Being an Astros fan over the past several years has been difficult enough without the tabloid-esque attitude of the local media who have covered the team. While we have seen a marked improvement in the quality of team coverage from the Houston Chronicle during the 2014 season, one must admit that the bar had been set pretty low. A metaphor for the Chronicle's 2014 coverage would be one such as, say, the improvement from an 111-loss club to a 95-loss club. It's still not good, but trending in the right direction.
But as noted, fan perception has been extremely colored by the web-click-focused opinionating of those professionals who probably are being dictated to act as such by their bosses at the local news rag. Michael Jackson once said, "People write negative things, cause they feel that's what sells. Good news to them, doesn't sell." While it's impossible to know whether the writers at the Chronicle are being pushed into excessive negativity, the proof may be in the pudding.
In the interest of balance, I present, for the first time, a summary of Astros 2014 story lines presented with a forced positive narrative.
Mark Appel promoted to AA despite struggles; has bullpen session with Strom
Yesterday, Astros top pitching prospect Mark Appel was promoted to AA despite posting an ugly 9.74 ERA in 12 starts for the Lancaster Jethawks in the Advanced-A CAL League. On the way to Corpus, he stopped at Minute Maid Park for a quick bullpen session with Astros' pitching coach and effective velocity champion Brent Strom.
The move shows the Astros' acknowledgement that they may have rushed Appel back from his off-season appendectomy and into full-season ball. The advanced technology at Corpus Christi, an affiliate actually owned by a member of the Astros' front office, unlike the Jethawks, should allow them to more quickly and accurately identify the source of Appel's struggles. Likewise, exposing him to their most keen pitching mind for instruction and encouragement shows that the Astros are willing to focus the lion's share of their time, resources, and technology on their most important minor league assets. This shows a club with an eye on the big picture, despite the resultant grumping of a few malcontents over the move.
Jarred Cosart traded to the Marlins for Players and a pick
Yesterday, the Astros traded pitcher Jarred Cosart, INF Kike Hernandez, and OF Austin Wates to the Marlins in exchange for 3B prospect Colin Moran, who was a 5th-overall pick in the same draft that landed them Mark Appel, CF Jake Marisnick, a Top-100 prospect who is MLB-ready and figures to provide elite-level defense, RHP Francis Martes, a flame-throwing IFA who shows the control ability to make him a projectable starter, and the Marlins' compensatory 2015 draft pick - the same type of pick that landed the Astros star college outfielder Derek Fisher in the 2014 draft.
In trading Cosart, the Astros recognized that they have the depth to lose an established young starter without it impacting them at the position in the long term. At AAA Oklahoma City, RHP Nick Tropeano leads the PCL in ERA, followed closely by teammate Rudy Owens. In the AA Texas League, the Astros have a stable of exceptionally-performing pitchers at AA, including Luis Cruz, Jordan Jankowski, David Rollins, and Thomas Shirley. That's not to mention late callups Josh Hader and Mark Appel, as well as Top-100 national prospect Mike Foltynewicz, already in the majors, who all figure to be mainstays in the Astros' pitching corps by early 2016 at the latest.
The Astros pulled off a classic trade-from-depth move and addressed a few glaring weaknesses in the system - a top 3B prospect who may have batting titles in his future and an elite defender with good offensive upside for the outfield, plus a couple of high-ceiling lottery picks. Though Jarred Cosart has the ability to perform at a high level, the Astros were smart to recognize that, to them, he was more valuable as a trade piece than as a rotation pitcher on a sub-.500-record club. This move should help the Astros field a more balanced team as they approach contention over the next couple seasons.
George Springer called up
The Astros made a smart move by delaying top prospect George Springer's major league call-up until mid-April. By doing so, the club adds an additional year of team control to a player who profiles as a possible superstar, delaying expensive free agency by a year. Otherwise, when George Springer would have hit free agency, it projected to be at a time when the Astros are contending for deep playoff runs. The money saved by waiting two weeks to call up Springer in 2014 could be as much as $15 million that can now be spent on an additional player later on. The Astros again show good foresight by making moves in their best long-term interest.
