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Winter Meetings interview with A.J. Hinch

Q. How have the Winter Meetings been going?

A.J. HINCH: They've been good. We've been pretty busy, obviously, with all sorts of scenarios, but I think the good news for us is we're dealing from a little bit of a strength when it comes to the core of this group that it's nice this year having a group, a big group that we know is coming back. I know our players are curious, our fans are curious, like what's going on. We've run into all sorts of rumors in the lobby here, which is not a surprise, but they've been pretty productive behind the scenes within the circle.

Q. What have you yourself kind of dedicated yourself to while you're here? Have you been in meetings?

A.J. HINCH: We've had some group meetings. We've had smaller circle meetings. I've been to a few things outside of the room and connected with a lot of different people around the organization. I'm going to head from here and go to the affiliate reception with all of our minor league teams. We've got a long day of manager stuff tomorrow, a manager meeting with Major League Baseball, with the luncheon, and things like that. In this role, certainly, I've been active with Jeff, in the front office, really with the brain storming part all the way to the reality of what's possible here.

Q. So when Jeff says he meets -- he told us yesterday he's met with some teams and some agents, and you're right there with him in those situations?

A.J. HINCH: I've got a lot of relationships around the game, and certainly when I'm available, I try to be a part of it. It's obviously Jeff's decision on who travels to some of the meetings in the different rooms. But I've been side by side with him, which is good to be. I think it's an important time for us in the sense that we've come off of a really successful season. There's been a lot of buzz around the Astros. There's certainly a core that we've been trying to improve. The good thing for us is I'm proud of the group we have in that while we can be very, very active on paper right now, we feel really good with our team.

Q. How anxious are you guys to make a move or just curious what you're going to do?

A.J. HINCH: Certainly, we've made a couple of moves with some guys that aren't going to be back with Lowrie and Carter and Conger, which changes the culture of your team and the chemistry of your team. There's a lot of the unknown. This time of year is very, very interesting in my chair because you can draw up on paper what a 25-man roster looks like, and the very next day it could be completely different. Certainly, that -- for me, I've learned over the years to be patient with the process of how off-seasons unfold. There's certainly some anxiousness in the sense that I can't wait to get to camp with our team, and our team's probably not complete yet.

Q. How does it affect you in your job knowing that there will be more external expectations this year?

A.J. HINCH: Affect me personally?

Q. Just knowing that you have a team --

A.J. HINCH: No, I welcome it, and I think it's going to be a big message to our players in the team. It doesn't automatically get better because the calendar turns and we've gotten older and matured over the course of the season. We're not going to sneak up on anybody. I can't play the disrespect card, so to speak, of being a team that's not expected to win. I'm sure we're going to have some expectations on us. So our players will really like that. We had all year last year where there were continual questions on how good we were going to be, and that's going to be from the onset this year. And I welcome it. Our guys didn't get too high or too low last year based on the expectations. So I would expect our focus to be on the field, but it will be a little bit different in spring when teams are looking for Dallas Keuchel coming off a Cy Young season, and Carlos Correa now getting a full season in. With heightened expectations come a lot more attention.

Q. Have you talked to managers that have been through a similar -- Joe Maddon and what happened with the Rays in '08.

A.J. HINCH: I haven't talked to Joe in specific, but I've got a number of managers that I'm in a pretty regular conversation with, on a variety of topics. I think that's one thing these Meetings allow for, and you do develop relationships with these guys. While you're competing with them on the field, this is obviously less intense of an environment. You can share a night with the different guys, and like anybody, you develop closer relationships with some over others. I spent some time with Jeff Banister and Brad Ausmus, and I have a long history with Bob Melvin, Mike Matheny and I have a lot of common friends. They're all personal relationships in their own set, but you want to get as much information as you can. In this building, there is -- Joe Torre is here. Tony La Russa is obviously working to try to build his own winner in Arizona. Jim Leyland was floating around here. There's a wealth of knowledge at these events to develop a rapport.

Q. Jeff said the pitching is a priority. Do you feel that way? Both in the rotation and the bullpen, could you detail maybe what you are looking for, type of pitcher?

