Friday, January 29, 2016

Astros Depth Charts: the Corner Outfield Edition

Greetings to the loyal and handsome Astros County readers who remain interested in this series.  Jus to recap, I wanted to look at the depth in the Astros system from about the AA level and above.  I have been presenting a bit of a bio on each player, and taking projections from three commonly-quoted and easily available projection systems - Marcel, ZiPS and Steamer.  This analysis has led to the identification of areas of depth and breakout potential thus far in the Astros system.  If you are interested in reading the earlier articles, then either keep scrolling down, or look for the Primer here, the Catchers here, the middle infield here and the "middle outfield" here.

This is the first of the corner positions, which is interesting, because the Astros have a lot of depth up the middle.  As things stand, and by the ZiPS projections, the Astros will get around 3 zWAR from the catchers, 9 zWAR from the middle infield, and 3-4 zWAR from some combination of outfielders in CF.  Furthermore, the catcher duo and the CF duo both seem like they have a reasonable chance to beat their projections, adding a few more wins to the balance.

I doubt that this is by accident.  The Astros seem to have deliberately worked hard to build up-the-middle depth, and it seems to have paid off.  The corners feel different, especially the infield corners, which we will cover next.  Anyhow, without further ado, lets head to the corner outfield, and see who lurks there.

Right Field: George Springer (26, turns 27 in September)

George Chelston Springer was taken in the first round (11th overall pick) out of University of Connecticut in 2011.  Drafted ahead of Springer was a group that included Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Francisco Lindor, and drafted after Springer were notable pitchers José Fernández (at 14th overall pick) and Sonny Gray (at 18).

At the time, Springer was seen as a very solid athlete with huge upside, but some significant risk.  He drew Grady Sizemore comparisons pre-draft, and this article opined that he will be forever measured against Bubba Starling.  I think the Astros would be pretty happy with their draft choice - only Fernández and perhaps Gray stand out as stars drafted after George Springer, and a couple of the guys drafted ahead of him look a lot like busts.

Springer reached the Major Leagues in late April 2014, and he has been plenty solid since then.  In his rookie year he managed 345 plate appearances, posting a .231/.336/.468 triple slash with 20 home runs, a walk rate just over 11% and a strikeout rate a whisker below one-in-three.  Given that Springer struck out in over one-quarter of his minor-league plate appearances, the increase in his K-rate looked concerning.  It is hard to succeed at the plate with a K-rate like that.  He sat out the last two months of 2014 with a mysterious quadriceps injury, which reminds me to comment that injuries have also been a concern over Springer's short major-league career.

Anyhow, in 2015, Springer put a lot of those contact-related concerns to rest.  He dropped his strikeout rate below one-quarter but continued with a walk-rate above 11%.  He posted a strong .276/.367/.459 line in 451 plate appearances, hitting 16 home runs in the process.  The only area of regression from Springer was his slugging, where is isolated slugging percentage dropped from .237 to .183, and his home runs totals dropped from one in 17.25 plate appearances to one in 28.19 plate appearances.  It could well be something to do with his approach: he used a more all-fields approach in 2015, hitting to the opposite field over 27% of the time, compared to just under 21% of the time in 2014.  A few articles have been written about the changes Springer made between 2014 and 2015.

If that is the cost of a 30-point increase in OBP, I would probably take that.  Springer seems to have remodelled himself as a much more well-rounded hitter in 2015.  Surprising, he was put in the leadoff spot part way through 2015 - mostly as emergency cover for injuries - and he thrived there, posting an overall .297/.379/.451 line in 207 plate appearances.

I guess the question has to be asked whether the 2014-homeriffic George Springer or the 2015-OBP-eriffic George Springer was more valuable.  The answer is that it depends what you want, but I do want to present one argument that may be of interest.  By bWAR, in 2014 Springer was worth one oWAR per 157 plate appearances, and in 2015 Springer was worth one oWAR per 136 plate appearances.

The most encouraging thing, however, is seeing the continued development and adjustments that Springer made between 2014 and 2015.  That makes me wonder what is next for him.  Recall, as well, that in 2015, Springer spent some time recovering from a non-displaced wrist fracture, which would not have helped his power at all.  He could be prepped to make the next step toward offensive super-stardom.  The projections may shed some light on that...

