Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Astros Depth Charts: the Middle Infield Edition

To whittle away the time between now and the start of Spring Training, we at Astros County plan to preview each positional group of Astros, looking at the history and projections for the players that we are likely to see in 2016.  We will look at the Major League roster, all relevant players who have managed significant time at AA and above, and any interesting, available or reasonable trade targets or free agents.

We started with the Catchers a couple of days ago, and if you missed the Primer, here it is.

Shortstop:  Carlos Correa (21, turns 22 in September)

I may be out on a limb here, but I am ready to anoint Carlos Correa as the 2016 starting shortstop for the Astros, barring injury, natural disaster or alien invasion.  Correa, famously, was drafted first overall in 2012 out of Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, and he made the jump from AA, with a brief stop at AAA, to the major leagues in June of 2015, after sitting out much of 2014 with what I recall to be a broken tibia (often reported as a broken fibula, which is a much more common injury, but I definitely remember it being reported at the time as a broken tibia).  He enters the 2016 season as the reigning Rookie of the Year after he raked to the tune of .279/.345/.512 in 432 plate appearances.  He hit 22 home runs and doubles, one triple, and stole 14 bases against four caught stealing.  He struck out 78 times against 40 walks.  That all amounts of a bWAR of 4.1, although Fangraphs was a less bullish 3.3 fWAR, amassed over only 99 games.  Baseball Prospectus rated him a 2.7 Wins Over Replacement Player.  Pro-rating B-R's digits for the whole season results in a bWAR of 6.7.  Now cast your eyes upward and remind yourself of his age.

I can only really say one more thing beyond what I have said in the above paragraph about Carlos Correa.  The numbers quoted above are impressive and speak for themselves.  What may be more impressive is his maturity.  Everyone he meets seems to be impressed by him, and in interviews he comes across as respectful, polite, and a keen guardian of the game.  He is going to be fun to watch over the next few years, and will be easy to root for whether you support the Astros or not.

Correa's strength appears to be his bat, which is fabulous, especially for an up-the-middle player.  The various statistical systems are less bullish about his defence.  He finished 2015 with a -7.3 Fielding Runs Against, and the statistics commonly employed by Fangraphs and B-R all indicate a slight negative rating for his defence overall.  What we often say about the Astros and fielding stats is that there are concerns about how they can be applied to the Astros, because of the frequency and intensity of their shifting, especially regarding the infield.  Correa seemed to be a solid defender to the eye, but remember that we watched a whole lot of Jed Lowrie and Marwin González prior to his call up, and that may have made Correa look more impressive in comparison.  His crucial error in Game 4 of the ALDS may have helped shorten the Astros' season somewhat, but that was certainly not typical of how he fielded during the year.  The best part of his defensive arsenal seems to be his arm, which reminds me of a cannon, and supports any future move to third base.

Just as a reminder, Correa managed a .279/.345/.512 triple slash in 2015.

Marcel seems to think that Correa will have fewer plate appearances in 2016 - it is a very simple projection system, after all - but that his triple slash will largely remain the same, showing only a slight decrease in power (.282/.346/.496 with 19 HR).  Steamer likes Correa to play the full season, but to also take a slight hit to his power numbers (.275/.340/.458 with 22 HR).  Steamer also thinks that Correa's defence will be a slight plus this year, yielding an overall fWAR of 4.2.  ZiPS disagrees with Steamer and Marcel regarding Cornea's power, suggesting a .273/.340/.492 triple-slash, with a strikeout rate just below 20%.  This would result in an overall zWAR of 4.9, which is pretty awesome for a middle-infielder.  ZiPS' number one comparison for Correa is Troy Tulowitzki - I would certainly take Tulo's career for Correa at this point.

I think we can all agree - Correa is pretty frikking awesome, and he is capable of being the best shortstop in the league this year.  However, his modus operandi has been - to this point - more about slow and steady development, so perhaps we should temper our expectations and expect a little less, rather than more form Correa for the upcoming season.  He needs to avoid injury, of course, and the rigors of playing a full season may be a bit of a challenge for 2016.  On that note, I would expect Hinch to proactively rest Correa if the Astros are doing well early in the season in order to prevent him wearing down later in the summer.

