June 2012

Astros announce Community Leaders program and explain the structure in left field.

Throughout the homestand you’ve probably noticed a new structure that went up behind left field at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros have announced a new partnership with Houston-based corporations to build or refurbish youth baseball and softball fields in disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout the city.

The companies that have currently committed to this program are National Oilwell Varco, Halliburton, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Calpine Corporation, Champion Energy Services, Schlumberger and Nabors Industries. The Astros plan to have 12 corporate partners in the Community Leaders Program, which will ultimately contribute $18 million to the City of Houston over the next five years.

To recognize the Community Leaders, the Astros are building a large structure on the left field light tower at Minute Maid Park that is scheduled to be completed by July 20. The pennants currently located on the left field wall will be moved to another location inside the ballpark.

Astros Owner and Chairman Jim Crane personally developed the plan with Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who has offered the club and its corporate partners many viable options of parks that need refurbishment. Over the last few months, Crane, Mayor Parker and Houston Parks and Recreation Director Joe Turner have visited these neighborhoods and parks to select the best options, which will have the most lasting impact on youth baseball and softball.

The Community Leaders program has offered corporations the opportunity to partner with the Astros and the Astros In Action Foundation to become part of a team that will improve these neighborhoods through the game of baseball.

Community Leaders is a five-year program, which matches the corporation’s employees along with wounded veterans as volunteers in the build, refurbishment, and guest services that go along with the plan. Their employees will also volunteer as coaches or mentors at the park, some of which will also be providing wellness and education programs for their patrons.

Crane: “Baseball was very important to my own development. Playing baseball made me a lot more confident and comfortable in my ability to achieve things. I”d like to be able to help more kids get the opportunity I had through baseball.”

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig: “I applaud Jim Crane and the Astros for partnering with so many fine local organizations and impacting the future of youth baseball in Houston. The Astros’ efforts will help us reach our next generation of leaders, players, coaches and fans. Major League Baseball is a social institution, and I am delighted that the Astros’ new Community Leaders Program will help us meet our important social responsibilities in the communities of Houston.”

The Astros will break ground on the project this summer and will complete construction of the fields at the start of the 2013 baseball season.

The Citgo sign that used to hang in that area will be moved closer to center field. Citgo and the Astros have renewed their partnership for three years, and a larger sign will go up in the near future.

Transcript from chat session with GM Jeff Luhnow

Jeff Luhnow: Hello everyone! Thanks for joining us tonight. It’s been a long day…long week…long month, but I’m ready to answer questions!

johnny14k_2:  Padres edged us out last night in 10 – how will we do tonight?
JL: We are going to win tonight…after all we are a good club at home and we’ve got Lyles on the bump. Faith!

Ashitaka: First, thanks so much for chatting with us as often as you do; we all appreciate it greatly. And please pass along the fanbase’s thanks to Bobby Heck & Co. for the outstanding job on the draft. In keeping with that, do you believe that Carlos Correa stick

JL: The scouts did a tremendous job preparing for the draft and everyone in the front office helped pull it all together. I gather you were going to ask whether Carlos will stick at shortstop. The answer is yes, in my opinion. He is very talented and athletic. That being said, he is so young that his body may change…he may end up taller, thicker, etc. and if that happens he may end up at third, but that won’t be a problem. He projects to be a plus defender at either position.

Ashitaka:    Matthew Duffy is currently having an excellent season in Lexington, out of nowhere it would seem. Interesting that he’s also a 20th round pick like a certain outfielder on the Astros roster. Is this guy the real deal?

JL: He is having a big season, and that is great. Anytime a drafted player does well in full season A ball, there is reason to be excited, regardless of the round in which he was selected. He will continue to get challenged and if he continues to respond, he could be a big leaguer some day.

Ashitaka:  When Foltynewicz was drafted he was touted as a #1 starter type with the sort of typical power pitcher’s profile. He’s looking good this year, but it seems like he might be trying to pitch to contact and get ground balls. Is that accurate?

JL: Often times, what gets a player drafted is not what makes them successful in pro ball. Remember the objective is to get outs, and while velocity helps, control and movement are critical. It’s not unusual to see a power pitcher find success by pitching to contact and generating ground balls. Folty is having a big year, and that is exciting. I’ve also seen pitchers go down in velo for a few years and after they get used to the grind of pro ball, it goes back up.

