Barring an unexpected development in the coming months, the Astros’ future in left field remains with top prospect Kyle Tucker.
The Astros ended the 2018 season with the seventh-lowest OPS — .702 — in left field, which was the lowest out of all teams qualified for the postseason. For context, the Rangers had a higher OPS in left field — .708 — than Houston.
Here is the list of players that the Astros employed in left field this year:
Now, let’s add a bit of context to the list.
Bregman, Marisnick, and Straw had a combined seven official plate appearances as a left fielder this season. Plus, Bregman is the Astros’ primary third baseman. Davis had a total of 12 plate appearances at the position. Gonzalez led the way with 258 as the left fielder followed by Kemp with 168. Of the three remaining, Fisher had 53, Reddick with 79, and Tucker with 61. The only two players with much in the way of meaningful playing time as a left fielder was Gonzalez and Kemp.
From the outside looking in, the left field job could be Tucker’s to lose in 2019. However, based on general manager Jeff Luhnow’s comments during Monday’s press conference, it doesn’t appear that the Astros are handing Tucker the job on a silver platter.
"“We’re going to give him a shot, but we’re just not going to hand it to him. We’re hoping he takes it.” – #Astros GM Jeff Luhnow on Kyle Tucker being a part of the team next year."
(Quote courtesy of Adam Wexler of KPRC 2 Houston.)
We’re all familiar with the struggles of the age-21 outfielder in 2018. Through 28 major league games, Tucker slashed .141/.236/.203 with a 28 wRC+ in 72 plate appearances. There were times he didn’t look comfortable at the plate. Not exactly the most endearing of debuts. On the plus side, his underlying numbers are promising when you’d examine his batted ball data.
When he was with the Fresno Grizzlies, the Astros’ former Triple-A affiliate, he slashed an impressive .332/.400/.590 with a 155 wRC+ in 465 plate appearances. Sure, we can get into a discussion about whether the Pacific Coast League inflate a hitter’s numbers, but the overall results remain encouraging. There is a reason why many across the industry have considered Tucker one of the top prospects in baseball for a while now.
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The crux of the issue lies within the sample size and the guessing game known as prospects. After all, not all top prospects succeed in the major leagues. That truth has been well-documented throughout the decades. At the same time, it is quite short-sighted to critically judge a highly touted prospect with only 28 games of major league experience.
To help drive this point, please see how these Astros performed at the start of their major league career.
Alex Bregman – .053/.143/.053, -43 wRC+ in 42 plate appearances
Lance Berkman – .238/.304/.405, 83 wRC+ in 46 plate appearances
Craig Biggio – .211/.254/.350, 71 wRC+ in 131 plate appearances
Not all players start their major league careers on a high note. Some need a bit of consistent playing time before everything clicks. Am I saying that Tucker will be as successful as the three players mentioned above? Nope. But Houston’s top position prospect needs more consistent playing time at the major league level before we either declare the next franchise great or something less. I have a notion that the sudden surge of the A’s and Mariners throughout 2018 didn’t allow Houston to give Tucker a longer look in midst of his struggles.
This offseason will play a role as well. Regardless of your opinion of Tucker based on his brief time in the majors, he is still viewed as a top prospect. FanGraphs currently assigns him a 60 FV, or Future Value. In turn, the Astros could use him to headline a deal for an established premium talent in the majors. Catcher JT Realmuto of the Marlins immediately comes to mind. If the Astros decide to trade Tucker without receiving a premium talent in return, then they deserve all the criticism warranted. But I don’t have a feeling that will happen as Luhnow has displayed notable reluctance of trading their top two prospects, Tucker and Forrest Whitley.
The Astros do have other options in the outfield. Straw may not have the upside of Tucker, but he has the ability to earn a spot on the 25-man roster in the major leagues. The same thought applies to Fisher. Houston hasn’t been afraid to use Davis in the outfield. The impending free agency of Gonzalez also plays a role. If he returns, then Gonzalez’s presence could cut playing time in left field for others.
Tucker deserves a longer look at the major league level. The Astros seem intent about him earning his “shot.” Whether he meets or falls below everyone’s expectations is a guessing game. But a trial of more than 28 sporadic games is required to draw a reasonable conclusion.