Houston and the New York Mets are both celebrating their 50th anniversaries this season. So, the upcoming home series against the Mets is a sort of anniversar...wait, I'm stopping myself right there. As we did last week, here's a preview of the upcoming series with Amazin' Avenue's Steve Schreiber, who was gracious enough to answer some questions about his club. Go check out the site over there and be amazed...
TCB: One of the biggest perks of the Astros sale for fans who are sabermetrically inclined is the hiring of Jeff Luhnow, who is very stat-friendly. Having your own brain trust of well-respected analytical baseball minds after Sandy Alderson was hired must be nice. How have you seen that influence affect the club? Has there been any change in how the minor leagues/draft has been handled by the new administration?
Steve Schreiber: It may sound simple but the way that this regime has exhibited that influence is just through the application of sane and rational decision-making. Under previous regimes, we came to expect head scratching moves, whether it be trading an established catcher in Ramon Castro because journeyman Omir Santos hit decently for a week or calling up Jenrry Mejia well before he was ready or burying Angel Pagan behind a washed up Gary Matthews Jr., for example. With this regime, the moves they make seem to make sense. They have a reason behind them and a plan and that's really comforting to the fanbase. They're not going to rush a Matt Harvey or a Jeurys Familia when Mike Pelfrey gets hurt. They're not going to acquire out-machines like Jeff Francoeur because they want guys who get on base and have a plan at the plate.
Some of the biggest changes have come on the minor league/draft side, actually. Under the Minaya regime, the Mets typically rushed their prospects, especially the international free agents. Just take a look at Fernando Martinez's or Ruben Tejada's minor league page at Baseball Reference to see how quickly they pushed those guys up the ladder. The Alderson regime slowed the entire system down and they've made sure that guys conquer the level they're at before they promote them, which is a very welcome change. In terms of the draft, the previous regime often went the "safe" college route, while only rarely going over the commissioner's slot regulations. Last year, their first two picks were high ceiling high schoolers (CF Brandon Nimmo and RHP Michael Fulmer) who they paid well over slot and they ended up spending a franchise record on signing bonuses. We're only one draft in but Paul DePodesta has stated a number of times that they plan to be aggressive in the draft and so far, they've lived up to that.
TCB: One of the biggest stories in the offseason was where Jose Reyes would sign. That couldn't have been easy for Mets fans, but with the way the big-money contracts to guys like Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran have gone, was there a relief that Reyes didn't get paid by the Mets? How has the team replaced his production?
SS: Anytime you lose a homegrown franchise player, it's tough and Jose Reyes was certainly that to this team for years. Losing him to a division rival only made it hurt more. At the same time, there's certainly some trepidation when it comes to big money deals, especially for a guy like Reyes who derives so much value out of his legs and has had a number of leg injuries. I don't want to say that it's a relief that Reyes didn't re-sign to a big contract because I would've loved to have him on the team, see him win a World Series with the Mets and have #7 retired on the left field wall along with #5 at some point in the future. But I think that there's a good shot that letting him go will look better in a few years as Reyes ages and the core of players on this team develops and improves. Of course, there's a wide range of opinions on this topic among the fanbase and I can't speak for everybody. I'll admit that I was on the fence most of the offseason and often stood on both sides of the argument and I've come to accept it for what it is.
Reyes' production is certainly not easy to replace, especially if you're talking about his 2011 level of production (not to mention they're also replacing Carlos Beltran's excellent first half, too). Ruben Tejada has replaced Reyes at shortstop and has done a fine job early on. Tejada does a lot of things well offensively and defensively. He isn't flashy like Reyes but he walks, makes contact and makes all of the plays on the infield. At 22, you imagine that there's still some offensive growth in there, which is kind of exciting. Beyond Tejada, the offensive improvements likely come from the return of Ike Davis who missed most of last season, a full season of Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy, a return to prominence (and health) for David Wright and incremental improvements from Josh Thole and others. It's a lineup that doesn't really have any holes, which makes it more competitive than you'd think just by looking at it.
TCB: Though he never actually played for the team, Johan Santana will always be remembered by Astros fans for getting plucked out of their system in the Rule 5 draft before blossoming into a star. How has his comeback gone so far? Is there hope he can sustain the level of success he's flashed to begin the season?
SS: Santana's been great in three of his four starts so far, blowing past the very low expectations most Mets fans had for him coming into the year. His most recent start was easily his best, as he struck out 11 Marlins. He's lost about one MPH compared to his average fastball velocity from 2010 but Santana's always depended on his changeup to fool hitters and it's been sharp early on. I think there's plenty of hope that he can sustain this success and looking into the numbers, it doesn't really seem fluky, other than the fact that you expect him to allow a home run at some point. The issue will be whether his shoulder can handle the workload and stay healthy. Santana throws on Sunday against the Rockies and it'll be his first start on regular rest. That'll be a big test for him.
TCB: Looking at the probable pitchers for the upcoming series, Astros fans are much too familiar with the likes of R.A. Dickey and Jonathan Niese. Those two have shut the Astros down quite a few times in the past, but can you fill us in on Chris Schwinden? Is he starting in Mike Pelfrey's spot and is he a long-term answer there for the rest of the season?
SS: If I had to guess, I'd say Schwinden is likely not a long-term answer in the rotation if they want to win some games. He's a nice story, as he was a 22nd rounder out of Fresno Pacific University back in '08 and really pitched well at AAA in 2011 after starting the season as an afterthought in the AA Binghamton bullpen. His stuff is pedestrian, though, as he averages around 89 with his fastball and mostly relies on command to get guys out. With Mike Pelfrey done for the season, the issue is that the Mets may be forced to rely on him since there's really nobody else who's ready to pitch, aside from Jeremy Hefner and the ancient Miguel Batista. Harvey and Familia are two of the team's top prospects, along with Zack Wheeler at AA but they all need some more time to develop in the minors. The only other pitchers who may have a shot to steal Schwinden's job are the aforementioned Jenrry Mejia and veteran righty Chris Young, both of whom are currently rehabbing from surgeries and may be ready in the next month or so. Beyond them, you're getting to AAAA guys like Garrett Olson and Chuck James. With the team's money issues last offseason, unfortunately it was the depth that was sacrificed.
TCB: Many, many Astros fans are clamoring for Houston to cut bait with right fielder Brian Bogusevic in favor of former Mets prospect Francisco Martinez. What can you tell us about him and should Houston fans be getting excited about him raking at Triple-A?
SS: Many Mets fans became frustrated with Martinez because he was sort of like the ultimate tease. First off, as noted above, the Mets rushed him through the low minors, getting him to High A ball at 17 and Double A at 18. We all heard about his hitting talents but whenever he began to show them off, he'd seem to almost immediately get injured, to the point where his injuries became sort of a running joke. This is a guy who's reached 400 plate appearances once in his 7 seasons in the minors and never once exceeded that number. Between the rush job and the injuries, his development was stunted a bit, his plate discipline never really fully developed and all of the leg injuries sapped him of any speed in the outfield. Of course, he's still pretty young and he can still hit for power, so he's got a chance to turn into a useful big leaguer. But it'd be a bit of a miracle if he stayed healthy all season (and some bad luck for the Mets in that case). I'd say be excited, since he was acquired for nothing but be cautious because he does get hurt often and if history is a guide, he will at some point this year. I may just be bitter, though!
Again, big thanks to Steve for answering some questions. Check out his work and all those talented Mets writers at Amazin' Avenue.