Moving to the projections, Marcel picks the midpoints between the 2014 and 2015 seasons with a .261/.349/.456 batting line with 19 home runs in 399 plate appearances.  Steamer comes in slightly below that in all significant areas except slugging: .256/.343/.463 with 26 home runs in 590 plate appearances.  ZiPS sees Springer's K-rate climbing back to around 30%, and his walk rate remaining close to 11% for a .248/.341/.459 - the most pessimistic of the projection systems.  Stupid ZiPS!

Springer is, without doubt, an very valuable player with considerable breakout potential.  He could well post gaudy counting-stats simply by not missing significant time with injury in 2016, like he has in 2015 (broken wrist and concussion) and 2014 (mystery quad).  If (i) Springer sticks with his all-fields approach and (ii) his power returns the further he gets from his wrist injury, Astros fans could easily witness a 30-homer season from their leadoff hitter - although I wonder if he would stay in the leadoff slot, in that case.

I wouldn't trade that.

Left Field:  Colby Rasmus (29, turns 30 in August)

Rasmus' hot post-season - in which he posted a .412/.583/1.176 line in 24 plate appearances - provided considerable momentum toward being offered a qualifying offer.  The Astros obliged, and Rasmus accepted.  Now he is flipping crabby-patties at Whataburger!  Rasmus' acceptance of the QO looks like a wise move (not the Whataburger one) because second tier outfielders are getting pounded this offseason.  At the time of writing, Dexter Fowler - for example - is still out of a job, so free-agency may not have been kind of Rasmus, especially given his up-and-down performance over his career.

So Rasmus will be back on a 1-year 15.8MM deal.  While the annual value for this is high - and nearly twice what Rasmus earned last year - the deal is short.  If Rasmus crashes back to earth, then the Astros aren't committed going forward, and if he has another solid year, he enters free-agency in an easier outfield market, probably with another QO, and with a better business case behind him.  Plus, 16MM buys a lot of trucks, and the price of gas is getting cheaper, so he may retire instead.

So Rasmus' solid year involved him hitting .238/.314/.475 over the whole season.  Per OPS+, he has two better years than that in his 7-year career.  In 2010, he posted a .276/.361/.498 line with the Cardinals, and in 2013 he mashed to the tune of .276/.338/.501 with the Blue Jays.  So there is some potential for further improvement with Rasmus, but it should also be noted that he has collapse potential.  He has posted a total of three below-average years throughout his career (again, as measured by OPS+) including a .223/.289/.400 season in 2013.

So well 15.8MM may be a chunk of change to give someone who managed an OBP just over .310 in 2105, there are other positive aspects to Rasmus that don't show up in stat lines.  Firstly, he played all three outfield positions in 2015, and while the numbers didn't love his work in CF and RF, he did manage to fill in there without looking terrible.  Secondly, he is left-handed in an otherwise all RH outfield (and middle-infield).  Thirdly, he seems to like Houston, and his poor performances elsewhere seem to have followed clashes with management and front offices.  Perhaps A.J. Hinch and Rasmus get on, and at 29, Rasmus may have gotten to the point where he is managing his side of the relationships better.  Fourthly, health.  He was pretty good last year, and with injury concerns elsewhere in the outfield, health is an otherwise underrated asset for this Astros team.

Moving to the projections, Marcel likes Rasmus to post a very similar numbers to last year, forecasting a .247/.313/.470 line with 23 home runs and 24 doubles.  Steamer thinks he will regress significantly, posting a sub-.300 OBP for the third time in his career - .222/.291/.410 with 21 home runs.  ZiPS agrees more with Marcel than Steamer: .244/.316/.461 with 21 home runs, but his strikeout rate peeks just above 30%, and his walk rate regresses below 10%.  ZiPS thinks that Rasmus is good for a zWAR of 1.6, projecting slightly negative defensive numbers.

