2014 is going to be an important year for many young players on the Astros' roster, perhaps most of all for Jose Altuve. Altuve followed his exciting rookie season with a pretty uninspiring 2013 season hitting .283/.316/.363. His defense wasn't that great for a premium defensive position and while he stole 35 bases he was caught stealing 13 times for a 73% success rate for base stealing.
While not amazing these stats are a far cry from being characteristic of a teams worst everyday player. Going by WAR Altuve was the team's second most valuable player last year with 1.3 WAR, trailing only Jason Castro. The Astros have made some nice improvements in 2014, so let's take a look at Altuve's competition for least valuable everyday player this year.
At catcher Jason Castro handily beat Altuve by 3 WAR last year, and assuming good health is a very good bet to not only beat Altuve in WAR again but also be the team's MVP for back to back seasons.
At First Base/DH Chris Carter will likely find a permanent home and lower his defensive liability by a healthy amount. Carter posted a .4 WAR last year, held back largely by his whopping -20.9 defensive WAR in left field. He posted a 5.6 offensive WAR even while striking out 10 billion times, good for the Astros' second highest offensive WAR after Castro. If he gets comfortable at first base Carter could easily see his WAR tick up 2 or so wins just by not playing in left field, let alone any potential improvements he may make in the batter's box. Hopefully 2014 is the season where Trogdor puts it all together.
Shortstop Jonathan VIllar is probably the most likely candidate for team LVP. His .321 OBP last year isn't exciting, but with a few improvements it looks like his bat will play pretty well at shortstop. Villar will have to improve his defense quite a bit to stick at short, but if he works hard and gets a little lucky he could have a pretty big shift in his defensive value this season, perhaps enough to push him over 2 WAR over a full season and make him more valuable than Altuve.
Unlike Carter and Villar, Matt Dominguez gets most of his value from his defense. Depending on how good you think his defense is Dominguez may already have more value than Altuve. If he can make good adjustments in his plate approach and get on base more consistently, then Dominguez will have no problem being more productive than Altuve in 2014.
Assuming George Springer is called up early in the season and the Astros give Robbie Grossman the lion's share of playing time in left field, an outfield of Grossman, Fowler, and Springer is likely to be surprisingly good this season. Grossman probably isn't the best hitter on the planet like it seemed he was for a few weeks last season, but over a full season he could put up above average offensive numbers. Fowler provides good offense at a premium position and has already posted more value than Altuve over his career. Enough has been said about George Springer's potential, hopefully he'll live up to it next season.
Of course this is to suggest that Altuve himself won't improve next season. He's still very young at 23, and has plenty of room for improvement. He could break out again this year and be more productive than ever. Will he? Altuve's regression in 2013 was alarming because you can't point to just one thing he did more poorly than in 2012, he simply did everything a little worse at the plate than the year before. It wasn't bad luck or a low BABIP (.321 to .316) that made his OBP dip from .340 to .312. It was just bad hitting. If you look at his minor league and major league stats together, Altuve's success in 2012 looks more like an outlier than a breakout. If this is the case than his team-friendly extension starts to look more like a fair market deal than a bargain.
Next year will tell us a lot about Altuve's ceiling, and hopefully he will prove the trend lines wrong. If he doesn't though? He's dangerously close to becoming the Astros version of a David Eckstein, (or, gasp! A Neifi Perez!) a player who is loved for his grit and hustle but just ultimately isn't that valuable. If Altuve can't get past his career high WAR of 1.5 this season, he may very well become the Astros' worst everyday player. The good news for Astros fans is that with the improvements to the major league team, that might not be bad news.