On the evening of July 30, it appeared that calamity had befallen the Astros.
Yordan Álvarez was on the ground writhing in pain. He had just fouled a ball off his knee. Based on the visible agony he was in, it seemed that he suffered a potentially significant injury. His knee history gave the notion credence.
But only a few minutes later, disaster had been averted. Álvarez was on his feet walking around. He was OK.
Shortly after, the Cuban slugger resumed his at-bat and proceeded to hit a 111-mph missile to deep center field. Hurt or not, the Astros’ best player was seemingly unaffected by what had just happened.
Simply put, the club and Álvarez had dodged a massive bullet.
Two years ago, the Astros designated hitter underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees. It forced him to miss virtually the entirety of the shortened 2020 season. Ever since returning in 2021, Álvarez has picked up where he left off and then some, all while avoiding injury. Primarily DH-ing has ostensibly helped preserve his health.
But when the Astros acquired Trey Mancini from the Orioles on August 1, it incidentally created somewhat of a logjam for the defending American League champions. The addition of Mancini, a first-base-only player, made it so that Dusty Baker had two spots (first base and DH) for three players, with Álvarez and Yuli Gurriel being the other two.
That’s what seemed to initially be the case. Now a week later, Baker has apparently opted for a risky alternative in order to fit all three in the lineup: playing Álvarez in left field.
With Michael Brantley still shelved due to a shoulder injury — and it increasingly looking like his season is in jeopardy — shifting Álvarez to the outfield appears to be the Astros skipper’s solution, as since Mancini was added to the roster, Álvarez has started three of the last six games in left field, following a July that saw the 25-year-old All-Star make just two appearances at the 7-spot.
It’s not something that’s foreign to the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Álvarez — he’s made 87 appearances in left field in his two-plus seasons as a big leaguer — but considering both his knees have undergone major surgery in the recent past, it’s not ideal for him to play in the field, especially when factoring in how utterly irreplaceable his bat is in the lineup.
To Álvarez’s credit, he’s managed to play acceptable defense in left and has even displayed the ability to throw out runners. But at the same time, he’s not providing any meaningful value from the position according to both OAA and DRS, which collectively view him as no better than average, an assessment that more or less aligns with the eye test.
Even if he were to make a tangible impact, granting him regular playing time in the field would still be of considerable risk.
The long and the short of it is that his bat is just too important. Playing him in the field doesn’t improve the club defensively while it increases his exposure to injury. The risk simply outweighs the reward.
Secondarily, another issue in this situation is that there is no viable alternative for Baker if he wants to keep playing all three of Álvarez, Mancini and Gurriel at the same time.
Mancini has manned left field just nine times since 2019, and even when he did play there on a fairly regular basis in 2017 and 2018, he graded poorly (minus-16 OAA, minus-5 DRS). He is a competent defender at first, but it is his only position, as it is Gurriel’s.
Perhaps the Astros could get away with playing Mancini in left when a ground-ball pitcher like Framber Valdez is on the mound, but anything short of that could be problematic. The Astros’ elite defense is key when it comes to run prevention. Moreover, the pitching staff as a whole has the ninth-highest fly-ball rate in baseball.
Given Gurriel’s improved form of late, which includes a wRC+ of 116 in June and 119 in July, it’s unlikely that Baker will take playing time away from the Astros’ long-time first baseman, who has received staunch managerial support during his offensive struggles in 2022.
Whatever the permanent solution is for Baker going forward, it’s vital that he and the Astros prioritize the health of their young superstar. The organization likes to employ prudence when acquiring players. That approach should apply doubly to Álvarez.