Much conversation has existed here at TCB (and other places around Astros-centric web destinations) about the center field position for the Houston Astros this season.
Is Jake Marisnick starting material?
What in the world is wrong with Carlos Gomez?
If neither of these two guys is the answer in center field, then what in the world do we do?
In reality, there are still a lot of possible ways the center field position can be handled. For instance, there is the option (yes, even with the major defensive hit) of starting Preston Tucker in left field with Colby Rasmus and George Springer taking either right or center.
If you question whether the defensive permutation can be compensated for by the bats, you'd be right to - the bats would have to be very good, and there has been plenty of (justifiable) speculation as to whether Preston Tucker's bat will continue to struggle in the major leagues or not.
That's all fine. We're not here to debate Preston Tucker. This option is likely not a great one, especially if Evan Gattis is going to be a catcher again and if A.J. Reed isn't going to be in the Major Leagues until another couple of weeks. Tyler White, Marwin Gonzalez, and Luis Valbuena are rotating through time in the corners and Preston Tucker is obviously better suited to the designated hitter role than anywhere else on the field.
So this option is probably out, at least until A.J. Reed is ready.
That leaves Jake Marisnick - who is not presently capable of being a starting outfielder on a major league team - or sticking with Carlos Gomez.
Most likely, the Astros stick with the excellent (but slumping badly) baseball player that they traded quite a bit to acquire last July to replace Marisnick in center field.
With me so far? (Note: I did not say "Are you happy so far?")
Okay, if that logic follows, then I and several other folks around these parts have been clamoring for quite a while now to send Jake Marisnick to Triple-A Fresno. The reason for the clamoring is varied, and I can't speak for anyone else, but here are my thoughts on the subject.
Right now, Jake Marisnick has had 22 total plate appearances in 36 Astros games this season...three of which came last night in Boston. I'm not going to bother delving into the results of those plate appearances (they're bad, small sample, all that) because that's not the point here. The point is the lack of plate appearances. The lack of playing time. Frankly, he has been a very, very bad hitter for a calendar year, and his playing time has (rightly) suffered. But if he's ever going to have a shot of growing into at least a mediocre offensive contributor - which, with his defense and base running value, would make him a solid center field starter - for the Astros, he's got to get a lot of playing time, and soon.
That means Triple-A. A chance to re-tool the swing, re-assess the approach, and get a ton of confidence building reps against lower quality pitching.
If Jake Marisnick can work out the flaws in his offensive approach and execution at the plate and become at least a serviceable starter in the Major Leagues next year, then once Carlos Gomez leaves via free agency, we have our center fielder.
If it doesn't work out, then we have put real effort into putting him into a good situation (as opposed to languishing on the bench) to try to help him succeed, it didn't work out, and we move on to an option like pursuing Josh Reddick in the offseason with the intent to move George Springer to center field. But at least we'll have a solid answer about Marisnick at that point.
In the meantime, who would replace Marisnick on the 25 man roster for this season? If I may be permitted some rosterbation, let's take a look.
Perhaps Andrew Aplin is an option, but he brings almost no offensive value at all...even in Triple-A. He is certainly a very valuable defensive outfielder though,and he has good speed on the bases. I just don't think you could really afford his bat in the lineup terribly often. But we'll consider him one option, regardless.
There is another option, though: everyone's favorite trade bait, Tony Kemp.
The second thing out of just about any naysayer's mouth with regards to Kemp involves his defense. We'll get to that in a second.
The first thing out of those same nay-saying mouths about Kemp is usually to talk about his lack of power. He is hitting to the tune of a .103 ISO as these words are being typed. He has never hit for much power in the minors. He hits a lot of singles, and he draws a ton of walks. The argument against him in this respect is that teams aren't going to be too worried about his power, maybe pull some outfielders in for him, and that defenses will gobble up his ground balls.
That may be...but it may not be, either. There is quite ample precedent for hitters with equal or worse power in the major leagues, and some of the names might surprise you.
Since the lack of power is a focal point of the argument against Kemp, let's compare the isolated power of other notably light-hitting players who have all (every one on this list) amassed at least 1,000 hits in the Major Leagues (so, a substantially tenured player...meaning the lack of power didn't stop them from playing) from the arbitrarily-selected date range of 1979 through 2016. Tony Kemp is producing a .103 ISO right now in Triple-A, as I mentioned, but we'll go based off his even-lower current Steamer prediction of .087 ISO in the majors. (Note: Upon review, Tony Kemp's Steamer-projected ISO was dropped this morning to .086, so if that concerns you, please feel free to drop the last name off this list and the point will still stand)
So, herein follows a list of every single player since 1979 to amass at least 1,000 hits in the major leagues with an ISO in the time frame that matches or is less than .087:
|Career ISO (1979-2016)
|1. Otis Nixon
|2. Luis Castillo
|3. Rey Sanchez
|4. Pete Rose
|5. Jamey Carroll
|6. Juan Pierre
|7. Ozzie Smith
|8. Cesar Izturis
|9. Walt Weiss
|10. Alfredo Griffin
|11. Tom Goodwin
|12. Darren Lewis
|13. Willie Randolph
|14. Ozzie Guillen
|15. David Eckstein
|16. Jose Vizcaino
|17. Steve Sax
|18. Elvis Andrus
|19. Tom Herr
|20. Jim Gantner
|21. Jody Reed
|22. Lenny Harris
|23. Scott Fletcher
|24. Omar Vizquel
|25. Dave Collins
|26. Rafael Ramirez
|27. Vince Coleman
|28. Mark McLemore
|29. Bob Boone
|30. Harold Reynolds
|31. Tony Womack
|32. Joe Girardi
|33. Ken Oberkfell
|34. Dave Concepcion
|35. Bip Roberts
|36. Brett Butler
|37. Chone Figgins
Note that Hall of Famer Rod Carew had the final 968 of his career hits in that time frame with an ISO of .077, while players like Manny Trillo (995 hits, .086 ISO), Enos Cabell (972 hits, .085 ISO), and Dick Schofield (989 hits, .086 ISO) also just missed the cut.
