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Is Spring Training Enough?

Richard Justice recently opined on his blog that the Houston Astros are going to take a 'wait-and-see' approach to top prospects Jason Castro and Chris Johnson. Neither will have a job locked up going into spring training and will need solid performances there in order to make the Opening Day rosters.

I like Castro quite a bit and there's been talk around here about whether the Astros should save some money and go with a youth movement in 2010. Castro, Johnson, Tommy Manzella and company would probably struggle at first, but if they're big league material, they will find their way eventually. That's not the point of Justice's blog post, though. The Astros are apparently basing that decision on spring training performance.

My question is this: why do teams base such crucial decision on such a small sample size? Do you really get a good enough look at a player in spring training to determine whether they'd make such an important decision with a player? I'm not talking about just prospects here, but with non-roster invitees and other players. How do you evaluate a player on such a small subset of play?

In the 2009 Grapefruit League, Michael Bourn led the Astros with 103 plate appearances. The rest of the regulars had around 60-70 plate appearances each, including guys like Jason Smith and Chris Johnson. Obviously, Bourn was the Astros' most improved player in the regular season, but had a .685 OPS in Spring Training. Smith had an .885 OPS in 65 plate appearances, which basically locked up a position for him on the opening day roster. Smith, of course, got no hits in 25 at-bats in the majors before being designated to Round Rock.

Of the regulars in the Houston lineup last season, only two had higher OPS numbers in Kissimmee than during the regular season (Lance Berkman and Miguel Tejada). The rest performed much better once the games started counting for something. The question then becomes, why do we use such a small sample size to determine if a player will break camp with the big league team?

I realize the team probably evaluates other things, like preparation, handling of the pitching staff, defense, and lots more off-the-field stuff that can't be quantified. Still, time and time again we see a guy have a huge spring numbers-wise and it changes how the club looks at him. It's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the organization likes a player, they'll use his numbers as a justification for breaking camp with him. If they don't, the numbers are a way to make the cut, even though they don't tell us anything useful.

Houston hasn't always been run this way. Under Gerry Hunsicker, the team cut ties with Shane Reynolds, even though he was healthy enough to pitch 167 innings for Atlanta that season. Reynolds had won 103 games as an Astro and been the Opening Day starter. Yet, the team still made an objective evaluation of his talent level at the time and made the cut during spring training. I'm not convinced that this front office can do that yet, since I don't think they have the decision-making autonomy from owner Drayton McLane that Hunsicker did, but they could surprise me.