- Jake Kaplan of The Athletic explores the manner in which the Astros will manage the workload of top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley (subscription required). The highly touted righty totaled just 52 1/3 innings between the regular season and the AFL last year, owing to a 50-game drug suspension and a pair of injuries, so Houston will monitor his pitch and inning counts closely. Thus far, Whitley has been limited to five innings or 80 pitches per appearance. Houston opted to have him take the final turn in what is a six-day rotation consisting of three solo starters and three tandem pairings (one including the pairing of Whitley and Cy Sneed). While the organization has a rough idea of where they’d like Whitley’s innings count to land, president of baseball ops Jeff Luhnow suggested that it’s a context-dependent guideline rather than a hard cap. It’s plausible that he could debut as either a starter or reliever, depending on team needs. In general, Houston’s at times unorthodox approach to player development makes for a fascinating read, and that’s all the more true when the focus is placed on arguably the game’s top pitching prospect.
Ever-seeking new ways to expand their depth, the Astros recently approached outfield prospect Myles Straw about taking some groundballs at shortstop, per The Athletic’s Jake Kaplan. Straw was understandably surprised at first, even skeptical, but lo and behold, he has evenly split his time between center and short through ten games at Triple-A Round Rock. Straw, 24, ranks as the #16 prospect in Houston’s system per MLB.com, #17 per Fangraphs. Outfield depth in Triple-A and the Astros’ past success with utility players like Marwin Gonzalez and Yuli Gurriel may be driving the Straw experiment, but it’s a win-win for team and player, as it behooves both sides to maximize Straw’s chances of making an impact at the big league level. Even though Straw is already arguably their best defensive outfield prospect, diversifying his defensive profile will certainly increase his odds of finding a permanent role on a major league roster, should the experiment prove fruitful. More from the AL West…
- Josh James has stumbled out the gate this season, but he’s focused on repeating his delivery and finding a consistent rhythm from which to pump his 100+ mph fastball into the zone, per Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle. The 26-year-old flame-throwing righty has surrendered seven earned runs in only eight innings of work through six appearances out of the Houston pen (7.88 ERA). Wildness has been an issue (6.8 BB/9) as has the long ball (3 HR allowed, 3.4 HR/9) – but gaudy strikeout numbers are also par for the course for James (12.4 K/9). The K-rate provides some statistical backing to James’ hopes that more consistent mechanics could fix his control issues and unlock some real potential – he clearly has the stuff to stick the landing in the pros. A strained right quad injury shortened his Spring Training, which time and again has proved complicating for pitchers trying to find their sea legs, so to speak, early in a new campaign.
- On a similar note, A’s top prospect Jesus Luzardo will need to essentially go through an entire Spring Training period of his own if/when he starts throwing, per the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser. Luzardo was shut down on March 21st because of a sore left shoulder, and he has yet to resume throwing, though he could do so any day now. A’s manager Bob Melvin reports that Luzardo “feels absolutely fantastic” and “wants to throw,” but it’s unlikely he sees the major leagues before at least mid-season. Given his youth and potential, Oakland will no doubt track him carefully as he builds back shoulder strength for the stretch run.
There’s no defined timetable for when Alex Bregman will return to the Astros’ lineup, though the star third baseman tells Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle (Twitter link) that an MRI of his ailing right hamstring didn’t reveal anything similar to the 2016 issue that cost him a few weeks of the season. For the time being, Bregman is simply considered day to day, and there’s yet to be any indication that a trip to the injured list is a particular concern for him or the team.
- Jake Kaplan of The Athletic takes a look at the changes Robinson Chirinos has made to his game since signing with the Astros (subscription required). Chirinos details the drills he worked on throughout Spring Training to change his setup behind the plate as well as the slight alteration to his throwing motion — made at the behest of pitching coach Brent Strom after noticing a mechanical flaw. The season is still extraordinarily young, but Chirinos has drawn slightly positive marks in pitch framing, per both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, after ranking as one of the game’s worst in that regard for much of his career. He’s also halted two of the seven stolen-base attempts against him thus far after catching just 10 percent of thieves in 2018. Only time will tell if the changes yield quantifiable improvements, but that’ll be an interesting thread for both Astros and Rangers fans to follow over the course of the season.
