Shoot, Luke, or Give Your Dad The Gun.
by Jim Silva
When the Astros put together an 86 win season in 2015 many people spoke of them having arrived early and being poised to make an even bigger jump in 2016. The leap from winning 70 games to winning 86 games is impressive and surprising, but when teams make leaps like that, they don’t always hang on to all of the gain. There is often some regression to the mean that bites them in the butt. But after making that huge jump – and make no mistake, 16 wins is a huge jump – the Astros were the hit pick to emerge from the American League to face the Cubs in the 2016 World Series. The young and exciting Astros were pre-season darlings in large part due to their fabulous double play combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. While those two youngsters are certainly worth the ticket to watch play, does the rest of the Astros infield have enough to support a realistic run at the post-season?
What does it take to win an MVP these days? Take a look at Jose Altuve’s start to 2016 and you might find the answer. The 26 year old second baseman is leading the league in hits, batting average, on-base percentage, and stolen bases while playing good defense up the middle. He will almost certainly eclipse his previous high in home runs (15) as we are not quite halfway through the schedule and he already has poked 13 long balls. Arguably an equally important improvement in his game is that he is already within one walk of his previous season high. If we want to get into a chicken v. egg argument here, it would be reasonable to point to the walks as the reason he is hitting so many more home runs. It is certainly the reason why he will demolish his previous high in runs scored (86) as he already has scored 60 times. The Astros fans can say, “My second baseman is better than your second baseman” to pretty much any team in baseball with smug certainty.
Carlos Correa came into 2016 with hugely unfair expectations heaped upon his shoulders. Part of it is his fault because he had such a great three-fifths of a season in 2015 while still unable to go to a bar and order more than a Roy Rogers. People, and by people I mean people who talk and write about sports for money, were picking Correa to win the MVP. It is easy to understand why Correa is expected to carry the entire team on his shoulders at 6’4, but he just turned 21 this season. He looks even taller when standing next to his double play partner Altuve who is only 5’6, but that doesn’t mean he can fly or hit five run homers. He should still face some kind of development arc. You can’t help but feel like people are disappointed by Correa’s start. He is striking out more and not hitting for quite as much power, but his walks are up significantly and so is his on-base percentage (up 20 points at this moment) so he is clearly showing development. If he keeps this pace with no improvement he will end the season with 30 doubles and 25 home runs, 80 runs scored, and 100 runs batted in all, while playing at least league-average defense. Is there a team in baseball who wouldn’t take that from their 21 year old shortstop in his first full season in the majors? No, there is not.
The middle pair are not the guys anyone will worry about – at least nobody wearing an Astros uniform. It’s the corners that keep the Astros brass up at night. Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena have covered first and third respectively for most of the games in the first half of the season. Valbuena did his Luis Valbuena thing last season, which is hitting a lot of home runs, hitting for a low average and walking some, all while playing average defense at the corners. He had a 2.1 WAR season, his best to date, so he was useful and barely adequate as a starter. His splits were bipolar as he hit 19 home runs in the first half but with only a .285 OBP, then slowed his home run rate in the second half but increased his OBP to .359, which is quite good. This season, our man Luis has picked up where he left off in the second half, hitting nine long balls so far and managing a nifty .359 on-base percentage. Valbuena is mostly playing 3rd base and is on pace to have his best season. He has been on a tear of late, but he is far from a sure thing. If he can hit the same mark he hit last season – a WAR above 2.0 – then the Astros should be content. If they are counting on more than that then they are delusional as Valbuena is 30 years old and is what he is at this point.
Like Valbuena, Marwin Gonzalez is positionally flexible. In fact, while Valbuena has played first and third plus one appearance at second, Gonzalez has played every infield position except for pitcher and catcher, and has played some outfield as well. Having someone on your team who can do that is what allows teams to keep 13 pitchers and not get into jams where you have to put your pitcher in left field. He is slightly better than average with the glove and can hit enough to play for long stretches without costing the team. Unlike Valbuena, he doesn’t walk enough, but he does hit for some power – a 10 to 15 homer full season is easily in reach – and he hits enough doubles to keep his slugging percentage in the 400s. He also manages to keep his on-base percentage acceptable because he hits for a decent average.
The two men together cover the corners for the Astros without hurting them, but also without driving them toward the pennant. They are best suited for part-time work and in that role supporting a stronger bat ahead of them, they would definitely be championship caliber ballplayers. The Astros farm system is good and players continue to come up to compete for the corner jobs, but so far Valbuena and Gonzalez have hung on to the lion’s share of the work load. That is unlikely to last forever, especially if the Astros have plans of winning the World Series. I’m not saying that a team can’t win without stars at the corners, but the Astros offense is currently slightly below league average in runs scored and they are playing in a neutral park (no real advantage to hitters or pitchers in terms of runs scored). They will not change out their two stars in the middle, nor do they need to, but corner infielders, especially first basemen, who can produce runs are not particularly difficult to come by.
