Monday, February 1, 2016

Astros Depth Charts: the Corner Infield Edition

Welcome to the Corner Infield Edition of the Astros Depth Charts.  If any dedicated readers are interested in the earlier articles in this series, I can indicate that the primer can be found here, the catchers here, the middle infielders here, the CF depth chart here, and the corner outfielders here.

This article - the corner infielders - is really the one that inspired the series.  In the middle of the long, dreary offseason, I found my thoughts drifting toward the corner infield of the Astros, and wondering how the position battles would shake out.  In the vast majority of the positions already discussed, there seemed to be a relatively clear line from starter, to backup, and into the minor-leagues.  In the corner infield - a weak point for most recent Astros teams - no such clear line exists.  What there is could more accurately be described as a mishmash of roughly similar players, because they all seem to be competing on a level footing for a small number of jobs.

And about that level footing.  It isn't really level, because contract-details matter.  The particular details that matter are the various deadlines that include the late April "deadline" (to delay service time, allowing for six years of control until free agency) and the Super-Two "deadline" (three rather than four trips through arbitration, which normally falls in early- to mid-June).  After the super-two "deadline" has passed, I would expect to see most of the below mentioned players being treated as per the results of their production, with only the anticipated results related to waiver status of a player outrighted off the 40-man roster creating a possible pecking order.

The corner infield is traditionally a power-hitters haven.  The projected starters - Valbuena and Singleton - certainly fit that profile, as does top prospect A.J. Reed.  Some of the others in the mish-mash (such as Matt Duffy, Tyler White and Colin Moran) appear to project more as high OBP or contact orientated bats, which the Astros potentially could afford by virtue of the power they have at other positions.  So it will be interested to see how the profile plays out as the season progresses.

The only other point that I think needs to be made before launching into the projections is that Marwin González, who will see some time at the infield corners, has already been projected in the middle-infield edition.  Carlos Correa will likely slide across to third base at some stage of his career, but I would be surprised to see it happen in 2016.  Evan Gattis or Preston Tucker may see time at first base as well.  All of those guys have been covered in previous instalments.

One of the Corners:  Luis Valbuena (30, turns 31 in November)

Valbuena is a veteran of 8 major-league seasons, six of which have resulted in more than 300 plate appearances. He was signed as an amateur free-agent by the Mariners in 2002, originally as a second-baseman.  He had a combined AAA line (acquired over parts of six seasons) of .304/.385/.476 in nearly 1200 plate appearances - his career has been one of slowly growing into his left-handed power.

After a .249/.341/.435 triple slash in 2014 for the Cubs (547 PA's), Valbuena was traded to the Astros with Dan Straily in exchange for Dexter Fowler.  The Cubs had Kris Bryant primed to take over third base along with a well-documented infield logjam, so they were happy to let tow years of Valbuena go in exchange for a year of Fowler.  Valbuena was waiver-wire material as recently as the 2011-2012 offseason - which is how the Cubs acquired him - but he busted out with the Cubs in 2014, posting a 115 OPS+.

With the Astros last season, he posted a .224/.310/.438 line in 493 plate appearances.  He also hit a career-high 25 home runs, but had stretches when he was pretty awful, such as a .163/.212/.337 May (in 104 plate appearances).  His season was also remarkable for some in-season tinkering, which the commentators frequently noting that Valbuena was being coached to go up the middle more, and not try to pull everything (which is where all of his power is from).  Other tinkering included a positional change: an infield reshuffle was forced by Carlos Correa's promotion and Jed Lowrie's return from injury.  That resulted in Valbuena shifting across the diamond to First Base for 31 games, where he had not previously appeared in his professional career (according to B-R).  Not that there was anything wrong with Valbuena at third.

Moving to the projections, Marcel projects Valbuena to have a .235/.323/.426 season with 19 home runs - a similar line to last year with a little more contact and a little less power.  Steamer sees a similar line with even less power: .234/.323/.411 with 16 home runs, a walk-rate approaching 11% and a strikeout rate approaching 21%.  ZiPS projects perhaps the best season for Valbuena: .238/.330/.425, with a walk rate and strikeout rate slightly above 11% and 21% respectively.