Rasmus, unless he regresses significantly, won't kill the Astros in either outfield corner.  The breakout potential is there, but at 29, is far less likely than Springer's breakout potential.  I would think that the Astros are banking on an improvement on last year for the money they are paying Rasmus.  He seems happy in Houston, even talking about playing for the next few years in Houston, then retiring as an Astro, so perhaps the ingredients are there for another big year.  Regardless, this isn't the worst way of spending 16MM on a one-year deal - I doubt Rasmus will collapse, and if he does, the Astros will get to walk away next year with no forward commitment.

Backup in Left Field:  Preston Tucker (25, turns 26 in July)

Preston Tucker is an interesting guy.  He is the first of a particular class of player to reach the Major Leagues that Jeff Luhnow has drafted since picking Tucker up in the 2012 draft.  Since that draft, the Astros have made a point of considering guys who can rake (and usually have solid college batting lines) but don't have "athletic frames".  Since that point, Tucker has been joined by A.J. Reed and Tyler White, forming a triumvirate of John Kruk-like "lady, I ain't an athlete, I'm a ballplayer" type of bats in the upper levels of the Astros system.  Tucker is unlikely to be the best of that group of three - heck, he probably won't even be the best Tucker currently in the organisation - but he is the most advanced in terms of levels played at, and get the first opportunity to stick in Houston.

Also worth mentioning with Preston Tucker is the potential for him to move to first base.  The Astros, at least publicly and for some unknown reason, seem to be clear that Tucker is an outfielder going forward.  Tucker memorably reminded Evan Drellich that he has played first base before in college, and was pretty good there.  In the pros, Tucker has appeared in 13 games in first base, starting nine of them.  I think that Tucker is mentioned in the correct Depth Chart column, and 2015 will not see him move to first base, but 2016 or 2017 might (depending on how some of the other guys play at first).

Tucker made his debut in the Major Leagues on May 7.  In the subsequent 323 plate appearances, he posted a .243/.297/.437 triple-slash line, with 68 strikeouts against 20 walks, and 13 home runs.  The isolated power of .193 was encouraging, but the sub-.300 OBP wasn't.  I recalled watching a lot of Astros games this year where - in particular - Alan Ashby talked about Tucker trying to pull the ball too much, opening up his front shoulder too early.  This, according to Ashby, caused some problems with contact because of the length of time the bat spent in the zone.  Ashby seemed to argue that Tucker has a unique swing plane in terms of it's flatness, and pulling off the ball wasn't something that would help him.  So perhaps Tucker has some significant technical issues that, if resolved, may assist with contact, contributing to a better triple-slash.

The other point that needs to be made about Tucker is his potential value as a platoon bat.  Career minor league splits aren't easy to come by, but Tucker had a .333/.412/.533 line against lefties in his monster few months in Fresno last year, against a .274/.326/.607 line against righties.  That looks like a reverse platoon split to me - but the difference is slugging is certainly significant in terms of arguing for platoon value.  So lets backtrack to AA in 2014, note the similar reverse-platoon distribution: .319/.365/.551 against LHP and .260/.343/.531 against RHP.

This doesn't seem to indicate that Tucker would offer much value as a platoon bat, but his MLB line differs from those two lines: .200/.235/.231 against lefties and .255/.314/.494 against righties.  He only had 68 plate appearances against lefties in the major leagues, so the obligatory small sample size warning needs to be dusted off and displayed.  The potential for Tucker to form the fat side of a platoon seems to exist, but this isn't supported by his upper-level minor-league splits.

Moving to the projections:  Marcel thinks Tucker will post a .254/.311/.435 - similar to Rasmus' line above, but with a little less slugging, which is reflected in the fact that he is projected for 13 home runs in about 330 plate appearances.  Steamer follows the same line of thought: .253/.308/.431, striking out at around a 20% rate, and walking at around a 7% rate.  ZiPS is the low-man here: .246/.299/.414, yielding a zWAR of 0.8 after accounting for a slight negative defensive rating.

Tucker raked at AAA prior to his promotion in May of last year.  After that, he looked quite un-Tucker-like, at least in terms of what the minor-league stats suggest.  This is shaping to be a big year for him, and correcting any technical issues combined with settling in at the major-league level may see him improve on those projections.  I doubt, however, he will be an impact bat at the corners for the Astros this year.