- With a series of off-days on the horizon, the Astros will move Brad Peacock to the bullpen for the next couple of weeks, writes Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. Houston has been operating with a shorter bullpen than usual in order to carry two out-of-options players on its bench in Tony Kemp and Tyler White. Whether that arrangement proves sustainable over the course of the entire season remains to be seen, as manager A.J. Hinch even spoke of distinctly noticing a difference in carrying a 12-man pitching staff as opposed to a 13-man pitching staff in the early stages of the 2019 season.
Every team has regrets about giving up on a player who breaks out elsewhere, though in the Astros’ case, it’s a bit tougher to watch since Ramon Laureano is blossoming for a division rival, Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle writes. Laureano (a 16th-round pick for the Astros in 2014) showed some flashes of potential over his first four pro seasons, though it wasn’t enough to make him part of Houston’s long-term plans, especially considering the organization’s outfield depth. “We loved him, it wasn’t a lack of affection for him, it was just that we ran out of a lot of opportunity for him,” manager A.J. Hinch said. Rather than protect Laureano in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, the Astros instead dealt the outfielder to the Athletics in November 2017 for minor league righty Brandon Bailey.
After hitting well for Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate, Laureano got the call to the big leagues last August and hasn’t looked back. He has become the Athletics’ everyday center fielder thanks to both a potent bat (.284/.344/.469 over 215 career PA) and some excellent defense, including earning the nickname of “Laser Ramon” thanks to his powerful throwing arm. “I don’t think we quite had the defense rated as well as its played in the big leagues,” Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said. “That was an underassessment on our part….We had a feeling (Laureano) was going to be a pretty good big league player, but he’s gotten off to a faster start in his career than we thought. So, yeah, he’s one that I’d love to have back.”
- Astros shortstop Carlos Correa is likely to make his season debut Sunday, Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle suggests. Correa suffered a neck strain a week ago, which has left short to the error-prone Aledmys Diaz and elite third baseman Alex Bregman so far this season. Upon his return, the 24-year-old Correa will aim to rebound from a surprisingly pedestrian 2018 campaign, his second straight injury-limited season.
Major League Baseball hosts an annual symposium on arbitration wherein delegates from each team come together with the league to make recommendations for upcoming arbitration hearings. There is a ceremony near the end of the symposium when a “championship belt” is awarded to the team that best accomplished the “goals set by the industry,” per The Athletic’s Marc Carig. Passed annually from one year’s winner to the next, The Belt is a chintzy, plastic “prize,” intended as a moment of levity and morale for what can be a difficult process on all sides. In this thoughtful article, Carig digs into the arbitration process, its history, the toll it takes on those involved, and of course, The Belt.
Clearly, given the tumultuous relationship between Major League Baseball, the owners, and the Players’ Association, the optics here aren’t great. However harmless the intent (or however private), an award for essentially best limiting the earning potential for players is not likely to sit well with the MLBPA – or the public for that matter. MLB confirmed existence of The Belt, explaining it as “an informal recognition of those club’s salary arbitration departments that did the best.” This season, the finalists were the Astros, Braves, Cubs, Indians, Rays, and Twins.
Executive Director of the MLBPA Tony Clark reacted with a statement (via Twitter), saying, “That clubs make sport of trying to suppress salaries in a process designed to produce fair settlements shows a blatant lack of respect for our Players, the game, and the arbitration process itself.”
Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw may not be all that far from returning to the MLB mound, but he has a few more steps to take. As Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register reports on Twitter, the star hurler could soon be cleared for a minor-league rehab assignment — if he’s able to complete a live BP session tomorrow without incident. Supposing things go well and Kershaw is ready to resume competitive action next week, he’ll still need to build up his pitch count before returning to the Dodgers roster. It’s not yet clear how many rehab starts he’d need before being activated.
More health notes from around the game …
- The Tigers announced Friday that pitching prospect Franklin Perez will miss the first four to six weeks of the season due to tendinitis in his right shoulder. He’ll rehab at the team’s spring facility in Lakeland, Fla. for the time being. The shoulder tendinitis is the latest health-related setback for 21-year-old, who also missed most of the 2018 campaign with lat and shoulder issues. Perez, who threw just 19 1/3 innings last seasons, was one of the key pieces Detroit received from the Astros in the 2017 blockbuster that sent Justin Verlander to Houston. Considered at the time of that deal to be one of baseball’s premier minor league arms, Perez has seen his prospect star dim as injuries have prevented him from taking the hill. Fortunately for the Tigers, he’s still quite young and has ample time to develop, but the ongoing arm issues are a troubling trend.