A.J. HINCH: We've been focused a lot on pitching. The position player group with the non-tenders and trades have thinned out a little bit of the group that we had at the end of the season. For us, pitching on either side, I think what we learned last year is, when we were at our best, regardless of what we were doing offensively, we rolled out a good starter every five days, and we rolled out a very efficient bullpen in the variety of roles. A couple of guys are free agents, the left-handed side of our bullpen, all are free agents. Chad Qualls is no longer with us. In an ideal world, there's room for growth on both of that. Some may be internal. We've got a couple of starting candidates that are looking to break in the big leagues. We'll be opportunistic with whatever we can add. When our pitching was really lined up and rolling through that time, where Keuchel was winning pitchers of the month and McHugh and Feldman and Kazmir and McCullers were all in the conversation, that's when we had our most confidence.

Q. What are your thoughts on third time through the order pitching numbers in regard to usage?

A.J. HINCH: I can tell you, the sixth inning is never comfortable. That's usually when it starts to roll around. Every pitcher is different. I think every game is different. In a vacuum, the third time through is very difficult for a certain caliber of pitchers to get through. I note the context of the game, how ready your bullpen is, how rested your bullpen is. It's not always easy simply to pull a starter early. There's so many factors that go in as to how to get your 27 outs. In a perfect world, you'd line up every pitcher you can in the most opportune time to get their guys out. But as I've found, in a lot of ways, it's not a perfect science. You can overextend your bullpen by not letting these guys get the third time through the order. You can also make some critical mistakes from my seat by letting the guy go through an order three and four times on the wrong day. When Dallas Keuchel is throwing a shutout or nine innings under 110 pitches, third and fourth time through the order doesn't bother him.

Q. The significance of the save stat, how does that influence or not influence those decisions as you run that bullpen?

A.J. HINCH: It depends on how your team's built. I think the save stat is important. It's the last out of the game. The save stat is that the last three outs are important. We had a very interesting bullpen to where I can move things around a little bit. The consistency matters. The comfort of pitching in the ninth inning matters. The save stat, I know, impacts how people are compensated and what not. But in a perfect world, I wouldn't have it. That's just not reality. It's important to players. It's important to players' careers. There's things that factor in that way. I look at it as more the last three outs more than I do necessarily the save.

Q. With Conger out of the situation, what is your catching situation and what's the status going forward?

A.J. HINCH: No, we're going to have opportunity. The most I have right now is our team is constructed, we're going to have opportunity behind the plate for the backup job with Castro, and we're going to have opportunity at first base. We have a number of guys that are very, very capable of providing a complement to Castro. Stats, he's never really been given the opportunity. Pena, Heineman, guys that have been in the upper levels, Gonzalez now on the 40-man. Gattis has some history behind the plate. From a number of standpoints, a number of bodies, we have capable guys. We'll see how the competition unfolds. Do we add to that? Do we get into major league free agency and try to add a definite backup? Those are conversations to be had until we head to camp. But I'm comfortable with the group including guys that haven't reached the big leagues.

Q. Have you considered Gattis behind the plate?

A.J. HINCH: It's hard. We didn't see him. He worked behind the scenes a little bit more than he did during games. He came up a catcher, spent some time behind the plate. He rushed it with warmup pitchers, caught a few bull pens. Again, I think it's an ongoing conversation. But he has a history with it. He was always our third catcher. It naturally would be that he would see some time in Spring Training as a catching candidate.

Q. Jeff said it was Jon Singleton's job to lose at first base. Do you view first base as an open competition?

A.J. HINCH: I see it as an open competition. Jon Singleton has answered a lot of questions in the minor leagues, and he hasn't been given an opportunity, certainly on my watch, to play significant days in the big leagues. We didn't give him enough at bats last year due to a lot of reasons, and we weren't afforded sort of the opening. Carter and Valbuena and Marwin, guys that stepped up during that time had taken those at bats. He's certainly someone who's been around, and it's time for him to take a step forward. Tyler White, Matt Duffy, A.J. Reed is on the horizon, Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena have played some time over there. We'll see how it plays out. I don't think there are any gifts in this game when it comes to these jobs. All those guys are going to know, when they get to camp, or if they're reading clippings these days, that there is a ton of at bats to come get at first base. Based on the team that we have and the team that we potentially could have, those at bats are going to be important, and we're going to need a productive first base.

Q. What is your bullpen need specifically? Is it a number of arms? Would one arm do it? Is there a type of arm? How do you improve the bullpen from last year?

