Houston Astros Rumors

AL Notes: Amador, Lester, Gonzalez

The Astros have loaned massive first baseman Japhet Amador to the Diablos Rojos of the Mexican League, tweets Chris Cotillo of MLBDailyDish.com. Amador was signed away from his new club this past August, and appeared at both Triple-A (where he has struggled mightily) and the Arizona Fall League (where he slashed .284/.286/.507). As Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle explains (Twitter links), Amador’s contract had a clause that required the team to decide by May 3 whether to purchase his contract, and the team was not going to do so. Nevertheless, Amador’s agent, Oscar Suarez, says that there is some hope that the 27-year-old could return to the Houston organization (possibly with another AFL stint). Here’s more from the American League:

  • While talks have been put on hold with the season well underway, the Red Sox seemingly remain quite interested in keeping Jon Lester in the fold, as Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe reports on Twitter“Every effort is going to be made to make sure that Jon remains in a Red Sox uniform,” said manager John Farrell“We’re hopeful that takes place.”
  • The Tigers‘ trade for Alex Gonzalez raised some questions at the time it was made, and that only increased as he struggled and was ultimately released. MLB.com’s Jason Beck writes that the deal was unquestionably a miss, but says that GM Dave Dombrowski took a calculated risk based on the assessments of the same scouts that have supported other risks that worked out for the club. Another stop-gap acquisition at short is unlikely at this point, Beck adds.

Astros Outright Lucas Harrell

Righty Lucas Harrell has been outrighted by the Astros after clearing waivers, reports MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart (via Twitter). Harrell had been designated for assignment a week ago.

Once viewed as a useful piece with valuable control, Harrell has seen his stock plummet since the start of the 2013 season. He notched a solid in 2012 — 193 2/3 innings of 3.76 ERA ball with a 57.2% ground ball rate and 6.5 K/9 against 3.6 BB/9 — but has been ineffective since. Last year, Harrell’s control faded (5.2 BB/9) even as he missed less bats (5.2 K/9, career-low 5.1% swinging strike rate).

Houston finally moved him off of the club’s 40-man roster after Harrell stumbled out of the gates in 2014. The good news for the Astros is that the out-of-options hurler managed to pass through waivers, meaning that the club will have the chance to let him try to rediscover his form in the upper minors. Depending upon whether and when he makes it back to the bigs this year, Harrell will come with three or four years of team control still in place.


Astros Release Brett Wallace

The Astros have released corner infielder and former top prospect Brett Wallace, according to Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle (on Twitter).

To call Wallace a well-traveled first-round draft pick would be an understatement. Originally selected 13th overall by the Cardinals in the 2008 draft, he was traded to the A's for a half season of Matt Holliday a year later in 2009. Oakland held onto Wallace for just five months, however, as he was flipped to the Blue Jays in exchange for then-top-prospect Michael Taylor. Seven months later, Toronto turned around and traded him to the Astros in a one-for-one swap that sent Anthony Gose to the Blue Jays.

Now looking for his fifth organization since being selected 13th overall less than six years ago, Wallace is coming off a season in which he batted just .221/.284/.431 with 13 homers in 285 plate apperances for the Astros. Wallace has never hit much in 1077 PAs at the big league level, but he's crushed Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .308/.375/.500 triple-slash in more than 1600 PAs.



Quick Hits: Astros, Beltran, Orioles

The Astros' "Ground Control" database is essential for the club's day-to-day operations, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reports. Featuring contract information, scouting reports, stats and tools such as a trade analzyer, the system is used by baseball operations staff for all decisions. Mike Elias, the Astros' amateur scouting director, is partial to Ground Control's scheduling interface. "I can see all the cross-checkers and scouts, and we can see where everyone's going to be," he says. "We've got every college and high school game in the country loaded in there, and we can mix and match." Here are more late-night Major League links:

  • The public's perception of Carlos Beltran as a Met — injury-prone, bad in the clutch — doesn't reflect reality, writes the New York Post's Joel Sherman.
  • In a separate column, Sherman offers his choices for MLB's top storylines in 2014. The return of Ryan Braun headlines a list that also includes Bud Selig's final season as commissioner and the debut of Tony Clark as head of the Player's Association.
  • Bud Norris "would seem like a logical choice" among players that could be dealt if the Orioles add another starter, such as Ervin Santana, speculates Peter Schmuck of The Baltimore Sun. Norris currently projects as the club's fifth starter. Schmuck writes that there appears to be no major obstacles to signing Santana, outside of convincing him to choose the O's over the Blue Jays.