DH, and Backup in Left Field if your starting outfield has been abducted by aliens:  Evan Gattis (29, turns 30 in August)

Gattis is an interesting case of a phenom who was out of baseball for a few years due to a variety of issues.  He was drafted when he was about to turn 24, and made his major-league debut as a 26-year old.  He appeared to show amazing natural ability with the bat early in his career, and his career as a part-time catcher most likely gave cause for teams to think that he had some improvement in him, if only he could shed the Tools of Ignorance.  After two solid seasons with the Braves, the Astros traded for him (and James Hoyt) in January 2015, sending Rio Ruiz, Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman to Atlanta.

At the time, we liked the trade.  In one of my multiple-chapter posts, I posited that (i) Gattis may benefit from getting out from behind the plate because his second-half OPS's had nosedived in the previous two years and (ii) Gattis probably saw fewer reps than many 29 year-old baseball players because of the years he spent away from the game and (iii) he mashes lefties.  I predicted big things.  Gattis then got off to a slow start (and I love the headline in that link, which is certainly worth a re-read), and slowly recovered, but never really hitting his straps or ever looking comfortable.  He posted an overall line of .246/.285/.463 with 27 home runs and 11 triples in just over 600 plate appearances.

But a funny thing happened to Gattis as the season went on.  His first half was poor (.241/.268/.444) whereas - for the first time in his career, his second half was better (.252/.307/.488).  This was the subject of a Jeff Sullivan Fangraphs post and an Owen Watson article on Fox (by way of Fangraphs), which basically stated that Gattis swung a lot less at pitches outside the zone in the second half, and as a result, posted an above average strikeout rate of just over 16% in the second half of the year.  This was accompanied by a corresponding increase in walk rate (3.5% to 6.8%) between the two halves of the season.  Certainly, to the eye, Gattis no longer seemed to be popping up on the first pitch in any important at-bat down the stretch, which was a gigantic improvement.  It is possible that this new approach will lead to a better Evan Gattis in 2016.

I am not going to even talk about defence.  Gattis is a DH.  If Marisnick is not covering someone in the outfield, then Tucker will.  Gattis should sign his outfield glove and sell it on eBay.  That is all.  But perhaps I am being a little hasty in ruling out a return to catching.  Gattis is, after all, in the best shape of his life, and he identified that this may be to support a return to squatting behind the plate.

Let's move on to the projections for Gattis in 2016.  Marcel is unimpressed with Gattis, projecting a similar season with a sub-.300 OBP, but a juicy-looking isolated slugging mark: .250/.296/.469 with 26 home runs, and a disappointing 5 triples.  Steamer projects a similar line: .248/.296/.471 with 26 home runs and a 5% walk rate against a 21.5% strikeout rate.  ZiPS is also in agreement: .252/.297/.465 and 22 home runs.

In my opinion, if there is ever a candidate to blow past those projections, then Gattis is the guy.  If you believe that Gattis can and does make adjustments - given time and as postulated in the Watson article linked above - then he should strike out less and walk more.  This may lead to better pitches to hit, and then more walks as pitchers start to work around him.  And he should have more protection this year by virtue of his no longer having to share a batting order with the likes of Chris Carter and Jed Lowrie.  Gattis' power is for real, the trick is when to apply the power, and a pitch missing the zone by a foot is not the time.  Perhaps he has just realised that, and perhaps he will execute a little more consistently this year.

Unheralded Prospect: Jon Kemmer (25, turns 26 in November)

Jon Kemmer was fingered by J.J. Cooper in his recent BA Astros prospect chat as a prospect not listed in the top 10 who could make an impact in Houston.  Cooper profiles him as "at least" a fourth OF type, "with a chance of being more", so he looks like exactly the kind of guy we should be profiling in this edition of the Depth Charts.

