The Not-so Long and Short of Parting with Pocket Jesus (and Other Pseudo-religious Baseball Ramblings)

I haven’t blogged in over a month, and I bet you’re all wondering why, right? …right? Upon my last post, the one I wrote before the beginning of the season, I promised myself that I would sit back and observe the organization without my blogger-born eye for scrutiny. I promised myself that I would remove myself from my made-up responsibilities and take the time to enjoy watching baseball again. It was important to me not to be as so damn negative and ultra-critical about everything.

I wanted to be more of a fan and less of a blogger.

I wanted to get back to the basics. I wanted to quit worrying about the stupid community partner billboards or league realignment and whether Jim Crane was honest with us. I wanted to quit thinking about the 2014 draft and whether or not the Astros have the integrity to stay out of the basement. I wanted to quit mutilating my Bud Selig and Drayton McLane voodoo dolls. I wanted to suppress my fear that Moses Ryan is now thirty-nine years into leading the Astraelites out of Houston and into “The Promised Metroplex.”

I wanted to see the Astros as what they really and truly are – a young exciting team plowing their way through uncharted American League territories. I wanted to bear witness to the duality of a baseball career cast deliberately and almost experimentally among a single solitary nine – an unlikely assemblage of young guys getting their first chance coupled with older guys getting their final chance. I wanted to witness the births, the resurrections and the painful deaths. This is baseball reduced down to its lowest common denominator. And there is a great deal of passion somewhere in between, and I wanted to be a part of it, to experience it, to soak it in. I wanted to root for each and every one of them, each hanging on by a mere thread, each with a future uncertain.

Rick Ankiel was hanging on by a mere thread.

Ankiel had a rather superb spring, and his unique experiences likely played a significant role in him earning a spot with the team. The Astros hoped Ankiel could serve as a stopgap until one of their greenhorns could step in and take over right field. Unfortunately, Ankiel struggled tremendously at avoiding strikeouts. On Monday, he was mercifully delivered his coup de grâce – he was designated for assignment and is likely finished playing major league baseball.

His is a fascinating story. He started off as a pitcher in the Cardinals organization. In 1999, Ankiel was the number one prospect in baseball. He was a phenom in every sense of the word. He made his major league debut at nineteen and struck out 194 hitters in 175 innings as a twenty year old in 2000. He had incredible stuff and had a long dazzling career ahead of him that would feature All Star appearances and Cy Young Awards.

I feared he would torment the Astros for the next decade or two.

But, at the end of 2000, the wheels fell off and Ankiel couldn’t throw strikes. He became Steve Blass. What ailed Ankiel transcended mechanics and form – it was psychological; he wasn’t even close to throwing strikes. I have an unnatural hatred for the St. Louis Cardinals and even I thought it was sickening to watch. There was absolutely no satisfaction from the Cardinals’ rivals regarding Ankiel’s misfortune. He was damaged, broken beyond repair. It was very uncomfortable. I felt terrible for him.

He dangled around for a few years and found himself hanging on by a mere thread. He missed a year due to an injury and then pitched sparingly in 2004. But he was done. He would never pitch again.

At twenty-four, his career was over.

But Ankiel decided to reinvent himself.

Already a good hitter, Ankiel decided that he’d focus on that aspect of his game. And, in a short amount of time, he evolved from a good hitter to an outstanding hitter. He rose through the ranks of the Cardinals minor league system and found himself back in a major league uniform in 2007.

He hit .285 in 2007 and hit 25 bombs in 2008. He played flawless defense and his million dollar left arm, completely useless on a pitcher’s mound, was one of the most feared outfield weapons in major league baseball.

Ankiel showed perseverance and an unmatched hunger to succeed. He battled through the adversity and fought tooth and nail to get back to the show – and he did! In the matter of a few years, a career was born, died and was reincarnated.  

I hope he writes a book one day.

Rick Ankiel turned a tragic event into one of the better stories over the last twenty years.

To me, this is baseball and this is why I love it. In the scheme of things, records and statistics are irrelevant. Baseball is slice of life theatre set before an agonized and elated audience, a microcosm of our very being. Baseball isn’t about 27 outs or 162 games – it’s about savoring the brief morsels of success, it’s about coping with failure and it’s about being part of a family. It isn’t as much about making history as it is about having a history, being a part of a history. History is made whether you’re a part of it or not. In life as it is with baseball, we are all hanging on by a mere thread – each of us with a future uncertain.

