Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Astros Depth Charts: the Middle Outfield Edition

To whittle away the time between now and the start of Spring Training, us at Astros County plans to preview each positional group of Astros.  We will look at the Major League roster, all relevant players who have played AA and above, and any available or reasonable trade targets or free agents.  We may also include some random players for the sake of comparison.  If you missed the earlier editions, the primer is here, the Catchers here, and the Middle Infielders here.

Those of you who (i) try to untangle my mangled prose most days and (ii) pay attention and have space in their heads for random facts may be aware that I don't share a hemisphere with the team that I write about.  All of my spellings become Anglicised rather than Americanised.  I am not normally bothered by posting with the "wrong" spelling for a predominantly US audience, except when it comes to Centre Field, which bothers the heck out of me to look at.  I can't bring myself to type Center Field, and yet Centre Field looks stupid.  Some of you may have noticed that I will always write CF, rather than spelling it out and having to engage in an internal argument about whether I override the spellcheck autocorrect or not.  It causes a significant amount of cognitive dissonance to me, nearly to the point where it costs me much-needed sleep.

I have devised a plan around this to present these depth charts without spelling anything incorrectly or causing significant anxiety and losing sleep.  So, without further ado, lets jump straight into the Middle Outfield Edition of the Astros Depth Charts.

The Starter:  Carlos Gómez (30, turns 31 in December)

It seems that once every 10-or-so years, the Astros trade for a CF named Carlos, who has a limited amount of team control left.  It happened in 2004 with Carlos Beltrán (who is still referred to by some Astros fans as Carlos the Jackal), and it happened in 2015 with Carlos Gómez, who was in the midst of a down year prior to the trade.  Time will tell whether Gómez will abandon the Astros for the almighty dollar like The Jackal did, which he could do as a free agent after this season.  While we are on the topic of Carlos the Jackal, it makes sense to point out that the Constable has an excellent article with a link on the front page of Astros County which is well worth a re-read.

Because Gómez’s career has been an interesting one, the projections don't quite know what to do.  The Astros traded for a player with a high floor – he will at least offer some pop with the bat while playing a solid-to-above-average CF - but there is a pretty good chance that he totally busts out again, and puts up a near league-leading WAR in CF. 

Gómez will play 2016 as a 30-year-old.  He looked older than that last year, but his injury troubles were well documented throughout the year, culminating in an aborted trade to the Mets, and Gómez sitting out much of September.  He will hit free agency at the end of the 2016 season after being paid $9MM to play in 2016 (which is the last year of a 4 year, $28.3MM contract that he signed with the Brewers prior to the 2013 season). 

Gómez’s travels have also been well-documented – he was signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2002 by the Mets, eventually making his big-league debut with the Mets in 2007 as a 21 year old.  The following offseason, he was sent to the Twins in the Johan Santana trade, where he spent the next two years playing pretty well for a young guy, posting a combined 2.6 bWAR / 3.7 fWAR in the process.  After the 2009 season, Gómez found himself traded straight up for the Brewers’ J.J. Hardy, and he spent the next five-and-one-half seasons in Milwaukee.  Game then headed to the Astros as a CF upgrade (along with SP Mike Fiers) prior to the trade deadline last season.  So Gómez has now played for four teams at the major-league level, and he seems likely to play for a fifth team starting in 2017.

The Brewers did well out of Gómez.  For a start, they gave up only a solid major-league regular in J.J. Hardy to sign him.  Secondly, they got a bunch of prospects back from the Astros– Santana is young, interesting and possesses RH power, Phillips profiles as a decent regular, Josh Hader has a floor as a LOOGY and a ceiling as mid-rotation starter, and Adrian Houser (the fourth prosect in the trade) certainly isn’t nothing.  Thirdly, Milwaukee was the recipient of 20 bWAR (or 21.3 fWAR) from Gómez over his five-plus years there, with a good-value extension signed prior to Gómez being due to hit free-agency.

