Saturday, June 9, 2012
Jed Lowrie... Outfielder?
(First of all - hi. The County Clerk did me the honor of inviting me to be a contributor here, and this is my first post; I go by Cockroach. I'll mostly be filling in occasionally when one of the regular guys needs a hand, but I'll also chime in from time to time on my own. I'm not why you're reading this, however, so enough about that...)
This was a big week for Astros fans. Two ugly losses notwithstanding, the national buzz surrounding this club was the most positive it's been in quite some time, following a draft that has received almost universal rave reviews. Everyone's favorite second baseman/unit of measurement is starting to receive a good deal of national attention, as well, but he's arguably not even the team's MVP to this point. That would be the fellow who homered for the third straight game today - a man named Jed.
Jed Lowrie is doing things at shortstop that Houston has not seen in nearly three decades. Following today's game, Jed is sporting a .297/.373/.547 line with 28 RBIs and a team-leading 12 homers through 51 games. That factors out to about 36 homers and 86 RBIs with a .920 OPS on the whole season; that would be the highest OPS for any Astros player since Lance Berkman's shiny .986 in 2008. Baseball-Reference.com has Jed leading all Astros with a 2.0 WAR so far this season; FanGraphs has him at an even more impressive 2.6. He's doing it on the defensive side of the ball, too, with a UZR/150 of 10.4 this season, nearly matching the 10.8 of acknowledged defensive wizard Clint Barmes last season, and higher than any other full-time Houston shortstop not named Adam Everett since 2002.
The biggest prize in Jeff Luhnow's 2012 draft class is, of course, Carlos Correa - a shortstop, but even if he manages to reach the majors by age 20, we likely won't see him in Houston until 2015 at soonest. Luhnow led off the second round with another shortstop, however, in Nolan Fontana from the University of Florida. As a college draftee, we're actually more likely to see Fontana in Houston before Correa, and given that many had projected Fontana as a potential first-rounder, he's got the pedigree to bear that out. There's talk that Fontana may get moved to second base, but Jose Altuve figures to be entrenched there for years to come, and Jimmy Paredes sits there in AAA behind him. Already on the Astros' farm, Jiovanni Mier finally looks to be putting it all together this year down in Lancaster, three years after getting drafted. Jonathan Villar still has potential down in Corpus. Even if Correa eventually gets moved to third base, that's three or four additional candidates already in the shortstop pipeline, to say nothing of the other four shortstops Houston just drafted, including prep star and UT-commit C.J. Hinojosa.
So where does that leave Lowrie in Houston's long-term plans? Right where he is for this season and next, I'd assume, but 2014 will be Jed's final season before free agency, and one or more of the names above may be ready for the majors by then, too. Do we automatically assume then that Lowrie becomes trade bait, or that he's allowed to walk after his 2014 contract is up? Perhaps - if not Jed, then I'd expect at least one of these guys to be dealt to fill other holes by then. If Jed does indeed stay healthy and become a perennial .290ish hitter with 20-30 homers and a solid glove, however, maybe that's an asset worth getting creative to hold onto a little longer.
One assumes that Jonathan Singleton is Houston's first baseman of the future. Second base is Altuve's job to lose, with Paredes waiting in the wings. Third base is more uncertain, but could be Correa's, could be Paredes', could be new draftee Rio Ruiz, or even a wildcard guy like Matt Duffy. Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace are both under club control through 2016, and either could be a good DH candidate if they're not playing the infield. That's a pretty full infield. But what if Jed should follow in Craig Biggio's footsteps, should Jeff Luhnow decide to keep him around?
Biggio, of course, was asked to move to the outfield in 2003 to make room for the free agent signing of Jeff Kent. Granted, Craig did have some previous outfield experience in the majors, but 64 games over 15 seasons isn't very much. He was also 37 years old when he was asked to make the move, and Jed will only be 31 in 2015. I couldn't find any evidence that Lowrie has played the outfield before, even in college, but it's still not a move entirely without precedent - another Houston farmhand, Ben Zobrist, was almost exclusively a shortstop throughout his minor league career and his first two seasons in Tampa, before he began his conversion into utility man extraordinare in 2008 at the major league level. Is it unconventional? Certainly. But it also strikes me as just the kind of outside-the-box thinking that Houston's new leadership is likely to try.
Of course this is all purely speculation at this point, and admittedly at least two years premature. A lot can and will undoubtably happen between now and 2015, and I don't want to spoil the enjoyment of Jed's historically good season now by worrying too much about the future. But it's a fun "what if?" to think about, in any event. The Astros' two best players to this point in the season have clearly been Lowrie and Altuve, and I'd like to see both of them continue this for as long as they can. Based on this year and 2010, Jed has got the offense to be at home filling an outfield spot. So should we eventually see him crashing into outfield walls... remember, you read it here first.