Second Base:  José Altuve (25, turns 26 in May)

José Altuve - everybody's favourite Astro - seems set to man the keystone in 2016 - again barring unforeseen circumstances such as the aforementioned alien invasion or other stuff.  Altuve is a fascinating guy: he is short (generously 5-foot-6), young, and has already amassed nearly 3000 ML plate appearances for his career.  He has manned the keystone full-time since 2012, and has been awarded two Silver Sluggers and one Gold Glove in the process.  He signed with the Astros as an amateur free-agent in 2007, and since signing, has done nothing but rake his way through the Astros system, into the major leagues.  He is also signed to a ridiculously team-friendly contract: he will earn $3.5MM in 2016, $4.5MM in 2017, and has two team options totalling $12.5MM for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Altuve is coming off another solid season where he assembled a .313/.353/.459 batting line, hitting a career high 15 home runs in the process.  He stole 38 bases, but was caught stealing 13 times - both league highs.  He reached the 200 hit-plateau for the second time.  He was worth - according to the various systems, 5 bWAR, 4.3 fWAR, or 3.2 WARP.

As impressive as 2015 was for Altuve, it was a slight regression from 2014, where he slashed .341/.377/.453 and stole 56 bases.  But Altuve's 2015 was superior to 2014 in two important categories - his power hitting, and his defence.  Altuve's defensive numbers improved according to both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, moving into slight positive territory in both measures.  Baseball Prospectus (Fielding Runs Against) thought that Altuve's 2015 was less-negative than his 2014 and 2013.  Regardless of what the unintelligible defensive stats say, Altuve was recognised by his peers by virtue of being awarded a Gold Glove which (i) should be mainly seen as a sign that he is a good all-round player rather than the best defensive player in the AL at the keystone and (ii) recognition that his defence isn't awful, which it once was.

The forecasting systems like Altuve's ongoing offensive excellence, which is no surprise because he has been an excellent player for three of the last four seasons.  Marcel projects Altuve to slash .315/.355/.439 with 10 home runs and 34 stolen bases.  Steamer sees a little bit of regression, forecasting a .307/.350/.433 triple-slash with 11 home runs and 36 stolen bases, adding up to an fWAR of 3.3. ZiPS sees what Steamer sees, projecting Altuve to hit .309/.346/.432 while striking out in less than 10% of his at-bats, hitting 11 home runs, and stealing 40 bases.

Most betting Astros fans would take the "over" on both Fangraphs systems, I would think.  Astros fans have seen Altuve continually beat his projections in the past, and would likely characterise him as an outlier with continued similar production going forward.  The heartless projection systems often have trouble with consistent outliers, often projecting regression unfairly in early-career stats, not realising that some guys are freakish.  Perhaps that is what is happening here.

Altuve, like Correa, obviously needs to avoid injury.  Anything that eats into his speed would be a disaster.  And also like Correa, ZiPS projects Altuve to produce north of 4 zWAR.  For those keeping count at home, the Astros starters in the middle infield are projected to combine for 9 zWAR in 2016.  Goodness, that is a decent core to build around.

Backup:  Marwin González (26, turns 27 in March)

MarGo is an interesting case.  He was signed as an amateur free agent by the Cubs in 2005, but was claimed by Boston in the Rule 5 draft in late 2011, and promptly traded to the Astros for minor leaguer Marco Duarte (who has spent the last three years pitching in Mexico).  The Astros of 2012 and 2013 were pretty starved of talent, so Gonzalez was allowed to post poor batting numbers (65 and 58 OPS+'s) in 152 games and 441 plate appearances combined over the two seasons.  However, a stronger 2014 saw him post a .277/.327/.400 in 310 plate appearances, resulting in a 105 OPS+.  He continued along the same lines in 2015 (.279/.317/.442 in 370 plate appearances) resulting in a slightly better 106 OPS+.  He hit 12 home runs in 2015 - twice what he has hit in any other year, and as many as he has hit between 2012 and 2014.  Combine that with positional flexibility and a solid-but-unspectacular glove, and the Astros have a bench player of considerable value.

