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The Astros Should Hold on to White and Kemp (for Now)

It’s worth giving Tyler White and Tony Kemp more of a look before rearranging the roster

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With Yordan Alvarez’s hot start at Round Rock, I’ve seen more and more fans calling for him to be added to the major league roster, but as we all know, every roster move demands an equal and opposite reaction. Someone would have to go to make room for him.

Making things more awkward is that all of the most likely candidates to go (Tyler White, Tony Kemp, Max Stassi, and Aledmys Diaz) in the event Alvarez is called up are out of options, meaning they can’t be demoted without being passed through waivers first. So whichever player it is, there’s a real chance the Astros just lose them to another team. Given their positions, Stassi and Diaz are pretty safe, which means the focus is on White and Kemp.

Both have gotten off to slow starts of varying degrees, and some in the fanbase have grown frustrated, which I understand. But I don’t think it’s worth moving either player at the risk of losing either, for a variety of reasons.

The most practical reason, and probably the biggest, in my mind, is depth. There’s no reason to think that the Astros will make it through 2019 with perfect health in the lineup (just look at last year), meaning that it likely won’t be long before Alvarez has a natural opening on the major league roster to fill without having to let anyone go. Getting rid of a player for nothing now, when there isn’t a roster crunch, is only going to make things rougher in the event of an injury (and this only becomes more troubling if Alvarez doesn’t immediately succeed at the major league roster).

There are numerous other logistic issues, of course. Neither Kemp nor White is in the lineup regularly as-is (even combined, they have fewer plate appearances than six individual players on the team), and it doesn’t make a ton of sense to bring Alvarez to the big leagues to use as bench player when he could be playing every day in the minors. Realistically, he’s also going to have to cut into the playing time for one of George Springer, Josh Reddick, Michael Brantley (three of the team’s top four hitters by wRC+ at the moment), or Yuli Gurriel (I’m less opposed to this one, but more on that in a minute).

But it does lead into another point, which is that the Astros are already a strong offense, leading all major league teams in wRC+ at 131. They’re swapping first place with the Mariners right now, but it’s also hard to argue that they also aren’t better than Seattle right now. Maybe the Mariners are actually really good this year, but less than a month of games feels much too early to be making that call, especially when it’s a small enough sample size that we can still get scheduling oddities like the fact that the Astros are yet to play a team with a losing record while the Mariners have already gone 11-2 against the three AL teams who haven’t reached 10 wins yet.

That small sample size weirdness is probably the biggest reason I’m hesitant to specifically give up on Kemp and White this early, though. They are both much better than we’ve seen in their 40-PA stints, and that’s still way too little evidence to give up on them totally.

I hope people have seen White’s turn-around as evidence at this, if nothing else. Two weeks ago, the DH was sitting at nine games played and an abysmal .227/.320/.273 batting line. So many people were wondering if last year was a fluke, which is kind of a silly thing to worry about based on 25 plate appearances. And sure enough, in the two weeks since, White has played in five games and picked up six hits and six walks in just 21 plate appearances, raising his slash line to .297/.435/.351 with a 130 wRC+.

In fact, he’s now hitting better than Yuli (.262/.323/.417, 101 wRC+), and I wouldn’t mind White starting to eat a little more into his play time. It looks a little weird, since White’s power still seems absent, but I’ll take 100+ points of OBP over 60+ points of slugging any day (not even getting into White’s stronger 2018, or that he’s seven years younger than Yuli). Granted, I expect his walk rate to go down with more playing time, but the same could be said about his K rate also falling, which might help balance things out a little. The point is, we’re still definitely in the “weird early days” of the season, where a few good games can completely swing things.

Kemp hasn’t turned it around like White has over the last two weeks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some unusual things in his batting line. His walk rate, whiff rate, and isolated slugging are all roughly in line with his career norms, and while his line drive rate is down, his hard-hit percentage is up. The primary thing driving his .143/.250/.229 batting line seems to be his absolutely abysmal .154 BABIP, which more or less can’t stay that low for an extended period. Given that, his greater additional versatility over Alvarez, and his rather low usage rate (he’s eleventh on the team in plate appearances, ahead of just Diaz and Stassi), I don’t feel like there needs to be a rush to replace him just yet.

Overall, even ignoring the general uncertainty of how easily minor leaguers can translate their numbers into big league success (see, for instance, Kyle Tucker last year), there just isn’t a pressing need for another bat right now. The risk of losing a player entirely just to free up a bench spot doesn’t strike me as the most enticing move, especially given how quickly injuries can turn lineup depth into a lineup dearth. I don’t mind Houston maybe casually talking to other teams about trades or something (at least those would get something back), but this just doesn’t strike me as the type of move that needs to be made right now; in fact, it feels like the perfect type of problem to kick down the road a month or two to see if it sorts itself out.