astacio cost the Astros 2.7 million over the course of two seasons starting in 2005. He made the minimum each season, so he cost the Astros around 3.35 million. Duckworth cost the Astros 2.7 million while earning $900,000 over two seasons before being released after the 2006 campaign.

That just leaves us with Buchholz as the only player in this deal who stood as a possible positive investment. the Astros had already lost around 7 million in value while the Phillies lost 5.2 million, meaning the Astros needed to make up about 2 million in value with the 21-year old. As I said, a young pitcher like him should net the Astros around 16 million in value. Buchholz didn't make a big league appearance until 2006, when he went 6-10 in 22 games and 19 starts with the Astros. His ERA was 5.89 and his WHIP was at 1.25 while striking out 77 and walking 34. He was worth about 1.7 million that season, earning $325,00, meaning the Astros netted about 1.3 million in value for him in 2006.

Of course, new GM Tim Purpura used Buchholz as part of a package of players to get Jason Jennings from the Rockies. Jennings pitched 19 games, including 18 starts for the Astros in 2007, going 2-9 with a 6.45 ERA. Jennings was not offered a contract at the end of the season, so the Astros got one season out of him, but gave up on 7.3 and 5.4 million in value from Buchholz alone. We will revisit that Jennings trade later on, but for now, it's easy to say that Buchholz could have given the Astros another 12.7 million in value if they had held onto him.

So, who were the winners here? I don't know if there were any. The Astros did not get much value in return for their closer, gaining only 8 million in future value for the prospects while the Phillies not only lost 5.2 million in value on Wagner's contract, they also didn't make the playoffs either season. As for Wagner, he talked himself out of a two-year run to the postseason with the Astros, including the franchise's only trip to the World Series. Buchholz was shipped to the pitching wasteland that is Colorado while Astacio was picked up by the Rangers in 2007 and Duckworth was signed by the Royals in 2006. As I said, neither the players, nor the teams really won this trade, which just goes to show you: decisions made based on high emotions, such as anger at your closer for critical comments of you, never work out. Remember that, Drayton, when Roy Oswalt pops off in the offseason about this team.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ross Seaton Updated Pitching Profile

As I did with Jordan Lyles, I'm setting out to do a better analysis of Ross Seaton's first full season in professional baseball. Last time we looked at him, he had pitched in five games and won quite a few despite having average statistics. His season has been up and down since then, but the fact is he hasn't jumped out at me as being the kind of can't-miss prospect the Astros saw when they drafted him. Here's a brief recap of his background from my first post:

Seaton is a 19-year old right-handed pitcher from Second Baptist High School in Houston and was selected in the supplemental portion of the third round in 2008. At 6-foot-4 and 190 lbs., the Sugar Land native has definitely got the frame to be a power pitcher. His arm slot is definitely overhand and from what I could tell, it didn't look like his elbow was flying forward before his hand. The scouting report on him mentioned three good pitches, with the possibility of his changeup becoming an average pitch.
I was pretty high on Seaton back then, but my opinion has dropped steadily as the season has gone on. One of the reasons Seaton lasted until the third round was teams didn't think he could be signed away from Tulane and weren't ready to give him first-round money when his fastball velocity dipped due to an injury in the spring. The main reason he was projected to be a good prospect is that his velocity jumped up to around 95 once he was healthy and pitching professionally last season.

I'm not sure what his velocities have been in 2009, but he's been missing bats, as most of his strikeouts have been swinging. I mentioned Seaton was giving up hits to the opposite field when batters did make contact. He's sort of continued that trend, but it's much more subtle now. Instead, the problem Seaton has had with batted balls is giving up too many line drives. In his worst start of the season, back on May 21st, Seaton gave up 11 line drives and only had three of those caught for outs. That's a whole lot of hits falling in, as the 10 hits he gave up in 5 1/3 innings was around 8% of the total number of hits he's given up this season. Now, as I've said before, a pitcher can't control his line drive rate, but that many people knocking the crap out of the ball suggests something was amiss.

In fact, May and July have been the only two months where Seaton gave up more hits than innings pitched. His WHIP this season sits at 1.25, which is very respectable, as is his BB/9 rate of 2.45. Still, Seaton hasn't been overpowering hitters in the Sally League as much as you'd like to see. The South Atlantic League is dominated by pitchers and there are only six hitters in the entire league who are batting over .300. This is the polar opposite of the Astros other Class A affiliate in Lancaster, but Seaton hasn't dominated like you'd expect a Top 5 prospect in your organization to do.

One of the thing that has concerned me all season is the lack of strikeouts from Seaton. In April and May, Seaton totaled 24 strikeouts over nine starts. His numbers improved in June, July and August, as he's struck out 52 in 12 starts since. His K/9 rate has climbed every month until August (which hasn't finished yet) from 5.70 in April, 3.07 in May, 6.40 in June, 7.04 in July and 6.18 in August. His overall K/9 rate of 5.64 is almost two strikeouts lower than the league average of 7.93 K/9. Lexington as a team has a K/9 rate of 7.25. It's a little unfair to compare him to team totals, but I just wanted to underscore why his strikeout totals worry me.

I think the evidence is that he's getting better, though. His G/F ratio is climbing closer to 1.00 each month and he has thrown better since Lexington started using six starters with the addition of David Duncan to the rotation. Seaton has gotten bumped from time to time and missed almost two weeks around the SAL All-Star Break, but has made progress. His best start of the season came on June 1st, when he threw a complete game shutout. Seaton struck out five and walked none, while giving up five line drives. He only allowed one extra base hit, a double with one out in the fifth inning on a line drive to center field. Seaton got a fly ball to left field for the second out before inducing a grounder to second base to end the inning. In none of the nine innings did Seaton allow more than one base runner and the double was the only time an opposing player reached scoring position. His game score of 89 is the highest I've seen this season.

The last point I'd like to touch upon before finishing this up is his workload. As I mentioned, the Astros did insert a new pitcher into that rotation to take some of the stress of the young arms. Lyles and Seaton are already at innings thresholds that I'm not terribly excited about for young guys. Seaton has thrown 121 1/3 innings this season after getting hardly any experience in pro ball last season. In the past two months, he's only started seven games out of 48, so in the remaining 18 on Lexington's schedule, he may start two or three more, which puts him right around 130 innings. While the Astros have limited his number of pitches (I'm assuming) and number of batters faced (I know), it's still a lot of stress to put on young arms. I like what Dewey Robinson and the rest of the Astros pitching coaches have done the past couple of years, but this concerns me. Out of the five Lexington starts at the beginning of the season, odds are one will blow out their arm. You'd hate for it to be Lyles or Seaton.

So, that's the profile right now. Let's chalk up my concerns more to Seaton being young and needing to learn how to pitch. Maybe he can figure out his BABiP and talk with Brian Bannister about how to use your brain in pitching (Seaton's apparently a bright guy). I'd settle for him making it to the Astros rotation healthy and pitching effectively, no matter how he got there. I think he's got a good shot to do that, too.