Astros Hire New GM

The Astros announced during a 3 PM CDT conference from Minute Maid Park that they have hired former Phillies GM Ed Wade as the new GM.  Wade, along with Ruben Amaro, Jr. and 9 other candidates interviewed for the job after Tim Purpura was fired.

Wade had most recently worked as a scout for the San Diego Padres, handling the Eastern US and International scouting.  Prior to that, Wade had spent 16 years with the Phillies.  He served as Asst GM from 1990 to 1998 when he was hired as the GM.  The Phillies fired Wade after they failed to reach the playoffs for the 8th straight year in 2005 and attendance had dipped by more than 600,000. 

Wade started his baseball career with the Phillies as a media relations intern.  He then served as the media relations director with the Astros and Pirates and worked for Astros President for Baseball Operations Tal Smith in his consulting firm before returning to the Phillies as the Assistant General Manager. 

Astros fans are not very thrilled at this hire as they have heard the reports from Philadelphia about Wade.  The Houston media is taking more of a wait and see attitude as they point out the good and bad of Wade’s tenure as the Phillies GM. 

Wade was the man who gave huge contracts that became an albatross to Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell.  He also traded away Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen and couldn’t keep Billy Wagner.

Wade was also responsible as GM for drafting and signing players like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Brett Myers, Cole Hammels and picking up Shane Victorino as a Rule V draftee and is generally credited for reorganizing and building up the Phillies farm system.

Tal Smith is going to be taking a more active role in the day to day baseball operations from now on, possibly as a conciliatory sign to the fans.  It does mean that Drayton McLane who trusts Tal Smith implicitly will be less involved in the day to day running of the club and hopefully will be less involved with the free agent and draft signings, letting guys with more baseball knowledge do their jobs.

I am sure Ed Wade is well aware that he needs to perform well in this off season as the Astros struggle to get out of last place in the NL Central.  The Houston media and fans are all watching him and many are waiting for him to fall flat on his face just like Tim Purpura did.  Hopefully with Smith guiding him, Wade will make good, sound baseball deals and Tal will be able to convince Drayton McLane to open up his wallet if he really believes his mantra of "What have you done to be a Champion today?"

Astros Make Major Moves

The Astros held a press conference at 2 PM at Minute Maid Park to announce the firing of General Manager Tim Purpura and Manager Phil Garner. 

Owner Drayton McLane cited a need for change as one of the reasons for the firings.  “I just felt it was time for a change,” McLane said. “Our goal and objective is to be a champion, and I just feel we needed a fresh start.”

Failing to advance to the post season in 2006 and 2007 is another reason.  “We have not done what we would have done in the last two years, and I felt we needed to put more invigoration and enthusiasm into the organization”

The move to replace Tim Purpura might have been precipitated by the loud boos he got from the fans at Minute Maid Park as he was introduced yesterday for Bagwell’s jersey retirement ceremony.  Purpura had also been booed 2 weeks ago at Biggio’s 3000 hits appreciation day. 

Although Tim Purpura was the GM of the NL Pennant winning team in 2005, it is generally accepted that the team that went to the World Series was largely built by previous GM Gerry Hunsicker.  Among the bad moves Purpura made in his tenure as GM are the trades for Jason Jennings (giving up 2 young starting pitchers and the club’s starting CF’er), and Aubrey Huff (who left via free agency after 3 months as an Astro), failure to sign Andy Pettitte and therefore Roger Clemens, which led to the disastrous trade for Jennings, signing an aging Woody Williams for 2 years, signing bench player Orlando Palmeiro for 2 years, not signing the top 2 draft picks of 2007.  Hanging on to non-performers like Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg added to the Astros woes.  It will be interesting to see what the new GM does with Adam Everett and Chris Burke in the off season.

Phil Garner who took over for the fired Jimy Williams at the 2004 All Star Break and managed the team to its first ever NLCS in 04 and World Series in 05 may have been a victim of Purpura’s blunders as GM.  Although Phil did make some moves that had many scratching their heads, he was mostly trying to squeeze juice out of plastic oranges. 

