When the Houston Astros traded Jed Lowrie back to the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Lowrie is clearly a good player, when healthy, and some have noted that the Astros aren't exactly rich in corner infield options.
The question, however, is this: Would the Houston Astros front office agree?
There has been a lot of buzz among some fans this offseason about the Astros acquiring a corner infielder with a big bat. Someone like Joey Votto, or Chris Davis. But even without dipping into free agency or putting together a trade, the Astros have some interesting choices to make this year.
On the one hand, you have the incumbents: Chris Carter, Marwin Gonzalez, Evan Gattis, and Luis Valbuena (though Gattis is not a first baseman, his time at DH affects Carter's usage.)
- Marwin Gonzalez comes with positional flexibility. He plays multiple positions, including both first and third.Gonzalez posted a wRC+ of 107 over 103 games in 2014, and followed that with a wRC+ of 108 over 120 games in 2015. He'll turn twenty-seven during Spring Training, and is arbitration-eligible for the first time this year.
- Like Gonzalez, Luis Valbuena can play around the infield. Considered by many to be the likely 2016 Opening Day starter at third base, posted a 105 wRC+ over 132 games in 2015, his first with the Astros. He also hit 25 home runs while splitting time at first, second, and third base. He will turn thirty at the end of November, and is entering his final year of arbitration.
- Chris Carter just finished the worst offensive year of his career, while still amassing a 101 wRC+ and 24 home runs. He will turn twenty-nine in December, and is arbitration-eligible for the first time this year.
- Evan Gattis had a home run total in the top twenty-five of all MLB hitters in 2015, despite a down year. He turned twenty-nine in August, and is entering his first year of arbitration.
That ignores Matt Duffy, who is also on the Astros' 40-man roster, and who plays both corner infield positions.
Waiting in the wings: Tyler White, Colin Moran, and Jon Singleton.
I've been hard on him in the past, but Colin Moran made a believer out of me in his first season with the Astros. Moran was the 24th-youngest player to get at least 300 PAs in Double-A in 2015. Not in the Texas League - in all of Double-A. The guys younger than him are all pretty big prospects: Raul Mondesi, Orlando Arcia, Nomar Mazara, Billy McKinney, J.P. Crawford, David Dahl, Rio Ruiz. Of those twenty-four, here are the leaders in wRC+:
1. Max Kepler (167)
2. Trevor Story (155)
3. Dan Vogelbach (140)
4. Gavin Cecchini (139)
5. Jesse Winker (137)
5. Nick Williams (137)
7. Colin Moran (136)
Only Arcia, Williams, Cecchini, Kepler, and Moran had batting averages above .300. Of those four, only Kepler posted a better walk rate than Moran.
Moran stands a really good shot of being a plus hitter in the major leagues right now. He's now shown both elite contact skills and above-average plate discipline, and he could have a real shot at starting the season as the Astros' third baseman.
Tyler White is an interesting case study. He was old for his draft class, and has been borderline old for every level he's hit as a result. But all he's done is hit. And hit and hit and hit and hit and hit. He split his time between Double- and Triple-A last year, with a 142 wRC+ in the former and a freaking 178 in the latter. He also walked more than he struck out.
He just turned twenty-five, but he isn't Rule 5 eligible until next year. What to do with a prospect like this? Do you put him on the 40-man in 2015 and give him a shot before you have to protect Moran? Do you hold onto him, even though he'll be twenty-six years old before the 2017 season?
Complicating things still further is Jon Singleton. Singleton may feel like old news for Astros fans, but he's the youngest player on this list, still just twenty-four years old, and he had a 128 wRC+ in Triple-A Fresno in 2015. He's also making two million dollars to hang out in the San Joaquin Valley, which likely isn't anyone's ideal scenario.
The big stain on Singleton is simply the front office's seeming unwillingness to promote him. Of everyone who played first base between 2010-15 in the major leagues and had positive value, the average number of Triple-A games is 140. Only six of the thirty-six (Garrett Jones, Brandon Moss, Allen Craig, Steve Pearce, Chris Carter, Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Davis, and Yonder Alonso) played in more Triple-A games than Singleton. The odds look worse the longer he remains in the minors. If the Astros believed he could be the everyday first baseman, wouldn't he already be the everyday first baseman? But he's not, so what do they know that we don't?
That's the scenario: At the big league level, you've got a guy who had a top twenty-five home run total in all of MLB, and another who just finished the worst offensive year his career, while still amassing a 101 wRC+ and 24 home runs. They're both arbitration-eligible for the first time, there are clear signs of positive regression for both of them, and both of them were average major league hitters who would almost definitely be "sell-low" candidates if you tried to link up with a trade partner. Were you to non-tender one or both of them, you get even less for them, and they're also both still shy of their thirtieth birthdays.
Do you give up an average hitter in the hand for two bats in the bush (league)?
Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows of this entire conversation, is the specter of A.J. Reed, the Astros' second-round pick in the 2014 draft, who made it as far as Double-A in 2015 and put together a .976 OPS over the 53 games he was there.
Oh, and did I mention Preston Tucker?
This is the front office's job this winter: To determine how to divide the major league playing time - on a team considered by most to be in playoff contention from the first pitch of the season - between all of these players. And that's assuming they don't bring in a free agent, or trade for an established bat.