By claiming Jake Elmore off waivers from the Diamondbacks, the Astros front office added an intriguing piece to the mix for the 2013 version of the infield. Essentially a middle infielder, he’s also spent time at the corners. He’s shown some pop in the minors, though it didn’t translate in his brief stint in the majors in 2012.
If the season were to begin today, the Astros’ infield would probably project as Brett Wallace at first and Jose Altuve at second, with Jed Lowrie probably manning shortstop while Matt Dominguez handles third. Tyler Greene could also handle shortstop, moving Lowrie to third.
Marwin Gonzalez, Elmore, Scott Moore, and Brandon Laird would duke it out for the utility jobs.
Gonzalez has the ability to play almost any position on the field, but a .093 ISO and just a 66 wRC+ isn’t going to help him make much of a case to play in the big leagues.
Wallace remains the only actual option at first base to begin the season, but Mike Hessman did have a good year in Oklahoma City (.813 OPS despite .244 BABIP), aided by a nice hefty slugging percentage (35 HR, .281 ISO, .512 SLG). I can’t imagine he’d be anything but a stopgap in case Wallace gets hurt, however.
Wallace needs to produce now, because Jonathan Singleton is coming. The 21-year-old lefty was blocked by Ryan Howard in Philadelphia before coming to Houston in the Hunter Pence trade, but Wallace is no Ryan Howard. Singleton hit 284/396/497 in Corpus Christi this year, and figures to be knocking on the door by the end of 2013. If Wallace doesn’t produce, expect Singleton to make his case.
With the need for a Designated Hitter, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a free agent first baseman come into camp to challenge Wallace, with the booby prize being the DH spot. A lot of guys fit the profile, not least of them being Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche. Mike Napoli, mentioned in the Catcher segment, can also play first base.
A prospect to keep your eye on is Jean Batista. The 20-year-old switch-hitter out of the Dominican Republic hit 321/345/531 in 51 games for Greeneville this year, earning a call-up to Lexington. I expect he’ll start the season in Lancaster, where his power numbers should be off the charts. He’s played all over the field already, too, which is a good sign.
There’s no question Altuve is a lock at second. There’s really no one he needs to worry about for the 2013 season.
The upside at second is that former first-rounder Delino DeShields, Jr. is progressing nicely. He repeated a level, and is still learning to play middle infield, but he went a solid 298/401/436 in Lexington, and spent some time in Lancaster, as well.
Lowrie is the best offensive player on the Astros. There are only two questions: 1) Will he play shortstop or third base? and 2) How long will he stay healthy? Lowrie has shown an exceptionally-frustrating inability to stay on the field, but he did manage to post a 2.1 WAR in 2012, while playing a career-high 97 games.
Personally, I think he projects at shortstop, with Dominguez at third, so I’m keeping him here in my projections.
Greene filled in admirably for Lowrie after being traded from the Cardinals. Though his 246/278/460 line in Houston might make him attractive to another team looking for middle infield help, it makes more sense to me to keep him as a utility man, especially given Lowrie’s propensity for injuries.
Also hanging around is Jonathan Villar, a piece of the Roy Oswalt trade. The 21-year-old went 260/336/394 while repeating AA ball. Nothing to write home about, but time is still on his side.
Other guys I like are former first-rounder Jiovanni Mier and Nolan Fontana. Mier repeated Lancaster last season, going 292/396/409. We’ll see how he does in Corpus Christi this year, but it’s at least encouraging.
Fontana, the 2012 2nd rounder out of the University of Florida, will likely take Mier’s place in Lancaster after going 225/464/338 at Lexington. Yes, you read that line correctly. He had nearly twice as many walks (65) as hits (34). Intriguing, to say the least.
I think Dominguez projects as the starting third baseman in 2013; his 111 OPS+ and 0.5 WAR in 31 games in 2012 is too enticing to pass up.
Outside of Lowrie, no other Major League-ready third basemen pass the “sniff test,” though Scott Moore tore the cover off the ball in AAA, and put up some decent numbers in the big leagues, which may shorten the leash. But Moore is already 28 years old and Dominguez, a former first round pick by the Marlins acquired in the Carlos Lee trade, has a ton of upside. I can’t imagine he won’t be given the chance to fail.
One prospect to keep your eye on is Matt Duffy. At 23, he was too old to be playing in Lexington, but his 280/387/447 line there is impressive nonetheless. A 20th rounder in the 2011 draft out of the University of Tennessee, his 16 home runs tied him for 8th in the Sally League. He may start in Lancaster or maybe even Corpus Christi this season, and cutting down his errors is going to be paramount. But he should be interesting to watch.
Darwin Rivera and Rio Ruiz are others to keep your eyes on.
1B: Brett Wallace
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie
3B: Matt Dominguez
Bench: Tyler Greene, Jake Elmore
The Astros are going to be rumored to be in on a lot of reclamation projects – for instance, a report surfaced this week that they had discussed the possibility of adding Hideki Matsui to be the DH. This probably isn’t the last such rumor we’ll hear – guys like Berkman, Jason Giambi, Lyle Overbay, Andruw Jones, Eric Hinske, and Aubrey Huff figure to have their tires kicked to come in as veteran presences and to help swing the bat and anchor the lineup.
More likely, in my opinion, is seeing a couple of minor league signings or non-roster invites to Spring Training. Don’t be surprised if you see guys like Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, or Cesar Izturis lurking around the compound in March, trying to catch on. In fact, there’s a possibility one of these guys could catch on, holding down shortstop and letting Lowrie DH, where he’s less likely to get injured.
Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal included a blurb about the Astros in this article:
The Astros are at their payroll limit, but would like to add a left-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Jason Michaels if they go with Carlos Lee over Brett Wallace at first base, which is hardly a sure thing. Wallace is hitting .362/.388/.617 this spring.
The team’s greater need is a replacement for catcher Jason Castro, who is out for the season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. The Astros like the Royals’ Brayan Pena, but the Royals won’t trade him with Jason Kendall still recovering from shoulder surgery.
I know I’ve been something of a J.R. Towles fanboy, and I understand that the team might be reluctant to give him another shot to translate his skills to the Major League level, but if going .344/.382/.594 in Spring Training, with more at-bats than any other player at your position, doesn’t earn you a chance to be the starting catcher, then I don’t know why we even have Spring Training. Of course, I understand that Humberto Quintero and Chris Corporan have posted comparable, and at times better, numbers. But Towles’ minor league production backs up his spring numbers, and I just happen to think he’s due one last chance to either be the starting catcher or to be traded or released.
As for the speculation about Carlos Lee, I think Brett Wallace has to be installed as the everyday first baseman to start the season. You have to believe that he’s going to find his power stroke at the major league level, and the thought of platooning Jason Michaels with any other options isn’t promising. Brian Bogusevic, the obvious in-choice left-handed outfielder, isn’t performing well this spring and needs to swing the bat a few more times in Oklahoma City before he should be called up. That means going out and getting a free agent, which more or less is limited to Ryan Church, as every other option with big league experience is right-handed, to my knowledge.
So, really, it just makes much more sense to me to put Lee and his diminished defense in left field, with Wallace and his potential big bat at first; rather than Lee at first and a combination of Jason Michaels and any other human being in left field.