- There’s an even tougher diagnosis for Marlins prospect Osiris Johnson, as Wells Dusenbery of the Sun Sentinel reports on Twitter. The youngster appears to be sidelined for all of the 2019 season after undergoing surgery for a right tibial stress fracture. Taken in the second round of last year’s draft, the shortstop is considered a high-risk, high-upside talent. He turned in good results at the Rookie level but stumbled in a late promotion to the Class A level. This was to be an important year of development for Johnson, who only turned 18 last October.
SUNDAY: Houston has announced the extension.
SATURDAY: The Astros have reached an agreement with right-hander Justin Verlander on a two-year, $66MM extension, Mark Berman of FOX 26 Houston reports. The deal will keep Verlander, a client of ISE Baseball, in Houston through the 2021 season.
It has been a remarkable few seasons for Verlander, who’s set to complete the final season of a five-year, $140MM extension signed prior to the ’13 campaign. Lagging velocity and some health issues led to messy 2014 and 2015 seasons, but Verlander recovered admirably, finishing out his Tigers tenure in good form before being shipped to the ’Stros.
Verlander has now reached his 36th birthday, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he pitched last year. Over 214 frames, he worked to a 2.52 ERA with 12.2 K/9 against just 1.6 BB/9. And it wasn’t just the work of a crafty veteran who somehow managed to squeeze out one last good season from what was left of his stuff. Verlander averaged over 95 mph with his dominating fastball and jumped to a 14.5% swinging-strike rate — easily the highest mark of his storied career.
There’s an argument to be made that Verlander was never better than in 2018. He didn’t tally the same volume of great innings that he did in the vintage seasons of his youth, but Verlander’s insane 30.4% K%-BB% was nearly twice his career average. That level of unadulterated dominance is typically reserved for elite late-inning relievers who mostly unleash their arsenal in one-inning bursts. Statcast actually felt that Verlander was unlucky to permit opposing batters a paltry .260 wOBA. The contact they made against him was so weak that the advanced system credited those hitters with a .236 xwOBA.
Locking up Verlander – the third in a series of late-spring Astros extensions – brings at least some degree of clarity to a future rotation mix that seemed hazy at best. With both Verlander and Gerrit Cole set to hit the market after the upcoming campaign, and emerging frontliner Lance McCullers Jr. on the shelf until at least Opening Day 2020, Houston’s level of concern vis-á-vis the top end of the rotation had reached urgent heights. Collin McHugh was lassoed back from the bullpen, but none of the club’s glut of emerging arms – Cionel Perez, Framber Valdez, Josh James, Forrest Whitley, Corbin Martin, and J.B. Bukauskas among them – would likely be prepared to lead a staff in the upcoming seasons, especially one with designs on another AL crown.
The club still has more to work to do, of course (old friend Dallas Keuchel is still out there), but with just $108MM on the 2020 books even with the extensions divvied to Verlander, Alex Bregman, and Ryan Pressly, there should be plenty of room with which to maneuver. A Cole deal seems further off, and riskier still given his third-starter track record in the two seasons prior to ’18, but the club’s tech-blazed path to improvement with so many of its hurlers, centered on bolstering spin rates with pitches both fast and slow, should certainly be a mark in its favor. Houston, under Jeff Luhnow, has always been loath to part from the cream of its crop, so a high-profile trade for a top-end arm wouldn’t seem to be in the cards.
Regardless, with ace now in tow, the Astros have widened their window considerably. In addition to Cole, only George Springer, among the team’s stars, is set to hit the open market between now and when Verlander’s contract expires at the end of 2021, and the team has its floodgates set wide open in hopes that another homegrown star or two will wash ashore.
MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand was the first to report the two sides were “moving toward” an extension (via Twitter). Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was first with the proposed figures (Twitter link). Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- The Reds have sent right-hander Anthony Bass to minor league camp, according to Mark Sheldon of MLB.com. Bass had been competing for a bullpen spot with the Reds after they signed him to a minors deal in December. He owns a 4.51 ERA/4.20 FIP with 6.07 K/9 and 3.31 BB/9 and a 47.9 percent groundball rate in a combined 299 1/3 innings with the Padres, Astros, Rangers and Cubs.
- The Marlins are “expected” to retain Rule 5 pick Riley Ferrell, Joe Frisaro of MLB.com reports. The club took the right-hander fourth overall from the Astros in December, and he has since pitched well over 6 2/3 spring innings (two earned runs allowed on five hits and five walks, with 10 strikeouts). Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs regard the 25-year-old Ferrell as “at least a big league-ready middle reliever with a chance to be a set-up man.”