Quick Hits: Castellanos, Davis, Armstrong

It's been a tumultuous offseason for Alex Castellanos of the Padres, MLB.com's Corey Brock writes. In late October, the Dodgers traded Castellanos to the Red Sox. Two months later, the Rangers claimed him off waivers. Then, the Rangers designated him for assignment in order to make room for Joe Saunders, and the Padres claimed him. "Don't take any pictures with any jerseys on," Castellanos said when asked the offseason had taught him. Here are more notes from around the big leagues.

  • A year after joining the Royals as part of the James Shields / Wil Myers trade, Wade Davis is now a reliever, writes Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star. The move is a response to the Royals' loss of Luke Hochevar to Tommy John surgery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Davis isn't thrilled about the move. "What are you going to do? Say no?" he says. Davis struggled as a starter last season, though, posting a 5.67 ERA in 24 starts, and he's gotten good results as a reliever in the past. The decision could impact Davis' future earnings — if the Royals don't pick up his $7MM option for 2015, he can become a free agent after the season. 
  • 2011 Astros third-round draft pick Jack Armstrong Jr. is switching from pitching to first base, MLB.com's Brian McTaggart reports. The Astros paid Armstrong a $750K bonus, but he has not pitched competitively since being drafted, dealing with elbow and shoulder injuries along the way. Now, at 24, he'll try to make the big leagues as a hitter. "The moment I got cleared in September, I started swinging immediately. It's been a good five or six months of hard work," says Armstrong. "It's good I was a two-way guy in college so I was always swinging." Armstrong is the son of former big-league starting pitcher Jack Armstrong.

AL West Notes: Kinsler, Montero/Pineda, Dominguez

New Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler offered up some surprisingly candid remarks surrounding his old team, the Rangers, in an interview with Robert Sanchez of ESPN the Magazine. Kinsler touched on the fact that he wasn't happy to be asked to move off second base, didn't approve of how Michael Young was treated by the organization and ultimately called general manager Jon Daniels a "sleazeball." Kinsler, who told Sanchez he hoped the Rangers go 0-162 in 2014, tells the Detroit Free Press (All Twitter links) that he's not pleased with the way the story turned out: "I’m not happy about it. The story was written for drama and taken a little out of context. But it is what it is." Asked about the 0-162 comment, Kinsler told the Free Press: "It’s a matter of telling a joke, to be honest with you." The three-time All-Star said he's not planning to reach out to Daniels about the "sleazeball" comment, but stressed that it, too, was taken out of context.

Here's a bit more on Kinsler and some other AL West-related news items…

  • Kinsler's former teammates Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre aren't bothered by the comments and don't have any ill will toward Kinsler, writes Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News. Beltre told Fraley, "It doesn't bother me. He's still my friend." Andrus had a similar take, stating, "He's my buddy. … He's still my friend. I don't take anything from that." Manager Ron Washington told Fraley he's not affected by Kinsler's opinions.
  • MLB.com's Doug Miller looks back on what seemed to be a win-win trade in January 2012, noting that neither the Mariners nor Yankees have gotten much value out of the Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero trade. Miller spoke with both players and their respective managers about the chances that each has to make an impact with their clubs this season.
  • Astros third baseman Matt Dominguez tells Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post that he doesn't have hard feelings toward the Marlins for trading him and doesn't feel that the team gave up on him. "They thought that trade was in the best interest, decided to give me up, it’s worked out for me." Dominguez says that "everyone" knew his glove was ahead of his bat at the time of the deal, but he's starting to get his confidence back at the plate. The 24-year-old slashed .241/.286/.403 with 21 homers for the Astros last season.
  • Bob Dutton of Tacoma News Tribune writes that Mariners top prospect is scheduled to begin playing catch on Thursday and is on a three-week program to build up arm strength. Barring setbacks, he could be able to join Seattle's rotation in mid-April.

