Archive for the 'Houston Astros' Category

Is Clemens to blame for Astros’ struggles?

The season is just going to end too soon for the Houston Astros. Down 7.5 games heading into a pivotal weekend series against the Cardinals, the Astros, powered by Roger Clemens’ potentially final home start in Houston, swept St. Louis to leave Deadspin’s Will Leitch cowering in the corner and Houston fans hoping and praying that their team can overcome a 3.5 game deficit with seven left to play.

Roger Clemens last night was the hero of Houston. He received a warm send-off from a crowd that believes, barring a miracle, Clemens will not pitch again in Houston for the Astros. Will he retire? Who knows. But it’s hard to imagine the Astros shelling out another $20 million for the Rocket’s services.

But around the Internet, an interesting theme has arisen. As Travis Nelson wrote on Double Play Depth, maybe the Astros’ eventual elimination for postseason contention is the Rocket’s fault. He compellingly argues:

If Clemens had decided what he wanted to do in say, January, like the rest of the 700 or so guys who have played in the major leagues this season, the Astros could have had him starting games in April and May, and early June. they could have gotten roughly another 100 or so innings out of him in that span, which would have kept 24-year old rookie RHP Taylor Buchholz in the minors, where he clearly belonged.

Nelson argues that Clemens would have replaced 14 bad starts with Roger Clemens-like outings:

That makes 14 starts, 81 innings, and 52 earned runs. Clemens, with a more or less typical Rocket-esque performance in those starts, could probably have amassed something like 100 innings, allowing half as many earned runs, about 26, which could have netted the team three more wins.

Three more wins for the Astros right now would have been the difference between life and death. Instead of 3.5 out with 7 left to play, they could be potentially just 0.5 games out with 7 left to play. In my opinion though, Nelson underestimated Clemens’ importance. I think Clemens could have meant five more wins for the team, and a view from the top heading into the homestretch. I have no scientific evidence for that, but it’s just a hunch taking a look at how poorly the Astros’ number five starters performed.

However – and this is a big however – let’s not forget about 2005. Roger Clemens, not a young man, broke down in 2005. He couldn’t make it through the regular season and postseason. So if the Astros bring back Clemens in April instead of June, does he break down again? The blame might not fall on his shoulders.

Rather, I would like to blame the Astros’ management for wasting Clemens’ rehab starts. After his first two Minor League outings, it was clear that Clemens still had it. Why not just bring him up to the Big Leagues then? Give him one extra start, one more shot at a win. That could end up being the difference in the NL Central.

Of course, what’s funny about this situation is that if the Astros do overcome the very long odds, Clemens will have a chance to once again be a postseason hero. Hey, you never know.

Bagwell, Astros relationship coming to a bitter end

The Astros this week took another step toward complicating the team’s relationship with Jeff Bagwell, long the face of the organization.

After weeks of speculation and attempted negotiations between the first baseman and the only Major League team he has ever known, the Astros filed an insurance claim on Bagwell’s contract. This claim, according to numerous media reports, allows the Astros to recoup $15.6 million of the $17 million they owe Bagwell.

Meanwhile, Bagwell has stated his intentions to play this season. While team doctors think otherwise, he believes himself to be healthy enough to come back from a debilitating shoulder injury that limited him to just 100 at-bats and his worst offensive season.

During the complex media dance over the last few weeks, Bagwell seems to have come out the enemy and in the process has supposedly alienated fans while publicly battling his bosses.

For all that Bagwell has meant to the Astros organization and for all that he has done for the team, I find it hard to believe the two sides could not reach an agreement that allowed both sides to retain their dignity and respect for each other. Instead, the Astros, in my opinion, have shown an utter disregard for one of their franchise players.

Since 1991, just a few months after a trade that sent Larry Anderson to the Red Sox in exchange for a 22-year-old prospect, Jeff Bagwell has been the face of the Houston Astros. He has earned a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP award, and four trips to the Midsummer Classic. In 15 seasons, he has hit .297/.408/.540 and holds Astros organizational records with 449 home runs and 1529 RBIs. He and Craig Biggio have been the stalwarts of Houston’s Killer Bees.