Ashitaka: Reports have talked about the improving velocity of Nicholas Tropeano (the Astros.com message board is calling him “NiTro”) and he’s certainly looking like a better strikeout pitcher than a lot of people though when he was drafted.

JL: Got out of that jam? Good job Jordan. Yes, NiTro (cool nickname, mind if I start using it?) is striking guys out, and that is a key predictor of future success. He is a pitcher we are keeping a close eye on and those strikeouts are screaming that he has big league potential. Go NiTro!

Ashitaka:  It looks like Delino DeShields has improved greatly, especially in the key areas you look for a in a top-of-the-order bat. Is he a guy that’s close to taking off, or does he still need a lot of work in other areas?

JL: It is so exciting to have a guy like DD in our system! He’s young and still has some development ahead of him, but you don’t find guys with his tools everywhere. I’m thrilled with what he’s doing and can’t wait to watch him do it at the upper levels in the coming years.

Ashitaka:  Should we be concerned about Jarred Cosart’s pedestrian strikeout rate, or his…perhaps off-the-field issues is the term? It seems like there might have been something going on related to some Twitter comments he made recently that lead to a suspension.

JL: Cosart has a big league arm. He still needs some time in the minor leagues but you should remain excited about him. There is a reason we acquired him and that hasn’t changed.

Ashitaka:  Nolan Fontana has probably gotten the least amount of publicity of our first five picks, and there seems to be a lot of differing opinions about where he profiles defensively and if he’ll be able to hit enough to be a regular starter.

JL: Maybe it’s “draft fatigue” but he should get every bit of the attention that the other guys are getting. He has done something the younger guys have not — had success at a high college level. We are challenging him right out of the box and sending him to Lexington, and once you see what he does there, I believe you will be equally excited about him and his future in our organization.

Ashitaka: Are you concerned for Jonathan Singleton right now? It looks like he’s still fairly patient at the plate, but he’s in a pretty spectacular slump right now.

JL: No. Slumps are part of the game. What we watch for is how the player makes adjustments and how he battles out of a slump. Singleton has the talent to be an impact player at the big league level and should be ready soon. Everyone can watch him in Kansas City at the Futures Game.

Ashitaka: I believe Telvin Nash might be leading the solar system in strikeouts right now. Is he a guy that can’t stop swinging and missing, or more on the Adam Dunn side that he takes a lot of close pitches and gets rung up as a result? How do you seem him developing?

JL: Unfortunately, for most players strikeouts and power go hand in hand. He’s mashing, for sure, but that comes at a cost. Trust me when I tell you that our coaches and the player know this is an issue and are working hard to address it.

Ashitaka: Ariel Ovando is off to a nice start, can you give us a feel for the new regime’s view on him, how you think he may develop and how quickly or slowly he might be able to rise through the system?

JL: I didn’t know much about Ovando until I saw him in January in the DR, and then saw him more in Florida. He has a big league body and some big league tools. It’s great to see him get off to a good start. I’m increasingly bullish on him and he’s still soooo young.

Ashitaka: There’s a pretty good debate within the fanbase right now about what Jed Lowrie’s trade value would be. Without asking if you would or are trying to deal him, what do you see his value as on the trade market?

JL: His trade value would be very high. His value to us is very high. Jed’s very important to our organization and while I’d never say anyone is untradeable, he’s not likely to go anywhere for a while…or longer!

Ashitaka:  Can you give us a name or two of late-round guys you and the crew picked who you felt flew under-the-radar in the draft and could exceed what most people might expect from where they were selected? Your personal favorites, so to speak?

JL: West from Washington has a good arm, Ballew from Texas State, and Gulbransen from Jacksonville University are all sleepers!

Ashitaka: Offensively, Jobduan Morales is making you look pretty smart right now. Is his defense still as rough as people say though, and do you see him being able to work those kinks out and move through the system quickly, or is he much more of a long-term project?

JL: He is swinging the bat well, and there is a saying among baseball people, the more he hits, the better he looks behind the plate. He’s OK defensively but we have our best guys working with him. Thanks for the compliment!

Ashitaka: Jason Castro has looked a lot better at the plate recently. Can you give us a realistic expectation for him as a long-term offensive player?

JL: He’s increasingly comfortable. Last night’s home run was great. I think he can be a guy who hits .260/.350 OBP with 10 to 15 home runs and that would be interesting for an athletic catcher.