A.J. HINCH: First off, we've got to address where we stand left-handed. Having all three of those guys hit free agency has put a void on the left-handed side. Kevin Chapman is still on the roster. We've got Brett Oberholtzer still on the roster, but more of a starter. So we don't have the answer left-handed and natural. Where everything else fits in is going to be in the supply and demand. We've been linked to a lot of things at the back end. Lou Gregerson did a really good job as a closer and pitched some significant endings when it mattered and did a very, very good job. So it depends on the way things are constructed as to what the roles can be. Pat Neshek's beginning of last season was terrific. The last half of the season, things were a little bit more difficult for him. Will Harris stepped forward. So right-handedness -- Josh Fields obviously struck out a lot of guys. So right-handedness is a strength of ours. Depending on how rosters play out will depend on the role.

Q. When you do put the bullpen together and you get to Spring Training, you have a track record to look at, but is there enough volatility that you really have to see these guys before you know how you're going to use them and where they're going to be slotted?

A.J. HINCH: Yeah, I don't think decisions have to be made in March or even on April 1st. When we broke it on April 1st, Will Harris had earned his way onto our team, but he hadn't earned his way into the seventh innings where he was pitching later in the season. When we broke camp, as much as everyone wanted roles. Gregerson had won the closer job. Neshek was going to be the set up. Sipp and Qualls were going to pitch in the sixth and seventh inning. Harris was sort of a middle reliever field. It hit opening night and I pitched Tony Sipp in the eighth inning. Even if you lay out your plans, things can definitely going to change, specifically if you have a matchup style bullpen. Some other teams have maybe a little more plug and play. Ours hasn't been that way. It doesn't look like it's going to be that way, and I'm not certain that the best use of our players -- our specific players would be this slotting system. You're going to need different guys to pitch throughout the season in different roles, and the more I can incorporate these guys throughout the year, keep them healthy, keep them fresh, keep them good, and our players responded to it last year.

Q. Do you see a time when maybe if 3, 4, 5 is up in the eighth and you need your best bullet then, that there's going to be flexibility? And that save stat that affects salaries, if you know what I mean?

A.J. HINCH: In my chair, you certainly hope to. I think things have shifted a little bit more towards that type of mindset. It's difficult from a player's perspective, but, again, the communication of players -- in an ideal world with no emotions and no issues, that's an absolute positive way to use your personnel if it works that way. There is something to be said about the consistency of the guy getting the ball at the end, but there's no doubt that we walked into Texas a couple different times and you stare at Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre and Moreland, Hamilton, whoever was hitting in that last spot, of course you want your best guys in there. It doesn't always map out that way. It does on paper on the front end, but are all of your guys available? Is your best guy available in that setting? Have you set it up properly to where a player could emotionally handle a little bit of the unknown? These guys are routine oriented in the bullpen, so they have to have a little bit of an idea as to how you'll use them so they can prepare properly. If you ambush a guy down in the bullpen, you'll find that he's not the same guy unless you communicate properly.

Q. Is bringing back Sipp your best answer? That would be your preferred answer, left-handed? How would you handicap that?

A.J. HINCH: I don't -- I think the conversations, whether it be a trade or free agency, are always fun to have. I think the most difficult part of this time of year for me is I can't deal in hypotheticals. We either are going to get them or not when it comes to any player acquisition. So I think the left-handed side of our pen is just something that has a void in it. We carry two or three left-handers for much of the season last year. The beginning of the season, it was Thatcher and Sipp, and then through the trade deadline, then it was Sipp and Perez, and then in September we had all three. Handedness matters when it comes to how you utilize your weapons and certainly how you match up with a lot of the left-handed hitters in our division, but they still have to reach a threshold as to how good they are to use them. We were lucky -- or I was fortunate to have so many different guys that could handle the off-handedness of the opposing lineup. Our lefties could generally handle righties. My righties could generally handle lefties. Neshek was more of a right-handed specialist. So that type of flexibility on the pen that we built last year allowed me to mix and match, keep fresh, keep guys healthy, keep guys in some roles in pencil that they were around.

Q. A.J., you were just starting your playing career when Kevin Brown signed that $105 million deal. Huge deal at that time. What goes through your mind now when you see just how much it's gone up in still a relatively short time?