But Bagwell at age 37 is not the same player as Bagwell in his prime. He missed most of the 2005 campaign following surgery on his right shoulder that had ailed him for the better part of four seasons. Doctors are unsure if he will ever be able to recover enough to play baseball, but Bagwell, a gritty, determined athlete, wants to give it a try. Meanwhile, like most things baseball-related during the off-season, this conflict comes down to dollar signs.

The Astros, it seems, have a unique insurance policy on Bagwell’s contract. They had to decide by January 31 whether or not to file a claim on the $17 million. If Bagwell is determined medically unable to play, he would still get his guaranteed millions, but the Astros would recoup $15.8 million.

Now, on the surface, it makes sense for the Astros to protect themselves in this insurance process. After all, if Bagwell cannot play, they could use his millions to find a suitable replacement by the trade deadline. Plus, 37-year-old hitters shouldn’t really be earning $17 million in the first place. For all but the most exceptional and age-defying of hitters, a 37-year-old slugger should not be among the highest paid players in the game.

But Bagwell’s contract is as much a circumstance of Bagwell’s willingness to compromise as it is of the Astros’ desire to win. When Bagwell signed his five-year, $85 million contract extension in 2000, Bagwell agreed to a backloaded payment structure. He would earn more money as the contract matured, thus allowing the Astros to free up money to build a competitive foundation. Based on last year’s World Series appearance, it seems that the economics of the deal worked for the Astros.

At the time of the deal, Drayton McLane, the Astros’ owner, had to search high and low for an insurance policy. And the one he found stipulated the January 31 filing deadline. It makes sense for a team to protect its investments, but this saga is showing the downside of allowing insurance companies to dictate the terms of policies. In 2000, the insurance companies were witnessing the declines of the likes of Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle. These injuries led to large insurance payments, and since then, companies have been loathe to insure multi-million-dollar, multi-year contracts for aging players.

Jeff Bagwell wants to play. He thinks he can do it, and he has served the Astros long enough and hard enough to at least deserve the chance to show he can be a healthy contributor to a team looking to defends its first-ever NL Championships. The Astros, though, may not even want Bagwell to show up for Spring Training if the insurance company determines that would ruin their claim.

It is a sad ending to the saga of the man who will long be the face (and beard) of the Houston Astros and who, in the age of free agency, has given his entire career to one organization.

Further Reading

For more on the Astros’ insurance claim on Jeff Bagwell’s contract, check out the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of this rare insurance policy.

Lisa Gray, MVN’s Astros blogger, chimes in with an Astros fan’s take on the Bagwell saga.

Clemens’ indecision handicapping the Astros

For most people, there is no “I” in team. And then there is Roger Clemens, the one man around whom you could build a competitive team and the one man who refuses to consider the greater good of his team.

For the second year in a row, Roger Clemens’ off-season indecision is handicapping the Houston Astros in their quest to build upon their National League Championship season and first-ever World Series appearance. Similar to last year, Roger Clemens cannot decide if he wants to retire or if he wants to keep playing.

According to his agent, Randy Hendricks, Clemens would retire if he had to make the decision today. However, luckily for Hendricks and Clemens, two people who stand to profit from milking the Astros for another Clemens season, the Rocket doesn’t have to decide today.

He can just wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. And wait until the end of January when his agent says he’s more likely to come to a decision.

The Astros, of course, are not too thrilled about Clemens’ waiting game. “It’s the same situation we were in last year where we were uncertain as to when we would get an answer,” Houston general manager Tim Purpura said. “It puts us at somewhat of a disadvantage to build our club.”

Purpura isn’t mincing words when he talks about that disadvantage. Last year, Roger Clemens cost the Astros $18 million. But by waiting so long to make his personal decision, he also cost the team a legitimate shot at Carlos Beltran or any other available bat on the market.

Twelve months later, the Astros are in the same position. This year, Houston scored 693 runs, seventh lowest in the NL, and still managed to capture the Wild Card. They were so offensively challenged because Clemens’ massive contract, the highest-ever single-season salary for a pitcher, and his long wait effectively made it impossible for the team to pursue a free agent slugger they so desperately needed.

