I think fans and prospect evaluators have been calling J.B. Shuck a future 4th outfielder for so long, that it has crept into our minds as an inevitability. However, we might be selling the guy short. Especially considering the team Shuck plays for. Are Jordan Shafer and Jason Bourgeois clearly better options for center field than the lone survivor of the Shuck, T.J. Steele, Jonathan Gaston dream outfield?
The answer will depend on how well Shuck plays defense in center field. The defensive zone/ range factor type stats that he has put up in the minor leagues are not very promising. He is fast, but he's not Michael Bourn fast. He's not even Jason Bourgeois fast. He won't get to balls that Bourn got to, or balls that Bourgeois can get to. But, we're not talking about Shuck starting over Bourn. We're talking about whether Shuck should start over Jordan Schafer or Jason Bourgeois. I think the offense Shuck can provide makes him a viable option to receive the lion's share of time in center field. At least until someone within in the system can take the position from him.
First of all, from an offensive standpoint, Bourgeois isn't an everyday player. He is the perfect platoon partner with either Shuck or Shafer, though. This year he has been fairly phenomenal against lefties (.382/.408/.515), but terrible against righties (.245/.259/.291). That slash line against righties just doesn't cut it. It's amazing that he has gotten 110 at bats, most of which, at the top of the Astros' order, with a .259 OBP and just 2 walks against righties.
So, Jordan Schafer is Shuck's real competition. He has a reputation of being a solid defensive outfielder. He was also once a top 50 prospect. However, a P.E.D. suspension and a failure to take off offensively at the big league level has dropped his stock significantly. It is the Astros hope that they bought low on a guy who can become a Michael Bourn-type player. And, to be clear, it appears he is the organizations favorite to take over the centerfield job.
J.B. Shuck, on the other hand, hasn't appeared to be a big part of Houston's plan. When it came to promotions, Houston opted for J.D. Martinez and Brian Bogusevic over Shuck. And, in preparation for a possible Michael Bourn trade, Houston went out and got the speedy Luis Durango off the waiver wire. It took Shuck winning player of the month award in Oklahoma City for the Astros to take notice of how he was hitting in July and August. Because Schafer, acquired in the Michael Bourn trade, was injured, the Astros went with the plan B they put in place a few weeks earlier, and called up Luis Durango. Durango spent two days with Houston, Shuck was awarded player of the month, someone in the front office noticed that Shuck had posted an 1.000 OPS since the PCL all-star break, and the team quickly corrected the oversight. Shuck was called up, and Durango was optioned back down.
Since his call-up, Shuck has done what he has done his whole career: Get on base. Shuck's sample size so far with Houston is far too small to make any kind of judgement on what kind of offense can be expected out of him. However, because of his track record, it is reasonable to expect that he will continue to produce at the level he has in his first 40 plate appearances. So far, he has posted a .360 OBP with a 12% walk rate. Both of those numbers fall right in line with what he has always done in the minors. His strikeout rate will likely come up from the 2% it is at now, but his BABIP will also likely settle much higher than his current .286 mark. Schafer and Bourgeois are much less likely to post a .360 OBP, ever. Bourgeois has 1 more walk than Shuck so far this year despite having 150 more plate appearances. None of the players in the mix for the centerfield spot will provide any power, so, it will come down to Shuck's OBP and Schafer's defense. Or more to the point, Shuck's defense and Shafer's OBP. Whichever player can close the gap in his perceived deficiency will be the better player.
When Schafer returns from the disabled list sometime this week, the Astros will have to make a decision on who has to be released or sent back to triple-A. With Bogusevic and Shafer both being left-handed bats, Shuck, also a lefty, seems to be a likely candidate to go back to Oklahoma City, at least until rosters expand in September. It will be interesting to see how Shuck is handled in the near future. Despite possibly being the Astros best option for center field, Shuck will face an uphill battle even getting a roster spot next year considering all of the left-handed bats the Astros look likely to feature.