While the nation completed their week of mourning over the death of President George H.W. Bush, a loss felt strongest in the Houston area with all of his ties to the city, the Astros found themselves continuing in sorrow at the news of former players Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo killed in Venezuela in a robbery plot which turned to murder.
Teammates parade caskets of fallen stars
(c) Associated Press
Poverty is deep in Venezuela as well as some other Latin American countries. A common tactic is to lay large obstacles along barren paths of road which force motorists to stop and clear the road. When they do, thieves come out of the nearby woods to rob them. The tactic works best in twilight when visibility is poor.
This is apparently what happened to the driver of former big leaguer Carlos Romero who was taking home players from a game involving Los Cardinales de Lara on Thursday from a Winter League contest. The driver flipped their SUV to avoid large rocks that had been placed in the roadway. Valbuena, who played with the Astros in 2015 and 2016, and Castillo, who was briefly an Astro in 2008, died at the scene. Romero and his driver survived.
Four thieves were later arrested, found with player belongings that had been taken from the crash site. Ballplayers are adored in Venezuela but they are also considered wealthy and become targets of robbery and violence when returning from the States. Whether the players were targeted for robbery on Thursday or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is still under investigation.
While the deaths sadden me, they are also a warning to Venezuelan players who go home during the winter. The Astros used to have an academy there with many big leaguers like Bobby Abreu and Richard Hidalgo making their way from the camps to the majors. Astros star infielder Jose Altuve is among the last of these who went through that pipeline before the socialist government made them untenable to keep open.
The latest addition to the Astros is also Venezuelan although not a product of the Astro camps. Robinson Chirinos has spent the past six years in the Rangers organization and signed a one-year $5.75 million deal to play for Houston in 2019. Chirinos is a career .233 hitter who has averaged 13 homers over the past five seasons.
Chirinos actually approached the Astros with a desire to play in Houston along with Altuve, his friend. A dead pull hitter, the 34-year-old backstop loves the idea of taking aim at the Crawford Boxes. He joins Max Stassi and Garrett Stubbs on the 40-man roster although the Astros are still looking to land another veteran catcher.
That could come at the Winter Meetings which take place this week although don't get your hopes up too high. The modus operandi for the Jeff Luhnow front office has been to make their big splashes later in the offseason, such as the additions of Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole were the past two years.
The Astros had been rumored to be after Houston native Nathan Eovaldi to bolster their rotation but he has opted to re-sign a four-year contract with the World Champion Red Sox and who can blame him? The Astros aren't fond of signing pitchers to long-term contracts.
- Bob Hulsey