June 2011

Astros lineup 6/18 at Dodgers. First pitch 9:10 p.m. CT

A 21-year-old second baseman may be on a “fast track to the big leagues.”

It’s not often that a player’s exploits in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues draw much attention from the fan base in the parent city. Then again, it’s not every day, or year, or decade for that matter, that a player flirts with a .400 batting average at five levels of the Minor Leagues over five seasons, and is just now barely 21 years old.

Jose Altuve was recently promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi after blistering California League pitching for Class A Lancaster, logging a .408 batting average over a 52-game, 213 at-bat audition that included 25 extra-base hits, 34 RBIs and 19 walks against just 26 strikeouts.

His amazing consistency, and cumulative .445 on-base percentage over five seasons, are just two reasons why general manager Ed Wade continues to hear from his baseball people that Altuve “has a chance to fast track to the big leagues.”

“When I saw him in Lancaster, I was ready to bring him up to the big leagues,” Wade said, smiling at the memory. “I had to have people remind me that he was only 19.”

The Venezuelan-born Altuve was signed as a non-drafted free agent at the age of 16 in September of 2006. He’s listed at 5-foot-7, which in baseball terms means he probably really is 5-foot-7 — if he’s wearing platform shoes and standing on his tippy toes. His small stature was seemingly never an issue, however. He started his career in the Venezuelan Summer League in ’07 and hit .343. He played for the Rookie League squad in Greeneville in ’08 and again hit .343. He started ’09 again in Greeneville and hit .324, so he was moved up to Short Season A Tri-City, where he hit .250.

In ’10, Altuve began the season in at Class A Lexington and hit .308 and then moved to Class A Lancaster, hitting .276. He began ’11 at Lancaster and hit .408, so the Astros decided to challenge him by bumping him up to Double-A Corpus Christi. At this writing, the second baseman was hitting .383.

Wade is hoping Altuve makes the All-Star Futures Game, which will be held in Phoenix on Sunday, July 10 and will kick off the Major League All-Star festivities. Roster spots for the Futures Game are reserved for the best of the best of Minor League talent, and Wade feels Altuve belongs there.

A lot of the talent in the Astros’ system appears to be slowly migrating to Corpus Christi. In addition to Altuve’s recent arrival, a few of his new teammates were recently named to the Texas League All-Star team: outfielder J.D. Martinez (who is being groomed to someday take over left field), shortstop Wladimir Sutil and left-handers Xavier Cedeno and Dallas Keuchel.

It is for that reason that I’m taking my talents (and by talents, I mean, my Toyota Rav 4 and an overnight bag) to Corpus Christi in July. I’ll be there July 7-9 and judging from what I’m reading and hearing about the players there, we should
have plenty to talk about.

____________

Interesting blog by Richard Justice in the Chronicle , which speculates that the Astros may have erred by not drafting University of Texas pitcher Taylor Jungmann, selected by the Brewers in the first round — one pick after the Astros passed on him and went with outfielder George Springer.

By the time the first round had concluded on Draft Day, I had already heard from dozens of angry observers wondering how the Astros could have passed on a sure-fire future Major League pitcher in Jungmann. While there are obviously no sure-fire guarantees in the Draft, the Astros’ logic was simple: the Draft was loaded with outstanding college arms, and the Astros felt there would be plenty to choose from in the ensuing rounds. They felt Springer was the best athlete available — a special combination of power, speed and defense — and they badly wanted him. They knew he would not be available when their turn came around again in the second round.

I’ve heard from a lot of fans who have asked, “Can’t they see we need pitching? Draft a pitcher!” There are two schools of thought on that: First, the Astros ended up drafting seven pitchers in the first 10 rounds, so they definitely went heavy on pitching in the early going. Second, it’s dangerous to equate deficiencies on the Major League level with holes in the Minor Leagues.

Obviously, you can never have too much pitching, so going heavy on that in the first round or any of the remaining 49 rounds is never a bad thing. But over the last 15 years, the Astros really have developed only two indisputable sluggers — Lance Berkman, who spent nearly a full decade as one of the league’s most feared hitters, and Hunter Pence, who is more of a streaky hitter than Berkman but at the end of every season has very good numbers that reveal top-notch consistency.

Other than that, the pickings have been slim. Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Richard Hidalgo, drafted and developed by the Astros, were good, but not for very long. There have been other position players here and there who have contributed offensively, but in terms of that middle-of-the-order bat that can carry the team over long periods of time, the pipeline has been somewhat narrow.

So while I would have been perfectly happy had they taken a pitcher as their first-rounder, I was just as happy to see the Astros draft a tall, strong, speedy slugger. Will Springer be a slugger in the big leagues? Who knows? The pick could backfire on them, as could the first-round picks of the 29 other teams. What I can tell you is Springer was several rungs ahead of Jungmann in the pecking order on the Astros Draft board, and they celebrated when Springer was still available when it was time to pick.

As is the case with every draft, it will be interesting to look back at this in three or four years.