Kemmer was selected in the 21st round of the 2013 draft from the noted baseball powerhouse Brewton-Parker College in Georgia.  It is a tiny school, with just over 1000 students, and a very modest alumni roll when it comes to sportspeople.  Kemmer started his professional career in Tri-Cities in 2013, then was one of a group of older prospects at Quad Cities and Lancaster in 2014.  Last year, Kemmer reached Corpus, where he spent the entire season pummelling the opposing pitchers.  He has a Spring Training invite for 2016.

Kemmer has hit well in all his stops (career .290/.365/.500 line), but he has never raked like he did at Corpus (.327/.414/.574 in 425 PA's).  He hit 18 home runs and 28 doubles, with a walk-rate over 10%  (something he was trying to work on) and a strikeout rate of 20.9%.  His 2015 season was boosted by a high BABIP (.387), but good players often post high BABIP's - most SABR guys think it is a skill.  The big lefty has nothing to prove at AA, so he will likely open the year at AAA at worst.

Marcel does not have a projection, but Steamer and ZiPS do.  Steamer projects a .250/.305/.401 line, with his walk rate dropping to 6.2% and his strikeout rate increasing to below-average 23.8%.  ZiPS likes Kemmer a little less, projecting a .235/.293/.394 line, with again a poor walk rate (5.8%) and a high strikeout rate (27.6%).   Both of those lines would suggest a below average line in the majors for Kemmer.

If Preston Tucker struggles, Kemmer may get a look in a reserve-outfield role.  However, he would also need to be added to the 40-man roster for that to occur.  I predict that he will remain at Fresno for 2016, and get a better look at the major-leagues next year if he manages to continue to make progress.  Kemmer isn't young, but like Gattis and Hoyt, his development opportunities (in coming from a small school) mean that perhaps his development is on a different trajectory from most of the other prospects.  But if you want someone to bolt into Houston this year and make an impact, you could certainly do worse than backing Kemmer.

Long Shot:  Leonardo (Leo) Heras (25, turns 26 in May)

Leo Heras was signed out of Mexico in August of 2013, along with The Giant from Mulegé, Japhet Amador, who appears to be no longer with the organisation.  He had posted some gaudy numbers in the Mexican League, and Jeff Luhnow and the Astros obviously thought he was worth a flier.  Heras spent the end of 2013, all of 2014 and most of 2015 in Corpus Christi, where he posted a combined line of .238/.345/.368.  He saw 35 plate appearances in Fresno last season, where he managed a .194/.265/.290 overall line.  Not great.

Steamer expects Heras to be better in the Major Leagues than in his small sample in Fresno, posting a .229/.298/.351 line, with a walk rate over 8% and a strikeout rate just below 22%.  ZiPS is less charitable, foreseeing a .216/.288/.328 line, with a walk rate over 8% and a strikeout rate over 27%.

Big year for Heras.  His time is now, looking at his age.  He bats lefty as well, so he is in direct competition with Rasmus, Tucker, Aplin and Kemmer, all of whom are probably ahead of him on the depth chart.  He may be playing back in the Mexican League in 2017 if he can't make an impact this year.

A Minor Leaguer they Let Go:  Telvin Nash (24, turns 25 in February)

Nash is the second Astro drafted out of Georgia in this edition of the Depth Chart, joining Jon Kemmer.  He was drafted by the Astros in 2009, in the third round, out of Griffin HS in Georgia.  Nash was actually released by the Astros in early 2015, after which he went to Indy Ball and posted a .270/.391/.516 line.

Nash has risen as high as AA (playing all of 2014 and 130 PA's in 2015), where he posted a combined .227/.327/.475 line.  Steamer does not see him as a serious threat at the Major-League level in 2016, projecting a .205/.273/.383 line, with a walk rate of 7.5%, and a strikeout rate of 35.5%.   ZiPS hates that strikeout rate even more, forecasting a .160/.240/.316 line, with an 8% walk rate, and a 53% strikeout rate.  That is no error.  I triple-checked it.

No comment.

Another Guy:  Danry Vasquez (22, turns 23 in January 2017)

Vasquez is from Venezuela.  He was originally acquired from Detroit in the 2013 Jose Veras trade, which also netted the Astros David Paulino.  Vasquez is a relatively punchless left fielder - some have noted that he has never hit double-digit home runs in a season - so he would need to have awesome OBP skills if that was to be his final position.  He was Rule 5 eligible, but wasn't snagged, so he remains with the organisation.