Valbuena has agreed to a salary of $6.125MM this season - his last before his first opportunity as a free agent.  He is going to be an interesting guy to watch in his walk-year - if he plays well this season, he enters a weak free-agent class, but may be burdened by a Qualifying Offer.  Personally, I doubt that a QO will be offered unless Valbuena has a total bust-out.

In the Corner-Infield Mish-Mash:  Jon Singleton (24, turns 25 in September)

"Singles" (ha!) was drafted in 2009 in the 8th round by the Phillies, and was traded to the Astros in 2011 as part of the exchange for Hunter Pence.  He debuted in slightly controversial circumstances in 2014, shorting after signing a 5-year, $10MM contract through the 2018 season.  The contract has three options - a $2.5MM option for 2019, a $5MM option for 2020 and a $13MM option for 2021.

Anyhow, Singleton bats and throws left, and is defensively restricted to first baseman or DH.  He has a .274/.383/.473 career minor-league line in just over 2700 plate appearances.  That line may not jump out at you, but remember that - aside from 21 at-bats in Quad Cities in 2013 - the closest he has been to the average age of each level is 2.3 years young.  He has constantly been well below the average age for each level throughout his career, often by between 3 and 5 years.

Singleton's potential has not translated into an exciting minor-league line, however.  He has 420 plate appearances over parts of two seasons with Houston, posting a .171/.290/.331 line overall.  That line isn't great, but on the up side, he has posted an isolated slugging north of .160 and a walk rate of 14.3%.  On the down side, his career K-rate of 36% is... um... concerning.

I would think that Singleton is likely to open the season at first base for the Astros, getting a chance to grab that spot.  I doubt that the Astros will want to bring other big bats up until late-April (lest they be granted free-agency a year earlier) or mid-June (to avoid super-two status).  I would think the most likely possibility is that Jon Singleton gets April at first base to see what he has, but things are much more uncertain after that.

Marcel likes Singleton to improve - positive regression it what that is called - predicting a .212/.306/.385 line.  That said, the other projections - which utilise minor-league stats a little more - also think that Singleton has significant improvement in him.  Steamer projects him for a .229/.330/.422 line with a walk rate approaching 13% and a strikeout rate of 27%.  ZiPS is a little less enamoured, projecting a .216/.316/.422 triple-slash, with a near-identical walk-rate, and a strikeout rate a whisker below 1-in-3.  None of these projections are particularly good, but they do indicate positive progress in terms of his career, and Singleton wouldn't kill the Astros with such a performance should it be sustained over a whole season.

In the Corner-Infield Mish-Mash:  Matt Duffy (26, turns 27 in Feb)

Matthew Edward Duffy - the one who plays for the Astros - made the majors for the first time last year.  In a grand total of nine plate appearances he mashed, posting a line of .375/.444/.500, including one double, one walk and two strikeouts.  He was a 2011 draftee (20th round) out of the University of Knoxville, and is currently on the 40-man roster.  He bats and throws right - which is possibly significant given the current corner infield and outfield mix.

Duffy earned his promotion by virtue of a solid year at Fresno, where he posted a .294/.366/.484 line in just over 550 plate appearances.  That included 20 home runs and 29 doubles, with 90 strikeouts versus 48 walks.  Not too shabby, but he isn't young anymore, and needed to make a serious move in 2015 to stay with the organisation.

Moving to the projections, Marcel thinks about Mr Duffy in very simplistic terms, merely regressing Duffy's gaudy line from last year to .261/.325/.424.  Steamer offers a projected triple-slash of .248/.299/.387, with a league-average-ish strikeout rate of 21% and a walk rate of 5.5%.  ZiPS sees similar production: .242/.297/.388, with a similar walk and strikeout rate.  Those lines place Duffy firmly in the category of role-player - which, as a righty backup bat in the infield - he could possibly be granted the opportunity to try.

