The 2013 Astros were a very, very bad baseball team. Their .314 winning percentage was the worst by a club since the 2003 Tigers, and FiveThirtyEight rates that dreadful squad as the thirty-fifth worst MLB club of all-time.
That’s about all we need to say about the fourth anniversary of that team, which at least punked the Rangers in the team’s first-ever American League game on opening night (and only beat them one more time that season). That forgettable campaign was also marked by a failed #1 draft pick and some unsavory characters in the pitching rotation who didn’t exactly gel with clubhouse or the still-fresh Luhnow regime (Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, Jarred Cosart). However, the strength and depth of the Astros Triple-A Fresno team at the present, and the complete lack of advanced talent across the organization in 2013 brought me to a question worth answering: Could the Astros’ 2017 Triple-A club possibly be a better major league squad than the 2013 Astros?
There are many ways to debate this, but we can hopefully reach a conclusion with one of our favorite tools at TCB - projection systems. The 2013 team has been spoken for so we have that data. Projecting the assumed roster for this year’s Fresno squad will prove to be more difficult, but Steamer bails us out - their “Steamer 600” projection system standardizes players to a full season’s worth of at-bats (aka, about 600 per hitter).
In this exercise, I’ve included slash lines and wRC+ numbers for all players - but we’ll mostly focus on each player’s WAR (total player value). Some of the WAR projections on Steamer 600 will take a little dreaming to be realistic - but this will ultimately make the exercise more fun than a system that projects player value based off sporadic numbers of at-bats at the major league level.
Only the top 16 hitters from the 2013 Astros in terms of playing time (plate appearances) will be included, so say goodbye to guys like Jake Elmore (pitched and caught in the same 2013 game), Jimmy Paredes (almost killed Jose Altuve), Rick Ankiel (53% strikeout rate) and Matt Pagnozzi (seriously, who?) for this exercise. The comparative Fresno team also has 16 players who should see the majority of at-bats for the Grizzlies. I decided to only evaluate hitters for this exercise - though Fresno has some promising arms, they will showcase more depth and prospect power than many minor league teams, so we’ll highlight offense exclusively.
We’ll start with the 2013 Astros hitters:
2013 Astros Hitters.csv
If you care to remember, Jason Castro led the squad with a career year offensively, posting 4.4 WAR. In fact, this group contributed only 4.8 WAR combined (the equivalent of one Buster Posey that year). Present-day holdovers from this 2013 group include Jose Altuve, who struggled to really hit for anything other than empty singles and Marwin Gonzalez, who was pretty bad in part-time duty (no offense to current Marwin, who is much better now). Max Stassi was omitted after only getting eight plate appearances (and one unfortunate facial fracture that set him back for a while). If you managed to block any remembrance of this team from your memory, congratulations.
Now, the 2017 Grizzlies projected for full-time major league plate appearances.
Here’s where the dreaming comes in - it’s easy to be skeptical of a combined 2.4 WAR from Garrett Stubbs and J.D. Davis, especially when guys with actual major league experience are projected for less. (Solid catcher defense is valuable, which could explain some of Stubbs’ projection). But even if we excluded Stubbs and Davis, we could reasonably assume that A.J. Reed performs better than .2 WAR, and Preston Tucker shows better than a negative WAR with his experience. Though still terrible, the offensive projections for the Grizzlies are almost exactly the same as the 2013 major league team, which is kind of amazing:
2013 Astros: .242/.302/.370, 84 wRC+, 4.8 WAR
2017 Grizzlies: .238/.302/.369, 83 wRC+, 5.5 WAR
But what drives that higher WAR total for Fresno? The Grizzlies project for fewer completely terrible hitters - the 2013 Astros featured five players that were at least 40% worse than league average (wRC+ of 60 or lower), while Steamer 600 only shows three such Grizzlies. This could be the system simply dismissing the idea of that kind of player even getting regular playing time (laughing at you, 2013 Astros), or acknowledging the upside of Fresno’s hitters compared to 2013. Fresno’s 2017 team has a few high draft picks who have struggled in limited MLB at-bats (Reed, Moran) and others who haven’t had a chance yet (Derek Fisher). But for the 2013 Astros, only Matt Dominguez came with any sort of prospect hype (first round pick) who also didn’t have a past track record of poor MLB play. So, Steamer 600 could be favoring Fresno’s hitters because they haven’t demonstrated serious offensive struggles in past MLB seasons.
But projecting off of past failure presents some consequences, as we know about J.D. Martinez. The general assumption in evaluating hitters is this: a player needs 1000 MLB plate appearances for a team to fully understand what they have. Martinez had 942 plate appearances in Houston, performed poorly, and was cut, but is now an All-Star with Detroit.
That’s the same story we’ve seen about other 2013 Astros who performed better after leaving Houston - Martinez, Villar and Grossman were expected to deliver a good chunk of major league at-bats for one of the youngest teams in the majors. That’s a different narrative for the current near-the-majors group, who are expected to spend almost all of 2017 back in Fresno. Even if Moran, White and Reed struggled in their short stints in Houston last season, none were asked to do what Martinez and Grossman (top of the order hitters) and Dominguez (only legit third baseman in the system) were at similar times in their development. What if Reed, White or Fisher were called to hit consistently in the middle of the order, or start 150 games at one of the most difficult defensive positions (in Houston) in 2017?
Our exercise tells us they probably wouldn’t perform any better (or worse) as a team than the 2013 Astros - this is a bit shocking (we’re talking about a full minor league team that projects as offensively similar to a major league team) but also underscores the difficulty of prospects not just making it and hitting some dingers, but playing consistently and contributing in other facets of the game. Just as many promising 2013 Astros reached to the majors and failed, the same story could be told about the 2017 Grizzlies under the same circumstances of a rebuilding club. This is why the organization is fortunate to have not just a stacked major league roster, but an entire Triple-A lineup that can develop their all-around games independent of serious needs in Houston - and could probably take the 2013 Astros in a seven game series.