The Astros made some trades involving some of their best prospects during the off-season, but still were ranked as having the 17th best farm system by Keith Law in the spring. One of their youngsters who challenged for the first base job is Tyler White. After a solid start, White fell off and was sent back to triple-A. White has hit all through the minors and hit with power as his .308/.416/.489 slash line attests. He also has contributed 38 home runs in 1076 at bats, so he will get another shot to show that he can hit big league pitching.
Colin Moran plays third base and has hit for average everywhere he has played throughout his minor league career. He is currently at triple-A and looks like he might be good for ten home runs in a full major league season, so he is solid but unexciting. In a brief visit to Houston he struck out six times walking once but without hitting anything for extra bases in 19 plate appearances for a .105/.150/.105 slash line. Yes, it was a very small sample size but the point is the Astros would love someone to wrest a corner job away from Gonzalez and/or Valbuena and Moran didn’t.
Jon Singleton is only 24 and was a very exciting power-hitting prospect as he made his way through the minors. Boy, can he hit for power! He has 111 minor league home runs in 2493 at-bats. He has also learned to take a walk and currently holds a .379 career minor league on-base percentage. That is even more impressive when you learn that his career minor league batting average is only .268. And therein lies the problem – Jon Singleton can’t hit enough to stick in the majors. He strikes out too much, and while he would likely hit a lot of home runs, he would struggle to hit .200. He already has 347 at bats in the bigs and his slash line is not pretty – .171/.290/.331. While he has hit 14 home runs in that time, he has struck out a daunting 151 times. As a testament to how far he has fallen, he hasn’t been called up to the majors this year even when White and Moran were sent back down.
The other Matt Duffy is 27 and belongs to the Astros. He is currently struggling at triple-A and in spite of a record of success in the minors it looks like he is destined to toil away in triple-A until he retires or moves on to another club as a minor league free agent. Duffy hits for some power and gets on base enough to be an asset, but for some reason the Astros have only given him 11 at bats in the majors even though they need an upgrade at third base and he might fit that description. This is his third season at triple-A and the Astros might benefit from trying him even if it is only to give him exposure so he can be traded for something they want since they don’t appear to want him.
And then there is Alex Bregman who just reached triple-A. He was just drafted last year and has had an excellent 2016 after a good 2015 in his first try at professional baseball. Bregman was drafted as a shortstop and has played there almost exclusively. You may have heard of this Correa fellah the Astros have on their team – he’s kinda good. So what do the Astros do? They could certainly get a lot for Bregman in a trade in light of his speedy rise through the minors. Or, you know, they could teach him to play third base, which, it turns out they are doing. He has only played 11 games at third – all at double-A – but don’t be surprised if he gets more time there now that he is in triple-A. Bregman hits for power, doesn’t strike out, and gets on base. In his short professional career he has walked 72 times while only fanning 57 times. He started the season as the 19th best prospect in all of baseball and will likely start next season as a top five prospect after his 2016 campaign.
The Astros recently called up A.J. Reed from triple-A, and while he has struggled to control the strike zone so far, he is only 23 and in his third season of professional baseball. What young Andrew Joseph Reed has done so far in the minors is hit like nobody’s business. He has hit for power, gotten on base frequently, drawn plenty of walks and hit for average while playing acceptable defense at first base. His career slash line from the minors so far is .311/.399/.566 and if that sounds like a cleanup hitter to you then you are a wise human. However he may not be ready yet, if his start in the majors is to be believed. After all he only had 222 at bats at triple-A and started last season at single-A. He has struck out in almost half of his plate appearances while notching two home runs. Reed is likely the long term answer at first, but maybe not the answer for now. If he can rally, then he makes the lineup more scary and the bench much deeper by pushing Gonzalez or Valbuena out of the starting lineup. An infield of Bregman and Reed at the corners and Correa and Altuve up the middle is a terrifying thought for the rest of the AL – thank goodness that won’t happen for a bit longer (or will it?)
With so many answers – some good, some exciting, and some neither, what do the Astros do? The answer has a lot to do with how close they are to a playoff spot at the trade deadline. They are currently winning at a furious pace which just makes things harder. Do you stick with what you’ve got and hope it is enough? Do you patiently try some of your youngsters who should, but haven’t yet done the job in the majors? Do you bring up your best prospect and have him switch positions even though he is only 22 and has yet to spend a full season in the minors? Do you put your young beast at first and let him struggle until he figures it out so he is ready for the playoffs? Certainly any time you have a chance to make it to the post-season, you do what it takes to maximize your chances of that happening. The Astros are very young and should have several opportunities to make the playoffs so they don’t have to choose the nuclear option and trade all their young players for veteran sluggers. A measured response would be appropriate and it should be interesting to watch what the Houston Astros do as they try to catch the Rangers and fulfill all the pre-season prognostications made about them.