With 2011 here it's time to take a quick peek at some of the topics we'll be discussing this year.
1. Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy
I'll be honest from what I've read and seen, regarding Bagwell's Hall of Fame chances, it's not looking good this year. The steroid era, longevity, and a medium market team are all arguments against his Hall of Fame candidacy. Probably the worst excuse though has been the "I reserve the right for further review at a later time" comment. Really? You obviously cover baseball, you obviously have done it for quite some time, and because of that you have a vote for the most prestigious honor a baseball player can receive. Your telling me you can't find the time to do a full review NOW of a players career. You had FIVE years to do it. You are either lazy or hate baseball, either way it's irresponsible.
Ranting aside there is a good chance Bagwell makes it into the Hall of Fame, eventually. He's gotten support from the likes of Peter Gammons, Richard Justice, Jerry Crasnick, and others. Even those who took the time to really dive into the career of Bagwell have said there is no denying his induction into the Hall of Fame. It would be nice to see him gone in with long time teammate Craig Biggio. But that's selfish, and not befitting someone who exemplified everything that's right about the game of baseball. Regardless of time of an entry he's a first ballot hall of famer in my book.
2. The battle for first base
The Astros went into the offseason looking to upgrade shortstop, left field and the pitching staff. With the exception of left field they appear to of accomplished this with the selection of Clint Barmes, the selection of Aneury Rodriguez from the Rule 5 draft, and even found time to Jeff Keppinger at second base by signing Bill Hall. As for the left field position Ed Wade did a 180, at the Winter Meetings, on trying to acquire a left fielder to platoon with Jason Micheals. Whether it was to give Brett Wallace every opportunity to succeed or Wade couldn't find anyone willing to take a platoon position with the possibility of a bench gig, doesn't really matter.
As for the actual position battle, it's not a position battle in the traditional sense. Barring injury, Carlos Lee will be in the Opening Day lineup and in the field for most of the season, whether it's in the outfield or infield largely depends on Wallace. With Wallace in the infield the offense improves, with Lee in the infield the defense improves. If anything Wallace isn't battling Carlos, he's competing against any left handed hitting outfielder with an invite to Kissimmee.
3. The fifth rotation spot
The next most important position battle will be in the starting rotation, where several names have been thrown out. Pitchers with Major League starting experience include the hyphen Ryan Rowland-Smith, rubber arm Nelson Figueroa, and former Rule 5 draftee Wesley Wright. There's also recent Rule 5 selections Aneury Rodriguez, and Lance Pendleton to go along with bullpen arms Fernando Abad, and Henry Villar. Down on the farm Jordan Lyles, and dare I say Dallas Keuchel, have an outside shot. I know there are other names that have been thrown out, but these seem to be the most promising names.
To the winner a mid April start, the losers an assignment to the bullpen or the minors. The Astros number one prospect Lyles is a hot topic, avoiding starting his Major League service time clock would be wise, but opening the 2011 season as a Major League starter would certainly create some excitement. The lesser known Keuchel (outside of Arkansas) would be making a jump from AA. Both Abad and Villar have Minor League starting experience but have spent a majority of their time in relief. Leaving the two recent rule 5 selections, new free agent addition Rolwand-Smith, Figueroa, and Wright, as the best shots to win a spot in the rotation. Having this kind of depth for the fifth spot of the rotation is a nice luxury to have.
4. The sale of the Astros
The sale of the Astros is probably going to have the biggest impact on the Astros. From the front office, down to the players on the field, the direction the Astros head will largely be determined by the new ownership. More or less money could be poured into the team, or the team could continue on the current plotted course.
Drayton McLane wants 800 million for the team, Forbes in April valued the Astros at 453 million. Seems like quite the gap for negotiations to overcome. However with plans in place for the Rockets and Astros to create their own network, the Astros value jumps to around 600 million. A much smaller gap, but still a gap. And if you believe reports that McLane has taken 20-25 calls regarding the sale of the Astros, we may very well see a name emerge as a potential buyer sometime this new year. Even if a deal doesn't get done in 2011 it'll still be the most closely watched story this season.