Also missing due to not yet having enough hits are current MLBers Dee Gordon (.077 ISO, 565 hits), Alcides Escobar (.081 ISO, 973 hits), and Ben Revere (.054 ISO, 739 hits). Hit-God and likely-Hall Of Famer Ichiro Suzuki only posted an ISO higher than .107 three times in his career (assuming he doesn't this year, which is likely a safe bet) and has a career .092 ISO. He's currently a 4th outfielder with the Marlins at 42.5 years old with a .049 ISO.
Two of Jose Altuve's first three seasons in the majors featured ISOs lower than Kemp's Steamer-projected ISO. Speaking of Altuve, it is not uncommon at all for players to add to their power numbers as they hit their physical peak around 26 years old, and Tony Kemp is still shy of that age and development point.
Let me go ahead and stop you before you point out that many or most of those guys I listed brought elite speed and/or elite defense to the table with them. You're right, the starters on this list (and, of course, the Hall Of Famers) mostly brought additional attributes. For Pete Rose from 1979 through the end of his career, he brought notoriety and celebrity and the chase for the hit record to the table in addition to having little speed and almost no power. Guys like Concepcion and Vizquel and obviously Ozzie Smith - yes, we know. Elite defenders. Vince Coleman, Tom Goodwin, etc...very fast human beings.
I'm not saying Tony Kemp is a Hall Of Famer...or a star. I'm not even saying he's a starter. We're talking about a fourth or fifth outfielder, who doesn't get much playing time and doesn't move the overall needle of a team in a given season very much at all in either direction.
Tony Kemp is neither an elite defender nor an elite base runner. Jake Marisnick is both of those things. But I'd argue that Tony Kemp is not hurting you in either regard as a late inning defensive replacement, or as a pinch runner. The Astros have three starting outfielders that can each play all three of the outfield positions as necessary, and they have Preston Tucker (yes, bad defender, we know) who is capable of playing the corner outfield positions as well. So, a scenario in which Kemp (who has no business in right field) would be forced to play the strong-armed corner outfield position is a negligible concern. He can safely be expected to strictly cover left field, center field, and perhaps be a defensive replacement for Jose Altuve in a blow out - a possibility that Jake doesn't bring to the table and which frees Marwin Gonzalez up for other uses.
For those concerned about Kemp's defense, it's understandable. Again, he's not an elite defender. But he does have the speed to cover ground in the outfield. A couple videos are not going to completely assuage all doubts, and I don't expect it to. But, while elite defenders in the outfield might be standing under these baseballs, truly bad defenders in the outfield don't get to them at all:
And, as for Kemp's second base ability, he may not be a Gold Glove winner in the future, but consider:
You don't see much in that last video, but he makes a diving catch on a worm-burning line drive to save a run.
Again, I'm not saying these videos are evidence of elite defensive skills. I'm saying they show the capacity to be a push, if not a net positive, off the bench in a defensive replacement role.
In summation, there is a lot of different ways to provide offensive value beyond hitting the ball hard, especially off the bench. Tony Kemp is a left-handed bat and is usually a tough out who walks a lot and makes solid contact and has speed - all tools I love in a potential bench bat/fourth or fifth outfielder. Plus, again, we have three current starting outfielders who are all plus defenders and can play all three outfield positions, and Preston Tucker's bad defense at the corner outfield positions as well. Kemp brings no right field ability, but does have the natural position of second base available to him if we need to give Altuve a day off and want another left-handed bat...or as a late game defensive replacement in a blowout.
Meanwhile, if Jake Marisnick is to have any chance at all - even a remote one - to be a starting center fielder in 2017, the time to get him to Triple-A for extended repetition and playing time seems to be immediately. Right now. And making that move to try and see if that is a real, serious option going forward is worth a 40-man roster move (Kevin Chapman and Asher Wojciechowski jump readily to mind as players who can be removed from the 40-man roster without too much concern, especially with Tommy Shirley and Reymin Guduan both in Triple-A now) in my opinion.
Perhaps Tony Kemp's line drive rate, hovering around 19% right now, isn't enough to consider him a viable major league option. Perhaps his defense really isn't good enough. Perhaps he's not good enough at getting reads on pitcher's moves to first to be a true stolen base threat in the majors. Perhaps all those things are true.
I'd submit to you, dear reader, that the benefits of Jake Marisnick in Triple-A render this the time to begin to find out about Tony Kemp for sure, one way or the other.