Some things to talk about while we look at Tony Gwynn's batting mechanics...
1) KLaw on Josh Hader
Keith Law caught a few of the minor league all-star games recently and had some notes on the prospects there. The Astros of note in the California League all-star game was left-hander Josh Hader. It's worth reading Law's full take, but what's interesting is his comments on Hader's arm slot.
Law implies that Hader's arm action makes him very tough against left-handers, but that it leaves him better projected as a reliever long-term. From how the Astros view him, I doubt the organization shares those views. Hader will continue to start until he can't. In 65 innings this season, Hader has struck out 75 and posted a 2.34 ERA with a 2.88 FIP in one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in the minors.
But, even if Hader doesn't stick as a starter, he shows the versatility of adding all this minor league pitching depth. Hader is easily a top 20 prospect in the system right now and may be top 10. But, not all those guys can start for the big league team long-term. Some of them will have to go to the bullpen or get traded.
Some will get hurt. Some will not pan out. But, with all this depth, the Houston big league pitching staff should be stacked. That's what's happened with the Cardinals over the last decade. They lose guys, prospects step in. They have heralded arms like Trevor Rosenthal shuttled to the bullpen.
It's why Law's note didn't really bother me nor lower my opinion of Hader's prospect status.
2) Evolution of Cuban players
It stung when Houston missed out on Cuba slugger Jose Dariel Abreu last winter. He has gone on to make that near-miss sting even worse, by destroying American League pitching in his rookie season with the White Sox.
But, Houston's pursuit shows they do have interest in Cuban-born players, which makes sense, given the uptick in defections lately. Grantland has a great story on the process and what's changed:
“There are more incentives now than ever before for players to leave Cuba,” said Baseball America writer Ben Badler. “That means incentives for the players themselves and the people who have a percentage in their contracts. Technology and the improvement of communication tools have also changed things. Cuban players and the people who have percentages in them — agents, smugglers, other middlemen — are able to follow what players who have left are making and they’re able to communicate with people outside of Cuba more easily now than they were even five years ago.”
Case in point: Cuba slugging outfielder Yasmani Tomas is reportedly defecting and will be able to sign with a U.S. team soon. "Soon" is a relative term, since he's got a long process of establishing residency in another country, getting cleared by the U.S. government and then finding a team.
But, because he's 23-years-old and has played Cuban professional baseball for five years, he will not count against the international free agent bonus pool. That puts him in the same situation as Abreu, in that he can sign wtih any team for any amount of money.
As the Baseball America report states, Tomas is considerably more raw than Abreu or even Yoenis Cespedes, meaning he will need some time in Double-A or Triple-A before being ready for the major leagues. That should limit his price tag.
But, I'd expect the Astros to look into this guy pretty heavily when he's available. Power doesn't grow on trees and their outfield is far from settled for the future.
3) How good are the Astros?
Even after losing three straight and four of their last five, the Astros are still 8-9 in June and 23-23 in the last six weeks or so. They're still projected to win 72 games and their run differential since May 1 is still positive.
You want to talk about the wild card, don't you? You see it glistening there, close enough to touch. But, you remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Indy transfers the bag of sand to the stand where the idol sat, but then a big freaking boulder almost squashed him?
That's the Astros right now. Don't get caught by the boulder, just because you want to swipe that golden idol so badly.
What's impressive are the little signs of a turnaround. According to FanGraphs' projected standings, Houston would still finish with the first overall pick. But, they're only three wins behind the ninth-worst team, the Chicago White Sox, who are projected to win 75 games.
In Jonah Keri's latest rankings for Grantland, he didn't put Houston at No. 30. In fact, he didn't put the Astros in the bottom tier. He ranked them solidly at No. 24, like it's no big deal. Do you know how long I've waited to see the Astros avoid last place in a power rankings (that weren't scribbled in my Power Rangers trapper keeper)?
Through 72-73 games, the Astros have the same run differential for the season as the Texas Rangers. They trail Arlington's second-favorite sons by 3 1/2 games.