A.J. HINCH: I wish I was one of them. It's a good time to be a really good player in baseball. And certainly, these players are earning it. It's a terrific outcome for the players, and certainly the teams are making it worth their while, and certainly the players are rewarding the teams with a lot of talent that's into our game. To be a young player in today's game, you're getting a lot of opportunity to be a successful player in this game. You're getting compensated. So I think that's something that players can definitely grab a hold of and see towards the future. The game's changed. I'm not sure the revenue models that were built back when Kevin Brown was one of the first $100 million players, but I'm sure it's paralleling each other, and the players are being compensated for it.

Q. Why do you think pitchers are still the ones driving the market, it seems like, over the position players?

A.J. HINCH: I think they both are. I don't know how the market's going to go, but I think there's going to be some happy position players by the time this market is done too. We'll see how it plays out. I think that -- I guess, going through the playoffs, I learned a lot about the game a little bit, and even our players, but I think when you show -- we all talk about the starting pitcher as soon as we see the matchup. I got asked that before at the wild card game, Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, I got asked a million questions about Keuchel on three days rest. The starter sets the tempo. The starter is on TV a lot. That guy's important. Everything breaks to the manager and the pitcher in the playoffs. It seems those are the two things that my family told me they showed the most, so it makes them important.

Q. When Jeff was here yesterday, he was talking about how good it was playing the games with the rangers and Astros.

A.J. HINCH: That's because they won a lot of games.

Q. How good that rivalry can be. What does it mean for baseball to have that potential? Because those are two big markets that aren't really traditional baseball crazy places.

A.J. HINCH: No, I think rivalries are great. Specifically in the state of Texas, you have two that clearly define great parts of our state, and there are a lot of great areas of our state. The Rangers-Astros is already and can be a terrific rivalry. Both teams are good. We duked it out the entire season. We were ahead most of the season. They had such a terrific second half, and they ended up coming out on top. What it means for baseball is you have two really good teams who have built their teams in somewhat different ways but arrive on the scene prepared to win. The same can be said for some of the northeast rivalries, the west coast has its own set of rivalries now. The divisions are really starting to heat up in certain areas. But having as many competitive teams in general, I think, speaks volume to the health of the sport. Last year we went through the playoffs, there were some first timers, and some first timers in a long time. That's neat for our sport. I'm glad that we were a part of it. We want to sustain that moving forward. I know that having lived in Texas now for a year, been a part of the Astros, this organization, there's something different about the Astros-rangers than some of the other times you play. Bane and I have a great relationship, and we sort of poke at each other a little bit. He won 15 in a lot of different ways. We hope to correct that.

Q. Are there types of players in roster construction that's are more hopeful in the playoffs, distinctly for the playoffs, and does that affect who you acquire?

A.J. HINCH: I think it's how you play more so than who's playing. We've seen -- I learned in October a little bit of, for our players, who has a comfortable heartbeat when the most important games are being played. I found out we have a lot of them. I loved how our guys responded to the anxiety of the end of the season, all the way to the one win-or-go-home wild card, to playing the Royals, and even bouncing back from a really tough Game 4 loss. The resiliency of our group, I learned a lot about that group. You can win with a lot of different styles of teams, a lot of different components. I watched it when the Mets went through their run, how Murphy was doing. Those story lines happen every year, and they seem to surprise us, and it probably shouldn't because that stuff happens every year. We're just not sure who it's going to be. So what I learned about our season for our team in specific was the depth of our team is challenged through injury, through some under performance, some over performance, guys arrived at different times. At this time last year, I didn't get one question about Lance McCullers. He then moved into the centerpiece of our rotation at a time where not many people expected it. Obviously, Correa was a different story. At this time last year, I was getting every question about Carlos Correa, and they continued that through the entire season. Players in the playoffs certainly rise to the occasion are the players you want. I found our players do that. When you build the team, you can't look too far ahead in that lens because, if you're prepping for October baseball at this time, you've got to get six months to get there. So you'd better be prepping along the way for the things that win over 162.

Q. Your team obviously swings and misses a lot. Is contact rate any less important in your ballpark than anywhere else, or is that not really a park effect stat?

A.J. HINCH: Well, I've never met a player who enjoys to swing and miss. So I think the psyche of that is more important than our ballpark. Timing of swings and misses are way more important than ballpark context. Swings and misses in the zone are the ones that we sort of deemed just a failure. I think, when you chase outside the zone and swing and miss, you want to avoid those. Our swing and miss rate last year fluctuated a little bit. It was something that we knew going in. We worked very hard for the players to understand how to still be productive, and at the end of the day, it's a run scoring league, and our run scoring was pretty good. How we got there might not be as easy to predict or as easy to absorb or as easy to repeat, but for the way our team was built and the way our team responded, we hit a lot of home runs. We drew some walks. We stole bases. We swung and missed. I guess I've never looked at it through the lens of things we didn't do more so than what we did.

