Saturday, May 2, 2015

Hoes Down, Chapman Up, plus Jed Lowrie's Injury.

L.J. Hoes was optioned to AAA after the first game of the Mariners series, with lefty relieved Kevin Chapman being summonsed to take his place.  The Mariners lean left in their batting lineup, so this move is totally understandable.  Remember when the Astros were fiddling with their starting rotation a year ago to get lefty starters to throw against the Mariners?  In the meantime, the Astros will play with a 3-man bench with plenty of positional flexibility - Conger, Grossman, Villar and González are all switch hitters, with the latter two having played nearly every position on the diamond and one of the two are expected to start at short in some kind of semi-platoon.

Lowrie's injury got me thinking.  Firstly, about how good the Lowrie contract was in the offseason.  When he departed in 2013 - after being acquired for a mercurial reliever - he had rebuilt his value with nearly 400 solid plate appearances on a bad team.  He raked for a middle infielder in 2013 over 154 games for Oakland (119 OPS+), and when he entered 2014, I wondered whether the Yankees would tab him as the interim replacement for DJ2, and offer him boatloads of cash in the process.  But his play in 2014 was not great, and it may have cost him a fair bit in contract money, but 3-and-23 is still an absolute bargain.  Especially when the guy mashes to a 179 OPS+ through the first 12% of the season.

Secondly, Lowrie is out until after the ASB, and he is going to rejoin the team as a fresh set of legs with around 2-and-one-half of the season to go.  If there are no lingering issues to his thumb - and there probably shouldn't be - then he will at least serve as a solid stretch-run addition.  Neither González or Villar is going to be a total naught at shortstop, and Lowrie has been unsustainably hot so the regression monster was starting to take an interest.  Perhaps the drop off in production could be less than first thought.

And while we are acknowledging the glass-half-full opinion of Lowrie's injury, it seems reasonable to look at how the Astros could use the DL time and roster spot to their best advantage.  No one seemed surprised when Jonathan Villar was called up - and they shouldn't have been - because he remains the logical replacement.  He has experience, positional flexibility, is a switch hitter, and a month ago was in the midst of a solid spring.  He also needs reps at the ML level to see what kind of player he will become, and the Astros would be wise to give him that opportunity now, lest they are forced to cut bait at some time in the future with that question unanswered.  Villar can do stuff on the field that other people simply can't, and I seem to remember that around a year ago, he was leading the Astros starters in slugging.  What I am trying to saw is that his ceiling is significant.

So Villar was always going to get the call up, although fans could be forgiven for being disappointed that the computer didn't spit out Carlos Correa's name.  Delay Correa's call up until this time next year (which would be developmentally very forgivable) and you get control until after the World Series in 2021.  Call him up now - and if you can't realistically return him to the minors because of solid performance - and you move his free-agency date to late 2020.  With the team winning as it is, and with a Villar-like candidate with his service clock already ticking, Correa wasn't ever coming up.

L.J. Hoes was called up for the series in the NL ballpark to allow for more of a pinch hitting option.  He was hot in AAA (.418/.458/.658 in a hitter-friendly league), but he only managed one plate appearance and one pinch-running appearance over the series.  With Sam Deduno starting - and likely to be restricted to around 60 pitches for this start - and with the pitchers hitting back in Houston, a 4-man bench is a luxury.  So the extra lefty reliever in Chapman was summonsed to counter the Mariners' lefty leaning lineup.

So, all pretty logical to this point, huh??  But Sam Deduno is (i) either going to return to being a long reliever or (ii) going to be stretched out to start full time and an extra arm won't be needed in the 'pen.  Either way, in a month or so, the fifth starter spot will hopefully be much clearer and someone who can carry a decent pitch load.  Either Obie or Peacock will be back, or Wojo would have benefitted from his time in AAA, or Deduno's name will appear in more permanent ink on the lineup card in the fifth starter slot.  So perhaps a four man bench in AL ballparks will become more defensible.

Assuming Conger and Grossman remain permanent bench players, and González and Hoes share shortstop duties, how could the Astros use this extra slot?  There are a number of interesting possibilities.  Preston Tucker is tearing up AAA right now, but he isn't on the 40-man, so another move would need to be made.  L.J. Hoes could pop back up and get more of a chance to mash.  Domingo Santana is another outfield possibility, and everyone remembers his time in the Majors from last year.  Jon Singleton is hitting .243/.369/.514 with four jacks, so perhaps he could get a look.  Nolan Fontana bats lefty, plays short, and is hitting .250/.394/.411, so he could be a possibility if Villar struggles (but isn't on the 40-man either, so a corresponding move would need to be made).  Joe Sclafani is a switch-hitter with positional flexibility, so he could get a look for a month or so, but this is becoming more of a long-shot with every name mentioned.

In terms of corresponding transactions, the guy on the 40-man who is at AAA who isn't performing well is our old friend, Matt Dominguez.  He has played 16 games, and is hitting .250/.299/.317 with no home runs.  I would hate to see Matty D leave the organisation, mostly because of how he would gently lays the bat down and trot around the bases at a good clip on home run balls.  Even if he crushed it and it was a massive home run in the context of the game, he always acted the same.  Showboating wasn't really his style, and when a guy is struggling in the majors and isn't taking the opportunity to show people up, then that earns some respect from me.

Of course, Matty D may be working on something very specific with the hitting coaches, and his number may have taken a hit on the basis that he is in an adjustment phase.  Numbers don't tell the whole story, and the Astros have been a scouting-savvy organisation recently, despite their reputation as ruthless number-crunchers.  There may be a plan with Matt D that I know nothing about - that would not surprise me at all.  The possibility of an adjustment may protect Matt somewhat.

This entry has gotten too long again, but I hope that my point has been made.  Jed's injury will keep him out for 2-3 months, and the first month or so of that will probably involve a short bench.  However, once the fifth starter - swingman areas of the pitching staff sort themselves out, the Astros have all sorts of tantalising options.  These include a number of guys that need a few months in the majors to see what they could become as players.  This list includes both guys that have seen The Show before (Hoes, Santana and Singleton) plus guys currently knocking on the door, that may need to be added to the 40-man.  A roster spot may have to be created, and Matty D looks to be at the stage of his career where he needs to hit better, or he may be struggling for a job.

Either way, the presence of too many players for too few roster spots on a first-place team is something that Astros fans should relish.