Regardless of your thoughts about the World Baseball Classic, the Astros' current plight remains the same: The organization must now navigate the loss of their All-Star second baseman to a fractured right thumb, which will likely keep Jose Altuve out of action for a while. The team has yet to establish a timetable, but an eight-to-ten-week absence, as noted here by Bob Nightengale, feels reasonable. After all, Bryce Harper missed about two months in a similar situation, with the only material differences being it occurred in-season and the affected thumb was on his left hand.
Fresh off a season in which he hit .300/.387/.533 with 28 home runs and a 164 wRC+, the Astros simply cannot replace that level of production in their lineup. At least across a full season, which hopefully isn’t the case here. But in the short term, even during a two-plus month absence, it is possible the team can manage to keep the ship afloat. So, let’s say Altuve misses roughly ten weeks through May 31, he would ultimately miss 55 games. Odds are he would've missed a handful of games in any case, so let’s round down to about 50 games total. Using Altuve’s 2023 ZiPS projections before his injury as a starting point — 4.8 wins in 135 games — then we’re looking at a 1.78-win hit this season. Across a full season, a one-to-two win hit isn’t exactly worth wringing your hands over, even if does create a bit of opening within the division. Two months without Altuve are daunting, no doubt, but it isn’t an injury, at this point, that ought to derail an entire season.
In the meantime, there is the still matter of who plays second base in the interim. At this juncture, there are two favorites for the job, Mauricio Dubón and David Hensley, as noted here by Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. Dubón, who the Astros acquired last season, has 399 2⁄3 innings as a second baseman in his major league career while Hensley has plenty of experience at the position in the minors. Defensively speaking, there isn’t much cause for concern about who can fill in capably for Altuve. Both have experience playing multiple positions, including second base. Their flexibility is a key reason why they’re in the mix to handle Altuve’s role in the infield for at least a couple of months.
But the crux of the issue lies not with the glove, but rather with the bat as both Dubón and Hensley represent a downgrade from Altuve. Of course, it is somewhat unfair to compare the two to a potential Hall of Famer, but it is also a simple fact. The Astros, as an offense, will suffer to some level with Altuve out of action. The question is whether Dubón or Hensley can adequately fill in until his return. For Dubón, I fear we’ve already seen the height of his offensive capabilities, especially on the heels of his worst season statistically speaking in the majors (.214/.252/.313 in 265 plate appearances). While a positive regression is possible due to how poorly he hit last season based on his .221 BABIP, the overall lack of power dampers any meaningful bounceback. That said, the most encouraging aspect of Dubón’s profile last season was the steep decline in his strikeout rate, dropping 10.6% compared to 2021. But even that development was a bit disappointing as Dubón’s walk rate was relatively unchanged. Any meaningful improvement from Dubón will likely center on his BABIP regressing closer to past performances, but as I mentioned a moment ago, that improvement is muted due to the overall lack of power.
Hensley, however, has a stronger case to assume the full-time second base role until Altuve returns. For one, the almost 27-year-old possesses more pop than Dubón, even if it won’t approach the usual production from second base. It is worth noting that Hensely posted the highest isolated power (ISO) of his career (.179) and did hit a career-high 10 home runs for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys. But the area Hensley truly thrived in last season was his ability to get on base, also represented by his career-high 17.2% walk rate and .420 on-base percentage. In a lineup full of hitters who already draw out at-bats and put consistent pressure on the opposing pitcher, Hensely fits this mold. Even before Altuve’s injury, Hensley’s profile was making the case to include his bat in the lineup more often, especially as he presumably replaces Aledmys Díaz as the primary utility option.
In any case, Dubón and Hensley were due to have more exposure with Altuve out of action. I’d argue for Hensley over Dubón mainly due to the offensive upside the former present over the latter. But we’ll see both in action plenty to start the season as Dusty Baker will likely provide adequate playing time at second base for them. If anything else, Justin Dirden’s odds of breaking camp on the major league are now higher as he likely assumes Dubón’s role as the backup outfielder. How both perform in Altuve’s absence may also hold sway in how Baker utilizes the duo for the remainder of the season, which is something to monitor as we get closer to June.