Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

2014 Season Still Full of Tryouts

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Now, our operation is small, but there’s a lot of potential for…aggressive expansion. So, which one of you fine gentlemen would like to join our team? Oh, but there’s only [so many] spot(s) open, so we’re gonna have…Tryouts!

Here’s to hoping you know where that’s from. But hey, sports!

Last season the Houston Astros continued to rebuild all over the field at every level. Jeff Luhnow’s plans continue to unfold with great effectiveness, including a modified pitching system across multiple levels and a steady rotation of position players to narrow down the playing field (ha) and search for mainstays of the future. For now let’s just think our positive thoughts about the position players.

The headline grabber was the emergence of 2011 first round draft pick George Springer, who took  a big stride – a historical stride – in his development.

Jonathan Singleton went the other direction, missing the first 50 games of the season due to a positive marijuana test and his progression was set back.

Of course the headlines are the very, very tippy top of the iceberg.

Through internal decision making such as more Brandon Barnes and Robbie Grossman, less Marwin Gonzalez and J.D. Martinez, trades of Bud Norris, Jose Veras and Justin Maxwell and free agent signings of Rick Ankiel and Carlos Pena  our future talent looked very promising in comparison.

Even with all the external roster movement, there were also many signs of improvement from within. Former top prospects with Florida/Miami and Arizona/Oakland respectively, Matt Dominguez and Chris Carter both showed very impressive power (with room to grow in other areas) and finally healthy, homegrown catcher Jason Castro made the American League All-Star team.

Jose Altuve got the contract extension that officially made him a cornerstone Astro, we were hoping for as a fan base, Jonathan Villar at last ascended to the big league level, Brett Wallace regained form for stretches, undoubtedly taking advantage of the delay of Jonathan Singleton.

Still though, heading into 2014 the Astros present many position battles with players trying out in 2014, just as many did in 2013, to show the front office they belong in the ultimate ‘Stros blueprint.

The outfield is of most interest to me (and likely the masses) given the abundance of options as well as a multitude of minor leaguers that project as big leaguers one day.

I’m absolutely in baseball love with the newcomer from the Colorado Rockies, Dexter Fowler. I have been since I saw him play for the AA Tulsa Drillers in 2008. I fully expect him to man center field and climb Tal’s Hill for many, many seasons to come.

One of the corner spots is inevitably going to George Springer, whether that’s Opening Day against the Yankees or soon after.

The alternative is a very important battle between last season’s trade deadline acquisition L.J. Hoes and incumbent Robbie Grossman, with newcomer and underrated batsman Jesus Guzman coming off the bench able to play both corner spots as well as first base.

Speaking of first base, it’s Brett Wallace’s to lose to begin 2014. Guzman can play there, Chris Carter can too (hopefully the OF experiment with him is d-o-n-e) and of course Jon Singleton is waiting in the wings to claim the spot.

The Astros clearly want Brett Wallace to succeed and the former first rounder who was involved in deals for Matt Holliday and Roy Halladay has displayed undoubted big league talent, but it seems like it will either be as a backup corner infielder or with another team, like Milwaukee  or Pittsburgh.

Of course there’s no battle for playing time for Jose Altuve, but there is a battle and a challenge on himself to improve upon his improvement from last season.

Nobody wants to see shortstop Jonathan Villar succeed more than Manager Bo Porter. The skipper worked day in and day out with the youngster last year on adjusting to the Majors and being an everyday shortstop. Villar struggled mightily on defense and the mental aspect of the game has yet to meet it’s capacity but gracious can he steal bases.

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

But so can Dee Gordon, you just have to get on base first, ask Dee Gordon. The elephant in the room is 2012 first overall pick Carlos Correa, who is meeting and exceeding all expectations so far but is still just 19 and won’t be 20 until the 2014 MiLB season is in the books. However, that shouldn’t deter Villar at all, because if he earns a spot in the team’s master plan, there will be a spot for him regardless of Correa’s encouraging development.