In the Corner-Infield Mish-Mash:  Tyler White (25, turns 26 in October)

In the last exciting depth-chart instalment, I mentioned that Tyler White in the same breath as Preston Tucker - guys without the traditional athletic body habitus that the Astros seem to be drafting with more regularity since Jeff Luhnow took the reins.  White was taken in the 33rd round of the 2013 draft, from another noted baseball powerhouse - Western Carolina University.  He has been old for most of the levels he has played at in the minors, but ascended from Rookie Ball after being drafted to Fresno / AAA inside of 2 years.  That hasn't happened by accident.

White can rake, as his .311/.422/.489 minor-league line shows.  He has walked (174) more than he struck out (164).  At Fresno, he recorded a remarkable line: in just over 250 plate appearances, White mashed to the tune of .368/.467/.559, which is remarkable line, albeit in an offensively-friendly league.  The peripherals supported that, too, with 84 walks against 73 strikeouts, which is arguably something that Astros could really do with at the major-league level.  He kept raking after the Fresno season finished, too, winning the MVP of the Dominican Winter League.

White has been a catcher in the past, but he currently seems restricted to the corner infield spots - at absolute best - for now.  He  was mostly a third baseman in Corpus, then became mostly a first baseman at Fresno.  I assume he that he won't be seen as a major-league contributor anywhere but first base or DH, but having an emergency catcher around isn't the worst thing in the world.

White has not yet made his major-league debut, and isn't currently on the 40-man.  That is a significant disadvantage if he wants to make the team out of Spring Training.  I doubt the Astros would promote him prior to the end of April (to ensure a sixth year of control prior to free agency), and perhaps until after the estimated super-two date has passed.

White hit only 14 home runs last year in just under 300 plate appearances, so whether he has enough power for a corner-infield position remains to be seen.  He is certainly a unique profile as a hitter in general, so the projections will be doubly interesting.

Marcel does not project those with no major-league plate appearances, so B-R offers no projections for White.  Steamer likes him a fair bit, projecting for a .260/.339/.401 plate appearance, with a walk-rate just south of 10% and a strikeout rate of just under 18%.  That amounts of a slightly above average wRC+ of 105.  ZiPS is a little less bullish, projecting a .251/.336/.381 line, with very similar strikeout and walk rates.  ZiPS sees White hitting 10 home runs in just under 500 PA's, for what it is worth.

It remains to be seen whether White's contact-heavy skills will translate into decent major-league production.  Both of the abovementioned projection systems think not, at least in his first year of play.  Although Tyler White has nothing left to prove in AAA, but I think he will return there to open the season, giving Jon Singleton a chance to play a little.

In the Corner Infield Mish-Mash:  A.J. Reed  (22, turns 23 in May)

Andrew Joseph Reed was originally drafted in the 25th round out of an Indiana High School by the Mets on 2011.  He didn't sign, opting to attend the University of Kentucky instead.  He was then drafted in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft by the Astros as a two-way player.  The Astros saw more potential in his bat, and developed him as a first baseman / DH type.

Reed is like White in a bunch of ways.  He is not considered a super-athletic type.  He has raced through a bunch of minor-league levels in a short time.  And also he has a ridiculous career minor-league line: .324/.415/.583.  Reed recorded 237 PA's at Corpus to end the 2015 season, where he mashed to the tune of .332/.405/.571 with 11 home runs.  He is a lefty-swinger with perhaps a long swing that may leave him a little prone to strikeouts, but his batting eye and power seem to be for real.

Most Astros fans are lying in wait for the Next Great Astros First Baseman.  In the pre-Bagwell days, there were some useful seasons sprinkled around, but no one consistently dominated at the position for a long period.  Jeff Bagwell was the guy for the 1990's and early 2000's.  The Big Puma took over at first until the mid-way through 2010 season.  Since then, the Astros have only managed middling returns from first base on a series of poor teams.  Chris Carter put it together in stretches, but had long stretches of being struck out a lot as well.  Astros fans are crossing their fingers in the hope that either Reed or White is that guy, and 2016 is the year which we may find out whether that is the case.