Tal Smith, the club’s president will be the interim GM and bench coach Cecil Cooper will take over for Phil Garner for the rest of the season.  Depending on how he does for the next 31 games, Cecil Cooper will have a chance to be the new manager in 2008. 

Smith and McLane will start interviewing candidates for GM as soon as possible and have said they will be asking other clubs for permission to talk to possible candidates.

A Winning Road Trip

The Astros entered the Left Coast road trip full of question marks.  Could they be the team that swept the Cubs or would they be the team that let the Brewers steal 2 games from them? 

Right after a disappointing homestand where the Astros gave away 2 games to the Brew Crew, the Astros started a very tough road series to the West Coast, 4 against the Dodgers and 3 against the Padres.  Things were looking good in LA when the Astros took the first two games of the series behind stellar pitching from Roy Oswalt and Matt Albers, but, the road woes for the Astros continued as Jason Jennings and Wandy Rodriguez gave away the last two games to the Dodgers.

As the Astros drove down south to San Diego, things on paper weren’t looking good.  Woody Williams of the 5+ ERA was going to be facing the Padres ace Jake Peavy, and Morgan Ensberg was going to be in the lineup, just waiting to light up his former team.

Surprisingly, Williams pitched an outstanding game and Lance Berkman decided he was going to carry his team on his back Friday night.  The final score was Lance Berkman 3, San Diego Padres 1, as Berkman hit 2 homeruns and drove in all 3 of the Astros runs.

Saturday was more or less a given Astros win with Roy Oswalt facing Justin Germano.  It started out as predicted with the Stros scoring 3 runs on Germano and Oswalt being his dominant self.  However, in the top of the 5th inning, Roy O was having some problems and ended up leaving the game after 4 2/3rds innings pitched.  It was obvious that the pain he was suffering was not going to let him finish the 5th to qualify for the win even though Roy tried to wince his way through it. 

Luckily for the Astros, the bullpen did Roy O proud.  Dave Borkowski, Chad Qualls and Brad Lidge combined for 4 and 1/3 scoreless innings to secure the Astros first road winning record in quite some time.

Carlos Lee also suffered an injury in this game and hopefully both Roy and Carlos will be ready to go as soon as possible.  If the Astros are to make a stretch run for the playoffs, they can’t do it without these two men healthy.

On the DL front:  Astros have sent Hunter Pence on a 3 game rehab stint to AAA Round Rock.  Chris Sampson is ready to start a rehab stint in AAA and Brandon Backe has for the most part done fantastic in his 4 of 6 rehab stints for Round Rock.

Pence should be in the Astros lineup on Tuesday barring unforeseen complications.  Sampson and Backe should be in the starting rotation no later than the 1st week of September.  It will be interesting to see if the Astros put Jason Jennings on the DL once the rosters expand on 1 September as both Backe and Sampson are due back then.

Things in the NL Central are getting exciting as the race tightens up and the Astros try to get right into the thick of the race, having had a winning road trip and looking forward to facing the Nationals, Pirates and Cardinals on their 10 game homestand.

Mostly Quiet Trading Deadline for the Astros

The non-waiver trade deadline passed with relative silence for the Astros.  There was no trade for Lamb, Loretta or Lidge although Loretta to the Mariners was rumored until just about the last minute.  Only thing they managed to do was dump Ensberg and some cash on to the Padres for a player to be named later or cash back. 

I wish Morgan Ensberg the best.  He has to be happy he’s going home to Southern California and to a contender to boot.  Morgan has always been a classy guy and I’ve always respected him as a person.  His parting words to the Astros fans in Houston yesterday included phrases like "Hello to Astros fans from the unemployment line." and "If you would like a player who looks at too many pitches and only swings when one is right in the heart of the strike zone, please give me a call."

At least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.  I’m sure a change of scenery will do wonders for Ensberg.  Good luck Morgan with your new team.  Hope you do great in the playoffs, unless of course, by some miracle the Astros end up facing you.

