At this point, losing Clint Barmes doesn’t seem like such a big deal. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. But it could mean something next year, beyond saving money for the future and giving the kids a chance. It could mean that the Astros enter 2012 without any veteran presence except for Carlos Lee.
“So what,” you say. “They’re not going to contend for the playoffs anyway.” And you’re right.
But finding a steady shortstop is hard to do. When I was managing, the position was filled by Tim Bogar and Ricky Gutierrez. They were both good with the glove, but neither was a run producer. It worked for us because we had a load of big bats, and our pitchers didn’t have to look over their shoulders every time a ground ball was hit to short.
The Astros have signed a number of potential replacements this fall, some of them with limited time at SS in the big leagues. The also have Angel Sanchez, who has played short adequately, but with limited range in each of the last two years. He’s a pretty good contact hitter, but has no power and seldom walks. If he stays healthy, he could fill the gap between 2012 and say 2014. By then, he’ll have a veteran presence — probably not the kind of presence a team wants.
Barmes is already the kind a team does want. I wish him well with the Pirates and, if he plays like he did in the second half of last year, he will be a bargain at 10 million for two years. He handled the situation with class, going out of his way to mention that he was happy in Houston. He knows he doesn’t fit into the rebuilding plans here. He is a professional ballplayer. And that’s something the Astros may miss next year.
I’ve been through rebuilding efforts several times with the Astros and I don’t recall them ever going into a season with so few veteran players that the young guys can go to for council. They really don’t need any veterans to rebuild the team physically. But it may have been useful to spend a little money and keep Barmes just for the abstract notion of “team pride.”
That’s easy for me to say because it’s not my money. And I certainly wouldn’t want to spend a dime on a big time free agent at this juncture. But, as a pitcher or a manager, I wouldn’t want to go into a season with the shortstop position so unsettled. The Astros have one more option that has not been mentioned in anything I’ve read. And that is Tommy Manzella. Manzella can play the kind of shortstop that gives pitcher’s comfort. He was the starting SS in 2010 and he didn’t hit a lick. He played short at AAA last year and still didn’t hit. He probably never will. But the Orioles of old had a shortstop named Mark Belanger who never hit for 18 years! He was a veteran presence on many championship teams.
Two other positions are so important that you can overlook hitting — catcher and centerfield. Jason Castro got hurt last year and it was the worst break the team had all year. Not only did he miss a full season of learning to hit a the highest level. but more importantly, he missed a year of catching young pitchers that he will likely be catching for years to come. He didn’t need the extra reps behind the plate. He’s already ahead of the curve in the physical aspects of the job. He reminds me of Brad Ausmus in that way and could become a better hitter.
Centerfield is another story. One of the feel good stories of the 2010 season was the emergence of Jason Beorgeois. He can play center, but he’s no spring chicken. They also have Jordan Shafer, a left handed hitter who came over in the Michael Bourn trade from the Braves. Neither of them can replace Bourn, on or off the field. Fact is, the Astros not only lost their four best players, Bourn, Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt in the last two years. Every one of them was a winner in every way.
It’s hard to sustain the loss of talent; losing the men that define you as a team is a tough loss too. Barmes was that type of guy. If the young guys make progress, Castro settles in, and the pitching holds up, the Barmes loss will be inconsequential. By the time the Astros can contend, he will probably be a backup shortstop anyway. But the Astros still have to play 162 games next year and the year after that. They need someone to “step up” as they say. And I’m not sure who that’s going to be.