Astros Notes: Feldman, Qualifying Offers

Scott Feldman was surprised when the Astros pursued him this season, but the team was persistent, reports Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle. "I thought that they were more like in a rebuilding, just-going-to-let-all-these-young-guys-play mode," says Feldman. "And then after I talked to [manager Bo Porter] on the phone, he explained to me, 'No, no, we're done with that. We're trying to win.'" Feldman is now the Astros' higest-paid player, and they're counting on him to provide an example for younger players like Jarred Cosart. Here are more notes on the Astros.

  • The qualifying offer played a role in the Astros' decisions this offseason, GM Jeff Luhnow says in a wide-ranging interview with MLB Daily Dish's Chris Cotillo. The Astros' top overall pick is, obviously, protected, but they also wanted to keep what is now the No. 37 overall pick, a competitive-balance selection they got when they traded Bud Norris to the Orioles. 
  • Nonetheless, Cotillo writes that Luhnow isn't as eager as some commentators to change the qualifying-offer system, which is a key reason Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales and Ervin Santana remain on the free-agent market. "Players in order to be in that position have to turn down what a lot of people would consider pretty generous, life-changing money," says Luhnow, referring to the $14.1MM qualifying offer. "The intent of the rule is an improvement over what was there before. … Everyone had this conversation last year, then [Kyle] Lohse got signed and we went back to normal, so we'll see what happens."

AL Notes: Sano, Castro, Tigers

Top Twins prospect Miguel Sano will have Tommy John surgery, La Velle E. Neal III of StarTribune.com reports. Via MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger (on Twitter), the Twins have since confirmed that Sano will miss the entire 2014 season. Sano has had trouble with his ulnar collateral ligament going back to last season, and he injured it on Thursday while making a throw. MLB.com ranks Sano the fourth-best prospect in baseball (with another Twins prospect, Byron Buxton, coming in at No. 1). Sano, 20, hit .280/.382/.610 between Class A+ and Double-A last season. Here are more notes from the American League.

  • The Astros do not sound likely to trade catcher Jason Castro anytime soon, Brian McTaggart of MLB.com reports. This offseason, several teams asked the Astros about Castro, but the Astros feel Castro's play and leadership are too valuable to deal right now. "We take all of those elements into account, and we really feel he's a player we can't be without at this point," says GM Jeff Luhnow. Castro, 26, will make $2.45MM in his first year of arbitration eligibility in 2014. He hit .276/.350/.485 in 491 plate appearances last season.
  • The Tigers have agreed to terms with eight pre-arbitration players, according to a team release: pitchers Melvin Mercedes, Bruce Rondon, Jose Alvarez and Ian Krol, catcher Bryan Holaday, and infielders Steve Lombardozzi, Francisco Martinez and Hernan Perez. Those players will all likely receive deals near the league minimum. The Tigers now have their entire 40-man roster under contract for 2014.  

How Clubs Determine Pre-Arbitration Salaries

Earlier this month, MLBTR's Tim Dierkes learned that the Rockies have employed an unusual pre-arbitration pay scale.  As you might expect, agents are less than thrilled with the system in which Colorado pays a league-minimum $500K for players with between zero and one year of service, then bumps that up by just $1K for each additional service year before arbitration.  The pay scale is unique in that it offers only a minute bump over the minimum and doesn't factor in performance.  However, after speaking with a number of agents and baseball officials around the league, it's clear that the Rockies are far from alone when it comes to having a rigid pay scale for players with three or less years of experience, even if theirs is less generous than others.

"I'd say about two-thirds of baseball is using some kind of formula for that," one experienced agent told MLBTR. "Every system is different.  The Indians, for example, take a very sabermetric approach to it to be a little more scientific.  Others will be more about service time.  On one hand, those systems allow you to say to your client, 'This is why arbitration is so valuable, because you can let a third party sort it out objectively.'  Of course, you can't really compare an average player with a couple years of experience to a guy with less that made the All-Star team, so I have mixed feelings about it."

