For a club heavy with established veterans, it has been a relatively difficult task lately for any prospect to carve out a regular role for the Astros. We’ve actually seen many of the highly regarded farmhands traded away as the organization emerged from depths of the rebuild into the realm of contention to acquire proven major leaguers, ranging from Evan Gattis to Brian McCann to Zack Greinke. Even Yordan Alvarez, who won the AL Rookie of the Year last season, was more of the exception when compared to the club’s recent history with their top prospects. It also helps when the up-and-comer is the ideal fit for that one spot in the lineup that was a bit of a problem for the Astros before 2019.
Not all of the top prospects were traded, however. Top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley remains with the Astros alongside former top position prospect Kyle Tucker. In fact, Tucker’s position with the club for 2020 is one of the key talking points, outside of the sign-stealing scandal. While his effort and hustle has been called into question in the past, the young outfielder somewhat redeemed himself with a strong showing in the batters box and on the base paths late last season and postseason.
Compared to his first 72 plate appearances in 2018, when he hit .141/.236/.203 with a beyond lousy 23 wRC+, Tucker rebounded with a .269/.319/.537 slash line in his next 72 plate appearances. All four of his home runs actually occurred in 2019. The often scrutinized former prospect finally had some momentum coming into Spring Training, which is something he clearly didn’t have in his corner last year.
It seems as the now twenty-three year old’s primary hurdle for a starting job comes in the form of veteran outfielder Josh Reddick and his $13 million annual salary. To be frank, the Astros would likely prefer to trade Reddick and at least a portion of his expiring salary to not only clear a path for Tucker to gain additional playing time, but also address the collective bargaining tax implications. But most, if not all clubs, are reluctant about adding salary in a veteran outfielder who has seen back-to-back down seasons at the plate in his ledger.
For a trade to have possibly worked, the Astros would’ve needed to add a well-regarded prospect to sweeten a deal. With the addition of the 26th roster spot and the surplus value that a particular prospect may present, it honestly didn’t make much sense for the club to explore that route. Also, the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal and subsequent firing of Jeff Luhnow likely derailed any potential trade talks before the start of the season. Unless the new GM in James Click finds a suitable alternative, Reddick likely serves the last season of his original four-year contract with the Astros.
One of the red flags with Reddick’s performance throughout the past two seasons is an overall decrease in bases on balls and power. Outside of a 29-game stint with the Red Sox in 2011, the now thirty-three year old posted his lowest walk rate (6.5 percent) in roughly a full season. While his strikeout rate was also slightly down by a few percentage points, the drop in power (.134 ISO) to his lowest levels since the 2016 season also poses a problem. The hope for Reddick in 2020 is that an offseason shoulder surgery helps his performance and he avoids another letdown during the summer at the plate. He is also considered an asset defensively even if the metrics don’t always reflect it.
The battle between Reddick and Tucker in Spring Training literally comes down to one point: The worth of the proven versus the risk of the unproven. For as much as I enjoyed watching Tucker take advantage of another major league opportunity last year, his numbers at the highest level is the definition of a small sample size. It takes hundreds of plate appearances before we will start seeing any stabilization among the numbers. Reddick, even amid the disappointment of the past two seasons, was nearly a league-average hitter in each of the past two seasons. He also brings another veteran presence in a clubhouse that’ll surely experience plenty of hostile moments this year, especially on the road. For a team like the Astros, there is a value in that aspect to consider. New manager Dusty Baker indicated to Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required) that the longer the competition goes, the favor tips to Reddick being the primary recipient for more playing time. Tucker if the competition is decided rather quickly. There are pros and cons to both outcomes. Let’s see what happens.