MarGo posted a bWAR of 1.5 and 1.8 respectively in 2014 and 2015 (and an fWAR of 0.8 and 1.5 over the same period).  Baseball Prospectus rates him as posting a 1.4 WARP each year over 2014 and 2015, which is plenty valuable in part-time duty.  Perhaps the best thing about González is that he won't hurt you if he has to step in to a regular role for a month or two.

González's value - at least measured by some kind of WAR-to-salary ratio - is about to take a hit, however.  He was arbitration eligible for the first time this year, and MLBTR projected him to earn around $1.9MM, which still seems like a bargain for the Astros.  González signed for a little over that   - he will play the 2016 season earning $2MM annually.  It will seem like less of a bargain in a few years, especially if González breaks the $5MM barrier, which I imagine he could do in 2017 with another strong full season.

What is also notable about González is how he has managed to ward off challengers for his super-utility roster spot.  In particular, Jed Lowrie (.222/.312/.400 with 9HR, 1.0 bWAR) and Jonathan Villar (.284/.339/.414, 0.9 bWAR in 128 PA's) both had the potential to challenge for González's roster spot, but both have been the victims of offseason trades for seemingly poor returns.

The interesting thing about González's 2015 was his splits.  In the first half of the year, he "hit" .253/.279/.412 in 203 PA's.  In the second half - and we all remember him having some vital knocks for the Astros down the stretch - he hit a considerably better .313/.364/.480 in 167 PA's.  His September/October was particularly hot: .308/.345/.519 over 56 PA's, which is a huge bonus for a utility guy.  And some of this occurred with a finger and wrist injury that he sustained in September, which apparently restricted his swing from the left side.  It is also notable that he was stronger against lefties last year (.295/.347/.496 versus .268/.296/.405), which is not consistent with his career mark (.681 OPS against LHP versus .690 against RHP), so the hand/wrist injury may have had something to do with that.  The Astros didn't really have many effective lefty-mashers on the bench last year, so González was doubly useful.

So González has transformed himself from a light-hitting Rule 5 shortstop into a defensively flexible bench bat who won't let you down, and has an ability to get on a hot streak.  He is entering his prime years (he is 26 at the time of writing), and is about to start getting expensive.  He is likely to be around for a few more years yet, given the offseason trades of his challengers, which is nice for the legions of Astros fans who love him.

In terms of his 2016 projections, Marcel seems him hitting .267/.313/.408 in 416 PA's, with 11 home runs.  Marcel thinks that the recent surge in power is for real, despite it predicting a slight regression in 2016.  Steamer sees MarGo regressing significantly: .252/.294/.381 with 7 HRs in 342 PA's, good for a 0.5 WAR - not the worst from a utility guy, but Jonathan Villar may have been a better option if that was what MarGo hits next year.  ZiPS sees similar production: .257/.295/.385 with 8 home runs, again not buying into González's hot second half of 2015.  ZiPS also sees González posting a slightly above-average strikeout rate (18.5%) but a well below-average walk rate (4.4%).

MarGo could do his future playing prospects a lot of good with another solid year.  The AL is, after all, crying out for another Ben Zobrist (who slashed .297/.405/.543 in his stellar 2009 - his best campaign).  Mentioning Ben Zobrist is a little rough on Marwin - Zobrist was absolutely stellar in his time with Tampa Bay, and expecting any utility man to match that production is grossly unfair.

Also on the 40-man:  Nolan Fontana (24, turns 25 in June)

Nolan Fontana is the only remaining player currently on the 40-man roster capable of manning a passable shortstop.   It therefore seems likely that he will probably be the first player called up in the event of a Correa or González injury.  Fontana was added to the 40-man in advance of the 2015 Rule 5 draft which was held at the conclusion of the Winter Meetings.  He was drafted in the second round of the 2012 amateur draft as a polished OBP-type infielder graduating college.

Since then Fontana has steadily advanced through the minor-leagues to Fresno.  He sports an OBP over .400 in his minor-league career, but his 2015 line at Fresno was a little uninspiring and perhaps portends an inability to play at the very top level: .241/.369/.357 in 456 PA's, with 3 HR.  He walked 74 times against 99 strikeouts, maintaining a walk rate of well above 10% (16.2%).  However, he has also consistently maintained strikeout rates of 20% or more in the minor leagues as well, so his walks obviously don't just come from amazing contact abilities and fighting strike 3 off until he gets ball four.