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The Dodgers, off the field, are a well-documented mess, but Dodger Stadium continues to be one of the premier venues in baseball. Here’s proof:

Presumably, pitching coach Doug Brocail was talking about pitching with our broadcasters -- former pitcher Jim Deshaies and current pitching aficionado Dave Raymond -- when this picture was snapped during batting practice.

Jeff Keppinger, Brett Wallace, Clint Barmes

Brandon Lyon, Matt Downs, Chris Johnson, J.A. Happ

Bud Norris recites the starting lineup for FS Houston.

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Astros lineup 6/17 at Dodgers. First pitch 9:10 CT.

Four Hooks named to Texas League All-Star Team

By Rachel Frey

Following last week’s announcement of Astros Single-A prospects being named to the South Atlantic League’s All-Star team, the Texas League, home of the Double-A affiliate Corpus Christi Hooks, announced their list of All-Stars.  Four Hooks were named to the team: OF J.D. Martinez, SS Wladimir Sutil, LHPs Xavier Cedeno and Dallas Keuchel. Both position players are also listed as starters.

After starting the season off with Corpus Christi, Martinez was placed on the disabled list in early May for almost 3 weeks with a hamstring strain. He’s currently hitting .311 with 37 RBIs, 14 doubles and 3 home runs.

“When he returned, he mainly DH’ed until he was comfortable that his leg was 100%,” Astros Director of Player Development Fred Nelson said. “We are excited to have him back playing every day and getting his bat going again. He continues to drive in runs and is working hard on his outfield defense. We all look forward to following his progress in the second half of the season.”

Sutil had a 16-game hitting streak this season, which has been the longest in the league so far. Recently, he has been promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City, and unless he is reassigned to Corpus Christi before the All-Star Game, he will be replaced in the game. Since being moved up, he has a .333 batting average in 12 at-bats. This is his third consecutive season to be selected to the Texas League’s All-Star Team.

Cedeno and Keuchel have been leading the Texas League in pitching statistics for much of the season. Currently, they are both listed on the leagues list of Top 10 Pitchers. Keuchel has a 4-6 record with a 2.99 ERA through 75 innings pitched, and only walked 18 batters. Cedeno has a 4-4 record with a 3.77 ERA. He’s pitched in 76 innings and struck out 66 batters.

The All-Star game is Wednesday, June 29, at Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium in San Antonio. If you aren’t heading to the Astros vs. Rangers game that evening, you should make the (relatively) short drive to see future Astros in action.

To see the Hook’s story on the All-Stars, click here: http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110613&content_id=20429208&vkey=news_t482&fext=.jsp&sid=t482.

Schmoozing with Al Roker: Astros “Lend a Hand Today.”

Baseball players are, in general, more accustomed to late nights than early mornings. After all, their work day doesn’t start until mid-afternoon and normally lasts deep into the evening, with bed time often arriving hours after most of the “normal” section of society shuts it down for the day.

But a handful of Astros were up at the crack of dawn — like, Spring Training early — Wednesday morning, and were happy to do so. They were invited to appear on the TODAY Show with Al Roker as part of his “Lend a Hand Today” tour, a cross-country trek that started in Alaska on Monday, stopped in Las Vegas Tuesday and arrived in Houston Wednesday.

It took no coaxing on the Astros part to convince Mark Melancon and J.R. Towles and manager Brad Mills to participate in this event (even if it meant meeting at the ballpark parking garage at 6:30 a.m.). Roker, one of the most famous and well-liked personalities in morning television, has been traveling the country for 10 years, “Lending a Hand” and shining light on five exceptional charities each year and surprising them with truckloads of donations.

The TODAY Show’s visit to the Bayou City was the most lucrative in “Lend a Hand” history, bringing in $2.7 million for Casa de Esperanza, a safe place for children in crisis due to abuse, neglect or the effects of HIV.

The chosen charity is top secret until Roker does a live, on-air reveal. He’s flanked by hundreds of cheering volunteers and representatives of the various businesses and organizations that donate money, supplies, food, clothing, linens, toiletries, games and toys. Toys R Us was there. Babies R Us, too, as was Jordache Jeans and dozens of others — including the Astros, who presented Roker with a check for $5,000 on behalf of the Astros in Action Foundation, and 1,000 tickets to future Astros games for the kids.

Texas native Jenna Bush Hager, a TODAY Show correspondent, was instrumental in the effort to have the “Lend a Hand” series visit Houston and, not surprisingly, she was a very popular presence among the onlookers at the big reveal. The scene was loud and frenzied and wonderful. And as an added bonus, Roker’s a really nice guy — as friendly and congenial and he comes off on TV. Bush Hager is warm and approachable and I lost count of how many kids from Casa de Esperanza ran up to her. She embraced every one of them.

There are two videos from the appearance — the clip from the TODAY Show website, and our exclusive, behind-the-scenes perspective. It’s kind of fun to watch footage from the same event, from two different angles.