The projections like Reed to be a slightly above-average producer in Houston in 2016.  Steamer projects a .258/.327/.424 line in 240-odd plate appearances, with 8 home runs.  Steamer thinks that Reed will have a roughly-average strikeout rate, with a walk rate approaching 9%.  ZiPS is significantly more bullish on Reed, projecting a .261/.338/.456 line with 26 home runs despite a 25% strikeout rate (and a 10% walk rate).  The line that ZiPS projects - ranked by wOBA - would be fifth on the team.  Neither of those lines would be a bad line for a first year player.

In the Corner Infield Mish-Mash:  Colin Moran (23, turns 24 in October)

Colin Moran, famously, was in the mix for the first overall pick in the 2013 draft.  At the time, he was a left-handed hitting, well-rated third base prospect with a big-league bloodline out of UNC.  The Astros went with Mark Appel instead, but they picked up Colin Moran in the Jarred Cosart heist at the trade deadline of 2014.

It hasn't always been plain sailing for Moran, however.  The Marlins seemed to have given up on him at the time of the trade, and it is still not entirely clear that their decision was wrong.  He did reasonably well after the trade to the Astros in 123 AA bats  - a level that he had not played previously.  Importantly, he showed steady improvement in 2015, where he remained in Corpus for the entire year.  His 2015 line of .306/.381/.459 is not gaudy, but he struck out less than 19% and walked more than 10% of the time.  He managed nine home runs in 417 at-bats.

Neither available projection system likes Moran all that much.  Steamer projects him to post a .259/.308/.374 line, with a walk rate of 6.3% and an average strikeout rate just below 20%.  ZiPS sees some subtle differences, forecasting a .252/.299/.380 line, with a 6% walk rate, and a strikeout rate just above 23%.

That isn't great for Moran, and I doubt that we will see him in Houston in 2016 because of the presence of Luis Valbuena.  Moran also probably sits below Reed and Singleton on the left-handed hitters depth chart for the Corner Infielders.  He would need to be added to the 40-man, which the Astros don't need to do until after the 2016 season if they want to protect him from the Rule 5.

Probably out of the Corner Infield Mish-Mash:  Conrad Gregor (23, turns 24 on Feb 27)

Conrad Gregor was a 40th-round draftee of the Chicago White Sox in 2010, but he didn't sign and attended Vanderbilt instead.  The Astros nabbed him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, and he has ascended from short-season ball at Tri-City up to AA ball, where he has spent the last one-and-one-third seasons, or 634 at-bats.

Gregor has a .239/.335/.382 line at AA for his career, which has included 13 home runs, and 78 walks against 123 strikeouts.  He is playing his age 24 season this year, so he still has time of put it together, but things don't look great for him at this point.  He will need to make significant progress this year to appear seriously on any depth-charts.

Marcel declined to offer a projection, but Steamer sees a middling .237/.303/.364 line for Gregor, which includes an average strikeout rate of just under 21%, and a walk rate of 8%.  ZiPS is less enamoured, forecasting a .228/.295/.343 line, with a the same walk rate, but a strikeout rate of 24%.

Safe to say that Gregor probably sits a fair way from the major-leagues at this point in time.

Free Agent:  Pedro Álvarez (28, turns 29 on Feb 6)

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting or supporting the Astros' signing of El Toro, the veteran of six seasons play in Pittsburgh.  But, as a point of comparison, I thought I would include him as someone the Astros could have signed, had they not accumulated the abovementioned players over the last few years.  Plus, the 2011 Astros probably would have signed him already, because he was warm, had a pulse, and used to be an All Star.

