Spring Training 2014: The Astros First Base Conundrum

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With the announcement last week that the Astros have designated Brett Wallace for assignment to make room for Free Agent pitcher Jerome Williams, an already-nebulous first base situation becomes…no less nebulous.

With the announcement last week that the Astros have designated Brett Wallace for assignment to make room for Free Agent pitcher Jerome Williams, an already-nebulous first base situation becomes…no less nebulous.  Some had speculated that Wallace would play for the Astros in 2014 as the left-handed half of a first base platoon with Jesus Guzman, recently acquired by the Astros in exchange for also-recently-required shortstop Ryan Jackson, but now that seems unlikely.

We here at TCB Nation® have allocated thousands of kilobytes to speculation in the comments of other articles discussing the various options at First Base in 2014.  Herein lies the list of candidates, their qualifications, and frank assessments of their strengths, shortcomings, and chances of significant playing time in 2014.

Jonathan Singleton

ZiPS:  .233/.325/.398

Chance of reaching 300 plate appearances at 1B with the 2014 Astros:  Smaller than you would like.

Jonathan Singleton is the elephant in the room*.  Prospecteers nearly-universally regard the 22-year-old as the best first baseman prospect in the minor leagues.  He’s earned that distinction too, especially since joining the Astros’ organization in 2011.  While already regarded an excellent prospect at the time, he bolstered his reputation by an offensive performance that was 48% more productive than the average Double-A batter, even at the age of 20.

*Why is an elephant large and gray?  Because if it were small and white, it would be an Aspirin.

In 2013, Singleton’s star lost some shine when, for the second time, he failed a test for recreational drugs and earned a suspension.  Upon returning to baseball, he did not whelm, posting only a .220/.340/.347 line in AAA, for a wRC+ of 86.  Despite this, he remains the long-term heir apparent for the Astros at the position.

Apologists Optimists point to Singleton’s 2012 performance, young age, rustiness from his suspension, and high walk rate (his 15.6% walk rate ranked 8th-highest in the PCL for batters with at least 200 plate appearances) as reasons to project that he would do well in the majors right away.  Pessimists point to his 11th-highest in the league 30.3% strikeout rate, and the fact that his walk rate is inconclusive when one considers that failed prospects like Scott Van Slyke, Daric Barton, Josh Satin, Kila Ka’Aihue, and Anthony Seratelli also all had BB rates north of 15% in the PCL last year.

The cold hard fact of reality is that Singleton is not ready for the major leagues, and probably will not be until the end of 2014 at the earliest.  Even with a monster spring training showing, it is difficult to imagine the Astros adding him to their 25-man roster, considering that the Spring Training environment isn’t much of a test of a hitter’s ability against finely-tuned major league pitching.  This front office does not seem likely to rush any prospect to the major leagues, especially with the example of Brett Wallace looming large in their minds.  Like Singleton, Wallace was considered one of the top 1B prospects in all of baseball, and after just three minor league seasons, he came to the majors at age 23.  And struggled.  A lot.

Additionally, the cash-strapped Astros have little incentive to begin Singleton’s arbitration clock by having him spend any significant time in the majors in 2014, since the Astros don’t look to be a .500 team, much less a playoff contender.

In summary, even if Singleton launches baseballs into geosynchronous orbit in Spring Training, there is very little chance that he sees significant playing time for the Astros in 2014 before September.  It would take a massive collapse on the part of everybody else mentioned in this article to change that.

Jesus Guzman

ZiPS:  .249/.318/.416, 23% K, 8.5% BB

Chance of reaching 300 plate appearances at 1B with the 2014 Astros:  About as close to 100% as any of these guys.

After the Astros acquired outfielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies earlier this offseason, fans have debated over how his offensive and defensive production might change now that he is away from the batter-friendliest home park in the majors.  Interestingly enough, not many people have speculated aloud about how 1B/LF Jesus Guzman’s offensive and defensive production might change now that he, for the first time in his career, is away from the most batter-UNfriendly home park in the majors.