And as always, we took lots and lots of photos…

Among the items we carried in to the event were baseballs to be autographed for future charity events, an oversized symbolic check for $5,000 and boxes of caps to hand out. Towles and Melancon found this to be the easiest way to transport the caps.

The group, after the check presentation.

We gave the players a pretty heady task: get Roker to wear the Astros cap during the broadcast. Roker enthusiastically put the cap on and said, "I'm an honorary Astro." Mission accomplished.

Among the adoring onlookers were Britanny Towles and Mary Catherine Melancon, who collected some autographed Roker/Bush Hager loot for the upcoming Wives Gala.

Jenna Bush Hager poses with the Astros, a fitting photo considering how many games her grandparents attend every year.

Roker snapped about as many pictures as we did. It was fun to see him taking in the scene and enjoying the experience, while tending to his duties as the main "Lend a Hand Today" correspondent.

Towles and Melancon pose with country music singer Clay Walker...

...and then they all exchange phone numbers. Man love at its finest!

The Astros contingent -- including Junction Jack -- unloads the truck full of items donated to Casa de Esperanza.

During commercial breaks, the players asked Roker to sign a few baseballs, which the affable weather man did willingly.

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Astros lineup 6/15 vs. Pirates. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT.

Astros lineup 6/14 vs. Pirates. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT.

Mills, Towles, Melancon to appear on the TODAY Show Wednesday

Set your DVRs, Houston fans…your Astros are going to be making a cameo appearance on NBC’s TODAY Show on Wednesday as a part of Al Roker’s Lend a Hand Tour.

Roker is traveling the country this week to shine light on five exceptional charities and surprise them with truckloads of donations. Each day, the TODAY Show is in a different city helping another new charity. In the past nine years, the series has taken Roker to 44 cities in 32 states.

Most of the rest of the details are top secret, but we do know this: Brad Mills, J.R. Towles and Mark Melancon will be on the show in some capacity with Roker, and the “Lend a Hand” big reveal takes place during the second hour of the show, sometime around 8:30 CT.

Tune in!

 

 

Astros lineup 6/13 vs. Braves. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT

Weekend roundup: Astros Wives Gala and Social Media Night on the horizon.

Jeff and Morgan Keppinger

One of the more important traditions the Houston Astros have continued over the years is the annual “Black Ties and Baseball Caps” Wives Gala, which over the last 21 years has raised over $4 million for the Houston Area Women’s Center.

The Center, which supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence, was the charity of choice by the first Gala co-chairs, Patty Biggio and Nancy Caminiti, in 1990. Astros rosters have changed dramatically over the years, but the legacy of the Wives Gala remains unchanged. For the beneficiaries of funding that has helped support HAWC, this fundraiser continues to be one of utmost importance.

An annual warmup to the Gala is the party for the underwriters who provide the majority of the resources for the Gala. This year’s party was held Sunday night at Brenner’s On the Bayou, hosted by Paige and Tilman Fertitta, General Manager Chris Shaw and Coordinator Rachel Price.

Most of the Astros players and coaching staff attended the event, and likely will be present again for the Gala, which takes place on Aug. 18 at Minute Maid Park. The soiree, co-chaired by Mary Catherine Melancon and Summer Barmes with assistance from Auction chairperson Michele Quintero, includes a silent and live auction and an opportunity to mix and mingle with the Astros family. Legendary comedian Rich Little will provide the entertainment.

For more information, contact Judy Nichols at judynichols1@sbcglobal.net or at 713-781-0053.

We didn’t get pictures of everyone, but we did our best. Enjoy….

Jason Castro and his fiancee, Maris Pearlman.

Chris Johnson

Matt and Leah Downs

J.A. Happ and Morgan Cawley

Fun fact: Jason Michaels' wife, Pamela (right), and her sister, Karen (left), were Doublemint Twins when they were teenagers.

Mary and Carlos Lee

Gari and Bobby Meacham and their granddaughter, Reese

Mark and Mary Catherine Melancon

Hunter Pence and Lindsey Slott

Michele and Humberto Quintero

Brittany and J.R. Towles

Aubree Gerardi, Maris Pearlman, Morgan Cawley

Towles, Clint Barmes, Melancon

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Our first two Social Media Nights were a rousing success, and the third one is set for June 25 during the Astros’ game with the Rays.

What is Social Media Night,  presented by Ford Focus, you ask? It’s a fun night in the Budweiser Patio that includes a ballpark tour, batting practice viewing, a ticket in the Bud Patio behind center field, a t-shirt, dinner, dessert and an appearance by an Astros player — this month, the guest will be Brett Wallace.

Wallace (@brettwallace29 on Twitter) will make an appearance from 5-5:15, before the 6:05 game with the Rays. We’ll conduct our trivia contest over Twitter, and Wallace will hand out prizes — autographed baseballs and bobbleheads.

Tickets are $45, and seating is limited — just 108 available. You can reserve your tickets by clicking here, and we hope to see you on June 25.

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