Q. What about the lines of the actual ballpark? Does a ballpark matter to contact?

A.J. HINCH: It favors -- I think you're rewarded a little bit more for contact in smaller ballparks if you can make contact. I think velocity off the bat is probably more important in terms of the smaller ballparks. I didn't feel any better when we went to Comerica and we swung and missed than I did in Houston. I think the consistency over the course of a season, I think it's always important to kind of nudge. Contact is your friend. We learned that in the playoffs in playing the Royals. The ballpark to me is somewhat of a factor but not the driving force.

Q. You mentioned Perez. His numbers didn't look great. How was he for you?

A.J. HINCH: He was great in the clubhouse, took the ball every time. I used him the last week of the season to get out Seager and Cano six days in a row. I've never done that before. He's one of the few guys. But it was a total of about 20 pitches, I think, over that course. Defend myself.

Q. But he did it?

A.J. HINCH: He was great. He got Seager out in a couple of big at bats in the last week of the season. Consummate pro. He's a guy that will take the ball every single day. Didn't complain one bit if I got him up as a potential -- he's a terrific person and loves to win. He came with high praise from some people that I knew over in Arizona, and he delivered. I think, unfortunately for him -- and I'm glad he obviously signed, but I think, unfortunately for him, part of his role last year, he did have a couple of rough innings when he had to take one for the team, and he did. He did it against Minnesota when Sano hit the home run. He did it at home a couple of different times where we needed the outs more than we needed the matchup. I don't know what that does to his overall numbers, but that type of approach is a team first approach, which I'll be grateful for. I trusted him. I think he's been through a lot and pitched in a lot of environments. So I'm glad we had him.

Q. My apologies if it was covered before, but I know it was reported that the Astros met with Scott Kazmir this week to talk with him. Were you part of that? Did you talk with Scott this week?

A.J. HINCH: I'm not supposed to comment on any of the talks we've had, but I will tell you that we've focused on pitching, and I've been a part of numerous conversations throughout the week. It's natural for players that have to decide where they're going to go, not just Kazmir, but also others, there's going to be an element of the front office component that's done through their agent and an element of the manager connection with the player. That happens all over the game, so it's not just how the Astros do it. Kaz lives just north of me in Houston. Contact with Kaz is never a problem. He plays a golf course that's a 7-iron away from my front door. So I can't lie and say I haven't run across him, but we'll have to keep the talks confidential.

Q. How complicating are off the field issues for, A, a clubhouse, and, B, a player acquisition to touch both your manager and GM?

A.J. HINCH: Our culture was fantastic last season, and it was built early in the spring. Players bought in. The players added to it throughout this. We had the Club Astros thing. We had a roomful of players that bought into each other, which is not necessarily saying they're all the best of friends, but they all had a common bond, and they showed up, and I think that's why players are excited that they're coming back. I think it's something that we paid close attention to. We come across all kinds in baseball, and we've all been a part of good teammates, bad teammates, players with perceived good makeup, players with perceived bad makeup. How it all mixes together is very important. How they invest into a team is very important. So it factors into everything we do on a daily basis. As I've said at the beginning of last season, I want players to be themselves. I want players to feel comfortable. I want players who want to win. How the culture and how the chemistry is affected, when you have it, is important to factor that in.

Q. Do managers worry about distractions? What goes through your mind?

A.J. HINCH: It depends. Distractions from what?

Q. Something, if a player is getting off-the-field attention or if it's some issue that's not baseball related.

A.J. HINCH: I worry about how it impacts the players, the player's ability to be at his best. And they come in different ways. Players are getting pulled in so many different directions, there's those type of distractions. Obviously, being in the headlines is another distraction. We had an altercation on the field last year. That was a distraction. Distractions are always something that we sort of navigate throughout the year when you have a team. Do it internally. Do it together. More times than not, you can get through it. I think we found some distractions in the postseason, where things are completely different in the postseason than they were at the end of April when we play a west coast swing road trip. So I think it's getting these players to focus on tonight's game being the most important game is something that me and my coaching staff are relentlessly doing.

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