Many agents mentioned the Rays as a club with a similar "sabermetric" approach to calculating pre-arbitration salaries and it's believed both teams have been using that formula for several years now.  The Brewers use something similar to Tampa Bay and Cleveland, a "dumbed down" version of the sabermetric formula, as one agent put it.  Other teams, like the aforementioned Rockies, have a simpler method.  MLBTR's own Steve Adams learned that as recently as 2013, the Astros used the same basic formula as Colorado – players with 0-1 years experience would get the minimum salary ($490K at the time) with a $1K bump for each year.  Players could earn more by making the All-Star team (+$5K), being named organizational player/pitcher of the year (+$1K), and playing time in the previous year, calculated with the following formula:

Position Players: (PA/650)*$10K

Pitchers: The greater of: 1. (GS/33)*$10K 2. (G/75)*$10K 3. (IP/200)*$10,000

Houston's system came with two interesting wrinkles.  Agents were told that no player will be offered a pay cut from the salary they earned on a major league deal signed with the Astros in the previous year, an obvious plus for players and agents.  On the flipside, any player who would reject the offer and opt instead for renewal would get $5K less than the calculated scale amount (or the minimum, if the $5K penalty dipped below that point).  One player, Justin Maxwell, wound up getting his contract renewed by Houston at $492,500, just above the major league minimum of $490K.  The Astros, citing club policy, declined to comment on their pay scale.

One baseball source told MLBTR that even though the Rockies' pay scale has gotten a great deal of attention this offseason, they've been using it for the last three winters.  Even prior to that, they were using a system that was rather similar and also based on service time.  Any extra money given beyond the minimum was dictated by the raise in the league minimum from the previous year.  In the case of this offsesaon, the $1K increase reflected the healthy $10K boost in the minimum.

While agents may not be doing cartwheels over a $1K raise from year to year, there are instances in which nearly all of a club's pre-arb players will earn the league minimum, as was the case with the Marlins in 2012.  That year year saw a drastic spike in the league minimum salary from $414K to $480K, however, so the players received a notable bump nonetheless (and in some cases more, as evidenced by Chris Coghlan's $500K salary).  An executive with one club who uses a modest pay scale told MLBTR that their reasoning is rather simple.

"The thought process from our perspective always been to try and be consistent as possible," the exec said.  "The [Collective Bargaining Agreement] dictates a minimum, now $500K, for these guys.  The philosophical question is, what benefit do you get from paying them significantly above that, or even a dollar above that?  

"It's the one time in the process that the club has the edge, if you will.  We always tried to be consistent and objective and we don't want to have to try and figure out which player is more valuable than another or whether a first baseman is worth more than a relief pitcher…arbitration is all about comps, free agency is just market value, if we didn't have a pay scale, we'd effectively be choosing one of our players over another and we don't want to do that.

The exec went on to say that virtually every agent has complained about his club's pay scale and he understands their frustrations since it's the one time in the process they don't get to negotiate their client's salary.  However, even though agents don't like the system, he says there have yet to be any negative consequences for it.  He believes that it's partially because the scale promotes consistency.  One American League executive whose club uses an "objective and subjective" method for coming up with salaries and is "in the middle of the pack" in terms of pre-arb player compensation supported that notion, saying that agents will typically protest more over how their client is paid compared to his teammates rather than the actual dollar amount.  

The other reason that the official from the modest pay scale doesn't fear any sort of retribution is because agents will approach arbitration and free agency the same way regardless of how their client is paid within the first three years.  The official used an example that came up numerous times in conversations with other executives and agents – Ryan Howard's $900K deal with the Phillies in his final year before arbitration.  The Phillies gave their star slugger more than double their obligation, but it obviously didn't buy them a loyalty discount through the arbitration process.  General Manager Pat Gillick & Co. offered $7MM, Howard's camp countered at $10MM, and the first baseman walked away with the the largest first-time arbitration salary ever.  That could be of some comfort to the Angels, who took a good deal of heat from fans and the agent for Mike Trout after they opted to pay their star outfielder just $20K over minimum last year.  In short, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in baseball to bet on Craig Landis taking it easy on the Halos in their current contract talks if his client had received another $50-$100K a year ago.

It's worth noting there is at least one documented instance of a player taking his hard feelings into the arbitration process.  Outfielder Cody Ross told Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports in 2012 that his previous low pay was "one of the main reasons" why he went to a hearing with the Fish in 2010.  Ross won his case, coming home with $4.45MM instead of the $4.2MM he was offered.  However, that doesn't appear to be the norm.  In conversations with MLBTR, agents admitted that even in instances where they feel their client is underpaid in the pre-arb years, it doesn't affect how they approach arbitration or free agency since they're always pushing for top dollar no matter what.  Baseball people also say that while they have seen pre-arb pay come up in hearings, there is no evidence that it factors into the arbitrator's decision.