Trading a W for a W

The Astros traded reliever and setup man extraordinaire Dan "Wheels" Wheeler to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for infielder Ty "Wiggy" Wigginton on Saturday.  The move was lamented by fans on both sides as the Astros fans saw the loss of one of the best setup men in the National League and the Tampa fans bade farewell to a fan favorite. 

To make room for Wigginton, the Astros designated Morgan Ensberg for assignment.  They have 10 days to trade him or he becomes a free agent with the Astros paying his $4.25 million salary.  They have said they will not ask him to be reassinged to AAA Round Rock.  In a corresponding move to Ensberg’s DFA, the Astros recalled lefty reliever Mark McLemore from AAA Round Rock on Sunday.

Wigginton is an upgrade over the 2007 version of Morgan Ensberg, but he isn’t a good defensive player at the hot corner.  He is an utility infielder who split time at 2nd and 3rd this year for the Devil Rays.  Wigginton’s defense at 2nd base is better and he may be an insurance policy for the Astros should Burke fail miserably at the position next year and they cannot re-sign Mark Loretta.

The move to trade for Wiggy leaves question marks regarding the future of both Mike Lamb and Mark Loretta who are free agents after this season.  Optimally, the Astros would be able to re-sign both Lamb and Loretta.  Lamb is fabulous off the bench but given everyday playing time, he tends to go into slumps.  His defense is about the same as Wigginton’s, so defensively, there’s no upgrade at the position.  Offensively, Lamb in his platoon role has better numbers; however, his numbers against left-handed pitching aren’t good.  Wigginton, on the other hand, has hit equally well against left-handed and right-handed pitching.

Losing Wheeler is more of an immediate issue because the Astros lost a good setup man.  This deal makes sense for the long term if the Astros aren’t done dealing yet and they go out and get a starter for either Mark Loretta or Mike Lamb.  The only other way this deal makes any sense is if they are going to put Brandon Backe in the bullpen for the rest of the year and next year put Fernando Nieve as a setup guy.  Nieve was the closer for the Round Rock Express before having season-ending Tommy John surgery.  Backe did say on Sunday that he is almost back to normal and is feeling really good.  He was in uniform tossing balls in the Astros outfield Sunday. 

Wigginton is said to be a "lunch pail", hard-nosed, "charlie hustle" type of player in the mold of a Craig Biggio.  Hopefully he will live up to the reputation he has garnered in Tampa Bay and be a contributor and fan favorite in Houston.  If he does, the Astros will have done well.  However, he will have to live up to the lofty expectations of Astros fans who are used to seeing their team go to the playoffs more years than not.  Giving up Wheeler for Wigginton has not set well with many Astros fans particularly disappointed with the Jason Jennings trade. 

So welcome to Houston Ty Wigginton.  Hopefully you will have a great career here.

My Rant

I posted this on Saturday on Jose de Jesus Ortiz’ blog at Chron.com because I am sick and tired of people who feel that A-Rod is going to come to Houston just because the fans want him to or a great free agent pitcher is miraculously going to appear to save the Astros’ day if Uncle Drayton just dangles enough dollar bills in front of him. 

I am also sick and tired of people thinking Drayton McLane is cheap and Mark Cuban should buy the Astros.  On Purpura, I tend to go with the general sentiment that he is too close to the players and gives them more chances than they deserve *cough* Jason Lane *cough cough* Morgan Ensberg.  But, I am also sick and tired of the people who are clamoring for the return of Gerry Hunsicker like he was some sort of a God while he was the Astros GM. 

Yes the following is my rant, but, it’s my blog and I can rant if I want to!

I have a question for all the people who want McLane to sell the team or stay out of the clubhouse or wish that we had Hunsicker back:

Did you like John McMullen as owner? Did you appreciate his telling Nolan Ryan he was not worth $1 million and that he was washed up? Do you want to go back to those days when the Astros were worse than the Pirates or Royals are now?

