Who’s On First?
“Who’s on First?” was the famous skit by Abbott and Costello. Of course the Astros don’t have a player with a name like “who”, hence why this is a question and not a statement. We do know Jose Altuve is on second, and we are pretty sure Matt Dominguez will be on third most of the year. But one question many don’t know has to do with first base. Which Astros player will take the lion’s share of ABs at first base?
The Astros ended the year with Brett Wallace looking like the first baseman for 2013. Since then, the Astros signed Carlos Pena, drafted Nate Freiman, and traded for Chris Carter, all of who play first base as their natural position. Jonathan Singleton was also supposed to be in the mix before he received a 50 game suspension. The Astros do get a little help here with their move to the AL West. Their DH spot will likely be a cycle of these four or five guys depending on which one plays first base. With the four current first baseman fighting for the 1B gig (and DH), and Singleton possible as well, let’s take a look at each player’s career up to this point.
Carlos Pena – The 34-year-old Pena signed with the Astros in December for just under $3 million. Pena knew this team was young, and likely knew that this was his best opportunity to showcase that he still has some pop left in the tank. Pena will have the opportunity for significant playing time due to his experience. In 13 seasons he has hit 277 home runs, along with a .822 OPS. Pena’s career .234 average looks underwhelming, but Pena draws so many walks that his career OBP is .350. Pena is a known power hitter in the majors, hitting over 28 home runs each season between 2007-2011, before hitting just 19 a year ago. Some think the pop is gone, but Pena is determined to prove otherwise. Pena will likely receive a healthy amount of AB’s this season, and Porter hopes he can be a leader in the Astros young clubhouse. Pena fields first base well with a .994 fielding percentage, which will give the Astros the option to put him at both 1B and DH. Will the Astros play the proven powerful veteran at first/DH, or will they let their younger players have a shot at playing in the majors?
Brett Wallace – Wallace has seen three new competitors threaten to take his job. Wallace, the 13th overall pick in the 2008 draft (by Luhnow’s Cardinals), knows this season is key for his future. Wallace seems to be the favorite for the starting first baseman gig, but he has an advantage as he can also play third base, though not quite as well as first. The Astros won’t give up on Wallace quite yet, as he showed his power a bit last year, knocking nine home runs in 229 AB’s. Wallace had a nice campaign going last year, until struggling the last month of the season. However, Wallace has started the spring well as he hopes to earn significant playing time this season. Wallace will likely be played at first and DH, and receive occasional starts at third base as well.
Chris Carter – The 26-year-old Carter has had a very interesting career up to date. He was originally drafted by the White Sox in the 15th round of the 2005 draft, then traded to the Diamondbacks, then Athletics, then the Astros, as a key component in each trade. Carter has been named a top 100 prospect several times, and named the Athletics Minor League Player of the year a few times, due to his mammoth power potential. Last year, Carter showed off his power in Oakland, hitting 16 home runs in 218 AB’s. Carter’s power potential is real, so the Astros have asked him to try out left field in an effort to put his bat in the everyday lineup. Carter will likely receive a start or two a week in the outfield, all dependent on how well he can play the position in spring training. The Astros will also fit him in at first base and DH as well. Carter’s power potential alone is a huge plus, and needed in the Astros everyday lineup.
Nate Freiman – The 6’7″, 26-year-old Freiman is also hopeful for his spot in the everyday lineup. Freiman has hit for power at all levels in the Padres system. Last year, Freiman hit 24 home runs, 105 RBI’s, and a .872 OPS. The Astros selected Freiman in the Rule 5 Draft, and that should help his case to make the team. The Astros don’t want to lose a potential power bat, because they could not find space for him on the roster. Freiman is likely behind Pena, Wallace, and Carter in terms of playing time, but should get starts a few times a week at both first base and DH. Unlike Wallace or Carter, Freiman is strictly a first baseman, and does field his position well. When Freiman doesn’t draw the start, he will likely be one of the first off the bench, and Porter can get real crafty with late game decisions if Wallace or Carter are at first base. Freiman will likely make the team since the Astros don’t want to lose him for nothing, and needs a strong spring to show the Astros that he is worth a spot on the roster.
Jonathan Singleton – Singleton is likely the first baseman of the future. The 21-year-old hit 21 home runs in 461 AB’s with a .893 OPS at Double-A last year. Singleton was expected to have a shot at the opening day roster, but was hit with a 50 game suspension over the offseason. Now with four other options, the Astros have the option to put him in either Double-A or Triple-A for most of the season, and possibly bring him up in September to get a taste of the majors. Singleton will need to keep up his good numbers in the minors after he comes back, and then the Astros will have to choose what to do with him. Singleton will almost certainly be on the opening day roster next season, but it remains to be seen if he will make his debut this year.
The Astros have a lot of power potential at first base. All five hitters can hit for over 20 home runs over the course of a season if given over 600 AB’s. Unfortunately, the Astros can’t play each of them every game. If I were Porter, I would give Wallace the first baseman gig, and let Carter start at left field. I feel that Carter’s power potential outweighs his possible negative contribution in left field. I have suffered from watching Carlos Lee attempt to play left field, and don’t see how Carter could be much worse. As far as the DH position, I don’t mind giving either Pena or Freiman there. For the first half of the season I’d like to see Pena get more AB’s in hopes he can be flipped at the deadline for anything. Afterwards, let Freiman show us what he’s got, and make him the permanent DH. In regards to Singleton, let him play at Triple-A all year until September. If it works out where you can get him significant AB’s in September, then bring him up, otherwise I can wait until April of 2014.
As previously mentioned, Porter will have to get real crafty with his everyday lineup. It’s possible we can see four of these players in the lineup at the same time, when Wallace shifts to 3rd, Carter to the outfield, Pena at first, and Freiman at DH. Late in the games, Porter can shift players around to get others some playing time. Porter will have his hands full getting each player some playing time, but if the players deserve it, Porter will give them a chance.