Ashitaka: Is Jim Crane and the ownership group going to want you to be conservative at the deadline for appearance purposes, or do you have free reign to wheel and deal as you see fit for the sake of the long-term rebuilding process?

JL: We will stay on strategy…acquire talent, compete, and as quickly as possible get to the point of being able to challenge for a playoff spot year in and year out.

JL: Wish we had scored there. Oh well. Fontana on the radio with Milo now. When he’s done I’m going to take him down to the field, so at that point I will have to cut this off…

Ashitaka:  What is going on with the construction in left field? Or at the least can you tell us when we might expect information about it to be revealed?

JL: I believe the cover story of Sports Business Daily covered the story. There will be a release soon so stay tuned…

yonip: Congrats on the draft! With most of the picks signed, are their any more picks you expect to sign in the next couple of weeks?

JL: We have one more in the top 10 rounds to go and then possibly a few after that…most of the work is done. It’s a huge benefit to have so many players signed quickly, for them and for us.

TimothyDeBlock:  Most recent move you’ve seen and what did you think of it?

JL: I saw the Avengers in 3D and it was awesome!

strosfn4vr:  Jobduan is off to a great start in Tri-City. Will we be seeing him in Lexington soon? Also any insight into the pronunciation of Jobduan?

JL: Just like you spell it! He’s just started so no need to promote him quite yet!

astros821:  Lance McCullers had excellent stats do you think he can be the future opening day starter?

JL: Lance has the stuff to be a dominant big league starter, so the answer is yes. He’s special.

johnny14k_2: Do you think Altuve voted 25 times for himself this year to be in the All-Star Game? I know I did!!!

JL: He’s a humble man so I doubt it, but he sure appreciates your votes (and mine). I have to believe he will make it. He sure deserves to be there!

TimothyDeBlock: What will happen to the Sr. Director of Social Media position now that Alyson Footer is heading back over to MLB.com?

JL: We all know that Alyson can’t be replaced. She’s awesome and everyone will miss her. She will still be around covering baseball at our park, so I still get to see her! We will continue to develop and improve our presence in social media, don’t you worry. Maybe we can get those guys from the LA Kings to help us out!

Astros2011yes: Is there any chance of Jimmy Paredes getting called up this year?

JL: Yes, of course. He’s hitting for a high average, stealing bases and hitting for power. He still has some refining to do at second and with his pitch selection, but he’s very close to being ready to help here.

andy_hc:  Jeff, remember how much fun we had in Colorado? What an awesome time! Thanks for the M&Ms! So, are we BFFs or what? …and who was your favorite player growing up?

JL: Andy, that was fun and I agree with the tweeps that you are over your skiis with your girlfriend! So, growing up I loved Reggie, Steve Garvey, and Nolan Ryan!

cbstro1: Could you share what the new structure on the light tower in left center will be?

JL: A very cool program that will benefit our city for generations. Stay tuned…

40acre: When do you expect Jiovanni Mier to be back on the field?

JL: A couple of weeks, assuming no setbacks.

jrivers2:  We all are expecting big things from Correa, Ruiz, & McCullers, but who beyond them will we look back on and say that was the steal of the draft?

JL: Fontana?

strosfn4vr: After this draft and subsequent signing period I’m considering getting a “Luhnow” jersey when the new ones come out next year. What number would you recommend for it?

JL: Ha ha, thanks! I like 4 but Jed has that number. Maybe 11 for the year I started working for the awesome Astros?!

buckystros:  Are you concerned with Lance McCullers arm action in the stress it may generate? Does his delivery mimic his father enough to where you believe his genetics may support the arm action and injuries that may come with it?

JL: We have studied his delivery. He had a lot going for him and does many things naturally that we love. Anybody who throws 100 has a decent risk of arm trouble, but we are hoping that our pitching coaches and conditioning program and trainers will keep him healthy!

Tmengd:  Just don’t trade Altuve. Everyone in Houston sees him as the next big guy (no pun intended) they can hold onto for the next decade!!!

JL: Ok.

jrreyes: If you had to get rid of hot dogs or nachos at the ballpark, which would it be?

JL: I would add more Mexican food!

JL: How about a mid-chat takeover by our 2nd round pick Nolan Fontana? He’s about to come in here…

usc1:  If we are planning for the future, why are we playing Carlos Lee. Brett Wallace came up and did a great job and deserves a chance now. Lee is not going to be on the team. He is not our future.