If his 2013 away stats were translated to an entire season, Guzman’s 140 wRC+ would have ranked him 6th in the Major Leagues in offensive production among first-basemen.

Guzman was highly-thought of coming out of the minor leagues with the Mariners, Athletics, and Giants before he was traded to the Padres.  His professional career seems to mirror Brett Wallace’s, actually, with several trades before reaching the majors, and then three seasons of sporadic playing time which generated mixed results.  With one crucial difference:  Guzman has been an above-replacement-level major leaguer for the majority of his career.  Wallace has not.

Guzman struggled in 2013, with a .226/.297/.378 line in 318 plate appearances.  His slash line is misleading, however.  At home in pitcher’s haven Petco Park last season, Guzman slugged a nausea-inducing .164/.248/.209 in 150 Plate appearances (37 wRC+).  But on the road, he hit .279/.339/.526.  If his away stats were translated to an entire season, Guzman’s 140 wRC+ would have ranked him 6th in the Major Leagues in offensive production among first-basemen, just behind Edwin Encarnacion*.

*Note, this in no way condones the idea that Guzman WOULD have hit .279/.339/.526 had he never swung a bat in Petco in 2013, as this theory has been soundly rebuffed recently.  However, it stands to reason that Guzman is better than a .164 hitter and so his overall line would have been significantly better than what it actually was.

As noted before, Guzman does have a noticeable handedness split, and performs much better against Left-Handed pitching.  As a hitter, he has been about average against Right-Handers.

The Astros traded for Guzman for a reason. He holds a career 21% strikeout rate (much better than everybody else on this list) and an 8.4% walk rate, which would have been 4th-highest among the Astros remaining from last year’s squad.

Even with his weaker performance against Right-Handers, if Jesus Guzman received a full season of playing time, it is not difficult to imagine him being a top-5 offensive producer on the 2014 Astros.

Chris Carter

ZiPS:  .228/.319/.461, 34% K, 11.4% BB

Chance of reaching 300 plate appearances at 1B with the 2014 Astros:  Pretty small.

Look, Chris Carter is a DH, pure and simple.  There are too many possible 1B’s on the 40-man roster to put up with his defense, or lack thereof.  He will reach 600 plate appearances in 2014, and quite possibly reach 40 home runs, but he will do it as a Designated Hitter.

Marc Krauss

ZiPS:  .213/.298/.369, 30% K, 10.3% BB

Chance of reaching 300 plate appearances at 1B with the 2014 Astros:  Possible

Speculation du jour has 26-year-old sophomore Krauss playing the part of the left-handed side of a platoon with Guzman.  Primarily, this seems based on the fans’ desire to see "the next big thing", under the assumption that Krauss will become the next Luke Scott, an older and unheralded prospect carving out a well-above-average career as a major league hitter.  Krauss does hit slightly better against northpaws, fueling the platoon speculation, but not well enough to be an everyday player against them when there are other options.

There’s little reason to expect Krauss to earn much playing time in 2014 other than as an occasional backup to allow the regulars some rest.  His career .252/.368/.413 line in the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League does not fortell an offensive breakout, but even more concerning is the 31% strikeout rate he posted in his 52 games in the major leagues last year.  He was far below the average batter offensively in the majors, as he posted a 74 wRC+ in limited playing time.  Krauss had a fine minor league career, and probably has earned enough playing time to see if he can adjust to big league pitching, but it seems doubtful that it will come at the expense of a veteran or a higher-upside prospect.

Krauss' best opportunity lies in the fact that he does have a large split when facing different-handed pitchers.  In AAA, he boasted a .271/.392/.494 line against Right-Handers, and Astros GM Luhnow has hinted he would like to see some playing time at first for Krauss.  300 plate appearances might be in reach, but it's a steep hill.

