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May 23, 2013

On the Beat

The Optimistic Disastros

by John Perrotto

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Bo Porter is enthusiastic, optimistic, and energetic. Very enthusiastic, optimistic, and energetic. In fact, the first-year Astros manager possesses so much of those three qualities that he believes that his team is not nearly as bad as its record says it is and it won’t be as historically bad as some analysts have predicted.

“It’s a tremendous group of guys in that clubhouse,” Porter said. “It’s a resilient group. They have fun together. They love playing the game. They play hard. We’ve had our share of bumps and bruises, but we have played some good games this season, and we’re going to put a string together where we play a lot of good games. I have a lot of faith in these guys, and they have a lot of faith in themselves.”

It would be easy for Astros to lose the faith, as they are 14-33. At times, they make those predictions of a 120-loss season seem prescient. A prime example came last Friday night: The Astros failed to hold a late 4-1 lead over the Pirates in Pittsburgh and lost the game 5-4 when right fielder Jimmy Paredes allowed the winning run to score with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning when he collided with second baseman Jake Elmore and dropped Russell Martin’s fly ball with the bases loaded.

“It’s tough,” said Paredes, who moved from the infield to the outfield last year. “We have a very young team, and we make some mistakes. No one wants to lose games, but I know we are learning from our mistakes and we’re going to be a better team.”

Second baseman Jose Altuve, the closest thing the Astros have to a franchise player, agrees with Paredes. He sees a bright future to the Astros, as soon as this season.

“I think we’re going to be better as the year goes on,” Altuve said. “A lot of our guys are new to the major leagues, and they’re learning. It may not show in our record, but I see this team getting better every day.”

The Astros are coming off seasons of 106 and 107 losses, so there has already been plenty of character building going on in the organization. However, owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow have decided to tear the Astros to build them back up. The rebuild goes beyond the field, as the Astros are competing in the American League for the first time this season after 51 years in the National League.

“I have complete faith in what we’re doing here,” Porter said. “There have been rough patches, but we’re fully committed to building this into a championship organization. The hardest part is trying to keep everyone’s spirits up when you go through the rough times and being patient with the fact that we’re going to make mistakes because we’re playing so many young players.”

The Astros are spending the season trying to determine which players they might be able to build around. Among those getting extended looks are catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Chris Carter, third baseman Matt Dominguez, shortstop Marwin Gonzalez, left fielder J.D. Martinez, center fielder Robbie Grossman, and Paredes.

“It’s exciting to be part of this,” said Grossman, a Houston native who was one of three prospects acquired from the Pirates last July in a trade for lefthander Wandy Rodriguez. “It would be great for this team to grow together, go through the rough times we’re experiencing, and grow into a championship team together.”

Considering the Astros are on pace to finish this season with a 48-114 record, championships seems a long way off. However, one scout who watches the Astros regularly likes the plan they have in place.

“I’ll say this month, if you told me I had to pick between either the Astros or the Marlins for the long haul, I’d take the Astros. I think the Marlins have a little bit overall talent in their organization, but the Astros are committed to this, and they are not going to waver from it. It’s going to take time and it’s going to take patience, but I like what they’re doing.”

---

Right-hander Matt Garza made a strong return to the Cubs’ rotation on Tuesday night after sitting out for 10 months. He pitched five shutout innings against the Pirates and allowed only one hit.

“It was fun to be out there again,” Garza said. “Hopefully, I can build on this and help the team win some games. The best part of it all is I felt really good physically after it was over and ready to make my next start. I’m not going to have to worry about how I feel when I go out to pitch.”

Garza finished last season on the disabled list with a stress reaction in his elbow and began this season on the DL with a strained left lat muscle. If he hadn’t been injured last July, it is almost certain Garza would have been traded during the offseason in an effort to help the Cubs advance their rebuilding effort. In the final year of his contract and eligible for free agency in November, Garza should at least bring something back this year in a deal at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.

“If he pitches like he did (Tuesday), then a lot of contenders are going to want him,” said a scout who watched Garza’s big-league return. “He could make a big difference for someone if he pitches like that on a consistent basis.”

---

If one team seemed certain to roll through its division, it was the Tigers in the American League Central. PECOTA projected the Tigers to win by 10 games, and everyone else, both human and computer, pegged Detroit as the runaway winner.

The Tigers might be gaining some momentum after a two-game sweep of the Indians that concluded Wednesday night but are still just 25-19—not exactly the record of a powerhouse—and trail the Indians by ½ game in the division standings. One scout who follows the AL Central closely thinks the Tigers had best not wait to turn it on like did last year when they overtook the White Sox in the final two weeks of the season for the division title.

“The Indians are good,” the scout said. “They are not going away, and the Tigers better realize that. I really like this Indians team. The Indians aren’t as talented as the Tigers, but they play with a lot of enthusiasm, and you can see their confidence starting to grow.”

---

Those around the Phillies were always quick to point out that catcher Carlos Ruiz was the team’s unsung hero during its five-year run as National League East champion from 2007-11. Surrounded by a group of superstars, Ruiz quietly pulled his weight offensively and was very adept at working with the pitching staff.

However, Ruiz’s career seems to be going downhill fast. First, he was suspended for the first 25 games of the season by Major League Baseball for testing positive for Adderall. Now, he has landed on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring. It marks the fifth consecutive season the 34-year-old Ruiz has spent time on the DL.

“For me, he’s the ideal No. 2 catcher now,” said a scout who covers the Phillies. “He just can’t handle the workload of a No. 1, and his skills are starting to slip. That being said, he’d still be a good guy to have around to break in a young catcher.”

That situation could arise in 2014, if the Phillies determine catching prospect Tommy Joseph is ready for the major leagues. In fact, a timeshare arrangement might make perfect sense for a team that could be transitioning into a bit of a youth movement.

---

Scouts’ takes:

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera: “He is throwing the ball better than he ever has. It’s hard to believe he’s 43 years old. He could pitch for at least another five years if he wanted to.”

Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer: “He’s starting to become more pitch-efficient, and that’s the last piece of the puzzle for him. His stuff is great, and he’s learned how to harness it. Now, he’s getting deep into games.

Rays closer Fernando Rodney: “I can’t help but wonder if the WBC took something out of him. He pitched in some very stressful situations at a time of the year when guys aren’t used to being in those situations.”

Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss: “I know every hitting coach preaches using all fields and hitting the ball up the middle. That approach doesn’t work for every hitter, though, and Oakland has been smart enough to let Moss be a pull hitter. He’s not going to hit for a high average, but it’s allowed him to reach his power potential.”

Rockies right-hander Jon Garland: “He battles hard, but there isn’t much there anymore. All those innings and the arm problems have taken their toll.”

Diamondbacks left-hander Patrick Corbin: “He has such a great understanding of pitching for a 23-year-old kid. He doesn’t try to overthrow because he knows that’s not his game. He locates his pitches and doesn’t give in.”

Blue Jays right-hander Ramon Ortiz: “He has no business being in the big leagues. None.”

Angels left fielder Mike Trout: “He’s swinging the bat like he did last year. He’s in that groove now where there’s no set way to get him out other than to hope he hits the ball at someone.”

Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto: “I don’t think people understand how much the Reds need this guy. They have a good pitching staff, but he’s their No. 1. You don’t lose a No. 1 starter and not feel it.”

Padres utility player Alexi Amarista: “He’s really remarkable. He’s not even as big as Jose Altuve, but he’ll pop a ball out of the park if you’re not careful. He’s just a real pest. He always seems to be in the middle of something.”

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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