What is interesting when looking at Gómez's career is his capacity for brilliance, but also his high floor in "down" years.  Since his age 25 season (2011), he has posted a minimum 2.2 bWAR (or 2.2 fWAR), while also throwing in a couple of stellar campaigns.  His 2013 season involved a monster .284/.338/.506 triple-slash, 40 stolen bases and 24 home runs, good for an 8.5 bWAR (or 7.4 fWAR), while his 2014 season resulted in a .284/.356/.477 triple slash with 34 stolen bases and 23 home runs, good for a 4.8 bWAR / 5.7 fWAR.  In his 2015 campaign (combined .255/.314/.409 with 12HR), he was still worth 2.3 bWAR / 2.6 fWAR / 1.4 WARP, which was the least he has offered in a single season since 2012.

Logic would predict, therefore, that Gomez could be a solid above-average player, with some potential to be a difference-making star.  Marcel likes him to regain some value, projecting a .269/.330/.456 line with 17 home runs.  Steamer is a little less bullish (.257/.317/.427 with 19 HR and 24 stolen bases).  ZiPS is roughly in agreement with Steamer (.259/.317/.433 with a strikeout rate approaching 24% and a walk rate approaching 6%, with 17 HR and with a projected zWAR of 3.4) 

However, history would suggest that he is a good chance to handsomely beat those projections with the bat while providing above average defence and baserunning.  Up the middle, that is a very handy player to have.

The Backup:  Jake Marisnick (24, turns 25 in March)

Handsome Jake, as he is sometimes known around here, came to Houston in the Jarred Cosart trade at the deadline in 2014.  Marisnick may prove to be the worst of the three prospects arriving in Houston in that trade, which is eye watering when you think about it - we may see Colin Moran this year, and Francis Martes is appearing on high up on some top prospects lists, so both of those guys are making solid progress.

Marisnick was originally drafted by Toronto in the third round of the 2009 draft - he remained in the Toronto system for three-and-one-half years, and went to Miami in the Jose Reyes mega-trade in the offseason of 2012.  He was a top-rated prospect at the time (#28 according to Baseball Prospectus) but some concerns around his hit tool were expressed through his minor-league career.  Marisnick shuttled to and from the major-leagues in 2013 and 2014.  2015 represented his first full season with a big-league team.

In 2015, Marisnick posted a combined .236/.281/.383 line.  That line, combined with solid outfield defence at all three positions was good for a bWAR of 2.2 (or an fWAR of 1.8, or a WARP of 1.7, whatever you want to use).  The triple slash line - whilst not impressive by itself, was an improvement on his career line in the major leagues.  He had 372 PA's, hit 9 home runs and 4 triples, and walked 18 times against 105 strikeouts (28.2% K-rate).  He stole 24 bases against 9 caught-stealings.

However, the season-long stats don't tell the whole story.  Marisnick opened the season ridiculously hot, posting a triple-slash of .379/.422/.621 in 65 April PA's.  Then, in the four months between May and August, his best monthly OBP was .236, and his best monthly SLG was .320.  Then he rebounded to an above-average .275/.367/.510 line in 62 September and October PA's at a time when the regular at the position was battling injuries.  So his season was four months of suck, bookended by some crazy-good months where it all came together.

So that poses the question of what the heck happened, and how can Handsome Jake revert more consistently to his offensive megastar ways.  Jake remains only 24, so he still has some time to develop, and perhaps further improvement - if only age related - is in order.  On the other hand, he has a career K% of 27.4 versus a BB% of 4.4 in the Major Leagues, and his BABIP was .310 in 2015.   Marisnicks career - the arc of which will be defined principally by his abilities with the bat from here onward - could easily go either way from this point.

Marcel projects Marisnick to post a .246/.294/.377 line in 410 plate appearances - very similar to 2015.  Steamer sees a little less room for growth, with a .237/.281/.372 line in 175 plate appearances, with a wRC+ of 77, and a projected fWAR of 0.4.  ZiPS goes for the middle ground between those two projections, pegging Marisnick for a .244/.292/.380 season, with a 26% K-rate, and a 4.7% walk rate.

