Yesterday in a juicy piece from the incomparable Mr. Ortiz over at Ultimate Astros there was a notable slice of information pertaining to the Astros batting order. Naturally in constant flux because of the many ever changing parts, the team enters 2014 still in full rebuild but with improved stability, especially at the top of the lineup.
Just in case you don’t play a baseball video game, the title is a hope-you-got-it reference to creating the batting lineup for your team. You have four different types of lineups: vs. RHP, vs. LHP and the same with and without a DH. Even with the magic of video game trading where I could make Christian Yelich and Nolan Arenado Houston Astros, the task of creating a lineup was tough. And that was make believe.
Last season the Astros used 25 different hitters (excluding pitchers) over the course of the year, 19 accumulating at least 100 plate appearances. In a loose comparison, the world champion Boston Red Sox used 22 hitters, 14 digging into the batters box at least 100 times. After Xander Bogaerts at 19, players 20, 21, and 22 received less than 10 trips to the plate.
For the Astros, this season could and probably will bring another 20+ different candidates, but something they didn’t have last season, outside of Jose Altuve leading off, was stability. This year the blueprint starts to further unfold.
Directly from the Ultimate Astros article…
"Porter goes into his second camp at the helm expecting center fielder Dexter Fowler to lead off, Altuve to bat second and All-Star catcher Jason Castro to hit third."
One third of the lineup in Bo Porter‘s second year at the helm, I’m okay with that ratio and the skipper seems excited as well. Further says…
"“We were able to solidify the top of our lineup,” Porter said. “It’s always tough when you are moving parts around day in and day out trying to move players in the best position to be successful."
The 4-9 spots are hereby up for grabs. Players like Matt Dominguez, Chris Carter, Jonathan Villar and presumptuously Jesus Guzman (due to the recent dismissal of Brett Wallace) have a spot in the order but not a number. It’s a wild guessing game – but a very fun one – especially for a baseball video gamer like myself who tinkers with things like this every day in my class spiral. Shh.
As of right now, here are my predictions for the 4-9 spots in the 2014 Houston Astros opening day lineup.
Chris Carter, Designated Hitter.
If I was a famous writer, you would know about my undying devotion to Astros slugger Chris Carter. You may know already you loyal reader or you may be figuring it out now. Either way, I’m a huge Chris Carter fan dating back to his early days as a prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. Yes, he strikes out a ton but the Astros as a team whiffed an MLB record 1,535 times in 2013. Carter was the poster boy for this feat, K’ing 212 times, third most in league history. This season the team is better and has another year of baseball to their names, and I fully expect the strikeouts to go down as a team and for Chris Carter. The established top three can set the table for Carter time and time again this year.
Matt Dominguez, 3rd Base.
Dominguez smacked 21 home runs last season, second on the team to the aforementioned Carter who had 29. Like Carter though, Matty D had a rather unremarkable batting average at .241. However, this was another number that the whole team struggled with. The only batting title qualifiers were Dominguez, Carter (.223) and Jose Altuve (.283). Batting average is a popular stat and Carter and Dominguez are both expected to improve on those numbers, but another part of the story is offensive wins above replacement (OWAR), where Carter and Dominguez posted a 1.3 and 1.2 rate respectively, Carter’s second only to Jason Castro‘s whopping 4.2.
Jesus Guzman, 1st Base.
I’ve always been a fan of the versatile Guzman, and I keep an above average eye on what happens over there in San Diego due to my ties and affection for many that have passed through the Padres AA affiliate, the San Antonio Missions. Guzman, 29, can play both corner OF positions as well as 1B and was acquired by the club for infielder Ryan Jackson, 25, who was obtained via waivers by the ‘Stros from the St. Louis Cardinals. The Padres also put in a claim on Jackson, only to be beat out by Houston. But everything worked out for everybody in the end! Guzman regressed in 2013 after slashing .277/.342/.446 over the 2011 and 2012 seasons. More AB’s didn’t work out for Guzman and the Friars, lowering his trade deadline value and eventually getting him dealt in the off-season. The signs are there for Jesus Guzman to be a more than admirable stopgap to Jonathan Singleton, so don’t expect another Carlos Pena tenure.
Robbie Grossman, Left Field.
George Springer awaits to shuffle things in the outfield sans Dexter Fowler, but I expect the Astros to wait until at least the April 10th cutoff no matter what Springer displays in Spring Training. The specifics of that date and what it means long-term can’t be explained better than here by Evan Drellich, also from Ultimate Astros.
With that said, Robbie Grossman has done his part to receive another look. Quite frankly, the soon-to-be 24-year old has earned a spot on the opening day roster as a starter, ahead of J.D. Martinez and if need be L.J. Hoes. Acquired in the 2012 Wandy Rodriguez trade, Grossman has lived up to the headliner status of the three players received in the trade (Rudy Owens & Colton Cain). The switch-hitting Grossman manned left field 45 times in his 63 games played in 2013, hitting .268 and tallying 95 total bases in part-time deployment. He’s yet to define himself as a big leaguer, but 2014 will bring that opportunity, one that he has rightfully earned.
L.J. Hoes, Right Field.
I mentioned above that if Springer were to emerge on the big league scene that it would be Hoes and not Grossman that is delegated to the 4th outfielder spot. This is absolutely not about L.J. but about Robbie because I believe both have the potential to be more than platoon mates, but you only get to field three outfielders. Hoes was part of the return for Bud Norris from the Baltimore Orioles. Entering 2013 Baseball America ranked him as the number six prospect in the Orioles system, including recognition for best hitter for average, best plate discipline and best outfield arm. I was excited when the Astros acquired him and I am still excited about his future. After coming over at the trade deadline he registered 167 AB (Grossman 257) in 46 games (Grossman 63). He hit .287 in the small but impressive sample size and stole 7 bases. He even tripled twice in a short time span, joining a 5-way tie as team leader. The expectation is for Springer to occupy right field when he makes his arrival, not a big deal positionally for Hoes, but so will begin the competition for more starts in front of the Crawford Boxes.
Jonathan Villar, Shortstop.
One of my favorite former players is shortstop Royce Clayton, an effective but not dazzling player when I saw him as a Texas Ranger. The intended comparison here is that both Clayton and Jonathan Villar would make for an underwhelming leadoff hitter but a really valuable commodity at the other end of the scorecard. Villar’s first taste of the bigs was a mixed bag but given the state of the team the sour candies in the bag were much easier to swallow given the overall taste of the treats we were given in the first signs from the young shortstop. Errors, both with the glove and with the brain, are fixable and most importantly, extremely coachable. Eighteen stolen bases in 58 games isn’t as teachable, but getting caught stealing eight times is. In short, Villar has a specific set of skills that hold a lot of high stock. His speed, his glove and his game changing abilities are invaluable baseball traits. He’ll be 23 in May and his future is bright, but his present is also very promising as well and at the end of the lineup you can do a lot worse on a lot better team.
But Jeff Luhnow’s era of Houston Astros won’t. Pitchers and catchers Thursday.