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Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Bold Move, but Now What?

It is rare that a move leaves me as confused as this one did. Matt Albers, one of the three best pitching prospects in the Astros organization, was called up from Double-A Corpus Christi after the latest lifeless loss by the Astros. Albers, a 23rd round pick in 2001 out of Clements H.S. in Sugar Land, is 10-2 in 19 starts at Corpus with a 2.17 ERA. Wandy Rodriguez was mercifully sent down to Round Rock, where he will take Brandon Backe's spot in the rotation. The Astros - ridiculed for several seasons now for their tectonically slow player development methods - bring their AA ace up to the bigs. Not only is there a more qualified pitcher available (Jason Hirsh), but the move is apparently an attempt to shore up their bullpen, while their punchless offense is unquestionably the biggest weakness. If Astros fans were told that a Hook was on his way to save the day, 100% would have (justifiably) said, "Welcome to Houston, finally, Hunter Pence".

Wandy's demotion to the AAA rotation is somewhat cleverly disguised as an insurance policy in the event that Backe struggles in his return to the bigs, but with Fernando Nieve twiddling his thumbs in the Astros bullpen, the chance that Wandy gets the call in the event that Backe takes a step back is (hopefully) very slim. Astros' fans can hope that the Astros are slowly learning their lesson. First with Gallo, now with Wandy.

Purpura has indicated that Albers will be used out of the bullpen because of his resilient, powerful right arm. What is Albers' role going to be? Chad Qualls has given up exactly one run in his last 13 innings. Dan Wheeler has allowed only two earned runs since June 4. Six of Russ Springer's last eight outings have been scoreless. Even Dave Borkowski has been solid in his long relief role. Brad Lidge has been the most inconsistent relief pitcher, but he is also the most talented, and obviously Albers will not be thrust into the closer's role in the heat of a pennant race.

Albers last pitched on Tuesday, throwing seven innings and allowing only one unearned run. That means his next scheduled start would have been Saturday - the same day that Brandon Backe is due to start against the powerful Mets. Maybe Albers is going to get the Phillip Barzilla treatment - a cup of coffee, maybe a long relief stint if Backe leaves early, but he simply does not fit in the Astros' bullpen. If Jason Hirsh had not experienced some soreness in his throwing shoulder during his last start, maybe this would have been his callup instead of Albers. I doubt it, though, as fans are much more familiar with Hirsh's dominance at AAA and have been clamoring for him to be inserted in the Astros' rotation for months. It will be much easier to bring Albers up for a few days and return him to the minors than it would have been for Hirsh.

Some roster questions still remain. Brandon Backe's return on Saturday will require a move both on the 25 man roster and on the 40 man roster. The obvious option for DFA from the 40-man roster is Mike Gallo, but the Astros' have never seemed to be as critical of his pitching as the rest of the civilized world. There are already 12 pitchers on the 25-man roster, so it seems likely that a pitcher will need to go to make room for Backe. I think Borkowski has earned the trust of Garner and Hickey, and their infatuation with 'veteran leadership' makes me think that he's safe. That leaves Fernando Nieve as the most likely to go down, maybe back to the rotation in Round Rock to get some work. Replacing Nieve in the bullpen with Albers certainly seems like an odd swap, though. On a more minor note, it seems that Troy Patton is deservedly about to be the recipient of a call-up to Corpus Christi, which is great, especially for those of us with a trip to Whataburger Field on the upcoming calendar.

The one caveat to all this would be a trade. The Astros could clear space on their 25 and 40 man rosters by making a multi-player trade. I have felt for several weeks that the Astros may be keeping Jason Hirsh down in AAA to maintain his market value at its highest possible point. If they were to bring him up to the majors and he experienced some significant growing pains, that could tarnish his mystique in other teams' eyes. Troy Patton's recent uptick seems to indicate that he may be much closer to contributing for the big club than previously thought. My money says that after the terrible start to the second half in Miami and Chicago and with a three-day date with the NL's juggernaut Mets looming, here's guessing that Purpura has gotten permission to shake up the roster with a significant move, and I'll guess that Hirsh will be one of the players to go. I also feel like Lidge may have worn out his welcome in Houston. The fans have turned against him. While Brad Lidge still shows flashes of the stuff that made him one of the game's most dominant closers over the past three seasons, there is a rational argument that a change of scenery might do some good. Of course, I'd rather see the Astros acquire a pitching coach who could polish up Lidge's mechanics and return him to form. Moving Lidge would open the closer's spot up for Chad Qualls, and possibly move Albers into the seventh inning role for the remainder of the season. So that's going to be my guess: a trade of Hirsh, Adam Everett and Lidge for Miguel Tejada.


Blogger Tim said...

You didn't disappoint; that's a tremendous post. The only justification for promoting Albers over Hirsh right now is Hirsh's injury. If T-Poo thinks Albers and Patton are the real deal, I think you have to pull the trigger on a deal for Tejada (or even better, Carl Crawford?) that parts with Hirsh.

Fri Jul 21, 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Oswalt, Buchholz, Nieve, Albers, Backe next season with Patton in AAA, awaiting the call? That's assuming Pettitte and Clemens are both out of the picture, of course. If the Astros want to improve their soft spot (offense), then they must deal from their strength (pitching prospects). Hirsh is, by all accounts, ready for his shot in a big-league rotation, which makes him all the more valuable. It should be an interesting 4-7 days for Astros' fans...

Fri Jul 21, 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

That projected rotation terrifies me. Regardless, I'd be willing to bet that Pettitte is back next year. I agree that the 'Stros seem to have little choice but to part with a pitching prospect if they really want a bat. Uncle Drayton has to lay it all on the line this year, so I'm in the camp that says a trade is coming.

Fri Jul 21, 11:35:00 AM  

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