Japhet Amador

ZiPS:  .231/.284/.366, 25% K, 6% BB

Chance of reaching 300 plate appearances at 1B with the 2014 Astros:  Smaller than the average bear

Amador’s case is interesting, solely because he is a complete unknown.  After destroying the Mexican "AAA" league (.368/.419/.693 with 36 home runs in only 104 games) the Astros signed the big fellow as a free agent.  He promptly took zero walks and hit zero home runs in a short but dismal PCL debut, followed by .277/.393/.690 with seven home runs in 200 plate appearances in the winter leagues.

So who is Japhet Amador?  Nobody really seems to know.  Fangraphs has him listed as 6’4" 220 lbs, and Baseball Reference lists him at a more-likely 6’4" 315 lbs.  Reports say that despite his body type he plays first base decently.  But Amador is 27 years old and has very little precedent in the way of past major leaguers who have succeeded out of the Mexican league at his age, and at his size.

Amador is likely the first to be called up from AAA if he mashes, and also likely the first to be cut if he doesn’t.  Because of the number of major league first base options, Amador would have to hit his way into playing time.  But if he does hit, he should make it to the bigs in 2014 and get at least a bit of playing time.

Jason Castro

ZiPS:  .256/.337/.439, 25% K, 11% BB

Chance of reaching 300 plate appearances at 1B with the 2014 Astros:  Possible, if the stars align.

Why is Jason Castro on this list?  Doesn’t he play Catcher?  What is this madness?

One of the more interesting theories for first base involves All-Star catcher Jason Castro splitting time with Jesus Guzman at first base.  Like Wallace and Krauss, Castro is a far superior hitter versus Right-Handers than Left-Handers, but like Guzman, he is good enough against the opposite breed to stay in an everyday lineup.

Enter Max Stassi, top Astros catching prospect and also the minor league player closest to the majors.  Most pundits laud Stassi’s receiving skills, rating his defense above Castro’s.  He also has an interesting bat – while he will not hit for a high average, he could be one of the better power hitters to debut for the Astros in quite a while.

If Stassi plays strongly at the beginning of the season, he could convince the Astros that the best interest of their pitching staff and their lineup lies with having three catchers on the opening-day roster.  Castro would split time with Guzman at first base, especially when a Right-Hander is on the, and Stassi would catch.  With a Left-Hander on the mound, Castro would catch, and Guzman would play first base.

With Carter at Designated Hitter and Guzman occasionally splitting time with the outfielders in Left Field when not at First, this could be the lineup that yields the most positive results for the Astros.  It remains to be seen, however, if the Astros seriously consider Castro a potential first-baseman, since he has never played the position during his professional career.

Brett Wallace

ZiPS:  .238/.304/.406, 31%K, 7% BB

Chance of reaching 300 plate appearances at 1B with the 2014 Astros:  Not great.

Before grabbing your torches and pitchforks, think about this.  If Wallace clears waivers and accepts an assignment to AAA, he still would be a viable option at first base for the Astros if things go downhill for Guzman and company.  If history is any guide, he will probably mash in the PCL, yet again kindling hope among the front office and Astros faithful.  He still has his top prospect pedigree, he still has the type of power that yielded 13 home runs in only 285 plate appearances in 2013, and his 37% strikeout rate from last season was so absurdly higher than his 29% career rate that it can reasonably be dismissed as an aberration.

In 2013, Wallace was a replacement-level player.  Note that he was not below replacement-level, though he was below average at his position among major leaguers.  His defense is bad but not terrible, and he walks a decent bit.  There’s always the possibility that Redhawks First Baseman will fly again, though good money is on the bet that he has worn out his welcome in Houston and the patience of the fans.

Glossary

wRC+ - A measure of offensive results by a batter.  100 is "league-average".  A wRC+ of 140 would mean the player performed at a level 40% better than the average batter.

"Slash" Stats - .300/.300/.300 - AVG/OBP/SLG%

SLG% - Slugging Percentage - Total Number of Bases earned per At-Bat.

OBP - On Base Percentage - Hits, Walks, and Hit-by-pitches per plate appearance

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