Matt Dominguez mans third and after his breakout 2013, he’s rightfully gained the trust to start there each and every game.

In 2012 when the expiring Carlos Lee (his contract, too) was finally a tradable asset, the Los Angeles Dodgers had acquired him for pitcher Garrett Gould. However, for personal reasons that didn’t include winning, “El Caballo” was instead sent to the Miami Marlins for two prospects, one of which was Matt Dominguez, 12th overall pick in 2007 by the Fish who had fallen out of favor and also minor league rankings. Forgotten was his still very young age as he was just 17 when drafted.

Dominguez’s defense has never been an issue but it hasn’t been for Brendan Ryan, either. Like Bruce Wayne (deuce references!) Dominguez had a fear of bats that needed fixing, and on his salary it wasn’t going to be anything like Mr. Wayne’s solution.

Last season, Matty D, if I may and I will, slugged 21 home runs, including three off of Yu Darvish, which is neat.

Last but not least, in fact maybe most, is catcher, arguably the toughest position in all of professional sports. Quite a situation the Astros have here as well, one that falls under the “good problem to have” classification.

As mentioned earlier, Jason Castro ran through the yellow tape and then another mile and more last season…and it.was.awesome.

The 2008 first round pick headed into 2013 at 25 years of age, which is somehow considered old in the prospect obsessed era of baseball fandom. Apparently it was a make or break season for his career, another silly notion that Castro anyhow dismissed with flying shades of Astros orange. (Our jerseys are so dang cool)

His rookie season in 2010 was very promising. His first hit came in his first At-Bat off Cy Young champion Tim Lincecum. His first home run two games later off of Matt Cain. Two very good pitchers on a very good team that eventually won the World Series against…I can’t remember.

2011 was lost after a devastating knee injury in Spring Training and 2012 was full of rehabilitation of his body and of his career. He played in just 87 games, sharing catching duties with Chris Snyder, Carlos Corporan and Chris Snyder’s facial hair.

I’m not sure if it was the move to the American League, mentally enabling the DH spot for Castro, or simply the fact that the guy was healthy and able to play baseball. The former top prospect on a roster filled with such a pedigree played a career high 120 games, including 19 appearances at designated hitter. The 120 surely could have been built upon but Castro was shut down in September for precautionary reasons concerning the injured knee. Could he have played? Probably, but there was nothing to gain.

So Jason Castro finished off 2013 with a .276 average featuring 18 home runs, 35 doubles, 211 total bases and an .835 OPS, ranking only behind Cardinals Yadier Molina in starting catchers.

Castro is without a doubt the Astros catcher but just like at most every other position, there is a youngster with future plans to occupy the spot.

Acquired as part of the Jed Lowrie package, catcher Max Stassi moved quickly through the farm system last year and was called up from AA Corpus Christi in late August. In his MLB debut he had two hits, impressing in his very first game just as Castro did.

Stassi certainly has a future in the majors, but will likely start this year at AAA, a level he previously skipped altogether.

The Astros haven’t committed to much of their current roster long-term, financially or strategically.

Jose Altuve is the exception, but next on the list is Jason Castro, who will make $2.45 million in his first arbitration eligible season this year and is under team control until age 30 in 2017. However, the team has been very selective and patient determining their long-term commitments, and with the knee still a topic of high interest, the team is unlikely to fully invest in Castro, likely leaving him vulnerable to trade talks with Stassi waiting in the wings. If Jason Castro has a healthy, productive 2014 season, the team would probably be better off giving him a multi-year extension if it fits. This remains a touchy situation and one to absolutely keep an eye on.

In the short-term, Castro is the team’s backstop, with Carlos Corporan backing him up. Corporan can also play first base and the DH is of course open to anyone, insinuating that Stassi could be with the big league club sooner rather than later in 2014.

The playing field has narrowed a tad, but 2014 will be another year of finding out who is the future for our Astros.

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