When thinking about the first baseman of the future, one name immediately comes to mind: Jon Singleton. As part of the return in the Hunter Pence deal is, he’s one of the best first base prospects in all of baseball and was ranked the 27th best overall prospect by Baseball America and MLB.com prior to the 2013 season. But I think it’s fair to say that questions still remain about his future. There’s no question his stock took a bit of a beating when he was hit with a 50 game suspension last season for violating league anti-drug policy and he never really got on track for the remainder of the season, hitting only six homeruns in 73 games with OKC with a sub par .687 OPS. Singleton has helped his stock with a very strong showing in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues where, as of 12/15/2013, he has a league leading eight home runs. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow has made it no secret that he prefers a minor league player dominate a level before being promoted, so Singleton may still not be ready.
Needless to say, the Astros are looking for a first basemen in case Singleton needs more time to develop and to replace the mediocre production that Brett Wallace has provided. Houston was rumored to be interested on multiple first base free agent targets earlier this winter, and even made an offer to Mike Morse, but they've been rebuffed on all. Kendrys Morales is lone name who remains and, while he had a relatively solid 2013 in Seattle last season, there are some downsides to whichever team signs him. Morales has no defensive ability and the Astros already have the DH spot committed to another butcher of the glove, Chris Carter. Morales is likely looking for a longer term deal than the Astros would like to offer, perhaps in the three to five year range. The biggest deterrent, however, is the compensation pick due to Seattle for a rejected qualifying offer. For someone who’s merely good, like Morales, that attached draft pick is a major sticking point.
So, a trade seems like a real option at this point and there are some players potentially available. Adam Lind and Justin Smoak are a couple of names that have been floated, but one that really excites me is Mike Carp. He is the 27 year-old, fair-skinned slugger who was acquired on waivers last spring by the Boston Red Sox. In 86 games last season, Carp posted a weighty .885 OPS with eight home runs. Fangraphs gave him a WAR of 1.2 (which, based on the current free agent market, would be between $5-10 million per season). He'll be in his age 28 season in 2014, so he probably won’t ever grow in to a Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, but he can be a serviceable player. Both Steamer and Oliver projections think Carp will be a positive value player for 2014, with a WAR somewhere between .6 and 2 (based on the number of at-bats he is given). Brett Wallace has never posted a positive WAR value (per Fangraphs) in any of his four big league season, so that could be a bigger boost than it appears at first glance.
Now, why would Boston want to get rid of him? The short answer is they wouldn't want to, but there are a few advantages for Boston to deal him now.
First, nobody really knows what the future holds for Carp with such a limited number of Major League at-bats. (Yes, I pointed to the above projections of Carp taking a step forward next year, but Carp could potentially also take a step back, too. We just don’t know.) For Boston to sell now could be selling high.
Carp is a first year arbitration eligible player for 2014, so he’ll start to become expensive soon. Boston’s projected 2014 payroll is expected to be in the neighborhood of $177 million. The luxury tax threshold is $178 million, so the rising salary of a lesser player (like Carp) might become a factor.
Another issue is that Carp is presumably blocked at every other starting position. The Red Sox have Mike Napoli as their first baseman, David Ortiz as their DH, and some combination of Daniel Nava/Jackie Bradley Jr./Johnny Gomes fighting for a spot in left field. Carp is a luxury piece for them and should be expendable.
What the Astros can offer right now is relatively limited. The major league roster has been totally stripped of veterans and the team is understandably gun-shy about dealing prospects. One name on Houston's Major League roster that stands out is Carlos Corporan. With the addition of Max Stassi to the 40 man roster last summer, Houston now has three major league ready catchers for two roster spots (plus Carlos Perez available at Triple A OKC). Corporan is probably not a starter due to his mediocre hitting and on-base skills, but he does provide value for his defensive ability. He won't be eligible for arbitration until the 2015 season, so the service time considerations are to Boston's advantage. Corporan compares favorably to David Ross, Boston’s backup catcher and another good defender, who is 36 years of age and making $3 million a season. What Corporan offers Boston is a younger, cheaper David Ross and a player they can plug-in at the end of the 2014 season. Corporan is just one type of player that could be offered, but the hope is that Houston wouldn’t have to leverage it’s future in order to make a deal happen.
We don’t know what the 2014 season holds for Houston, but we do know that a return to respectability has already started. Would Houston really acquire Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, and Dexter Fowler to try and lose another 100 games? If the Astros are serious about winning, and let’s assume that they are, they need to get real about finding a solution at first base. Kendrys Morales isn’t a good fit, Brett Wallace hasn’t shown he’s worthy, and the jury is still out on Singleton. Houston needs a bit of insurance, a place holder if you will, and Mike Carp might just be their best option for 2014.