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Astros Spring Notebook

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Lots of doings around the club lately, and none are more important than how this recent string of injuries will affect the 25-man roster. Here's a quick rundown of the positions with the most risk for turnover.

As for the catchers, everyone is weighing in this week. After Mills was quoted as saying "There's clarity," he added he didn't want to name a guy now because he hadn't talked to them. Does that mean Towles is the guy? He has certainly had the best spring of the two and gotten more playing time. I wonder if Mills tipped his hand when he put Towles into the game for Castro on Wednesday. I do expect Towles to start the season at catcher.

With Alberto Arias headed to the DL next week, there is a spot open in the Astros bullpen. Let's break this down, March Madness-style.

Last two in: Samuel Gervacio, Casey Daigle

First two out: Wesley Wright, Wilton Lopez

Next two out: Gary Majewski, Shane Loux

Need more time: Chia-jen Lo

With the performances of Chris Sampson and Jeff Fulchino this spring, the Astros have five of the seven spots sown up. You could make an argument that Tim Byrdak could be cut in favor of Wesley Wright, but the presence of another option year for Wright and the Astros desire to look at him as a starter mean he's probably ticketed for Round Rock. Daigle used an excellent spot start on Wednesday to vault into the lead, over a guy like Wilton Lopez.

Why? Just a hunch right now. Both guys have experience out of the bullpen in the minors. Both are older guys and both are out of options. Daigle seems to be used a little more by Mills right now, though seems like the reporters around the team have Lopez in the lead.

Majewski hasn't been bad, but also hasn't done enough to stand out. I wonder if he'll end up in the Round Rock bullpen as a possible late-inning partner for Lo. This also leaves out a guy like Yorman Bazardo, who was probably pushed out by Felipe Paulino winning the fifth starter's job.

With the middle infielders, there is some competition in the wake of Manzella's injury. Geoff Blum, Jeff Keppinger and Edwin Maysonet have been showing off their skills at short. Blum had a marvelous day on Monday while Keppinger struggled badly on Wednesday. Obviously, Kepp isn't going to be the everyday shortstop, but he's valuable enough on the bench. Blum will probably play more first base in the wake of Berkman's injury, leaving Maysonet with a clear shot to make the team. I also like the idea of him being a Billy Spiers-type utilityman who can play in the outfield as well as the infield.  I don't like the idea of cutting Chris Shelton, who's had a good spring, but Maysonet gives the Astros more long-term flexibility.

As for the outfield, with Bourgeois missing even more time, it looks like Cory Sullivan has cinched the fifth outfielder spot. He's hit enough in recent weeks to justify his place and has played center and right field this spring. Plus, he's lefthanded, which we've established before is something the Astros need.


What's in a fifth (starter)?: Earlier this week, Marc Hulett over at FanGraphs posted a couple articles which talked about fifth starters. Basically, it talked about how there really isn't a guy who "should" be a fifth starter. Hulett suggested a rather radical theory to fix this problem: get three guys to start instead.

Now, two pretty respected baseball bloggers (Rob Neyer and Craig Calcaterra) both disagreed with Hulett's assumption. Their points are valid. Not every team will have a prospect, a Quad-A player and a journeyman. The Astros, however? They fit this bill nicely.

While it's great that Felipe Paulino has pitched well enough this spring to win the job, what's to stop him from regressing in May? I hope he breaks through this season and think he has a good shot at doing just that. But, if he only started 20 games, would that be a bad thing? The Astros could match up someone like Wesley Wright with some lefty-dominated lineups and occasionally throw out a guy like Daigle or Brian Moehler. They're still paying next to nothing for the starts and could maybe avoid any regression from Paulino.

I don't think I'd seriously like the team to consider this. At the same time, with the number of people involved in this race now, it's an intriguing idea.