Vasquez has, however, been young for every level that he has played, so there is some potential for improvement there.  But his 2015 at Corpus was not great: .245/.294/.300 in 296 plate appearances, at a time when he needed to showcase his skills.

Steamer is not optimistic, and neither is ZiPS.  Steamer projects a line of .243/.283/.332 with an above-average strikeout rate (16.2%), which is better than his AA triple-slash.  ZiPS has a similar line of .240/.280/.319.  Neither would be good on a contending team.  The key question is where Vasquez opens the season - my pick is that he repeats AA.

A Guy They Let Go:  Robbie Grossman (26, turns 27 in September)

Mike-Bob Grossman is included for comparative purposes only.  Grossman is now with Cleveland, after he signed a minor-league deal late in 2015 after an end-of-season DFA.  Grossman was an interesting guy to trade for when the Astros were struggling - a switch-hitting high-OBP corner outfielder.  He has a career .240/.327/.341 line in the Major-Leagues, but tantalised with little periods where he seemed to put together a couple of months, posting an OBP north of .350 a couple of times for a month or so.

Fun fact: I was in the stands for Robbie Grossman's last major-league home run with the Astros.  In a 1-0 ball game against the Angels in April last year, Grossman deposited a 1-0 pitch in the seventh inning from Mike Morin into the Crawford Boxes, scoring Handsome Jake and José Altuve.  MMP went nuts - it was a hard-line drive shot into the back of the Boxes - the kind of lefty-friendly HR that the Juice Box was built for.  The ball landed near me, but the ricochet wasn't kind.  That was a great night for the Astros, after they got Mike Trout'd the previous night.

Anyhow, we haven't used Marcel for a while, and it projects Grossman to post a .245/.326/.363 line in 269 PA's next year.  Steamer sees a similar performance, with a .239/.322/.348 line, with a walk rate over 10% and a strikeout rate approaching 25%.  ZiPS is less of a Grossman fan: .225/.314/.325, with a strikeout rate approaching 27%.  Those lines are not good, especially given that the Astros have a multitude of other options.

A Big Free Agent:  Yoenis Céspedes (30, turns 31 in October)

Céspedes re-signed with the Mets, and will have a chance to enter the free-agent marketplace again next year thanks to an opt-out clause.  Céspedes' story is well known - he hit .262/.318/.470 in 1546 PA's in Oakland, .269/.296/.423 in 213 PA's in Boston, .293/.323/.506 in 427 PA's with Detroit and .287/.337/.604 in 249 PA's with the Mets.  His 2015 season saw a triple-slash of .291/.328/.542, and he hoped to parlay that into a monster pay day after being solidly above-average the previous three seasons.  Anyhow, he is only mentioned as a point of comparison, so lets head to the projections.

Marcel projects a .265/.309/.480 line with 26 HR in just over 600 PA's.  Steamer projects a .259/.305/.464 line, with a walk-rate just under 6% and a strikeout rate approaching 22%.  ZiPS is a little more optimistic, with a .270/.312/.498 line, with similar walk and and strikeout rates to Steamer.    That would result in a solid 4.4 zWAR season.  But the OBP edges just over .300, and he relies on home runs for much of his slugging value.  If he isn't hitting dingers, the value would plummet.

Summary:  So that concludes it for the corner outfielders.  Springer looks like a good bet to continue to provide value, and he has shown the ability to make adjustments between 2014 and 2015.  Colby Rasmus' career has been a bit of a mixed bag, but he could be primed for a big season, and does not seem shy about talking about how much he likes Houston, and his newfound maturity.  The remaining likely reserves are both left-handed batters (Tucker and Kemmer), and Gattis seems likely to assume the DH role, at least to open the season.  After that, there does not seem to be much depth, and my pick is that organisational guys like Heras and Nash may not conclude the season with the Astros.

After the weekend, the Corner Infield Edition concludes this series of articles for the position players.