Major League Depth Chart
Coming off of a career 2019, Cuban league legend Yuli Gurriel will enter the next MLB season as the presumptive starter at first for Houston. La Pina is already 35 years old, but has aged like wine since making the jump the the majors, culminating in a 132 wRC+ and a career high 31 home runs last season. Gurriel’s approach at the plate is aggressive, but nonetheless he’s a very tough out for pitchers and rarely gets fooled badly. Most of Gurriel’s home run total came over a two month stretch in the summer, and expecting him to reproduce long balls at that rate might be optimistic, but he can be counted on for a high batting average and at least moderate power.
Should Gurriel struggle with injury, his likely replacement in the short term would be Abraham Toro, who exploded at the minor league level in 2019 to earn himself a late season call-up. After a few years of solid production in the lower minors, Toro really found his stroke at the plate last season with a 153 wRC+ at Double-A Corpus and a 179 wRC+ in 16 games with Triple-A Round Rock. His primary position is third base where he’s adequate defensively but a bit below big league average due to shaky hands, which he compensates for with athleticism and laser beam arm strength. Those traits make Toro a less than ideal fit for other infield positions, but he projects well in the outfield corners and has the offensive upside to be worth shoehorning into the lineup at first base or DH. He’s not exactly Marwin Gonzalez in terms of versatility, but his ability to handle a few different positions with a bat that can be slotted into the heart of the order makes him the leader in the clubhouse for the 26th man/de facto backup first baseman role.
Toro is one of the more promising young players on the roster, but at this point he’s still unproven at the big league level with just 85 so-so PAs to his name. The Astros could well get strong production out of a Gurriel/Toro combination when games resume, but there’s enough uncertainty surrounding both that contingency plans are necessary. Based on what we saw in Spring Training, it would appear that James Click and co. agree. While there’s constant clamoring from fans for Yordan Alvarez to take up the mantle at first when Yuli’s production slows, his work at the position has never gone particularly well, and the concern surrounding the condition of his knees doesn’t make a move to the infield any more appealing. Before Coronavirus shut down league operations, the team was doing some light experimentation with Kyle Tucker at first base, and he probably represents the safety valve at the position in the short-term. While he’ll hopefully be occupying right field on an every day basis, we’re imagining scenarios where Yuli Gurriel and Abraham Toro are both indisposed for whatever reason, and in such a situation the club could have better internal options to fill the gap in right than at first depending on how things look on the farm.
Who’s on the way?
Currently, the Astros really only have one prospect who projects to the first base position- 6’7” slugger Taylor Jones, who had something of a breakout in 2019. A former prep basketball star and college pitcher, Jones is a loose athlete who moves very well for his size. His raw power is in plus to plus-plus territory, and it’s starting to show up more and more frequently in games, including 22 home runs last season. Jones is already 26, but has proven himself at the Triple-A level and is about ready for a big league opportunity if one becomes available. It’s often difficult for hitters of Jones’ size to manage such a large strike zone, but his approach has proven solid thus far and he has a chance to buck trends as a late bloomer. I’d expect him to get some big league playing time in the next season or so, whether in Houston or elsewhere.
After Jones, the only name of note at the full season level is J.J. Matijevic, a former second-round pick who has consistently shown big power in games, but struggles to make contact and only fits at the bottom of the defensive spectrum. Matijevic turned some heads with tape measure shots in the Arizona Fall League, but his contact rates have consistently been concerning and I wouldn’t project that turning around. In the lower minors, however, there are a couple of players who could hit their way into some attention when play resumes. Rainier Rivas, one of two players acquired in the Max Stassi trade, and has a frame that portends a move to a corner at 6’3”, 200 lbs as a teenager, and big raw power to play in that role. There is also Brazilian teenager Victor Mascai who has made some noise in rookie ball play with big pop of his own and bears monitoring as he progresses. The internal options are certainly limited, but that’s not uncommon at the first base position, and James Click’s old team in Tampa made a habit of finding valuable corner sluggers for very low price tags, so the outlook could turn around in a hurry.