Marcel has no projections on Fontana, given he has no major-league PA's as yet.  Steamer sees him producing at a .218/.321/.307 clip in a handful of plate appearances in 2015, with a K% over 25%.  ZiPS is also unimpressed, forecasting a walk rate of 13.9% against a strikeout rate of 30%, resulting in a remarkable line of .195/.311/.284.

It is safe to say that 2016 is a big year for Fontana in what is likely to be his second AAA go-round.  He will need to hit better than he hit in 2015 if he is to hold his place on the 40-man roster.  He isn't young anymore, and his offensive value relies on a gaudy walk rate, which probably won't be maintained at the major league level without the ability to occasionally punish the pitchers for throwing the ball in the strike zone.  Fontana will also need to show some better skills at the plate if he is to push for a promotion, but clearly the most likely situation that would see him arrive in Houston in 2016 would be as cover for an injury.  He is also probably a good bet to be outrighted off the 40-man if he gets off to a slow start in AAA.

Invited to Spring Training:  Tony Kemp (24, turns 25 in October)

Tony Kemp is primarily a second baseman who was also given some time in the outfield in 2015.  This may have been because the Astros were interested in his all-round skills, and second base is... um... taken for the foreseeable future.  Kemp is also notable by virtue of his short stature (1 Altuve tall), and by the fact that he was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.  He is Rule 5 draft eligible after this season and the Astros seem set at his primary position, so 2016 is shaping up to be a big year for him if he wants of push for a promotion.

In 2015, he hit a combined .308/.388/.386 in 541 PA's between Corpus and Fresno, with 3 home runs and 4 triples.  He made some stellar plays early on in his outfield career which got some Astros fans pretty excited and talking about perhaps seeing him in Houston in 2015.  Scouting reports since then seem to indicate that he has more work to do on his outfield routes, but he seemed to do pretty well for an in-season experiment.  His batting line at Corpus (.358/.457/.420) was far better than his batting line at Fresno (.273/.334/.696), so promotion past Fresno was not warranted in 2015.  However, Kemp was also promoted midseason in both 2013 and 2014, and a similar decline was noted each time at the higher level. He seemed to make an adjustment at the new level to start the next season each time - 2016 shapes up as an important year for him, too, but he will have to be pretty darn good to force a promotion.

Marcel has no projections - stupid Marcel - but Steamer is quite bullish on Kemp: .275/.334/.362, which is a reasonable line for a young, vertically challenged middle infielder (wRC+ 88).  What is very interesting is that this line will be obtained in one solitary plate appearance (Steamer predicts this for a number of guys on the fringes of the majors, so I will officially retire this joke now).  ZiPS is less bullish, predicting a below-average line of .253/.319/.338, but with an above-average strikeout rate of just over 15%.  All this, according to ZiPS, will occur in 532 plate appearances.

However, when compared with Nolan Fontana's Steamer and ZiPS projection above, Kemp's line is far more palatable.  Steamers line is superior to (i) Fontana's projection, and (ii) far better than Marwin González's 2013 season, in which González was also 24 years of age.  So both projection systems potentially see some future development in Kemp that they don't see in Fontana, which is understandable because Fontana has more unique overall profile.  Kemp certainly seems like the most likely prospect of this group to make an impact in Houston over the next couple of years.

Invited to Spring Training:  Joe Sclafani (25, turns 26 in April)

Sclafani is a switch-hitting infielder who was drafted in the 14th round of the 2012 draft out of Dartmouth College, the same college that produced legendary Astros slugger Brad Ausmus.  Sclafani was Rule 5 draft eligible this year, but remained exposed to the draft by virtue of his not added to the 40-man in advance of the Winter Meetings.  He (obviously) went untaken in the Rule 5 draft as he remains in the Astros organisation, where he will probably return to Fresno to play a mix of second base, third base and shortstop in 2016.

Sclafani spent 2014 between AA Corpus and AAA Oklahoma City.  In the latter of the two stops, he raked to the tune of .339/.420/.438 in 226 PA's, and continued his hot streak in the AFL (.370/.431/.543) to conclude 2014.  Prior to the 2015 season, I wondered whether he would get a serious look at the big leagues to open 2015, but instead he spent 2015 also split between Corpus (14 PA's) and Fresno (256 PA's) after a rough spring training.  Sclafani continued to splutter in 2015 - if he had continued the hot work with the bat that he managed in 2014, he could easily have had a look at the majors late last year.