Regarding Hunsicker, he left in 2004. Have you thought about WHY the Astros farm system is in shambles right now? It’s because he stripped it for rentals like Beltran and Randy Johnson. He also made many bad trades and acquisitions like Dan Miceli, John Franco, Jay Powell, Pedro Astacio, etc. He also gave away Kenny Lofton, Freddy Garcia, Johann Santana, Curt Schilling, Bobby Abreu, told Clemens he wasn’t welcome as an Astro in 1997, and above all, let’s all ask the question why is Hunsicker not a GM at Tampa Bay (he’s an asst there) or any other place yet? Is it because other teams know that he’s not that good?

How soon we forget how bad the Astros were in the late 80s and early 90s until McLane bought the team.

For those of you who want Cuban here, why hasn’t he bought the team that’s even closer to his house, the Rangers? Arguably the Rangers owner Tom Hicks is even worse of an owner than McLane is and their ticket prices are much steeper than ours are.

I’m not happy with the way the team and management have performed this year, but thinking the grass is greener on the other side is not a smart way of thinking. I do think changes should be made with this team for next year and for future years.

Purpura needs to get over his sentimentality with "his" players like Ensberg, Lane, Lidge, Burke, etc. If guys don’t perform, they should be cut or traded. I don’t think 2 years is good enough of a track record to judge Purpura with yet. I’d give him one more year. Same for Garner.

This off season the Astros should be shopping for a starting short stop, 3rd baseman and catcher. The pitching can be upgraded too, but if Zambrano re-signs with the Cubs, good pitching will be hard to find and Jennings may be your only option.

I am a bit ambiguous regarding free agents they can sign this off season and if there are not any major acquisitions, I’d like to see Patton and Towles up.

Starting Rotation:

Oswalt
Patton
Backe
Sampson
Williams

Opening Day Lineup

Burke 2B
Pence CF
Berkman 1B
Lee LF
Scott RF
Lamb/FREE AGENT 3B
Towles C
NEW SHORT STOP
Pitcher

The bullpen really just needs a little bit of tweaking to be honest. Overall, Lidge, Wheeler, Qualls are still solid. Get rid of Moehler and Miller though. Keep Albers and Borkowski, bring up McLemore and go with 11 pitchers.

Drayton McLane really doesn’t need to spend a whole lot of money this off season, he just needs to get rid of the deadwood we have taking up roster spots right now. Nontender Ensberg, Everett, Lane. Don’t offer arbitration or re-sign Palmeiro, Ausmus, Biggio, Moehler, Miller. Do you damndest to re-sign Loretta and have him play 2nd base or platoon at 3rd with Lamb. If he’s adamant about being the starting 2nd baseman, give it to him for a couple years. Trade Burke and just wait for Jonny Ash to come up.

The Astros can be contenders next year if they don’t have 5 black holes in their lineup and two bombs in their bullpen.

Drayton does need to do something by August 15th though–he needs to pony up the $2 million Chad Jones’ father is asking for and sign him. The kid can flat out play baseball and allowing him to go to LSU and play football is not going to hurt the organization or Drayton’s pocketbook. We would have another Hunter Pence if we lock up Chad Jones. If Jones slips away and attends LSU full time, he’s going to be a 1st rounder and a top ten draft pick in 4 years. I don’t want to see another Carl Crawford slip away from the Astros.  This is one almost hometown kid we need to sign.

Astros Week In Review

What a week it has been for the Houston Astros.  Last Thursday, "Mr. Astro" Craig Biggio became only the 27th player in major league history to collect 3000 hits.  Craig did it in typical Biggio style too–trying to stretch a single out to a double.  He was called out at 2nd base and since he made the 3rd out of the inning, it was the perfect time to stop the game and honor his accomplishment as his sons and then his teammates and wife and daughter all mugged him and congratulated him.

Always a class act, Biggio went to the dugout where Jeff Bagwell was waiting to congratulate him.  Instead of being satisfied with his long time teammate’s congrats, Biggio dragged Bagwell out on the field, inside the lines and let the Houston fans cheer the two faces of the Astros franchise–Bagwell and Biggio. 

