Houston Astros: Projecting Drew Gilbert's Role in the Majors
By Paul Conlon
As the Astros struggle offensively, Drew Gilbert—11 months removed from being a college baseball player—continues to pose the strongest case for being the potential long-term solution for Houston in center field. Read on for more.
Following a Friday-night 10-1 shellacking suffered at the hands of the Tulsa Drillers—the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate—the Corpus Christi Hooks appeared much more competitive on Saturday. Though the Astros' farm team would ultimately fall, 4-3, one player in particular gave a glimpse of his potential future in an Astros' uniform.
Drew Gilbert left it all on the line. The 5-9 outfielder reached base in all five plate appearances, raising his batting average from .281 to .306 in a single game. The Astros’ 2022 first-round pick was so potent as a threat in his first four plate appearances, Tulsa intentionally walked him with only a one-run lead to load the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Gilbert now holds a career minor league slash line of .340/.417/.598. And with that .417 on-base percentage as a minor leaguer, he screams leadoff threat as a table setter at the major league level. But that’s not all—his potential also incorporates hitting with power.
In 44 career games as a professional, the left-handed outfielder has launched nine homers—a pace of 33 long balls over the span of a 162-game season. What’s more—his 32 RBIs in limited games as a pro translates to a ridiculous clip of 117 RBIs per year.
Of course—these numbers reflect facing minor league competition. But at only 22-years-old, Gilbert is merely biding time before being called up and given opportunities in the outfield that might otherwise belong to Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers.
It’s not that McCormick or Meyers are not viable major league contributors, but both players hover around being career .260 hitters. Moreover, the defending champion Astros rank a paltry 18th in major league run production. And 45 games into the season with a less-than-desirable record, the Astros' front office possibly fears posting a lineup card that translates to an anemic offense. Desperate for offensive production to make a deep playoff run—the question remains—would the Astros call up Gilbert this season?
The short answer is yes. But Gilbert would have to sustain his offensive production and prove to the Astros’ analytics team that he can achieve success against the upper echelon of minor league pitching. Gilbert has proven he can hit a fastball, but it’s the secondary pitches he will have to show he can handle in the minors to get an opportunity to patrol the outfield in Minute Maid Park this season.
While I was in the stadium in Corpus Christi on Saturday, I noticed Gilbert appears and moves similarly to a young Brett Gardner. Both players are left-handed batters and throwers and feature similar builds and statures. Similarly, Gilbert wears socks up to his knees as the 14-year Yankee was known to do.
Up to bat, Gilbert exhibited plate discipline far exceeding his less than two weeks of service time at the Double-A level. Quietly in the left-handed batter’s box against the Drillers, he effectively worked a number of counts, taking strikes occasionally but ultimately remaining dialed in and selective of the pitches he desired to attack.
What was also evident is that Gilbert has a special cadence when he leads off of first base—perhaps unorthodox, but nevertheless effective. In essence, his primary lead is very traditional, but his secondary lead once the pitcher comes set features tons of eccentric movement as he inches and jolts between the bases.
But Gilbert’s on-base movement is not for show. In 43 career minor league games, the University of Tennessee product has stolen 12 bags.
On the basepaths, the Minnesota native incorporates a variety of stutter-steps, short hops, and quick arm movements to disrupt a pitcher’s timing and concentration from the batter. After singling in the first inning, as a base runner Gilbert was so disruptive with his secondary lead that he drew two separate pickoff throws in the span of one delivered pitch to the batter—one from the pitcher and another from the catcher.
He disguises his intention to steal with his sporadic false-alarm shuffling so well that he poses a serious challenge for opposing pitchers trying to keep him out of scoring position. This was particularly evident during the first inning, when Gilbert attempted a steal that ultimately became reclassified as a hit-and-run, easily landing him on third base with time to spare.
Is Gilbert a threat to Michael Brantley’s playing time?
Emphatically—no. Should Brantley return to form and continue to suit up for Houston, he remains a viable corner outfielder—and possible choice to play first base—at this point in his career. Gilbert, on the other hand, projects as a major league center fielder.
As a college standout at the University of Tennessee in the talent-loaded Southeastern Conference, Gilbert was entrusted as the best option to take center field for the Vols in 128 games. To put into context how competitive the conference that Gilbert played in is, four of the last five NCAA Division I baseball national champions came from the SEC.
Similarly to his experience at the college level, Gilbert spends the majority of his defensive time in center field for the Astros’ organization. In 36 games as a minor leaguer in left, center, and right, the Astros’ organization has shown its hand, penciling Gilbert into center field for slightly over 58 percent of his defensive assignments.
And, also working for Gilbert—should the Astros need an emergency pitcher in a lopsided contest—the lefty has tossed 16 innings of relief for Tennessee and finished that chapter of his career with a sub-3.00 ERA.
With the uncertainty revolving around Michael Brantley’s shoulder inflammation and cautious optimism surrounding Jose Altuve’s potential return to form following a right thumb fracture, the Astros might consider calling up Gilbert before the season’s end.
However—the Astros' front office likely would not want to start his arbitration clock early by giving him major league service time this year, should Gilbert prove to be a perennial All-Star contender years from now and demand a hefty contract sooner rather than later. And also working against Gilbert’s chances to get called up this season, the Astros might not want to rush him. As young as he is, he could regress if given too demanding of a challenge too quickly.
But—ultimately—it’s going to be up to Gilbert based on how his bat speaks for itself.