An Open Letter to Management

added 3/17/2005 by Scott Barzilla

I realize you guys are busy right now trying to iron out a 25 man roster, but I had a few thoughts I wanted to pass on by you. First of all, let me congratulate you on not making any deals this spring. I know the temptation is to appease the “masses” by acquiring a name, but in many cases, the names available are either no better than what you got or can cost you your soul.

It appears as if enough young players have stepped up to fill the open slots we were all worried about before Spring Training. In particular, Willy Taveras has shown up and done very well when most people expected him to be a year away. Who knows about these things, but he looks good at the moment. At any rate, the organization has been good to me personally and has been good to all of us generally. The club has finished outside the first division only once since 1991. You have done it by keeping your head in situations like this. Well, enough with the pleasantries……

Lineup Openings

I would like to start off with a very plaintive plea. Please stop the Craig Biggio at second base experiment immediately. This should have been Chris Burke’s spot all along and you only undermine him with this foolishness. Listen, I know it’s tempting to go with a proven veteran at the position. Chris Burke surely has rough spots and we know Biggio will likely be less of a defensive liability at second then he is in left.

However, this belies the fact that Burke is better defensive second basemen than Biggio right now. Yet, even if he wasn’t it would still be a bad idea to delay the future. Burke has proven all he can in the minors. He may struggle in the show, but he would likely struggle if he made his debut in 2006 or 2007. Nothing prepares you for the big leagues like the big leagues. They could invent an AAAA level in the minors and it would be the same deal. So, play Burke now before he becomes the latest in a long line of Astros prospects to wither on the vine.

This brings us to the centerfield question. Currently, you have been playing Taveras in right field and Lane in center. I realize Spring Training is a time to try people at other positions, but this also isn’t confidence inspiring. Taveras is a centerfielder. Jason Lane is not. Since Biggio is able to play second you can use the first month as an extended Spring Training. Taveras can open the season in centerfield while Lane opens in right field. That way, you give Burke and Taveras a full month as a starter to evaluate them. If one of them slips you send them down and shift accordingly.

There are a lot of baseball clichés that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but one of the better ones is that you want to be strong defensively up the middle. With Taveras in center and Burke at second you give yourself one of the best up the middle defenses in the National League. If you put Biggio at second and Lane in center you end up below average in that department. Both could very well struggle at the plate, but the offense from the other players is not enough to overwhelm you.

Pitching Openings

I’m trying to be optimistic, but the pitching in the last week has definitely helped in that regard. Just a week ago it looked like we had no candidates for the fifth starter spot, but now we have at least three. Tim Redding, Carlos Hernandez, Dave Burba, and Ezekiel Astacio have all emerged. Pete Munro has yet to really impress, but he is a control pitcher and he has the best major league track record of the bunch.

In the bullpen, it appears as if some young pitchers have stepped up (Phil Norton, Wandy Rodriguez) to help, but it is the pitching of Turk Wendell that has everyone hopeful. I like optimism, but I would be careful there. Someone that hasn’t been healthy and effective the last two seasons has to make you nervous. It is much more likely that the real Wendell will show up than the Wendell from the early 2000s. Yet, you have to be encouraged so far.

As far as advice, this is what I always say this time of year. Put the best eleven or twelve pitchers on your pen. When you start to worry about options, having two lefties, or any other nonsense you weaken your pitching staff. We are involved in a tight battle with the Cards and Cubs. We need all the ammunition we can get. In mid-March it is impossible to tell which pitchers are best for those final few slots, but as long as you go into the next two weeks with the mindset that you’re looking for the best (options and other nonsense be darned) you’ll likely find what you’re looking for.

From afar, it appears that the kids (Wandy Rodriguez and Ezekiel Astacio) look really good. Others have impressed me too (Jared Gotthreaux and Fernando Nieve). I realize they may need more seasoning, but I wouldn’t hesitate to give them the call over a less than mediocre veteran. Young pitchers are cheap and have upside. Names are great, but if they are mediocre they are meaningless.

The Bench

This is the biggest bone of contention I have with you guys. Your predecessor (and his regime) fell in love with the specialist. Baseball is a marathon and not a sprint. In a seven game series it would be nice to have a lefty pinch hitter, pinch runner, and defensive replacements. In a 162 game season you want players that can play everyday in a pinch.

Unfortunately, you can’t correct mistakes that have already been made (Orlando Palmeiro twice) but you can avoid compounding them. I always look at a bench this way. Which player would I pick if I had to start him for three consecutive weeks? The answer is not the specialist. That means that the likes of Trenidad Hubbard and Charles Gipson should be long shots. For my money I would rather have a Luke Scott. We know Hubbard and Gipson can’t hit big league pitching. They’ve proven it over the long haul.

In the infield, you have your team picked out, but do me a favor and think about this before you form your infield bench next year. Jose Vizcaino may look like a good option, but a low OBP and SLG make him problematic over a three week period. Even though he had a good batting average down the stretch, he became a big problem in the playoffs. Players like Mark Grudielanek are always available for the same price.

As for the question of whether to carry a third catcher or sixth outfielder I would say this: how often will you use that player? I would rather have a reliever that throws fifty innings than a third catcher that has one at bat a week. A perfect bench spot would be for a player that can play in the infield and outfield. Eric Bruntlett and Carlos Rivera are good thoughts here. However, both must prove they can play in the outfield because you should always follow the three week rule with all bench players.

The Future

I won’t belabor this a lot since I’ve already taken up a lot of your time, but you guys have been delaying the future for three or four years now. Let it come. I know you want to win and all of us are right along with you. We are at the point that young players are our only chance to win. If someone is burning it up in Round Rock or Corpus Christi give them a shot. We need all the help we can get.

More importantly, we will have a lot of money when Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Brad Ausmus and maybe even Lance Berkman move on. We need to know where our holes are before we start spending that money. Right now, it looks like we will have a huge hole at catcher (Hector Gimenez is not the answer in my opinion). We have all seen enough ridiculous contracts to see that you can’t avoid overpaying for some players. The key to figuring out where to overpay is to look at what you have. You should overpay if a player meets two criteria: it’s something you don’t have and it’s something the market doesn’t have a lot of. Catcher fits that bill. However, we need to know for sure before we decide on other positions. You can only know if you give the youngsters a chance to prove themselves.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management”.