September 30, 2014

Killer Zombies in the Lone Star State

June 9, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

These guys are back from the dead!

Whether for the warm weather, or the proximity to cheap meds across the border, the great state of Texas is currently home to a number of old veterans trying to resurrect their careers. Add in old-timers Doug Brocail, Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins and Brian Moehler, and the parks in Arlington and Houston have looked downright Jurassic. For the Rangers, the experiment is working out admirably, while the Astros have struggled despite an infusion of old blood. Coming soon to an AARP meeting near you:

Ivan Rodriguez, 37 years old, Astros
Best year: 32 home runs, .332/.356/.558, MVP award and Gold Glove in 1999 with the Rangers.
2009: .265/.302/.456 in 47 games; 47% caught stealing.
You know you’re old when: you were the catcher for the Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura beatdown game.

After apparently fading out in 2008 with the Yankees, Pudge signed on with Houston in the aftermath of the J.R. Towles debacle. Towles was projected as the catcher of the future, but managed only 17 hits in 117 plate appearances in his 2008 audition. He was relieved of his duties mid-season by Brad Ausmus, one of the few major leaguers whom Rodriguez still must refer to as “Mister.” Kicking off a youth movement, Houston let the 40-year-old Ausmus walk (to the Dodgers) in the offseason and signed Pudge to a one year, $1.5 million contract.

Thus far, Rodriguez has been rotten at the plate for the Astros, getting on base just over 30% of the time. For the first time in his career, he’s striking out more than 20% of the time, and is walking in fewer than 5% of plate appearances. Without him, though, the Houston offense has been stellar, led by fellow graybeards Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada, as well as Hunter Pence.

Rodriguez’s biggest contribution has been defensively, where he’s leading National League regulars with a 47% caught stealing rate. The Houston pitching has been somewhat less than solid—11th in the league in runs allowed—but the idea is that, behind the plate, he’ll work well with fellow veterans Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Mike Hampton and Brian Moehler. And, in the meantime, Rodriguez is giving time to Towles and Humberto Quintero, one of whom is expected to emerge as the answer for 2010 and beyond.

Mike Hampton, 36 years old, Astros

Best year: 22-4, 2.90 ERA, Cy Young runner-up in 1999 with the Astros.
2009: 4-4, 4.65 ERA in 11 starts; 1.355 WHIP.
You know you’re old when: you were drafted in the same round as Mike Lansing.

While pitching for the Astros in the late 1990s, and for the Mets in 2000, Hampton was undeniably one of the premier pitchers in the National League. He ended up parlaying this track record into a foolishly lucrative deal with the Colorado, only to see his home run rates go through the roof. A trade to Atlanta helped somewhat, and Hampton was a major contributor down the stretch for the 2004 Braves. In 2005, though, he suffered the first in a series of elbow injuries, requiring Tommy John surgery and missing the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The Astros signed him to a one-year, $2 million contract after he managed 13 so-so starts for the Braves in 2008.

This year, Hampton has been an acceptable third starter, which is actually a fair accomplishment given his injury history. After a rough stretch in May, he’s come back with two strong starts in a row, both victories. As usual, he’s been effective with the stick, with eight hits in 21 at-bats. On the other hand, he’s walked a batter in 10 of his 11 starts, and given up more home runs than he’d like.

If and when Houston can put together some semblance of a major league pitching staff, the name Mike Hampton may serve as a referent to their current wanderings in the desert. Youngsters Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris may be the vanguard of the next Astros staff, but it’s not clear that either of them will end up in the rotation, and in any event, neither is ready at the moment. In the meantime, manager Cecil Cooper will continue to hand the ball to Hampton every five days and hope the offense can paper over any problems.

Russ Ortiz, 35 years old, Astros
Best year: 17-9, 122 ERA+ for Giants in 2001; only 187 hits in 218 innings.
2009: 3-2, 1.707 WHIP in four starts and 10 relief appearances.
You know you’re old when: you served up one of Sammy Sosa’s 66 home runs in 1998.

Ortiz was brought into Houston on a minor league contract and given a chance to win a rotation spot after missing 2008 following Tommy John surgery. He performed well in the spring and did indeed secure the final slot in the rotation, but was demoted therefrom after several abbreviated starts. He’s been doing mostly long relief and middle inning duty since then, allowing five runs and 17 hits in 17 innings.