Jon Singleton signed to a 5Y, $10 million contract
Yesterday, the Astros signed Top 1B prospect Jon Singleton to a 5-year, $10 million contract. Inexplicably, a MLBPA that usually ignores the well-being of minor leaguers is outraged, as are a few current major league players. But the contract gives the 21-year-old Singleton financial security for life, and protects him against the very real possibility that he may not be able to reach star-level status in the major leagues. For a troubled lad who recently overcame drug and alcohol addiction problems, foregoing two birds in the bush in favor of the one in the hand appears to be a very smart move.
For the Astros, the risk is $10 million lost on a busted prospect, while the reward is a star-level 1B at discount prices. At this cost, the Astros can afford to give out several such contracts, and even if a few of them bust, it is still a sound financial decision. Both the player and the Astros should be lauded for making a deal that makes sense for them, regardless of what a few overpaid veterans and their representatives think.
Manager Bo Porter Fired
It is always appropriate to feel pity for somebody when they lose their job. But by parting ways with Porter with a month left to go in the 2014 season, the Astros have owned up to an apparent mistake in his hiring in the first placewhile simultaneously giving Porter extra time to land job interviews before any potential competitors are even on the market.
If, as reported, Porter did not see eye-to-eye with GM Jeff Luhnow, the man who has ultimate responsibility for organizational success, and if, as reported, the players in the clubhouse did not respect or appreciate the seemingly-condescending attitude from Porter, then the Astros have made the right move. As usual, the Astros have shown a willingness to take a PR hit if it means keeping all of the rowers stroking in the same direction. This commitment to "the process" is the type of management that makes most corporations extremely successful, while flip-flopping between following a vision and making short-sighted decisions is what relegated such clubs as the Pirates and Royals to obscurity for decades. Fans should be pleased with the consistency of message coming from the Astros top management, all the while sending Bo Porter best wishes for his own future.
AA Manager Keith Bodie Fired
See comment on Bo Porter, above, with the addition that baseball clubs, like any business organization, are most successful when their management team all buys into the same philosophy. If, as Bodie and Luhnow both suggest, there was a difference in philosophy between Bodie and the front office, then it is probably in both parties' best interests to move on. Clubs replace minor league staff all the time. It's a pity for the person, absolutely. But that doesn't make it a bad organizational move, no matter what the local media would have us believe.
Update: Astros elect not to sign Brady Aiken
In the light of a reported MRI showing an unusually small UCL in the arm of #1 overall draft pick Brady Aiken, the Astros have decided that two birds in the bush are better than one broken-winged one in the hand. With the examples of other highly-touted prospects struggling with similar physical issues, such as R.A. Dickey, who only reached the majors at age 34 after completely reinventing himself, the Astros chose to offer Aiken the bare minimum signing bonus that would allow the club to receive a compensatory #2 overall pick in the 2015 draft if Aiken chooses not to sign. The only potential loss is that of 5th-rounder Jacob Nix who they can no longer afford due to his own high bonus demands. That loss, the Astros figure to make up for in the 2015 draft with the extra cash that comes with a bonus pool comprised of potentially two Top-5 draft picks.
In fact, the Astros have taken the only reasonable course of action given historically-proven risks of players with red flags in their elbows. That the Aiken camp became so bitter about the rescinded bonus offer that they turned up their collective nose at a potential $3.2 million to $5 million this season is the only baffling part of this entire story, since with this UCL deformity now well-known, no other club figures to draft Aiken in the Top 10 of future drafts either. Again, by taking the long view, the Astros have set themselves up for the greatest possible reward with minimal risk.
The Astros success in recent trades, remarkable improvements in the minor leagues, and indisputable stride forward by the major league club gives lie to the negative narrative that the local media would have us believe surrounds Minute Maid Park. With a less-jaded and less-antagonistic perspective, it is easy to see that the Astros' #process is working, and that all of the most "controversial" occurrences of the 2014 season may be easily seen in a positive light that will have only good impact on the long-term future of the club.
I encourage TCB readers to present other 2014 Astros headlines with a "forced positive narrative" in the comments section. Despite what a lot of people believe, the world is not "black or white". There are two sides to every story, and most often, the truth lies in the middle. The excessive negativity brought to us from the Chronicle is not reflective of what is actually going on with the Astros these days. Likewise, it's not all sunshine and roses either. But the roses can't grow without the sunshine, and if a few of us apologists can present things with a different perspective, then maybe collectively we all get closer to the truth.