As mentioned above, his 2015 batting line took a wee step backward, with Sclafani logging a combined .292/.370/.339 line between the two levels.  However, he continues to sport a walk rate over 10% at the AAA level, and his AAA K% was under 12% in 2014 and under 15% in 2015.  Sclafani seems a lot like Kemp and Fontana - there may be value there, but it is likely to be obtained through OBP rather than slugging.  His late-season 2014 performance may be the peak of his career, sadly.

Marcel, again, comes up empty in terms of projections because of a lack of major-league time.  Steamer sees Sclafani posting a .256/.315/.338 batting line, for an 80 wRC+.  ZiPS lands in a similar place: .241/.306/.310, with a strikeout rate of just over 17% and an OPS+ of 72.

2016 is a big year for Sclafani - repeat last-2014 and he will push for a spot in Houston in either the super-utility role, or in the corner infield.  Repeat 2015, and his days in the organisation may be over at the end of the season.

Interesting Guy:  Chan Moon (24, turns 25 in March)

Chan Moon is either a lefty hitting (according to Fangraphs) or switch hitting (according to B-R) middle-infielder who was born in Korea.  Moon was another guys who was Rule 5 draft eligible, but he was passed over by the other 29 clubs, going unselected.  He spent 2015 playing for four teams - Lancaster (71 PA's for a .322/.406/.475 line), Corpus (289 PA's for a .266/.356/.347 line), Fresno (7 PA's, did not reach base) and Glendale of the Arizona Fall League (.093/.241/.116).  Moon isn't young (2016 is his age 25 season) and he has a career slugging percentage of .354, so again he relies on contact and a good batting eye for value at the plate.

I won't spend much more time on Moon, and will move to the projections.  He is the longest of the long-shots AA or above in the Astros system in the middle infield.  Marcel remains silent on his abilities, which is entirely expected.  Steamer sees him hitting .229/.283/.309 for an wRC+ of 62, while ZiPS is similarly pessimistic, forecasting a .217/.271/.283 line (for an OPS+ of 55).  That isn't good.

Ex-Prospect:  Jiovanni Mier (25, turns 26 in August)

Firstly, I am aware that Mier is now in the Blue Jays system - I thought that I would post this projection for the sake of comparison with some of the other prospects.

Mier was taken as a first rounder in the height of the McLane nightmare drafts in 2009 (when McLane was trying to stay onside with Bud Selig and not go over the recommended soft-slot for draft signings) out of high school.  He briefly entered the top-100 prospect lists of Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, only to plummet quickly from prospect radar due to a significant lack of progression with the bat.  He has consistently been older at each level than you would want prospects to be, although he has been young for each level he has played.  That is unlikely to continue.

2015 saw him spend the entire year at Corpus (hitting .258/.350/.372 as a 25 year old), after he finished 2014 at AAA Oklahoma City (.250/.348/.310 in 118 plate appearances)  Going down a level is nearly never a good thing in terms of prospect development.  Meir sports a combined minor-league line of .239/.333/.340 in nearly 2800 PA's, which should tell you everything you need to know about his bat.  He has had some good stops along the way - in 200 PA's in Lancaster, he hit a solid .292/.396/.409 - but that says more about Lancaster than anything else, I would think.

Anyhow, Steamer has little hope for Mier, projecting a line similar to Chan Moon: .217/.282/.305.  ZiPS offers a projection of a similar nature: .209/.207/.295.  Again, that is not palpably better than the similarly-aged infield options listed above, nearly all of whom have performed better at higher levels in the minor leagues than Mier has.  I doubt that Mier sniffs Toronto this year, but he could be useful as a depth-piece, or as an organisational guy in the upper minors.  Best of luck to him.

The Guy They Traded:  Jed Lowrie (31, turns 32 in April)

AC readers should know all about Lowrie, who signed a 3-year sweetheart deal with the Astros prior to the 2015 season, then was traded before he could record 270 plate appearances within the contract period.  Lowrie and Handsome Jake Marisnick combined to prop up the Astros offence in April of 2015, but then Lowrie got injured, spending nearly three months on the DL after a thumb operation.  The Astros traded him for the second time to the A's for a seemingly underwhelming return and some salary relief.  I will write about the return when I talk about the bullpen later in this series.

