Talented Athletes & A Frustrating Puzzle
by Jim Silva
Do you need a reason to hate the Houston Astros? Well, here are three: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, AND George Springer are both on their major league roster. When a team has one young (under 27) potential superstar on their roster you should envy them. When they have two it’s ok to hate them a little. But three? That is just too much to endure! Since this article is about the outfield we will focus on Springer and his outfield mates.
George Springer was signed with the 11th pick of the first round in the 2011 draft. He will be eligible for arbitration for the first time after this season, but under team control (not a free agent) until 2021 even if the Astros don’t buy out some of those free agent years before then. Springer was Carlos Correa before Carlos Correa was Carlos Correa – he was one of those prospects that Astros fans knew about and drooled about before he even reached triple-A. The 6’3” right-fielder has very few holes in his game and has been the starter since he came up midway through the 2014 season. Since he first came up the one knock on George has been his high strikeout totals – 114 in his first season in 345 plate appearances, then improvement to 109 in 451 appearances. So far this season he has fanned 84 times in his first 386 plate appearances again showing improvement. Another good sign of Springer’s improving plate discipline has been his increasing walk totals – he is only two short of last season’s total in 50 fewer at bats. As with many young ball players, his power numbers are getting better as he makes pitchers throw him more strikes. Springer’s calling card is his terrific power. He already has 55 home runs through his first 1182 plate appearances – really fewer than two full seasons and is looking at a 30 plus home run season this year if he continues his pace from the first half.
Springer is also fast with 27 career stolen bases to date. In fact the Astros have batted him exclusively in the one or two hole so far this year – a testament to both his speed and his ability to get on base. Springer’s speed has not equated to big range numbers in the field, in fact he has posted slightly below league average range numbers for his career so far. He still managed to put up positive DRS numbers last year, saving the Astros 6 runs with his glove. He is already a 3.5 to 4.0 WAR player and he is only in his second full season having just turned 26. With his athletic ability and his apparent ability to learn at the major league level, there is still room for growth – a scary thought for other American League teams.
8.5 WAR. That’s what Carlos Gomez produced as a 27 year old Gold Glove centerfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013. Those are numbers to build your franchise around especially when they come from a 27 year old five tool player in center field. It seems that the Astros traded for the 2013 Carlos Gomez when they shipped a boatload of prospects to get Gomez along with Mike Fiers at the deadline last year. The big question all Astros fans want answered is which Carlos Gomez is patrolling centerfield in 2016. So far the answer appears to be that the guy who managed those two magical seasons in Milwaukee is gone. The frustrating athlete the Brewers had before his breakout is the one who the Astros received. Gomez no longer looks like a Gold Glove centerfielder and his power seems to have disappeared altogether. The former Brewer All Star is striking out often and walking only in moderation. The results so far are a centerfielder who is playing slightly below average defense and making a ton of outs with no power to show for it. His slash line as of this writing is .221/.291/.333 which would be bad for a backup shortstop, much less a starting outfielder who once appeared capable of carrying an offense. Remember that 8.5 WAR? Gomez is currently porting a WAR of negative 0.4. Why has he fallen so far? That is the question the Astros would pay a million dollars to answer. ‘Nuff said, eh?
Having a left fielder who can also play right, and more importantly, center is quite a luxury. Colby Rasmus, another athletic Astros outfielder, was the first player ever to take the qualifying offer. Yes, ever in the history of the universe! So maybe the rule has only been around for a few years, but still – first ever. Qualifying offers are made to players who can become free agents. The amount of the qualifying offer is the average major league salary for the top 125 players from the past season. Teams make these offers so that if/when the player declines the offer and signs with another team, the original team gets a high pick in the draft as compensation for losing the player. I think teams were getting cocky knowing that nobody had taken the offer so they were gambling by making qualifying offers to players they didn’t really want back at that price. The qualifying offer this off-season was $15.8 million, a hefty price even it was just for one year. Surprise – a few players actually took the offers this time, including Colby.
Rasmus is not a bad player, in fact he is quite useful and has posted WAR of 2.6 and 4.8 in two of the last three seasons sandwiched around a down year where he only accumulated 1.0 WAR. He is currently on track for another WAR in the twos but is slumping mightily with the bat. Defense runs hot and cold with Rasmus. He saved only two runs last season and actually cost the team six runs in his down year, but in 2012 and 2013 he saved his team seven and 12 runs respectively. His bat is capable of producing serious power. In 2015 he had his best power year banging 25 homers and a total of 50 extra base hits. But Rasmus tends to be an all or nothing hitter and last year was no exception as he struck out 154 times, walked 47 times and only managed a .314 on-base percentage. His career slash line is about what teams should expect from him now with a bit more power possible: .245/.315/.440. The glove/bat combo and the versatility makes him a good guy to have on your roster, although not for $15.8 million. The Astros are using his as their starting left fielder and can count on him to hang around two WAR. If they could make him their 4th outfielder, still get him the at bats, and upgrade in left, that would be a great development for their playoff chances.
While Colby Rasmus would be a special 4th outfielder, Jake Marisnick is the actual 4th outfielder, a job that he has held onto because of his glove and his speed and the belief, based on his status as a one-time top prospect with the Marlins, that his tools would turn into something. He also has bit of pop to go with his speed and his glove, but his hit tool is weak and his plate discipline is in the horrid range. Marisnick is only 25, and built like an NFL wide receiver (6’4”, 220), so it’s possible that he will develop a bit more given playing time. Last season, it looked like Jake might be establishing himself, but he still couldn’t get his OBP to .300 and his strikeouts to walks were a frightening 105/18 in 372 plate appearances. His minor league numbers portend a bit more for Marisnick, but after about 850 plate appearances in the majors, you have to think that you are seeing the true Jake. If he can cobble together more 2.0 WAR seasons then he helps the Astros win. If he does what he is doing this season with a slash line so far of .173/.233/.255, then he will have to move on to find more opportunities for playing time as the Astros push for a playoff spot.
Of the young outfielders toiling away in the high minors, only Teoscar Hernandez is doing much to be excited about. At 23, Hernandez is just getting his first taste of triple-A. 2015 was ugly for the speedy and powerful outfielder. He got mugged by double-A, but started 2016 back in the same spot and got his revenge. Upon his promotion to triple-A, Hernandez has kept up the good work with a batting average over .300, albeit in a very small sample size. If he can keep his on-base percentage up then he might be worth auditioning in Houston this season. He has some power and excellent speed plus enough glove to not be a disaster manning all three outfield spots – he has played center and right. As long as triple-A pitchers don’t run him over in the next month, Jake Marisnick should fear for his roster spot.
The Astros have a good, but unpredictable outfield with one budding star (Springer), one fading star (Gomez), and one expensive, athletic, flawed, versatile player they didn’t expect to have back (Rasmus). It’s an interesting group with Springer likely to be the only one who will still be on the team next year as Gomez and Rasmus are both going to be free agents. It is unclear what they will do down the stretch or next year as their best options might still be a year or more away. If the Astros think their time is now, then they might make a move outside the organization. If they still think they are a year or two away then they will likely go with internal solutions or just stand pat with their outfield. No matter what they do, their outfield will be athletic and fun to watch in 2016.