Astros offseason: Drilling down through the left field position

Thearon W. Henderson

What's in store for 2014 and beyond in front of the Crawford Boxes in Houston?

Have you ever sat well down the third base line at Minute Maid Park? It's a pretty nice view; the view of home plate isn't great, but you get a great read on batted balls scorched down the line, a good view of plays at second base and a chance to watch the slickest third basemen in the game ply their trade at the hot corner.

I've sat along that third base line at MMP since I was a kid. Among all of those things, the best view is of the left fielder. It's not a difficult left field to play, as the Crawford Boxes don't allow a lot of open space to cover. Unless a ball is hit into the depths of the visiting bullpen in left-center, there's not a lot of excitement out there. Similarly, there hasn't been a lot of excitement at that position for the Astros in quite a while. Someone must play left field though, so here's a look at the possible short and long term plans at that position.

The Now

The trade for Dexter Fowler fills a big position of need for the Astros, though indirectly. Fowler will probably play center field, while George Springer will move to right. There's no guarantee that Springer will even start in Houston on Opening Day. However, I believe he should and for the purpose of consistency I will assume he opens the season as the starting right fielder.

Quite a few different players manned left field for the Astros in 2013. Chris Carter started Opening Day against the Rangers in left. I will assume that Carter won't play much left field for Houston next season. His defense is far better outside of the outfield, and he can focus more on his hitting as a full-time first baseman or DH. None of the prospective left fielders for next season on the roster are particularly good fielders. All had negative UZR's (from Fangraphs) with the exception of Krauss, who posted a 0.3, albeit in just 19 plays made.

Robbie Grossman is the frontrunner to open the season as the starting right fielder in 2014. He rebounded from a poor showing in a short stint early in the season to post strong offensive numbers in the second half. He slashed .322/.351/.466 after the break, displaying his ability to draw a walk and even provide a little power at the top of the order.

To get a little more analytical, Grossman only swung at 33.7% percent of pitches he saw in 2013. Compare that with the league average of 46.3%. Though Grossman is known as a patient hitter, his success later in the season happened because he became more aggressive. He only drew seven walks in the second half and struck out more often, but he was more productive offensively. If Grossman can somehow put those practices together in the future, he could develop into a dangerous top of the order presence.

Grossman did see a huge jump in BABIP from .275 to .413 between the first and second halves, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep up those numbers next year. If he can hit around .270 and get on base at a .340 clip or better at a consistent rate in his second season, I'd be really happy with that.

Grossman isn't a great fielder numbers-wise, but he's not a liability. He has good speed, but center field is better suited for Dexter Fowler next year. Grossman also did this, which was awesome and won us that game against Oakland. Unfortunately, he can't rob a home run in Houston.

L.J. Hoes is the another guy who could get a look in left field next year. He doesn't hit for enough power to warrant a starting spot at a corner outfield position yet, but his hit tool is solid. I'm not too sold on Hoes, but I'm not against him playing frequently next year to see how his hitting plays out.

The Astros added another potential piece to the outfield in trading for Jesus Guzman last month. Though I like Guzman in a right/left platoon at first base with Brett Wallace, he has experience in left field and has a wRC+ of 109 in his career ( nine points above league average). His defense in the outfield doesn't separate him from the other candidates, though, and is much better based on UZR at first base.

J.D. Martinez had one of his worst seasons as an Astro last year. He posted career-lows in BB%, on-base percentage and wRC+, and struck out at the highest rate of his career (26.5%). He was outrighted off the 40-man roster recently and will start 2014 in Triple-A, so he'll have to hit his way back up to Houston.

If I were running the Astros, I would platoon Grossman and L.J. Hoes in left with some appearances from Marc Krauss. However, I like Grossman considerably more right now; I believe Grossman opens as the starter and gets a slight majority of the starts, based on his versatility, with Hoes making a few starts a week.

The Sleeper

Marc Krauss isn't much more than a fourth outfielder, though he hasn't had a lot of time to show what he can do with the bat. He didn't do too much offensively last year in only 134 at-bats and he struck out a ton, but Fangraphs' Steamer and Oliver projections interestingly like him a lot for next season. Steamer projects him to slash .240/.324/.404 with a wRC+ of 102 and a walk rate above 10%. Realistically, Krauss is a fourth or fifth outfielder next season, but if he posts near his Steamer projection he could challenge for the starter's role in left.

The Future

At the start of the offseason, I thought the Astros would be active in the outfield market in free agency. With the trade for Fowler, they've filled their need and won't be acquiring anymore starting outfielders, barring a surprise trade.

There aren't a lot of high-upside corner outfield options in the minors right now, but Preston Tucker might be the most intriguing. Tucker isn't defensively gifted and he played a lot of right field last season, but he could also play left. Tucker had one of the most complete offensive seasons of any Astros farmhand not named George Springer in 2013. He will most likely start 2014 in Corpus Christi, but he could move closer to Houston quickly if he continues his hot hitting.

At only 24 years of age, Grossman has plenty of time to seize the left field spot for his own. The nearest player in the minor leagues that could play left is Preston Tucker, and he might be better as a DH or right fielder anyway. If Tucker becomes part of the long-term plan, he could start in left field, with Springer in center and Domingo Santana in right. However, Grossman should have most of 2014 to show what he can do in left; he could be the future of the position if he continues to hit and get on base and progress in those categories. I'm sure Bo Porter likes his versatility as a switch-hitter and his patience at the plate is a skill that few current Astros possess.

His situation reminds me of Matt Dominguez going into 2013. The Astros pledged to give Matty D a full year to see if his bat could catch up to his glove. Dominguez has a long way to go and may not be a starter on a playoff team, but the Astros gave him a full season of at-bats to see what he could do. They should do the same with Robbie Grossman.

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