Let's forget any discussions about his place in the field, a likely contract value, and whether it could have been used to buy out a free-agent year or two.  We will briefly mention his agent, Scott Boras, where he went to school (Vanderbilt) and when he was drafted (second overall pick of 2008 draft).  Alvarez has some useful years on his resumé - he has an OPS+ between 112 and 115 in four of his six seasons - so he certainly isn't worth nothing, but he was just non-tendered a contract by the Pirates, so it also probably isn't serious breakout material.

Marcel forecasts a .239/.310/.448 season for Álvarez, with 24 home runs in 490 plate appearances.  Steamer sees a little more improvement: .242/.321/.462, with a strikeout rate approaching 29%, and a walk rate sitting solidly at 10%.  However, Steamer sees a large drop in the number of at-bats, perhaps forecasting a platoon role for Alvarez.  For some reason, Alvarez's projection has been left off the ZiPS page for Pittsburgh - normally players are included on the clubs that they are exiting from, so that is a little puzzling.

Just to point out a direct comparison: A.J. Reed has a Steamer line of .258/.327/.424, whereas Alvarez has a line of .242/.321/.462, and would likely cost multiple millions.  While the extra 40-odd points in slugging would be nice, does anyone think that would be worth 5 or 6 million dollars??

Trade Target:  Freddie Freeman (26, turns 27 in September)

Freddie Freeman, in the midst of a $135MM contract (which expires after the 2021 season) has often be mentioned as the answer to the Astros' first-base difficulties.  I think, personally, this would not be a bad idea, aside from the effect it would have on blocking the guys behind him.  His OPS+'s for the last three seasons read 147, 139 and 134, and his worst OBP over the same period was .370.  Looking at the numbers, it is possible to argue that he has been declining, but he apparently played through 2015 with a wrist injury, which may have hampered his production somewhat.  The Astros would probably be unwilling to part with a huge haul to reel in Freeman, mostly because of the amount of money owed to him, but also the sheer number of players with significant upside that they see getting a go in the corner infield over the next two seasons.

Marcel sees continued solid production from Freeman, forecasting a .290/.377/.474 line.  Steamer does not disagree: .283/.374/.480 with a walk-rate approaching 12%, and a league-average strikeout rate (20.1%).  ZiPS sees Freeman as being the best of the Braves bats with a .280/.374/.469 line, with a walk rate of 12% and a strikeout rate of 21.3%.

That is what $12MM for the 2016 season - and $20MM+ for the five seasons after that - buys.  That line would look good in the middle of the Astros' line up.

Summary:  The Astros have a host of young, interesting players to fill the corner infield for the next few seasons.  None projects as a can't-miss-superstar, however, but they have enough potentially good players and depth to ensure that the players manning the corner-infield positions will perform at around the level of a league-average player.

I may be wrong in assuming this, but I think that both Tyler White and A.J. Reed are valuable enough for the Astros to be careful about when they will be called to the major leagues.  Specifically, both will probably that their call-ups delayed until late April to ensure another year of free-agency.  They both may have any potential call-ups delayed until after the Super-Two deadline, which is normally projected for early- to mid-June.  There may also be a case in assuming that handedness matters here - A.J. Reed probably lines up behind Jon Singleton, whereas Tyler White probably lines up behind Matt Duffy on the relative depth charts to open the season.  But if the Astros get off to a poor start in 2016, I think the offseason plans could easily be ditched, and whomever is playing well could see themselves as having significant time either at the infield corners opposite Luis Valbuena and/or at DH.

I haven't really answered too many questions with this column, only to say that Tyler White, A.J. Reed and Colin Moran all seem like solid prospects who wouldn't let the Astros down from an offensive perspective if they were promoted early in the 2016 season.  All have reasonable offensive upside, but it may be that those players are primed to make more of an impact in 2017.

Thanks, everyone, for reading.  Next up, I will have a stab at predicting the 12 or 13 position players who will break camp with the Astros, plus projecting some of the guys (like Danny Worth, J.D. Davis and Alex Bregman) who have not made these lists, mostly by virtue of not having reached AA.  Then, I guess, we should look at the pitchers.