5. The return to the pen
Even with the recent subtraction of Matt Lindstrom, the bullpen still looks to be in good shape. Two reasons for this are the returns of Alberto Arias and Sammy Gervacio, who both showed a lot of promise in the 2009 season, but were derailed by injury this past season. Both had issues involving their throwing shoulder so that will be the first obstacle to overcome. The second will be to regain their effectivness, or something close to it.
Near the end of 2009 Gervacio was called up and dazzled us with 25 strikeouts in 21 innings, posting a 2.14 ERA. However 21 innings is a really small amount of data, and before his trip to the Majors there were concerns about his effectiveness against right handed hitters. On the other hand with Alberto Arias, we had a bit more data to chew on. In 42 games Arias went 45.2 innings with a 3.35 ERA. Once he established his effectiveness the urge to overuse him became an issue, and contributed to his trips to the disabled list at the end of 2009 and all of 2010. Not only will they have to fully recovery, but they'll both have to prove what the accomplished was not a fluke.
6. The 2011 Draft
With the emphasis on rebuilding and patience, the MLB Draft is one of the more exciting times for an Astro fan. This season should be no different as the Astros look to continue to improve the farm system further with a fresh crop of draftees. In 2008 it was a catcher, 2009 shortstop, 2010 second baseman. 2011 a center fielder?. One of the building philosophies for a team is to be strong up the middle. Looking at past drafts it appears the Astros are doing just that.
Some mock drafts are indicating that Jackie Bradley Jr. who plays center field for the University of South Carolina is destined to be selected by the Astros. This past season in 242 at bats the left handed hitting Bradley posted a .368/.473/.587 with 13 home runs and 60 runs batted in. he walks more than he strikes out, and he's got a bit of speed with 7 stolen bases in 10 attempts. I'll let Keith Law's scouting video of him explain the rest. Personally I'd be excited for the Astros to select him, but I'm trying to not get my hopes to high. As the Astros have shown in the past they've got their own way of doing things.
7. Chris Johnson
This a topic that's been well analyzed, discussed, and debated here at TCB, can Chris Johnson do what he did last year offensively. Ask anyone of us and we're going to give you a stern "no". The driving statistic behind our argument is his batting average on balls in play which was at an astronomical .387, which is unsustainable over a long period of time. What that means is as his BABiP regresses his hitting statistics across the board will come down a bit from this past season. This is more traditionally referred to as "the sophomore slump".
All is not lost however as his defense should improve, as it usually does with all young players. He also has the potential to sustain a higher than normal BABiP because of his ability to hit line drives at a high rate, it just won't be in the .380 atmosphere. What I'm most looking forward to most though is him proving us along wrong next season, he's shown a knack for doing that kind of thing.
8. The trade deadline
Remember when the Astros never traded? Ya it appears those days are gone. Shortly after being named GM of the Houston Astros in 2007, Wade made his first trade. Since then there has not been an offseason or trade deadline that has passed and the Astros have not made some kind of trade. I'm not going to rehash each and every move, because you can go look it up yourself, but the Astros have made some pretty significant moves in recent years.
The 2011 trade deadline should be no different. If the Astros happen to keep Jeff Keppinger to start the season, look for him to be moved along with the possibility of Wandy Rodriguez As well as any other expendable player that proves to have some value. I also wouldn't look past the Astros possibly moving Hunter Pence. Blasphemy I know, but he turns 28 next season, he's going to start getting expensive, and the Astros do have some interesting outfield options in the Minor Leagues to call up. If this past season is any indication the front office is not opposed to moving a fan favorite.
9. The continued development of prospects
Another year, another batch of prospects, and another batch of busts. This topic is usually one of the more discussed topics here on TCB. It's natural. With the flaws of any Major League team the first place to look for hope is usually the farm system. We've already seen one prospect fly through the system, with another close on his heels.
Will Jordan Lyles make the jump to the Major Leagues. Can Jiovanni Mier rebound from his disappointing season. Is JD Martinez for real. What can Delino Deshield do in his first full professional season. How good is Mike Foltynewicz. Who will step up or fall our own prospect rankings in 2011. A lot of these questions should be answered through out the season, or at least we'll have a better idea of how the farm system is coming along. Either way it should be fun to watch.