Now, history is repeating itself. Clemens, coming off a season with a sub-2.00 ERA, would be in line for another big pay day. And the Astros know that Clemens is a huge marketing ploy for this team. The fans, fellow Texans, love him and adore him on the Astros. But at the same time, another $18 million committed to Clemens would leave the Astros a few dollars short of a big-time bat. Additionally, the long wait for Clemens to make up his mind basically costs the Astros any shot at landing a free agent slugger.

But Clemens is waiting. He’s testing his hamstring; he’s making commitments to the World Baseball Classic. He’s posing in photo ops being the face of the USA team. He’s doing everything for himself and little for his team.

The Astros are growing weary. They say they are going to go about their business. “From a talent point of view, I don’t want to lose him,” Purpura said. “I also realize that we need to improve our club, and it’s very difficult for me to move forward in doing that if I have such uncertainty on whether he’s going to be able to contribute.”

Purpura, owner Drayton MacLane, and manager Phil Garner know what Clemens means to the team. They know that without his pitching, they are short not only one of the game’s all-time greats but a starter in the rotation. Wandy Rodriguez is no Roger Clemens.

But these men also know that they cannot afford a repeat of last winter. They can’t expect to win the Wild Card, the NL Central, or the National League title by scoring just 693 runs again next year. And any offense on the market is slowly slipping away.

Maybe Purpura and MacLane need to take a stand. Maybe they need to say to Roger that, for the good of the team, he has to come to a decision soon or risk taking a pay cut to fit in the Astros’ financial plans.

While Clemens last year was the epitome of difference-maker for the Astros during the regular season, it is highly unreasonable to expect a soon-to-be 44-year-old with a bad back and bad hamstrings to repeat his season. He would still be a key cog to the Astros machine, but he needs to give the team enough flexibility to move on without him if need be. The end of January is just too late for the Astros to execute a viable Plan B when Clemens decides against rejoining the team and heads off for the greener pastures of retirement.

It’s time for Clemens to end the injustice committed against his team and teammates and come to a quick decision. The “we in team” is waiting.

Future history: The unique arbitration case of Roger Clemens

As pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training in 25 days and the Carlos Delgado free agent chase draws to a close, the last remaining loose threads of the off-season are the arbitration cases scheduled for the next few weeks. While these are usually mundane hearings that determine how much of a raise a player will get, this year, Roger Clemens’ record-setting filing brings a new level scrutiny to the salary arbitration process.

As my fellow columnist Susan Kelly noted yesterday, Roger Clemens’ request for $22 million is an arbitration record, toppling the previous high-water mark of Derek Jeter’s $18.5 million request in 2001. The Astros offered Clemens a reasonable offer of $13.5 million. The difference between the two figures — a cool $8.5 million — is also an arbitration record.

My first reaction to this news was to categorize this as a Classic Roger Clemens Event. Somewhere along the lines of slacking off during his last year in Boston and confusing a baseball bat with who knows what during the 2000 World Series, this is Roger Clemens at his finest. A year after pitching for the Astros at a hometown discount of $5 million, Clemens has clearly decided that his seventh Cy Young Award might be worth more than what Esteban Loaiza made last year while compiling one awful season.

It seems that in Clemens’ mind, the $5 million was a mistake. He got the Astros one game away from the World Series, and he won that Cy Young Award. For that, he figures he should have gotten that $13.5 million. So why not correct it next year? By making $22 million in 2005 and $5 million in 2004, he gets the equivalence of $13.5 million per year for two years. So much for that hometown discount. Mr. Nice-Guy Clemens only lasted for so long.

My second thought was a meditation on the nature of arbitration. In the case of Clemens, a 42-year-old clearly at the very end of his career, how would an arbiter decide this case? Does Clemens’ case get judged based on what he’s likely to do during 2005 or does he get paid based on what he has already accomplished? Clearly, the two outcomes could be vastly different.

First, based on what he has accomplished in 21 seasons at the Major League level, Clemens probably deserves to become the highest paid pitcher in the history of the game. (And at the mid-point of the two offers — $17.5 million — Clemens would be just that, breaking the $17.5 million record held by Pedro Martinez.) The Rocket has won the Cy Young Award in one-third of the seasons in which he has pitched. That’s simply incredible. He’s won 328 games, tied for 10th all-time, and he has over 4000 strike outs. Simply put, if any pitcher in the game ever deserved $22 for what he has accomplished, Roger Clemens is it.