Lowrie, as I have already written (same link as above), is a legit part-time Major League piece, so lets just head to his projections without worrying about his credentials.

Marcel likes Lowrie to log nearly 350 plate appearances, and post a .254/.321/.398 line with 9 home runs.  Steamer sees a similar line of .252/.323/.383 - the degree of similarity between Steamer and Marcel is logical, because Lowrie is an established major-league player, not an early career-guy like many of the players we have reviewed.  Oakland's ZiPS projections have not been released yet, but it seems likely that it will also project Lowrie in the vicinity of .255/.325/.400 - his established major-league performance.

Lowrie's projected OBP is better than everyone here, except Tony Kemp's OBP.  That includes MarGo.  But Lowrie also would have been circa-$4.5MM more expensive this year, and if you think MarGo's projection is a little light, then Lowrie's advantage quickly disappears.  2016 will be an interesting year to watch for Jed Lowrie, but the Astros could quickly regret letting him go.

Another Guy They Traded:  Jonathan Villar (24, turns 25 in May)

I also made my thoughts public on the Villar trade, earlier in the offseason, essentially doing the blogging equivalent of lying on the floor of my study, crying uncontrollably, kicking and punching the floor, and sobbing "why??" over and over again.  Villar was a controllable piece going forward, having logged just over 1 year of service time.  He seemed to he improving, coming off an awesome September and October for the Astros where he slashed to the tune of .381/.435/.619.  At 24, his brain might mature enough to assist his on-field concentration, and stop him from muffing easy plays.  And he had the ability to make some outrageously good plays, as well.  His ceiling is high, but his floor, sadly, is probably a little lower.  Still, dammit, I like him.

The Astros opted to retain the safer Marwin González, and traded Jonathan Villar for an unheralded prospect, who will also get discussed in the upcoming piece on starting pitchers.

Here is what the projection systems think of 2106 Jonathan Villar: Marcel sees a .251/.313/.388 triple-slash, with 6 home runs in just over 260 plate appearances.  Steamer predicts some serious regression: .239/.301/.364, not liking a walk rate of 7.8% versus a strikeout rate of 25.5%.  ZiPS is unavailable at this time, as the Brewers' projections haven't yet been released.

Perhaps that trade for Cy Snead wasn't so bad after all.

Trade Candidate:  Nil

The Astros have been frantically trading away middle-infielders all offseason.  It would have to be a doozy of a deal for them to want to add players at this juncture.  I don't see a trade candidate entering the picture.

Free Agent:  Ian Desmond

The Astros are NOT going to shell-out nine-figures for Ian Desmond to play a crappy shortstop.  But, for the purposes of comparison, lets fast-forward to his projections.

Marcel sees Desmond posting a .251/.308/.415 line, striking out 155 times against 41 walks.  Steamer is even less keen, seeing a .236/.294/.390 line, with a nearly-28% K-rate and a 7% walk rate.  If those projections are accurate, I can see Desmond sitting out until the middle of the year, especially with a QO attached.

That wraps up the Astros' middle-infield depth charts.  The Astros have doubled-down on the middle infield trio of Altuve, Correa and González by trading away Lowrie and Villar.  Waiting in the wings is a group of guys who need a big 2016 remain with the organisation.  This includes Nolan Fontana, Chan Moon and Joe Sclafani.  Tony Kemp is the pick of the non-major-leaguers in this group, but will need to be added to the 40-man at the end of the season, else he will be exposed in the Rule 5.  Kemp is the most likely - according to the projection systems that we have covered - to make a decent step forward and produce at the Major League level.

The only other point I would make is that the Astros seem a little exposed to injuries in the middle infield.  If either Correa or Altuve go down for any length of time, then that will force González into an everyday role, and bring (probably) Fontana up from the minor leagues.  If the projections are to be believed, that could prove to be a disaster, and potentially be the difference between a postseason berth and an October at the side of a pool or on a golf course.

As always, thanks for reading.  Please feel free to comment.