As if having Biggio reach 3000 hits wasn’t enough, Carlos Lee topped off the night with a walkoff grand slam against Colorado closer Brian Fuentes.  Not wanting to disappoint the fans on Friday night who had hoped they would be the ones at the game to see history in the making, Mark Loretta made it exciting by hitting the second consecutive walk off homer off Fuentes.  That was the first time in the Astros 45 year history that the club had back to back walk off homers. 

Saturday night brought Colorado’s first win of the series with Jason Jennings being the victim of no run support against the Rockies pitcher Francis.  Sunday afternoon no one expected much out of Wandy Rodriguez, but he shut out the Rockies and for a change, the Astros scored 12 runs to give Wandy only his 5th win this season.  To be fair, Wandy has pitched great at home this year and he too was a victim of little or no run support.

On Monday, it was the battle of the old timers–Woody Williams against Philadelphia’s Jaime Moyer.  Moyer has been the better pitcher this year between the two and I fully expected him to win.  However, Woody threw one of the best games of the year and the Astros managed to score enough runs to stave off a late inning meltdown by the bullpen and get Woody his 4th win of the year. 

Roy Oswalt was expected to pitch great and win the game against Adam Eaton.  Alas, Oswalt didn’t have his best outing, giving up 4 runs to the Phillies.  For once, a bad call in the bottom of the ninth inning with 2 outs went for the Astros as Carlos Lee was called safe at 1st base, allowing Craig Biggio to score the tying run.  It was definitely the week for walk off homers as Hunter Pence sent the Astros fans home happy with the game’s only homer in the 13th inning.

On Wedsneday, the Astros had a chance to sweep the Phillies but All Star Cole Hammels was outstanding.  He didn’t come close to no-hitting the Astros as he did in 2006, but, he was on his game and the Astros lost 3-8.  Chris Sampson who has been great most of the year had his second bad outing against the Phillies and gave up 4 home runs.  The bullpen didn’t help matters by giving up 4 more runs putting the game out of reach.

Thursday’s matchup was expected to be tough and it was.  Jennings once again got little run support.  He was also not very sharp in this outing, giving up 5 runs in 6 innings.  The Astros squandered the few chances they had against the Mets’ John Maine who was brilliant against the Astros once again.  The fans at Minute Maid Park still haven’t forgiven Carlos Beltran for choosing New York over Houston in January 2005 as they booed him at every at bat.  Carlos finally got his revenge though as he belted out a Crawford Box special in the 9th inning off reliever Dave Borkowski.  The only real bright spot of this game for the Astros was that the recently promoted Matt Albers had his second scoreless outing coming out of the bullpen.

I must say, I was really surprised when Morgan Ensberg pinch hit for Mike Lamb in the bottom of the 8th.  Even though Ensberg had been 2-2 in his career against Pedro Feliciano, it was a bad move because Ensberg can’t hit the broad side of a barn this year and as expected, struck out to end the inning and quelch the rally started by Biggio’s double and kept alive with Lee’s double and Lorreta’s  RBI single.  Even if you’re playing the odds because lefties are hitting only .106 against Feliciano, I’d have put Burke in there who can at least put the ball in play. 

The Astros odds of winning against the Mets get considerably better starting tomorrow as Wandy Rodriguez faces 0-6 Mike Pelfrey.  The key for Wandy will be to control his emotions and pitch his game.  Of course, the Astros will need to provide him some run support and hopefully guys like Lee, Loretta and Pence who haven’t been tainted by the "deer in the headlights" syndrome as many of the longer time Astros hitters have will be able to spark rallies to score enough runs to beat Pelfrey and the Mets.

First Series Sweep of Season

The Astros swept a series for the first time in 2007 when they won all three games against the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park this weekend.  Great pitching from two of the most unlikely candidates, Wandy Rodriguez and Woody Williams and an offense suddenly come alive gave the Astros a much needed morale boost. 