There is, however, the other side of the equation. Should Clemens get paid based on what he will probably do next season? If so, the numbers look a bit different. Using Baseball-Reference’s Similarity Scores that they provide on every player page, I examined those few pitchers whose careers were similar to Clemens through age 41. The results were quite mixed. First up was Tom Seaver with a similarity score of 865. However, age 41 was Seaver’s last year pitching. Steve Carlton, Warren Spahn, and Don Sutton were the three other pitchers with scores over 800. Of the three, only Spahn improved from age 41 to age 42. At 42, Warren Spahn tied his career-high in wins with 23 and threw 22 complete games. But he struck out only 102 batters. He was a must different pitcher than Clemens is, and it’s tough to draw any conclusions from that comparison.

Looking at Carlton and Sutton, two pitchers who were power pitchers in the vein of the Rocket, a clearer picture begins to emerge. By 42, Carlton had already seen a significant decline in his effectiveness. While his ERA at age 41 was nearly 2 runs above his career average, his ERA at age 42 was even worse at 5.74. He won only 6 games compared to 14 losses and struck out just 91 in 150 innings. Considering that he’s third on the all-time strike out list, those are shocking numbers. Sutton, seventh on the strike out list, saw a similar decline. His ERA rose by a whole run in between ages 41 and 42. He struck out just 99 and gave up more hits than innings pitched for just the second time in his career. Those years past 40 have not been kind to the game’s best power pitchers.

So what does this say about Roger Clemens’ current situation? Based on how other power pitchers have fared at the age of 42, Clemens may actually deserve just $5 million for his 2005 season. It does not seem unreasonable to believe that the Rocket’s ERA will jump up from 2.98, a six-year low. He probably won’t strike out 218 batters either. Nor will he win 18 games when his offense is missing Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran, and probably Lance Berkman for a few months. Plus, it’s his second season in the NL. He may have enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts last year, but it just gets tougher the second time, even more so at age 42.

Yet, there is another argument: Roger Clemens is not like other pitchers. Sutton, Seaver, and Carlton had already seen significantly performance declines by the time they all hit 40. Clemens has yet to suffer the same fate. Maybe he is a bionic man. Maybe he could turn in another Cy Young performance and turn 42 at the same time. History is not on his side, but then again, Roger Clemens stands alone in baseball history.

In the end, I think the point is moot. Over the next few days, we’ll find out if Clemens is set on returning to Minute Maid Park next season. If he decides that retirement is not for him, it’s pretty unlikely that his case would end up in arbitration. It’s much more likely that Houston and the Rocket would settle for amount that would guarantee Clemens more money than any pitcher in history. But in the very rare event that the case actually went to the arbitration, I would hate to be the arbiter having to decide between Clemens’ remarkable career accomplishments and the precarious perch of 42-year-old pitchers in the Major Leagues. How do you decide between baseball history and Clemens’ Hall of Fame qualifications or baseball future and the likelihood of an off year for a man at the end of his career?

The Beltran Blues

When Carlos Beltran traded in his red Astros pinstripes for a set of blue Mets pinstripes on Monday, he did more than just break the hearts of Houston fans. Rather, he set back the Astros by at least a spot or two in the division. He also sent the team spiraling into a rebuilding mode with only 35 days left until Spring Training camps open and with precious few free agents still on the market.

On June 25, 2004, Carlos Beltran arrived as a potential savior in Houston. Up to that point, the ’stros had failed to meet their very lofty expectations. Andy Pettitte had missed a lot of time with a bad elbow, and Houston was 38-34 in fourth place. At first, Beltran didn’t seem to be the answer. On July 24th, a week before the trading deadline, the Astros were going nowhere fast. They were 48-49 in fifth place in the division and six games out in the Wild Card race.

The rest, as they say, is history. After an incredible stretch drive, the Astros came within 27 outs of the World Series. Beltran hit eight postseason home runs and dove into right and left fields to rob Cardinals of their doubles. He seemingly carried the team to the brink of that World Series.