…and like Rick Ankiel, we reinvent ourselves, we adapt to changing environments and we do whatever we can to just hang on.

So, I’ve kept my mouth shut, and I’ve watched baseball. I’ve eradicated the numbness and negativity from my body and in the process I’ve sated my thirst and found what I was looking for.

Astros baseball is fun again.

…a lot of fun.

Jim Crane has done his part by remaining on the sidelines and away from microphones, reporters and all other potentially disastrous objects. Perhaps, like me, he is in the midst of a self-imposed exile to cure his spinning head. In all honesty, I hope he’s finding happiness too. I hope the losing isn’t bearing down on him.   

In a way, our unacknowledged détente is mutually beneficially – my blood pressure remains at a manageable level, and the Astros upper-level management personae can graciously afford fans an opportunity to recoup after the series of violent gut-punches delivered during the offseason.

In retrospect, I understand that the offseason was hard on Crane too. Although he has no one to blame but himself, it probably isn’t easy consistently alienating the people who root for you the most. Maybe a part of me, a little part, even sympathizes with him. 

Alas, the month long hiatus is over, and I plan on writing again. I have returned. I feel renewed. I feel refreshed. I’m having a lot of fun being an Astros fan again.

And, a month into the season, isn’t there a lot to be excited about?

Although their record doesn’t necessarily reflect it, the Astros aren’t all that bad, either. 

…well, except for the 17-2 and 9-0 loss to the Tigers. They were bad then.

Marwin Gonzalez is playing well, and Jason Castro is beginning to look like the player we thought he’d be. In a surprise to no one, Brandon Barnes continues to force himself into the everyday line-up. Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris are pitching well. Bo Porter hasn’t gotten so outraged that his head has come uncorked erupting bubbly hatred like an angry champagne bottle. And, didn’t Carlos Corporan go 4-4 last week?

Then there’s Jose Altuve – the Pocket Jesus. He is the Houston Astros’ best player and franchise savior.

In certain cities and at certain points in a player’s career, a player may find himself entrenched in a situation similar to Altuve’s – the undisputed best player on a rebuilding team. With this designation, the player finds himself with an automatic, default bid to the All Star Game but also finds himself slathered with layers of outlandish trade speculation.

…and, thus, nestled in on the two way street of obsequious fan adulation and irresponsible trade recommendations, lives Jose Altuve’s name.

As we march into May, Altuve trade speculation has wiped the sleep from its eyes, rolled out of bed and has started a pot of coffee. In a matter of moments, as Will Moriarty would say, Astros fans will go through Altuve trade scenarios “faster than a burrito being chased by Metamucil. 

But, talk is cheap, and a blogger has gotta blog. So, hunker down and prepare to hear a slew of trade rumors in the next several weeks.

Jim Bowden suggests the Dodgers should make a run for Altuve.

The whole idea of dealing Altuve is preposterous. I can’t believe I’m even entertaining the notion that it is a possibility.

On its face, trading one player for multiple players seems like a reasonably good idea. If you could turn one Jose Altuve into two Jose Altuves or three Jose Altuves, there is absolutely no question that the Astros should make that particular move. But what is the likelihood that Jose Altuve could yield a player equal to or more than his current value? How many Altuves equal one Altuve?

Ideally, in a transaction of assets, both teams want to feel like they’ve gotten the better end of a deal or at least equal to what they gave up – “I gave up something good, but I got something back equal to or better than what I gave up. Cool!”

The principal issue I have with trading Jose Altuve is that I am not convinced that the Astros could possibly receive fair or equal value. At this point, how can anyone accurately determine Altuve’s value?

Jose Altuve has just turned twenty-three years old. He has accrued over a year a thousand plate appearances and is closing in on two full years of major league service time. Again, he is twenty-three years old – are you listening? As of now, he’s the fifth youngest player in major league baseball. In his second full season of major league ball, Altuve has already shown progress over last season – as a matter of fact, considering all levels, he gets better every single year he plays.

He’s a reasonably intelligent hitter, an obvious student of the game, and he’s becoming more and more acclimated to major league pitching. He’s barely into his comfort zone as a major league hitter. He hasn’t even hit his prime yet – he’ll likely get a lot better! 

But he’s still severely undervalued – even by the people who watch him play.

Altuve’s primary issue is that his size will always devalue his contributions on the field. At every level, he’s been discounted and overlooked because of his small stature. Despite displaying a genuine talent for hitting a baseball, Altuve’s doubters contended that his numbers wouldn’t translate into major league success. And, now that they’re proven wrong, there is a growing concern that Altuve will not be able to sustain this level of success.

