Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Decision to Move Delino DeShields

When the Astros drafted Delino DeShields out of Woodward Academy in Georgia with the #8 overall pick in the 2010 draft, what was certain was that he was a great athlete - he had football scholarship offers from Georgia Tech, Stanford, Ole Miss and Central Florida, mainly as a cornerback or wide receiver. If he didn't get the bonus he wanted, he would go play baseball for LSU. But everyone focused on his position: Centerfield.

DeShields played in 18 games in the 2010 season, thanks to the late signing deadline (he didn't sign until August 5). He got two games for the GCL Astros, and then spent the last three weeks of the season at Rookie-Level Greeneville. Over those 18 games, he hit .289/.337/.395 and made two errors in 31 chances in 15 games in CF for Greeneville.

Already at 2B in the Astros system in 2010 were:

*2009 6th Round pick Enrique Hernandez (.280/.322/.398 for Tri-City)
*Jimmy Paredes, who was acquired the week before DeShields signed from New York in the Lance Berkman trade. Paredes was finishing up a 2010 in which he hit .287/.317/.417 across Charleston (New York's SAL team) and Lexington. He would also play in the outfield and third base, trying to find one that would stick.
*A funny little guy named Jose Altuve, who was finishing 2010 as a 20-year old 2B, hitting .308/.364/.445 in 94 games for Low-A Lexington before hitting .276/.333/.457 in a 31-game stint in High-A Lancaster.
*German Duran, who played 57 games at 2B for Corpus, hitting .284/.336/.383.
*Drew Meyer, who got 60 games at 2B for Round Rock, hitting .257/.341/.364.

Meanwhile, Jeff Keppinger was wrapping up a .288/.351/.393 season in Houston. No one was really standing out. If you were to look at the list and pick the guy to be the future of the Astros at 2B, you would probably look at Altuve, see he was 5'5" and then move on (something the National Media has only recently stopped doing) to Jimmy Paredes. Scouting the SAL's Mike Newman said (after ranking Paredes ahead of Altuve):

One of the best baseball players I’ve seen at the level, Altuve’s small stature had to weigh into my rankings or he would have had a legitimate shot at the top spot. Listed at 5’5″, there’s simply very little precedent for a player of his size becoming a successful pro.

So when the Astros announced that DeShields was moving to second base, it made sense. Put your best athletes in positions of weakness (and this is nothing against any of the aforementioned second basemen).

2011 happened, though. DeShields "hit" .220/.305/.322. He stole 30 bases, but was caught stealing eleven times. He struck out 118 times in 541 plate appearances. Lexington manager Rodney Linares (now DeShields' manager at Lancaster) said not to worry in May, and again in August when he struck out in 34% of his ABs that month. FanGraphs called him the Astros' "most disappointing prospect" of 2011.

2011 also happened for Jose Altuve. He started one level up from DeShields, at Lancaster, and in 52 games hit .408/.451/.606. The Astros promoted him to Corpus at the end of May to see if he was suffering from Engorged Lancasteritis (Baseball America thought so). And then Altuve hit .361/.388/.569 there. But still, nobody could get past his size. Regard:

Baseball America's Jim Callis said that now-Brewer Jean Segura was better than Jose Altuve and it was "not close, despite the little guy's numbers." They also said after the Futures Game that Altuve "looks more like a trophy model than a top prospect."

A week after the 2011 Futures Game, the Astros traded Jeff Keppinger to the Giants, and Jose Altuve was called up. FanGraphs' Eno Sarris put up a post entitled "Jose Altuve's Size: Boon or Bane?" Even when Altuve was hitting .310/.327/.393 at the end of August for Houston, Jim Callis said Altuve "isn't an elite prospect." Rany Jazayerli wrote in September 2011 that Altuve was "your basic David Eckstein starter kit."

2012 started with Altuve in Houston and Delino DeShields repeating Lexington, and he of course exploded. He hit .298/.401/.439 for Lexington, still struck out a bunch (20.7%), but also stole ramped up his walk rate (13.4%) and stole 83 bases in 97 attempts in 111 games. He was promoted to Lancaster to help with the Cal League championship push, and he while he hit .237/.336/.381, he stole 18 more bases to give him 101 on the year. And if it wasn't for Billy Hamilton stealing 6,842 bases last season, he would have been known as the Great Speedster.

Meanwhile, Altuve went from playing in the Futures Game in 2011 to being the Astros' lone All-Star in 2012. He hit .290/.340/.399, stole 33 bases, and became a cult hero in the process.

In five games this season, DeShields is hitting .333/.364/.476. Altuve is the Astros' best hitter so far (.353/.389/.500) and still the media can't get over what a cute little guy he is.

It's hard to project where the Astros go from here. At this rate, you could see DeShields in Corpus at some point this season, and maybe (?) Oklahoma City. So we're likely looking at 2014 before DeShields even sniffs the Majors. An Altuve-esque meteoric rise is unlikely because there wasn't anyone blocking Altuve. The Astros gave Altuve a shot because, well, they were 31-65 when they traded Keppinger and there wasn't any reason not to give Altuve a shot.

There's no reason to make any moves with DeShields, because he's still three levels away from the Majors. There certainly isn't a reason to do anything with Jose Altuve, because he won't be arbitration-eligible until 2015, and won't be a free agent until 2018. He's my candidate for "Most Likely To Get a Long-Term Contract Before Arbitration," but again, there's no really good reason to even make that move.

Should the Astros trade Altuve when his value is incredibly high, they'll get a huge haul, but Fan Disenchantment will reach Epic levels, given his popularity. And everyone will probably get their banana-hammocks in a twist if they do so, because it proves there's NO INTEGRITY in the organization. Altuve is exactly what the Astros have been looking for: Young, Good, and Cheap.

The last 12 months have been great for Delino DeShields, but he's only 26 months younger than Altuve. Nobody predicted Altuve's Major-League success. Hell, nobody predicted that his minor-league success was anything short of a height-induced anomaly - the baseball equivalent of Sideshow Bob. But it makes me wonder if there isn't regret about moving DeShields to second base, at all.