The Astros lost their stellar defensive short stop Adam Everett for 4 to 8 weeks with a fractured right leg when he collided with Carlos Lee trying to field a fly ball in left field on Thursday, June 14th.  Eric Bruntlett was recalled from Class AAA Round Rock to fill the roster spot.  Manager Phil Garner stated Bruntlett will get quite a few starts at Shortstop as will Mark Loretta.  Loretta started two of the three games against the Mariners, with Bruntlett playing the day game on Sunday.  Chris Burke may see some playing time at short stop also, but the majority of the playing time will most likely belong to Bruntlett.

Although the defense on the left side of the diamond will suffer with Everett on the DL, it looks like the offensive improvement with Lamb at 3rd base and Loretta at Short is making up for it.  In the last three games, the Astros scored 24 runs and only allowed the Mariners 8. 

A much tougher test will come starting Monday night as the Astros go on the road to the West Coast and visit the AL West leading Angels.  After 3 games in Los Angeles, the Astros conclude their inter-league series with 3 games in Arlington. The Texas Rangers may be one of the worst teams in baseball, but they took 2 of 3 games from the Astros at Minute Maid Park last month. Their return to all NL games begins on the road as they continue on to Milwaukee for a 3 game series with the NL Central leading Brewers.

If the offense keeps producing runs on a nightly basis, the Astros could make some gains against the Brewers and get right back into the NL Central race.  The starting pitching seems to have solidified enough to have quality outings again and the bullpen also seems to have righted itself.  The key to winning on this road trip will be production from the heavy hitters—Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Luke Scott, and Hunter Pence.  If those four guys are hitting at the same time, the Astros will score runs and get back to the winning side of .500 before the All Star Break.

2007 Astros Draft Picks-Day 1

The Astros who didn’t have a draft pick until the 3rd round chose lefty SS/3B Derek Dietrich from St. Ignatius High School out of the Cleveland area.  Dietrich was named Rise Magazine’s Ohio Player of the Year for 2006-2007 and was named to the AFLAC All American Team last year.  Dietrich’s grandfather Steve Dementer is a former major leaguer who got his start in the Detroit Tigers organization and a retired major league scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Dietrich was slated to attend Georgia Tech this fall on a baseball scholarship but may opt to play professional ball instead.

In the 4th round they chose a local kid, right handed pitcher Brett Eibner of The Woodlands High School.  Eibner was a right fielder/pitcher in high school and was drafted as a right handed pitcher at #141.  Eibner is listed by SEC Baseball as one of the early signees to University of Arkansas, but depending on whether the Astros can sign him, he may be reporting to Greenville for Rookie Ball.

In the 5th and last round for Day 1 of the draft, the Astros chose a Willy Taveras/Josh Anderson clone, speedy centerfielder Collin DeLome from Lamar University. DeLome is a lefty without much pop in his bat.  He projects to have below average power, average defense, but good speed and base-running abilities.

Berkman, Garner Tossed, Astros Win!

All the frustrations of a miserable season so far boiled over tonight for Lance Berkman.  He got called out on strikes in the 8th inning and he lost it.  He charged the umpire and he got tossed.  Taking a cue from Phil Garner, Lance tossed his hat and even a backpack out of the dugout and onto the field.  A few minutes later, Manager Phil Garner got himself tossed when Carlos Lee got hit by a pitch and had some words with the Rockies reliever.  Garner came out and soon enough, he was tossed too. 

As usual, with Garner gone, Cecil Cooper took over as manager and as has been the case most times in the last 3 seasons whenever Cooper is managing the team, the Astros won.

Hopefully this is a repeat of 2004 and 2005 where the Astros were having a terrible slump and controversial calls and fights led to the Astros using it as a turning point in their season.  In 2004 it was Oswalt and Barrett getting into a fight in Chicago, in 2005 it was Biggio getting hit by a pitch and then denied first base in San Francisco.  Here’s hoping Berkman getting tossed leads to similar results and a return to the playoffs.

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