Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Keeping the Window Open: What I'm Watching For This Spring Training

Spring Training games are two things: fun, and a reminder that real baseball--the kind where Carlos Correa does not give way to Anibal Sierra at shortstop in the 5th inning--is around the corner.

These are of course heady times for us Astros fans. The team won its first World Series in thrilling fashion last season. And projections for the 2018 season show that the rosters have the strongest and deepest roster in the majors. The Astros are projected to win 99, or 101, or 103.5 games this season, depending on your preferred projection system.

 The 2017 World Championship and the team’s favorite status walking into the 2018 season are impressive accomplishments by Jeff Luhnow and the rest of the Astros front office. But the work did not stop with the toss from Altuve to Gurriel in Southern California last fall.

The comfortable position of the Astros on the cusp of the 2018 season means that the biggest issues facing the Astros this Spring Training are not about this year’s team. There are a handful of position battles (3rd catcher, left handed guy in the bullpen), but the choice between Max Stassi and Tim Fedorowicz matters little to the overall direction of the team this season.

Instead, the big focus is on the ability of the front office to keep the team’s championship window open for as long as possible. Magic carpet rides don’t last forever. The Astros young core will age, and with more years will come more money in arbitration awards and more players reaching free agency. The payroll will go up and the front office will have to decide which internal free agents to pursue and which to let go elsewhere.

 The best way to keep the window open is for the Astros to develop some of their prospects into big league regulars. “Hey,” you ask. “Wasn’t that also the key to getting out of the cellar and into the playoffs?” Yes, yes it was. It’s the key to long term success in major league baseball, regardless of your place on the win curve.

What I am watching for this Spring Training? I’m looking at those prospects who have a chance to become regulars in the outfield or the starting rotation in the near future. These are where they are potential vacancies in the next season or two, and the team would clearly prefer to develop an internal option to fill them, rather than having to pay full freight for a free agent.

In the pitching staff, there is clearly a future rotation spot reserved for Forrest Whitely. While his 50 game drug suspension is a clear setback for him, it is unlikely to delay too much his project 2019 expected arrival date.

But the Astros seem to have a second spot available in future rotations. In the ideal world, Francis Martes would take that spot. Martes’s 2017 big league debut was mixed, combining a high strikeout rate with a high walk rate to produce a season that was just a s frustrating as it was promising. Martes was knocked around in his first Spring Training appearance against the Marlins in a split-squad game.

It would be lovely if Martes could develop more command of his pitches, but if he does not, the Astros do not lack for other prospects would could win a spot in a 2019 or 2020 rotation. One candidate is David Paulino, back from both a PED suspension and arm surgery. Another is 2017 first round pick J.B. Bukauskas. Bukaukas is in minor league campa this year and little has been reported about his performance.

There is one more potential starting pitching prospect who has emered in this year's camp--Rogelio Armenteros. Armenteros is not well regarded by scouts--he’s only the #19 Astros prospect on MLB Pipeline’s ratings. Yet in 2017, Armenteros has a 2.04 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and struck out 146 batters in 123 ⅔ innings. Armenteros picked up this Spring where he left off last year, striking out 8 so far in 5 innings. AJ Hinch was impressed, saying:

“His presence on the mound has been really mature. His changeup is his best pitch...He'll pitch in the big leagues this year.” 

A second area where the Astros desperately want to develop a big league regular this season is in the outfield. The star of camp so far has been the team’s top hitting prospect Kyle Tucker. His 3 home runs and his nickname (“Ted!!!”) has brought him tons of notoreity. Tucker will definitely start the season in the minors, probably again in Corpus Cristi. But a strong start to his season will put pressure on the front office to promote him to Fresno and ultimately to the big club.

The other outfield prospect who the Astros need to develop is Derek Fisher. The Astros have not signed a free agent to play outfield or DH. They have done so because it is obvious at this point that the team wants Fisher to win the left field job this Spring, and to become a lineup regular. Fisher has an excellent season in Fresno in 2017, but he slumped when he reached the big club in the last two months of the season. Early signs are good, as Fisher has slashed .294./455/.471. He has walked 5 times this Spring in 22 PAs. This is a good sign.

Obviously, it is very early in Spring Training, and these players only have a handful of innings pitched or plate appearances. It is hard to draw full trends from any of these players. Yet, we can be encouraged by the hot springs of Tucker and Armenteros and concerned about the decision making of Whitley.

Things may change soon, but this is all of the 2018 data we have right now. I’m paying attention to these players because they are very important to the future of the Astros. Turning young prospects into regulars is needed to win another World Series title in the 2020s. But if you just wanna sit back and enjoy having won in 2017 and being projected to have the best record in 2018...that’s a lot of fun too.