 JL: Wallace did a great job here. LOOOONG ball out by JED!!!!

JL: How about that?!

Nolan Fontana: Hey there this is Nolan Fontana, Just finished talking with Milo

Jeff Luhnow: Any questions for our newest Astro?

tidalwave2:  Given the new infusion of talent with the draft, which of this years players can we expect to see in Houston fastest?

NF: Me!!

JL: It’s really him, I promise.

Astros2011yes: Is there a realistic chance of Jed Lowrie in the All-Star game this year?

JL: I would say so. Gosh, 14 home runs for a shortstop?! Are you kidding me? How could he not? TLR, are you watching?

strosfn4vr: Kuechel is off to a great start to his big league career. With Bud returning from the DL soon, how tough of a decision will it be to send him down? Or is there a chance someone else goes to OKC?

JL: Stay tuned…I think you will all enjoy the answer.

johnny14k_2: What can we expect from newly signed Scott Moore?

JL: He earned this promotion. Look at his numbers in AAA.

mtx711:  Where would Carlos Correa fit right now in terms of top prospects?

JL: Near or at the top.

JL: Ask Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law.

dan410: Is there a chance that Jarred Cosart makes it to AAA this season?

JL: Yes, we thought about it already and it will happen at some point.

JL: Ok folks, NF and I are headed to the field for an introduction. Nice chatting with you! Let’s win this game! Let’s talk again soon…

GM Jeff Luhnow will chat with fans tonight (Tuesday) at 7:30 CT.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow will chat with fans tonight during the Astros’ game with the Padres, beginning at 7:30 p.m. CT. Luhnow will take your questions online and answer them directly from his booth at Minute Maid Park while watching the game.

If you’ve been through this exercise before, you know Luhnow is pretty candid with his responses, and if the game is going well, he’ll often stretch the 30-minute session to 40 or 45 minutes. He’s also been known to throw out an “OMG!” when an Astros player hits a home run during the chat session.

In other words, Luhnow’s chats are highly entertaining. Hope you’ll join us tonight at 7:30. Here is the link.

 

 

Saying goodbye is never easy, but alas, it’s time. A salute to the Astros and their fans.

Three years ago, Roy Oswalt, a native of Weir, Miss., (pop. 500), built a restaurant smack dab in the middle of his hometown and near three others, intending to give people who lived nearby a place to go for a nice dinner without having to drive 30 miles into town to do so.

Oswalt promised me that when the restaurant was complete and ready for public consumption, he would invite me to come to town so I could cover the grand opening. True to his word, when the date was finalized, he sent a text message that he was ready, and he offered up a room in his lodge located on his sprawling white tail deer ranch.

Roy’s friend, Joey, showed me around the place while Roy was busy at the restaurant preparing for the opening. Joey drove me around the hundreds of acres of land on a four-wheeler, doing his best to explain the country life to a city girl whose idea of “getting back to the land” was hiring someone to trim the six feet of grass that sits in front of her townhome off Washington Ave.

Joey was a great host. He showed me the lake Roy built with the bulldozer Drayton McLane gave him years earlier. He drove me by several wooded areas where white-tail deer freely roamed. And, much to my delight, he got as close as he could to the deer, even as they freaked out and sprinted in the opposite direction, which is what deer do when intruders (me) show up.

After a long afternoon on the ranch and a tasty dinner at Roy’s new restaurant, Joey ticked off the list of activities for the next day. First up: waking up at 5 a.m. to artificially inseminate the white-tail doe, with contributions from super-special, well-bred deer from an undisclosed, far-away place where super-special deer apparently are raised.

“It’s going to be great,” Joey said, excitedly.

Oh.

“You know, that sounds fascinating,” I said. “But I think I’m going to go ahead and sleep in,” I said.

Oswalt, during one of our spirited debates.

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That visit to Roy’s hometown occurred a few months after I began a new job with my old team, a position designed to bring the fans closer to the Astros through the annals of Social Media and blogging. That trip was the first of many in-depth glimpses to our team, for our fanbase, with the intention to give insight as to who these players are and what makes them tick. We wanted to show them not as robots but as people, beyond what you can see for yourself by watching on TV and reading in the paper.

