Oakland, under general manager Billy Beane, has become known for their rapid roster turnover and constant wheeling and dealing. However, one player who has managed to stick around in green and gold for a few seasons now is Chris Carter, a slugging first baseman who has followed a bit of a roller coaster path through professional baseball.
Carter was drafted out of California high school in the 2005 baseball draft by the Chicago White Sox, lasting until the 11th round. He was seen as a player who had big time power projection and many thought he could handle the outfield, but wasn't seen as a top prospect right away. He quickly became a sought after commodity, posting 41 home runs between his first two pro seasons across short season and class-A ball. During the 2007 offseason, Carter was traded from the White Sox to the Diamondbacks organization for Carlos Quentin. Two weeks later, the Athletics acquired Carter in the Dan Haren to Arizona trade.
The following season, 2008, Carter erupted, hitting 39 homeruns with a .259/.361/.569 line at Oakland's high A affiliate Stockton in the California League. He struck out in 26.2% of his at bats, which was a red flag, but one that people were willing to overlook considering the power he displayed. After the massive home run output, even in the friendly conditions of the Cal league, Carter was seen as one of the best prospects in the Oakland farm system, but questions about his ability to hit for contact and his lack of positional value at first base made some evaluators question his potential.
Building on a successful 2008 campaign, Carter moved up to AA in 2009 and had his best season yet, crushing the ball to the tune of a .337/.435/.576 slash line with 24 more home runs in 125 AA contests. In addition, his K rate dropped all the way to 20.1%. At that point there very few evaluators who weren't on the Carter bandwagon, he consistently ranked as a top 30 prospect following the 2009 season. The A's were sitting pretty at this point, with Carter and Daric Barton both seen as very promising young first basemen. Carter was seen as the superior prospect, however, and was expected to take over on the right side of the infield for the A's at some point in 2010.
The 2010 season was Carter's first speed bump, as he started very slowly and struck out at an alarming rate early in the season. The questions about his contact, which had been quieted by his 2009 performance, returned and his bandwagon began to shrink. However, as the season wore on, Carter began to rebound and his final AAA totals looked quite solid by the end of the year- he finished having smacked 31 home runs while hitting for a .258/.365/.529 line with an acceptable 25.0% K rate. He got his call up in August of that year, memorably going hitless for his first several games and finishing with an ugly .186/.256/.329 slash and just 3 home runs in 78 plate appearances. 2011 followed a similar path for Carter- he spent most of the year raking in AAA before struggling through a 15 game stint in the majors. Last season was the first time that Carter had the opportunity to play in more than 24 major league games in a year, and the results (.239/.350/.519, 16 HR) were much better than his two previous runs in Oakland.
So what exactly can the Astros expect to get from Carter, going forward? It's tough to tell- although he's yet to show he can strike out at a workable rate in the major leagues, he has also never gotten consistent playing time for a full year and this may have prevented him from making the necessary adjustments. Though he was drafted almost eight full years ago, Carter is still just 26 and won't turn 27 until December of this year, meaning there's a good chance that his peak seasons are still ahead. An all-or-nothing power hitter, Carter was a poor fit in Oakland's spacious home park. As a right-hander in Minute Maid, he will obviously be in a much better situation in his new home. His home/road splits last season support this. He hit 11 of his 16 home runs away from Oakland in just 24 more road at bats. Even if he strikes out around 30% of the time again, he should be able to top 30 home runs with full playing time. He's actually quite reminiscent of fellow Astros' first baseman Carlos Pena of a few years ago, minus the top notch defense- both are players who rack up walks and homers to counteract their astronomical strikeout rates. It's unlikely that Carter will be trusted in left field for an extended period of time, so I would expect the Astros to deploy him mainly as a DH and at first on Carlos Pena's off days.
Carter's lefty/righty splits are important to note, as they're fairly wacky. In 109 plate appearances against left handers in the majors last year, Carter had a .404 OBP and 5 home runs- striking out in a very workable 23.9% of his PAs. His sterling 22.0% BB rate vs. 23.9% strikeouts vs. LHPs is a stark contrast to his ugly 9.9% BBs vs. 37.7% Ks vs. RHPs, but what's confusing is that his overall production was actually better against righties- his home run rates are much higher and he hit substantially more line drives, allowing him to hit for a higher batting average on balls in play in addition to the additional homers. Though his peripherals are all over the place across his splits, his overall production was similar against both groups, as he had a .386 wOBA vs. lefties last year and a still very solid .356 wOBA against right handers. Many see Carter as a platoon player long term, which is possible, but he shows potential as an every day player and hopefully he will get the opportunity to be one this year in Houston.
I've been a minor league baseball enthusiast for most of the ups and downs of Carter's career, and I've remained a fan of his the last few seasons. He has his limitations, but his consistently excellent AAA performance and his very encouraging on-base and power production last year has kept his hype train on the tracks for just a little while longer- he still has the upside of a poor man's Adam Dunn, and if nothing else he can provide the Astros' lineup with something it sorely needs- home run power.