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Bolstering the Astros Infield - Pt. 1: Under the Radar

In preparation for the winter, I'm going to start a brief series about infielders the Astros could potentially acquire to bolster the lacking infield.  Third base and shortstop are completely up in the air, especially the former.  And since Kazuo Matsui can also play shortstop, it wouldn't be out of the question to move him there and acquire a second baseman.

In other words, all three positions are open to discussion.

In each installment, I will discuss three players.  Please throw out any names you can think of, however.  This time, I'd like to discuss three players who won't likely be big targets this off-season, yet might be valuable additions nonetheless.  I've mentioned two of them before, but let's take a more in-depth look and bring one more to the foreground.

1. Adam Kennedy.  I've mentioned Kennedy before, and I still think he would be a reasonable option.  His 2009 slash line was .289/.348/.410.  His BABIP was slightly above his career average, at .329.  His numbers were decent in '09, and worse in '08, but the key to this pickup would be his favorable splits against RHP.  He's always hit much better against right-handers, which makes him one of several good candidates (some of whom, like Russell Branyan, I will discuss in future posts) to platoon with Jeff Keppinger, who is very strong against LHP.

2. Luis Rodriguez.  A great buy-low free agent pickup, Rodriguez is not the type of player you'd like to buy and pencil in at third base, but his stats are nonetheless impressive... Except, of course, for his batting average and slugging percentage.

You see, Rodriguez hit for a .202/.319/.260 line in 251 plate appearances this season.  So why would I be interested in him?  Here's why.  He walked 15.1% of the time in 2009, while only striking out 11.1%.  How did his batting average (and consequently slugging percentage) get so low, then?  His BABIP was a wretched .219.  Does this mean he was only making weak contact?  Apparently not--his line drive percentage was a shocking 18.3%.  No, poor Luis was just plain unlucky.  Rodriguez can also play all the positions in the infield, by the way.  In his minor league career, his slash line was .311/.383/.413.  So overall, I mark him as being an inexpensive, useful bench player at worst, and a starting second or third baseman at best.  By the way, he also splits well against RHP.  Go figure.  And yes, I do have a bit of a soft spot for quad-A players, especially when they're this useful for what should be a near MLB-minimum salary.

3. Kevin Russo.  I've mentioned him before, but I still think him a great trade candidate.  Russo is a 24-year old AAA utility infielder in the Yankees system.  My interest in him is that he batted .326/.397/.431 in 2009 with a 10.6% walk rate and a 15.6% strikeout rate.  His BABIP was a little high, at .375, so those numbers are probably a little inflated.  However, his BABIP was .359 in 2008 (when he batted .306/.363/.416 at AA), so his gaudy on-base percentage may not be particularly outrageous, especially if he can continue to lower his strikeouts.  He probably will never have great power, but his skill with the bat, healthy BB%, and ability to play multiple positions should make up for that.

The trouble, of course, is that he's fully under the Yankees' control.  Fortunately, they have no need for him, having their infield locked in for years to come.  Still, he'd be a useful bench player and remains a solid prospect, so don't expect the Yankees to part with him easily.  Perhaps Chia Jen-Lo would be a tempting central piece to the Yankees--he's projected as a good bullpen arm, possibly a setup guy or a closer down the road.

*

Next time, I'll talk about some higher-profile targets: Second basemen who could continue in their role or convert to third base.

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