We felt the best way to implement that plan was to provide a never-ending stream of behind-the-scenes access through storytelling, photos and videos. To illustrate the ins and outs of the Houston Astros. To make fans feel like they were part of the process.

Simply put, the last three years have been an absolute blast. But now, as is the case with most elements of life, it’s time to move on.

Over the last 16 seasons, I’ve had three jobs: first with the Astros, then with MLB.com, and then back with the Astros. In another week, I will leave my post with the Astros to go back to MLB.com for an exciting new opportunity. I’ll be a national correspondent, working with all 30 teams on a variety of levels. My first assignment will be All-Star week.

While I’ve obviously had plenty of experience changing jobs, this one is a huge leap, because although I’ll still be based in Houston, for the first time, I will no longer be working exclusively with the Astros. So this, in many ways, is goodbye.

I’m not really into “farewell” columns writers post when they’re on the move, but I do want to express my gratitude to you, the readers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thanks for all of it — the good, the bad and the loud disagreements. For the give and take, the back and forth, the laughter and the spirited debates. Mostly, I thank you for trusting me, for knowing you could ask me just about anything, and accepting my answers as candid, honest and forthright. That was hugely important to me.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know I like to ramble on about a bunch of completely unrelated topics. I figure that would be a fitting way to end this chapter. So here we go:

* Your Astros are in extremely good hands. I refer to Jeff Luhnow as a rock star (although I’m not sure if I’ve ever told him that. Guess he knows now). He understands what it takes for an organization to sustain long-term success and is building the Astros accordingly. Sure, he’s smart and savvy, but he has that little something extra that makes you believe he’s going to be in this job a long while. He gets baseball, he gets people, and let’s face it, he’s just a really cool dude. The first thing he said to me when we met at his introductory press conference was “I follow you on Twitter.” I think @drjohnreyes phrased it perfectly when he said, “Jeff Luhnow being on Twitter is like finding out your parents skydive.”

I’m guessing not many other GMs out there conduct chat sessions with fans during games. Incidentally, Luhnow will do another one of those Tuesday at 7:30 CT.

* Jim Crane also gets it. The worst thing an owner can do is take over a team, put a sound plan in place to build a winner, and then blow a jillion dollars on a free agent past his prime, messing up the team’s financial structure for the next decade. This will not happen with Crane. He hired smart, capable people to run the baseball operation, and he’s leaving it up to them to do just that. The plan is in place and they are sticking to it. Trust me, it’s a good plan. My money’s on it working.

* Despite the Astros’ current record, the organization as a whole is in a very good place. The Minor League teams are winning, a lot. This would be in stark contrast to the last several years, when the Minor League teams were losing, a lot. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Luhnow’s mantra: build the Minor League rosters with winning in mind. That means disregarding who was drafted in what round and feeling a need to push former high picks through the system just for the sake of moving them. Now, it’s about performance and development, and little else.

* Minute Maid Park is still one of the premier ballparks in baseball. For the last 10 years, my top three have not changed: Minute Maid Park, AT&T Park (San Fran) and PNC Park (Pittsburgh). Working from Minute Maid Park has been a pleasure, and I’m guessing the fan experience isn’t much different.

* For all of the grief Ed Wade took, he did a lot of good work here. There’s a lot of talent in the Minor League system and many of those players were obtained under Wade’s watch. You haven’t heard a lot about them, but you will. Soon.

* I don’t care what Chris Snyder’s batting average is. He’s been a great addition to this team. He has that certain something that makes him a perfect presence in a big league clubhouse. Every team needs that veteran guy who keeps things steady, can relate to all teammates and handles winning and losing with an unwaveringly calm approach. He’s a ballplayer, in the truest sense. He needs to stick around.

* I hated the hot sauce packet mascot race. Mascots who run in races, by definition, need eyes. When you put faces on inanimate objects, it’s funny. And what’s up with Mild Sauce losing every day? I know Texans like their spicy toppings, but come on. Totally fixed.

* Six years ago, Oswalt and I made a friendly wager. He insisted that when his contract ran out after 2011, he was going to retire. I disagreed, guessing he’d keep pitching. The wager: dinner. Roy, changing your cell number doesn’t get you off the hook. Pay up.