More so than usual, Ortiz has struggled with his control in 2009. He’s walked 6.1 batters per nine innings, the highest rate of his career. He’s manifestly unhappy with his new role, but may have earned a return to the rotation with strong relief work recently, and a groin injury for Paulino.

Andruw Jones, 32 years old, Rangers
Best year: .303/.356/.541, 36 home runs in 2000 with Braves.
2009: .269/.397/.527 in 116 plate appearances, mostly as designated hitter.
You know you’re old when: you hit 17 home runs at the Expos’ Stade Olympique; alternatively, when the double play combination in your rookie season was Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke.

It may be unfair to include Jones on this list, but the fact that he was even taken into consideration is nobody’s fault but his. Angling for a huge contract in 2007, he instead laid an egg to the tune of a .222 batting average and 138 strikeouts, with his lowest home run total since 1999. For his troubles, he was rewarded with an achingly stupid $36 million contract with the Dodgers. In Los Angeles, his numbers actually declined—he slugged .249, for goodness’ sake—and after reworking the final year of the deal, signed with the Rangers for 2009.

In Texas, Jones has worked in at-bats at the DH spot, at first base and in the outfield corners. He’s walking at the best clip of his career, which in turn has pushed his on-base percentage to nearly 40%. In fact, his OPS+ of 142 is second-best on the team. It may be that lowered expectations have taken some pressure off of him and allowed him to play better; after all, he’s only 32 years old, the same age as Michael Young.

With the recent injury to Josh Hamilton, Jones stands to see a lot more playing time. Of all the players listed here, he has the best opportunity to rejuvenate his career. First, because he’s younger than the others, and second, because he has demonstrated a capacity to hit for average and power, and is getting on base with regularity. Whether that production will come in Arlington or elsewhere—he’s only signed for one year—remains to be seen.

Omar Vizquel, 42 years old, Rangers
Best year: 4.74 range factor, only five errors in 155 games for 1998 Indians, winning sixth of nine consecutive gold gloves.
2009: No errors in 88 innings; batting .345.
You know you’re old when: you used to be teammates with Ken Griffey… Senior.

Like Jones, Vizquel has excelled in his new role in Texas. This is largely because he’s been asked to do relatively little. Young shortstop Elvis Andrus is the future for the Rangers, and Vizquel has been teaching him a trick or two along the way. As a result, he is likely due some credit for Andrus’ highly creditable debut (.330 on-base percentage, 5.16 range factor) after having skipped Triple-A entirely. It’s worth noting that the Rangers have the second-best defensive efficiency rating in the American League, at .705.

Vizquel spent the last four seasons chugging away in San Francisco after a hugely successful decade with the Indians. He, too, was expected to retire, but was enticed to Texas with an interesting, low-pressure offer. In what has always been a questionable Hall of Fame resume, the defensive wizard’s time spent tutoring may make him more favorable to voters when he finally does hang up his cleats.

Kris Benson, 34 years old, Rangers
Best year: 121 ERA+, 217 innings pitched, 184 strikeouts for Pittsburgh in 2000.
2009: 33 hits in 22 innings pitched; missed time with elbow inflammation.
You know you’re old when: you made your major league debut at Three Rivers Stadium.

For at least the last seven years, Kris Benson has at no point been a quality major league pitcher. An impressive pedigree, though, has tempted GMs in Pittsburgh, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and now Texas to try and wring a few wins out of his damaged right arm. This year, he’s proven them wrong yet again, suffering an elbow injury that in turn elbowed him out of the starting rotation.

In his six appearances since returning from injury, Benson has given up nine runs in 8.1 innings, walked six and struck out only three. The only good thing that can be said about his performance is that it’s been infrequent, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. The Rangers scored in acquiring Jones and Vizquel, but Benson has shown yet again that whatever pitching talent he displayed to get drafted first overall in 1996 has long since left him.

Comments

One Response to “Killer Zombies in the Lone Star State”
  1. Judd says:

    Really good piece. Man, how long can Vizquel keep it up with the glove?

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