Regardless of what the projection systems say, it should be obvious to most Astros fans that (i) Marisnick's glove and legs will be very useful at the big league level and (ii) he has the potential in his bat to post a monster season at some point over the next 3-4 years, if everything breaks right, if he strings a few good months together, and if pitchers forget to throw the ball three feet off the plate every time he bats.  To me, his strikeout rate looks too high to come down through natural regression, and his walk rate looks too low to forecast a breakout year with reasonable confidence, but Big Fudge continues to be a guy you can dream on.

Covered in the Next Exciting Instalment:  Colby Rasmus and George Springer

Also on the 40-Man:  Andrew Aplin (24, turns 25 in March)

Andrew Aplin in a graduate of Arizona State, who was drafted by the Astros in the 5th round of the 2012 draft.  He had been drafted in the 33rd round of the 2009 draft by the Yankees, but he opted to head back to school and he re-entered the draft three years later.  He bats and throws as a lefty, has appeared mostly in CF / middle-outfield through his minor-league career and was Rule 5 draft eligible for the first time this year.  The Astros added him to the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft, thereby protecting him from being pinched by other teams.

Aplin spent 2015 in Fresno and Corpus, with approximately two-thirds of the season spent at the AAA level.  He dominated Corpus prior to his call up (.343/.458/.448), and continued to show a good batting eye at Fresno (.275/.392/.348), working 45 walks compared to 41 strikeouts.  His career walks exceed his career strikeouts in number, so this was no surprise.

Aplin's combined 2015 numbers (.296/.413/.379) were a significant improvement over his 2014 numbers at the same two levels (combined .265/.372/.345), so he showed some progression with the bat in 2015.  It seems that 2016 a very important season for him - if he continues to show some progression, he will probably push hard for a roster spot on the big-league team, but if he regresses, he could struggle to remain on the 40-man.  Throw in his age, and it is evident that his time is now.

Marcel - by virtue of it's simplicity, is silent on Aplin's progression, given his lack of Major-League plate appearances.  Steamer sees Aplin posting a solid OBP for a young outfielder (.248/.328/.344), while striking out at a 16% clip, and maintaining a 10% walk rate.  Steamer also forecasts a BABIP drop to .290, which would be lower than any mark he has had in his career to date.  ZiPS sees a considerably worse batting line than Steamer, so there is some considerable divergence between the Fangraphs projection systems for once.  ZiPS has a .238/.319/.318 line with a walk rate just over 10% and an above-average strikeout rate of nearly 17%.

Aplin had a good 2015 season, and 2016 will determine whether he is able to ride that into a big-league debut this year.  He seems like he may be the first middle-outfielder called up in the event of an injury (although the Astros could easily just move Springer or Rasmus back to CF instead).  If he does play at Minute Maid this year, he is likely to offer modest offensive value only.  However, a contact-first left-hander with OBP skills may not be the worst thing to slot somewhere in the Astros lineup.

Long Shot:  Teoscar Hernandez (23, turns 24 in October)

Teoscar Hernandez is an outfielder from the Dominican Republic who spent time in CF in Corpus last year.  Prior to the season, he was getting some prospect-love, after posting a .294/.376/.550 line at the offensively-friendly Hi-A Lancaster.  He continued to slug in 99 PA’s at Corpus in 2014 after a late-season promotion, but his OBP took a hit while his strikeout rate jumped to over 35% to close 2014 (.284/.299/.474).  Because he needed to be added to the 40-man to be protected from the Rule 5 draft after this season, 2015 shaped to be an important year for him.

The last 12 months didn’t go well.  Hernandez remained at Corpus for the entire year, receiving 514 PA’s.  His triple slash took a hit in all categories - .219/.275/.362 - with his strikeout rate remaining significantly below-average (24.5%).  He managed 33 stolen bases, and hit 17 home runs, however, so these was some value related to his speed and power.  