* When the Astros were winning and winning and winning in 2004 and ’05, the rosters were comprised mostly of players who had never played for another Major League team. Most were drafted by the Astros (Berkman, Biggio, Oswalt, Ensberg, Lane, etc.) and others were obtained through trades as Minor Leaguers (Bagwell, Everett). This created a sense of unity among teammates that made the winning that much more meaningful. When the modern-day Astros start rolling again, the rosters again will be filled with mostly players who were drafted and developed by this organization. That’s significant.

* Best moment: Covering the clubhouse scene when the Astros won the pennant. What I remember most about the World Series was not that the Astros were swept, but that Craig Biggio said to me at least three times, “You know, this was totally worth the wait.”

* Worst moment: Covering the clubhouse scene the day Darryl Kile died, 10 years ago today. The grief was overwhelming. I’ve never witnessed such complete devastation and I sensed that some of Kile’s friends would never be able to get past the loss.

* Best quote: Billy Wagner. You just never knew what was going to fly out of his mouth. A reporter’s dream, a team’s (occasional) nightmare.

* Most nerve-racking non-Astros moment: Watching, in person, Brad Lidge attempt to nail down the save in the World Series clinching game for the Phillies in 2008. I was covering the Series for MLB.com and my assignment was to document the postgame celebration on the field. I snuck down to the seats right behind the third-base dugout and watched the ninth inning from there. I was so nervous for Lidge that I actually feared I was going to either pass out or toss my cookies. Fortunately everything turned out well for both of us.

* Most challenging moment: Covering Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. Reporters have to turn in game stories five minutes after the last out is made, and with two outs in the ninth, no one on base and Lidge on the mound, I had 700 words written about the Astros’ pennant-clinching win over the Cardinals. Ten minutes later, Albert Pujols launched his moon shot to left field, and I had no choice but to highlight the story, push delete, and start over. (Honorable mention: the 18-inning win over the Braves in the NLDS. When games go that long, paragraphs that were important three innings ago eventually become irrelevant. So for three hours, it was type, delete. Type, delete. Rinse, repeat.)

* Favorite memory that I couldn’t write about: I finished my game coverage around 3 a.m. after the Astros clinched the pennant in St. Louis and walked back to the media dining room to pour a Budweiser beer from the single tap located near the eating area. I propped my feet up, savored the moment and realized I was probably drinking the very last Bud beer ever to be poured in old Busch Stadium. The ballpark was razed the next morning.

The list of my favorite people in baseball is long. But no one tops Phil Garner, seen here multi-tasking a couple of hours after the Astros won the pennant.

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That should just about do it. Thank you again for your friendship. I will continue blogging and tweeting in my new job, so I hope you’ll continue to follow along. In the meantime, please continue to follow @astros for information about your hometown nine.

Be well, Astros fans!

Alyson

Astros lineup 6/20 vs. Royals. First pitch 1:05 p.m. CT

Astros lineup 6/19 vs. Royals. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT

Astros lineup 6/18 vs. Royals. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT

Altuve gains national attention. Newsflash: he’s really good. (But we already knew that.)

Collectively, as an organization, the Astros got past the Jose-Altuve-is-too-short-to-play-in-the-big-leagues thing quite a while ago.

Two-and-a-half months into the season, I think we can all agree Altuve’s height is holding him back from nothing. That conclusion was established here in Houston a while ago. Now, several folks outside of our city are now catching on as well.

As you peruse this delightful blog written by Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, please also enjoy this latest nugget:

In addition to putting up All-Star caliber numbers so far this season, Altuve is also on pace to become one of the few NL second basemen since 1985 to lead his team in singles, doubles and triples.

The list of predecessors is impressive:

Steve Sax, Dodgers, 1986: 157 singles, 43 doubles, 4 triples
Craig Biggio, Astros, 1994: 84, 44, 5
Jeff Kent, Giants, 2000: 115, 41, 7
Freddy Sanchez, Pirates, 2007: 126, 42, 4
Jose Altuve, Astros, 2012 (through 66 games): 57, 18, 4
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All-Star voting is coming to close in the not-so-distant future. In-stadium balloting ends Wednesday, while the cutoff for online balloting is June 28 (next Thursday).

To boost the numbers in Houston and give one final push for Altuve and shortstop Jed Lowrie, the Astros are hosting an All-Star voting party tomorrow (Tuesday, June 19) during their game with the Royals.

The party will take place at the Conoco Pump Alley in left-center field and the more times you vote, the more times you’ll be entered to win a bunch of Astros prizes (game-used balls, hats, goody bags).