That could help explain why most clubs have opted to use rigid formulas rather than dole out significantly more money than required.  One high-ranking executive with a club that negotiates pre-arb pay with agents acknowledges that players won't take it easy on teams in arb hearings over the extra money, but he believes that it makes for a stronger relationship with the players.  

"Players will pass judgment on how a club treats them relative to anything and everything," said the National League executive.  "They'll think about how a club treats them when it comes to their family, travel, their contract, tickets…clubs are constantly being evaluated by players, justifiably, and every club can choose where they want to be evaluated well and where they're prepared to take a hit."

While that exec didn't like the notion of clubs giving their pre-arb players a near-minimum salary, he admitted that he understood the allure.  The up-front savings, even if they're not significant, are a nice perk.  On top of that, it's also less time-consuming to send an agent a dollar figure and say, "take it or leave it."   "I couldn't imagine how much longer it would all take if we were negotiating with every player," said one executive with a pay scale club.   

The player-friendly notion of negotiating appears to be going out of style throughout baseball.  "Most clubs, if they don't have a strict formula where you input the service time and certain numbers based on performance, they at last have some basic parameters in place versus 'Hey, this is what we feel like paying you,'" one exec said.  While negotiating pre-arb pay might make a player happier in the short-term, it seems that many clubs would rather expedite the process, and perhaps save a few dollars, with a pay scale.

This article was originally published on February 26th.


Quick Hits: D’Backs, Red Sox, Extensions, Rincon

Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers says he hasn't had many trade talks about a shortstop given that Stephen Drew is still on the market, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports.  If Towers did feel compelled to move either Chris Owings, Didi Gregorius, Cliff Pennington or Nick Ahmed in "the right deal," Towers said that the team would likely target either a minor league pitcher who's close to the big leagues or a catcher.  "Our biggest needs in our system are catching," Towers said.  "If it’s the right, top-notch catching prospect. Someone we could have right behind Miggy [Miguel Montero]. More of an upper-level guy.”  Of the teams known to be looking for shortstop help, the Yankees stand out as a possible trade partner, especially since New York is known to be shopping its catching depth.

Here's some more from around the majors…

  • Also from Piecoro, the Red Sox are "at least monitoring the shortstop market."  The Sox currently aren't in negotiations with Stephen Drew, but it stands to reason they could still be looking for a cheaper infield option to back up Xander Bogaerts.
  • With more and more teams locking up their young stars to long-term extensions, SI.com's Tom Verducci writes that "what we are going to see is a further eroding of the free-agent market as a place of any kind of efficiency. Teams will continue to make bad deals on free agents because it mostly involves paying too long and too much for the decline years of star players."
  • Mike Trout is the most high-profile example yet of a team locking up its young superstar, and Verducci thinks that a seven-year extension (covering four of Trout's free agent years) could cost the Angels $204MM.
  • Juan Rincon is planning to work out for interested teams soon, CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman tweets.  The 35-year-old righty posted a 4.03 ERA over 444 games (three of them starts) with the Twins, Indians, Tigers and Rockies from 2001-10, but hasn't appeared in the Majors since, spending the last three years with the Angels' Triple-A affiliate and for independent teams.  In December, we heard Rincon was looking for a minor league deal that would allow him to mentor young pitchers and then eventually turn into a scouting job. 
  • Tomo Ohka talks to the Toronto Star's Brad Lefton about adopting the knuckleball in order to save his career, and how he's hoping for one last crack at the Major Leagues with the Blue Jays.
  • Fangraphs' Wendy Thurm breaks down which teams spend the highest percentage of their payroll on their starting rotation, starting lineup, bullpen and bench, respectively.
  • The Astros (+18 WAR) and Red Sox (-16 WAR) project as the most- and least-improved teams in 2014, according to Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan, who lists a top ten in each category.  Of course, as Sullivan notes, these totals are respectively skewed by how poorly and how well the two clubs fared last season, as Sullivan still expects Boston to contend and Houston to be one of the league's lesser clubs.