A Look at Astros 1B and DH Options
By John Burgess
Now that Lance Berkman has officially signed with the Houston Astros’ new division rival, Texas Rangers, we can give up on any thoughts of he and the Astros being reunited. Sure it would have made a great story for all of you romantics out there: One of the Astros great sluggers returns home to be the Astros first ever designated hitter, but it just didn’t make sense for the rebuilding Astros. So instead, we will look at the options we do have for our starting first baseman and D.H..
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Newly signed Astro, Carlos Pena, spent 2012 with the Tampa Bay Rays. He hit only .197 with 19 HR, 61 RBI and struck out just over 30% of the time. While those numbers won’t blow anyone away, if you look at the more analytical stats, you will see why Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow was interested in him. Last year he walked in 14.5% of his plate appearances, while the league average is right around 8%. His OBP (On-Base %) was .330 last season, while the rest of the league averaged .319. Many of those in the Sabermetric community believe that there is no such thing as a “productive out”, so Luhnow does not put much thought into his poor strikeout numbers.
Last season’s part-time first baseman, Brett Wallace, will also be a D.H. candidate. Wallace had less than half the plate appearances that Pena did in 2012, while splitting his time between AAA Oklahoma City and Houston. He ended the season hitting .253 with 9 HRs, 24 RBI and struck-out in 28.7% of his 254 plate appearances. His OBP last year was .323, but what hurts him is his 7.1 base-on-balls percentage. Those numbers could very well be because he was only a part-time contributor and didn’t ever get the opportunity to get into his “groove”.
Another option could be Houston’s 2nd pick of the Rule 5 draft, Nate Freiman. He is a mountain of a man that has the ability to absolutely crush balls. He spent last season at AA San Antonio, in the San Diego Padres system. During that time, he hit .298 with 24 HRs and 105 RBI. He only struck out in 16.4% of his plate appearances last season, which is a low number for a power hitter. He walked 8.4% of the time and put up a .370 OBP. He is the only right-handed hitter that will be competing for a 1B/DH spot, so that could give him a definite edge for at least getting some platoon time. Since he has never had an at-bat at any level above AA, it is hard to say how his numbers will project at the major league level, but the Astros hope that he can at least play well enough to warrant keeping him on their roster.
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Defensively, Carlos Pena made 31 outs on balls hit outside of his zone (OOZ) in 2012, which ranked 4th among major league first basemen. His UZR/150 (ultimate zone rate per 150 games) for 2012 was 4.2. Brett Wallace played first base slightly better than that guy from Parks and Recreation with a 0 OOZ and -13.2 UZR. Of course these numbers are somewhat skewed (especially the OOZ stat), because Wallace did not have near the opportunities that Pena did, and he had to split time at third base as well (where he had an abysmal -59.4 UZR/150). Since Nate Freiman has no major league experience, I can only go by the scouting reports that I have seen. From what I see, he has soft hands and has good footwork around the bag. He can provide average range and should be an adequate defender.
After looking at the numbers from last season, I think it may be safe to say that Carlos Pena would be much more valuable to the Astros as their everyday first baseman. I believe that Brett Wallace and Nate Freiman should be our platooning designated hitters, with Wallace getting the bulk of the starts. This season may very well be Wallace’s last chance with the Astros since their top prospect, Jonathan Singleton, could be arriving in Houston by September. With no real expectations for this team, why not give Wallace plenty of plate appearances to see what you have with him? Who knows, maybe your D.H. for the future has been on the roster all along!