Tickets can be purchased here. Or you can call 1 877 9 ASTROS.

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Hall of Famer Joe Morgan will be in town this weekend to receive his Walk of Fame honors, as well as throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Astros game with the Indians.

Morgan, who played for the Astros from 1963-71 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, will sign autographs on the main concourse from 6-6:30 p.m. on Friday. Autograph vouchers cost $25, with proceeds going to the Astros In Action Foundation.

Vouchers are available here.

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Vote Astros to All-Star Game

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Astros lineup 6/12 at Giants. First pitch 9:15 p.m. CT

All-Star chatter includes Altuve, Lowrie; fans encouraged to Tweet the Vote.

Altuve-mania is sweeping the greater Houston area, and it’s becoming exceedingly clear that your second baseman is going to find himself in Kansas City in about a month.

No, no, no…the Astros didn’t make another trade with the Royals. Rather, Kansas City is the site of the 2012 All-Star Game, and Jose Altuve, who’s maintained an average well over .300 the entire season, arguably is the leading candidate to represent the Astros this year.

Don’t count out Jed Lowrie, either, who as of Sunday is leading all big league shortstops with 12 home runs and should be in any conversation at this point about the Astros and the All-Star Game. It would be nice to see both Lowrie and Altuve — with his .326 batting average, 17 doubles, three triples and 22 RBIs — head to Kansas City.

I have no idea how many Altuves it takes to get from Houston to Kansas City, but I’m pretty sure of one thing: every time someone mentions his height (or lack thereof) Altuve gets a hit.

Athletes from the other Houston sports teams are jumping on the Altuve bandwagon, too. On Sunday, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt tweeted: “Hey Houston, @JoseAltuve27 hit a HR & stole home today and is hitting .326 on the year. Get your votes in, make him an All-Star #TeamHouston”

I’m guessing Watt has already voted here…

…and you can also Tweet the Vote here, using a slew of hashtags that identifies the Astros and your favorite players.

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In addition to signing their first-round pick in less than 72 hours, the Astros have been busy working on signing as many of the remaining 40 players they selected during the Draft last week.

So far, they’ve inked 18, including their third-rounder (RHP Brady Rodgers) and their fifth-rounder (OF Andrew Aplin).

The full up-to-date list, as of Sunday night:

1 SS Carlos Correa
3 RHP Brady Rodgers
5 OF Andrew Aplin
9 RHP Daniel Minor
12 OF Terrell Joyce
13 LHP Brian Holmes
14 IF Joseph Sclafani
15 RHP Erick Gonzalez
16 OF Daniel Gulbransen
17 RHP Aaron West
18 C Richard Gingras
19 IF Austin Elkins
28 IF Angel Ibanez
29 RHP Christian Garcia
30 RHP John Neely
31 C M.P. Cokinos
34 RHP Jordan Jankowski
37 RHP Michael Dimock

(Update: the Astros signed three more: LHP Joseph Bircher (10th round), RHP Travis Ballew (23rd round), 1B Michael
Martinez (36th round).

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Speaking of the Draft, it wasn’t at all surprising when the announcement regarding the Player To Be Named in the trade with the Royals from a few months ago came down this weekend.

The Astros traded Jason Bourgeois and Humberto Quintero to Kansas City during Spring Training for left-hander Kevin Chapman and that always-mysterious Player to Be Named, who was to be named, well, later. Much, much later.

We now know that player is 20-year-old outfielder D’Andre Toney. He was drafted by the Royals in 2011, and because a player has to be in the system for a full year before the team who drafted him can trade him, the Toney transaction couldn’t happen until the 2012 Draft was complete.

Hence, the timing.

Jeff Luhnow hinted in March the PTBNL was the cornerstone of the trade, and if early returns are any indication, it appears the Astros acquired a speedy outfielder with offensive potential. Last year while in Rookie Ball, he hit .340 with 12 doubles, five triples, five home runs and 29 RBIs and a .432 on-base percentage.

In trading two bench players, the Astros acquired a young lefty pitching prospect and outfielder, moving the organization forward as it continues to build the farm system and plan for the future. Looks promising.

(Chapman, by the way, has a 3-2 record with a 2.30 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings in 24 appearances for Double-A Corpus Christi this season and was named the club’s Pitcher of the Month in April.)

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