During the subsequent months, Drayton McLane clearly wanted to resign Beltran and use the 27-year-old outfielder as a keystone to a decade of Houston success. To free up the finances to do so, the Astros declined Jeff Kent’s $9 million option and saw him leave for Los Angeles. They didn’t even talk to Wade Miller who signed with Boston, and they didn’t open serious negotiations with any of the other available free agents who could have helped the team. Instead, they made Beltran the biggest offer in Astros’ history only to see him decline it.

The problems are worse however. First, Lance Berkman tore his ACL in early November and will be out until at least May and probably until June. Next, there is the issue of Roger Clemens. Clemens has not decided yet whether or not to return to Houston this season. His return was largely contingent on the Astros putting together another competitive team. But with Beltran and Kent gone, Berkman out for two months, and no viable replacements from any of these players, speculation is that Clemens will opt to retire.

In effect, the Astros’ failure to sign Carlos Beltran has cost them a lot more than just one player. It has cost them nearly one-third of all of their games from last year. Looking at 2004 statistics, the Astros are in danger of losing as many as 100 win shares depending upon the severity of Berkman’s injury and the speed of his recovery. If Berkman can make a full recovery, the Astros would be down 68 win shares — or the equivalent of nearly 33 victories. It is very unlikely that the Astros can climb out of this hole this deep in time for the 2005 campaign.

With Beltran just a physical away from the Mets, the tough part begins. The Astros have to figure out who will replace their departed players. If Clemens does indeed retire, the loss would be as devastating as Beltran’s decision to head for the Big Apple. The front end of the rotation would be Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, but there are question marks around Pettitte’s health. Behind these two, the loss of Wade Miller will be noticeable as well. While injuries limited his action down the stretch last year, he was a solid third or forth starter. He has won 52 games for Houston since 2001, and his DIPS (that’s defense-independent pitching statistics) showed that he was good and not just lucky. Brandon Backe would step in to the rotation, as would some combination of Tim Redding, Pete Munro, Brandon Duckworth, and whatever else the Astros farm system has. That’s a major step down for a team that was just nine innings away from the Series.

In the outfield, with Berkman’s injury and Beltran’s departure, the Astros are left with the potential starting three of Jason Lane, 40-year-old Craig Biggio, and career journeyman Orlando Palmeiro. The three combined for a whopping 92 RBIs last year. In the infield, the Astros are left with Mike Lamb to fill in for Jeff Kent. Clearly, this team is a far cry from the one that upended the Braves and nearly upset the Cardinals just three months ago.

While I’ve painted a fairly dire picture for the Astros and their fans this upcoming season, there is still hope that they could land a free agent or two to help alleviate these losses. Jeromy Burnitz and Magglio Ordoñez remained unsigned. Ordoñez could adequately replace Beltran’s bat in the lineup, but he too has some health issues. Burnitz is appealing, but his numbers are Coors-inflated. He’ll be 36 in April, and there’s no way he would hit 37 home runs and drive in 110 at sea level. Other than that, the pickings are slim.

So then, where did the Astros go wrong this off-season? This is a team with money that was willing to spend. I think the obvious answer lies in their infatuation with Carlos Beltran and the way in which they played into Scott Boras’ hands. There’s no denying that Carlos Beltran is a great player. His .536 postseason OBP and 1.022 slugging proved that this kid can play, and the towering home runs were enough to blind even the most objective of baseball analysts. But this was Beltran’s biggest contribution to the team. He did little to push the team into the playoffs, hitting .258 in September while slugging just .474. He drove in only seven runs the entire month.

Despite an unclutch performance, the Astros blindly pursued Beltran. They did not look at Steve Finley; they did not look at Moises Alou; they never talked to any of the free agent pitchers that would have fit nicely into the back end of their rotation. In the end, Beltran opted to walk. Scott Boras used Astros to get seven years and $119 million from the New York Mets. Now, the Astros are left without a second baseman, without a solid outfield, and possibly without the reigning Cy Young winner.

They are left, however, with a large cache of cash. If they want a shot at contending this year, they had better spend some of it quickly and pray that the Rocket wants to fire up his right arm one more time.


RSS River Ave. Blues

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