These peripherals do not scream success, however, and 2016 is shaping up to be a bigger year for Hernandez as a result.  Depending on whether the Astros plan to start him in CF or in one of the corner spots, he could well open the year at Corpus again.   Steamer projects more offensive mediocrity in the form of a .221/.266/.356 triple slash, with a 27% strikeout rate against a 5.2% walk rate.  ZiPS projects Hernandez to be worse: .209/.254/.348 with a strikeout rate approaching 33%.

Hernandez has the additional hurdle of needing to be added to the 40-man to get promoted to the big-league club.  I wouldn't expect to see him around in Houston in 2016 unless something very odd happens and he breaks out.

The Guy They Traded:  Brett Phillips (21, turns 22 in May)

Phillips was sent to the Brewers in the aforementioned Carlos Gómez trade.  J.J. Cooper rated him number two in the bevy of Astros prospects traded away over the last season, and he was starting to get some national prospect love from the various organisations.  In 145 plate appearances in Corpus in 2015 (his age 21 season), Phillips raked to the tune of .321/.372/.463.  He regressed a bit after the trade in a new league in AA Biloxi: .250/.361/.413 in 98 plate appearances, but that OBP from a young guys looks very appealing.

Phillips is included as a comparison only.  He is also a poor comparison - Marcel has no projection, and the ZiPS projections for the Brewers have not yet been released, so we only have Steamer.  Steamer sees Phillips hitting .254/.303/.388 with a strikeout rate just over 22% and a walk rate of just under 6%.  

Phillips is not, according to the projections systems, a can't-miss prospect, but that is a pretty solid projected line for a 21 year old.  And as a point of comparison, Ender Inciarte (who is profiled next) hit .281/.327/.362 at AA Mobile during his age 22 season.  Phillips' career is going to be very interesting to watch.

The "Trade Target":  Ender Inciarte (25, turns 26 in October)

I put trade target in speech marks, because of the dubious nature of the rumour that linked Inciarte to the Astros.  MLBTR reported recently that the Astros had contacted the Braves about Inciarte, who had been traded to the Braves from the Diamondbacks earlier in the offseason.  I called the rumour dubious because, while it most likely has a grain of truth, I am sure that most clubs have contacted the Braves about Inciarte.  Additionally, the Astros Front Office is notoriously tight-lipped, so the rumour would have most likely been leaked from elsewhere, and probably served some kind of purpose, such as pressuring another team into making a move.  Inciarte is not an obvious fit in Houston, and I also cannot see the Astros making another worthwhile move to accommodate him, unless they plan to ship Springer out of town for a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Anyhow, Inciarte seems like the real deal: he is young and controllable, bats from the left side, and has a solid major-league line for a contact-orientated player: .292/.329/.386 in just over 1000 ML plate appearances.  Although he has managed only 10 home runs over his big-league career, he has stolen 40 career bases against 13 career caught-stealings.  He is a solid defender (5.2 career dWAR according to Baseball-Reference).  So he would certainly be a piece that other teams should enquire on, but I doubt the discussions between the Astros and the Braves got very advanced.

Moving to the projections, Marcel buys into Inciarte's batting line, projecting a .292/.335/.400 line, with a career-high 7 home runs projected in 525 plate appearances.  Steamer forecasts a lesser line: .273/.315/.369, also with 7 home runs in just over 550 plate appearances.  ZiPS would have been a useful third system to consult, but he appears neither on the Atlanta projection page (which was published first) or on the Arizona page, which is a relatively recent publication, contains projections for him.  Darn.  

Conclusion:  The story of the Middle Outfield Candidates is one of solid defence and a reasonably high floor in both the starter and the backup, but with considerable capacity for growth or breaking out from both players.  Carlos Gómez has a couple of MVP-grade seasons on is resumé.  In his walk-year, he could be doubly dangerous.  Jake Marisnick has broken out for month-long periods of time, with two unsustainably-awesome months bookending his 2015 season.  Marisnick would need to lower his strikeout rate for that to happen consistently - consistent contact has always been his weak point.  

Elsewhere on the farm, Andrew Aplin may get a look, but the various systems don't think that he will make an immediate impact in the major-leagues.  Brett Phillips had a pretty decent projection for a young guy, but he is sadly plying his trade in the National League now.