Let me know how that works out for you.

In 2010, Altuve spent the season in between Lexington and Lancaster, he managed to hit .301, hit 15 homeruns, steal 42 bases and collect 20 doubles… and going into 2011, he was still under the radar. So, in 2011, after 238 at-bats in Lancaster, he packed up his .408 batting average and then went on a .361 clip in Corpus Christi before being called up to the Astros. 

For his career, Jose Altuve is a .292 hitter.

He’s really something to witness. He’s the shortest guy in baseball, and he’s peppering the outfield with line drives. When Altuve does something well, it is always prefaced by mentioning his height. It is a part of who he is, but it doesn’t define him. He’s so much more than the smallest player in baseball.

Altuve isn’t good for someone who is 5’5”; he’s good for someone at any size.

…he just happens to be 5’5”.

Perhaps there will be a point where Jose Altuve is regarded as one of the best in the game. That is something not entirely out of the realm of possibility. I firmly believe Jose Altuve can win a batting title – it’s possible! I believe Jose Altuve can lead the league in doubles. I believe Altuve can earn his spot on an All Star team without wearing the “every team has to have at least one” collar. This can happen; this isn’t breaking news.

The Astros don’t have much to hang their hats on these days. When reading about the Astros, you’d be hard-pressed to find the word “best” littered in any of the newspapers. But if the Astros hold onto Jose Altuve, that could change.

And when considering an Altuve trade, it always seems like the guys mentioned as possible returns are around the same age that Altuve is now – except without a major league track record of success or an All Star appearance. I cannot understand why someone would want to trade a twenty-three year old All Star for a twenty-three year old prospect.

Who replaces him? Jimmy Paredes? Nolan Fontana? DeLino DeShields Jr? In my opinion, Jose Altuve is a better player and has a higher ceiling than all three. Plus, he’s a year younger than Paredes, only a year older than Fontana and two years older than DeShields. And, if the Astros are really high on DeShields and they have to find a spot for him (which I think they will), they can put him in the outfield or have him DH. I think DeShields could be a very good left fielder.

Also, in relation to some of the Astros top prospects, Altuve is younger than George Springer and only nineteen days older than Jarred Cosart.

And even if the Astros were able to pry away a team’s top three prospects, there is absolutely no guarantee that these prospects would outplay Altuve. Here’s a link to Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects in 2003 via a Tigers’ message board. How many of those guys had (or are having) successful major league careers? Half? How many would you take over Altuve straight up? A quarter? Compound that with the fact that the Astros would trade with a particular team and not a list of the best prospects in the game and the likelihood that we’re kicking ourselves for trading Altuve becomes exponentially realistic. 

…and do the Astros really want to be the club that traded away Jose Altuve?

A twenty-three year old All Star with the capabilities of winning a batting title under club control for the next five years for prospects?

I’ll pass.

The Astros need to acquire players like Jose Altuve but not at the expense of trading Jose Altuve. They are actively scouting other teams’ minor league systems and organizing their draft board in hopes of discovering the next Jose Altuve. The Astros are looking overseas at international free agents and searching near and far in hopes of discovering the next Jose Altuve. The Astros are not interested in trading Altuve – they’re interested in building around him.

And they will. They’ll find another diamond in the rough.

The Astros are smart enough not to outsmart themselves.

He brings fans to the ballpark. He helps make the team fun and watchable. He helps make the losses tolerable. He’s an inspirational figure for those who feel discouraged or challenged. At 5’5”, he’s a mountain of a man. He represents the faith fans have in the organization’s direction; the promise that life will get easier for Astros fans. He’s a heavy dose of raging badass concentrate in bite-sized packaging. He’s hope, courage and “kiss my ass, I’m going to prove you wrong” personified.

Like Rick Ankiel, Jose Altuve’s story is fascinating and inspirational. Pocket Jesus is another great story that is unique to the sport of baseball. Altuve overcame an onslaught of unwarranted criticisms and seemingly impossible obstacles to get where he is. He found himself in the minor league struggling, hanging on by a mere thread – but he rose to the occasion and made the Astros give him a chance. And after performing at every stop – here he is, hitting .331 at the major league level.

We’re witnessing something special – something borderline magical. The Astros should hang on and enjoy the ride. 

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Posted at 12:00pm


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