Monday, August 19, 2013

The case for keeping George Springer at OKC

It's not a popular opinion. The Crawfish Boxes talked about it this morning. It's not even popular among the staff at Astros County. So here it is, if you'll allow me to explain myself...I think the Astros are doing the right thing by keeping George Springer at Oklahoma City, at least through the conclusion of the Pacific Coast League playoffs.

Jeff Luhnow, Friday:
I see him as a guy who’s going to come to Spring Training next year competing for our every day center fielder job, and I see him as a big part of our team next year. That’s really the message I want our fans to focus on, not worry too much about the date he comes up. There’s a lot of factors that go into it, and we’ll make the best decision for the organization.

Let's see where we are right now (the morning of Monday, August 19) and see if we can't figure out some of these 'factors': Oklahoma City is 73-56, six games up on Albuquerque with 15 games to play in 15 days.  The season ends on Labor Day, September 2nd. Tonight and tomorrow's games are against Albuquerque at home. Obviously, it's possible to lose six games on an opponent with 15 to play. OKC is six up on Round Rock, as well, and the RedHawks have a five-game series at Round Rock coming up from Wednesday - Sunday.

The road to the playoffs is not a cake-walk, but with ten of their remaining 15 games to be played at home, where Oklahoma City has a league-best .653 Win% and haven't lost at home since the All-Star Break (15-0), the remaining schedule is definitely in their favor.

George Springer has been the catalyst for the team. He moved from Corpus to OKC on June 27, when the RedHawks were 41-37. Since George Springer showed up, Oklahoma City is 32-19. He's hitting .314/.431/.663, and for the season (combined with 73 games at Corpus) he has 35 home runs and 39 stolen bases. Earlier this month he became the first minor-leaguer since Grant Desme in 2009 to join the 30/30 club.

I know what you're about to ask: Can he make the 40/40 club? He could. He's averaging 4.26 plate appearances per game, and with 15 games remaining (barring a day off), would receive about 62 plate appearances before the playoffs start. Springer is averaging a home run every 13 plate appearances for the RedHawks - one every 12.5 plate appearances in August, one every 12.33 in July/August combined. So, yes, it is statistically reasonable to assume that Springer could hit five more homers by Labor Day.

Should he get five more jacks and one more stolen base, he will be the first minor-leaguer since Jerry Witte hit 46 home runs and stole 75 bases for Double-A 1946.

So let's stop here for a second: All season long I've been harping on the Astros trying to keep their minor-league affiliates happy. After years of losing, and not seeing top prospects (substitute "top" with "any" and you'll see how most fans felt about the affiliation with the Astros).

Back in March, when word first came out that maybe the Astros would buy a Triple-A franchise and move them closer to Houston, baseball fans in Oklahoma City were not happy. They had just lost the Rangers' affiliation, which had begun in 1983, for the Astros...who started their affiliation in 2011 with a 68-75 record, 18.5 games back of Round Rock. There was improvement in 2012, but the RedHawks missed the playoffs by a game and a half. Then they find out heading into this season that the Astros might leave them? One guy ominously said, of Crane's tentative plan to move the affiliation out of Oklahoma City, "That would be the biggest mistake if he ever did that."

What we've seen so far with this regime is an effort to make the affiliates - and their fans - happy. See Jon Singleton's week-long stint in Quad Cities, Carlos Correa's season-long campaign in Low-A, and Mark Appel's extended stay at Quad Cities.

This is what blew up the partnership in Round Rock and Lexington: Losing. Former Express GM/Current Astros President Reid Ryan said in 2010, "There are a lot of parts to putting together a good experience, and winning on a consistent basis is a big component of that." He also said, "Fans here don't necessarily care who the team is connected to, but they do care about the players and about enjoying the game. That's tough to do when your team isn't winning." In that second link we find that Round Rock's staff actually applauded the end of the 2010 season (the team's 5th straight losing season, one that saw the 2010 Express finish with the worst record in the PCL). Manager Marc Bombard said of the 2010 team, "The players are disappointed, the staff's disappointed, but you do the best with what you have." Now, OKC has the chance to win their first league title since 1996.

Following the 2012 season, the Low-A Lexington Legends ended their Professional Development Contract with the Astros - with whom they had been affiliated since the team's beginning in 2001. Why? Losing.

The PDC with Oklahoma City ends at the end of the 2014 season. Back in April we talked about the timeline for any potential new stadium/PDC agreement, and decided that - barring some massive, unforeseen development - 2017 is the earliest that it could happen, which would mean that the Astros would need a PDC with a Triple-A affiliate for 2015-2016 (the minimum length of an agreement). OKC has a very real chance to win the Pacific Coast League - provided George Springer is on the field for the pennant race.

Keep also in mind that the Astros are praising OKC's coaching staff seemingly every chance they get. Bo Porter did so following Brad Peacock's strong start Friday night against the Angels. Luhnow said that Springer's success is a "testament to our scouts and player development people." By bringing Springer up to Houston, say, would that sink Tony DeFrancesco's (and the other coaches') chance to win a ring? That coaching staff is solid, and is on board with what the Astros are building. Think of the Astros that got sent down from Houston, got some work in at Oklahoma City, and came back better. That's a coaching staff you want to have around to reinforce development. Do you want to piss them off by taking their best player away with two weeks left in the season?

We should also take into account the experience George Springer himself gets in a pennant race/playoff push. He's getting PAs against older, more experienced pitchers (405 PAs this season are against older pitchers), as well as younger players (127 PAs). If you're younger than George Springer at Double- or Triple-A, then you likely have a bright future ahead of you. Springer is playing in a pennant race, where there are no off-days for the rest of the season, against high-quality opponents. Then the playoffs presumably start. He'd be rising and grinding, of course, no matter where he is. But that playoff experience is important for a player's development.

Should the RedHawks make the playoffs, under the PCL playoff rules, the Conference Championship is a Best-of-Five series and Games 1&2 would be at OKC beginning September 4. Games 3-5 (whichever ones are necessary) would be on the road (currently Omaha is five up on Memphis). Should they make it to the Best-of-Five PCL Championship series, Game 1 is on the 8th day following the close of the regular season, meaning Tuesday, September 10. This would mean that the PCL Championship would presumably end no later than Sunday, September 15.

If the Astros wait until the end of the playoffs and call George Springer up immediately, he would still get two weeks with Houston that would include series with the Reds, Angels, Indians, Rangers, and Yankees. Is two weeks a lot of experience? No. Would you rather Springer get the experience of playing in a pennant race and playoff situation at 23 years old (with a chance to be the first 40/40 player in 57 years), or playing in Houston, where the team is 42 games under .500?

Two weeks ago I felt differently. I wanted Springer up, LIKE, YESTERDAY. But now, I'm okay with the Astros letting him finish out the season, get experience in that pressure, and end the season in Houston, spending a couple of weeks with the big league club. It's a matter of two weeks, anyway.