Retro staffs: This article jumps in the Way Back Machine to look at some of the best rotations in history for various reasons. The Astros have a staff that popped up on the lists twice. The 1981 Houston rotation finished fourth in ERA+ at 135, even after being adjusted for park and league contexts. That staff was the best of the 80's and showed up on the list of fewest HR/IP with 0.33

The '81 season was shortened due to a labor strike. The Astros cumulative starting ERA was 2.34. The members of that rotation? Joe Niekro, Don Sutton, Bob Knepper, Nolan Ryan and Vern Ruhle. Also making starts this season were Joaquin Andujar, Bob Sprowl and Billy Smith. If you're counting, that's two Hall of Famers, three All-Stars and a future pitching coach. That's quite a bit of talent.

That's a heck of a rotation. The Astros were 61-49 and finished third in the NL West. The Astros also had 23 complete games and 13 shutouts, including five by Bob Knepper. The best game of the bunch was by Nolan Ryan, though, as he tossed one of his seven no-hitters on Sept. 26, striking out 11 and walking three. Don Sutton followed that up with a two-hitter on the 27th, striking out nine while walking one and giving up a solo home run to Steve Sax. The next highest game score that season was an 89 by Bob Knepper, when he three-hit the Mets on Sept. 2, striking out nine and walking one.

Of course, this same staff had 17 tough losses, when the starter left after a quality start and his team still lost. That might have been because the Astros were eighth out of 12 teams in runs scored that season. They finished six games behind the Reds. This makes those Oswalt, Pettitte, Clemens staffs look lacking in comparison, no?


McTaggart on Mills: When we ran the interview with Brian McTaggart a couple months ago, one of the commenters asked that we get back with him during spring training to see if his opinion of Mills had changed. Here's what he had to say:

Everything you read about Mills’ enthusiasm and energy is true. There is definitely a new atmosphere in camp, and I have to think it’s going to translate onto the field once the season begins. It’s hard to quantify how much difference a manager can make. We’ve yet to see Mills pull strings late in games that count or handles his bullpen, but I have to believe he’s going to make a difference in the W-L columns. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to talent.

Isn't this much better to hear than all the stuff that surrounded Cooper last season?


Walking wounded: No rest for the injury list right now, as the Astros still are missing Michael Bourn, Lance Berkman, Jason Bourgeois, Alberto Arias and Tommy Manzella. Sounds like Yorman Bazardo might be back just in time to be put on waivers, while Manzella, Bourgeois and Bourn all should be back at any time. With three more games on this road trip left, I don't figure we'll see any of them in a spring game until the team is back in Kissimmee on Sunday (if they are able to play by then). Mills said after Wednesday's game that Bourn could be back as early as Friday.

This has been a bad couple weeks for injuries, as we've well chronicled. Interesting question: is there anyone on the team that you have no real injury concerns with? I mean, anyone can get hurt on an awkward slide or a hard-hit ball, but is there anyone who strikes you as less prone to injuries? For instance, I'd think a guy like Hunter Pence is one long fly ball away from crashing into the wall and missing six weeks. Kaz Matsui, on the other hand...


Minoring in PT: Here's an updated list of minor leaguers who have appeared in a spring game so far: Evan Englebrook, Jose Valdez, Fernando Abad, Josh Banks, Henry Villar, Chia-jen Lo, Brian Bogusevic, Chris Johnson, Jason Castro, Edwin Maysonet, TJ Steele, Drew Meyer, Kevin Cash, Alex Romero, Brian Esposito, Lou Santangelo, Koby Clemens, Wladimir Sutil, JB Shuck, Drew Locke, Marco Cabral, Brandon Barnes, Matt Kata, Michael Garciaparra, Mark Ori, Jimmy Van Ostrand, Patrick Urkfitz, David Cook, Daniel Meszaros.

If you haven't seen either of Farmstro's excellent songs he's written this spring about the minor leaguers, here's the first and here's the second. One about The Legend of Jordan Lyles is set to drop Friday. Looking forward to it!