The Astros’ Interesting 1B/DH Dilemma

The Houston Astros are, in some ways, an odd team. Their best hitter is their 21 year old shortstop, and then their next best hitters are a toolsy outfielder and a 5’5 second baseman. Pretty much around the field, the team has stockpiled well-rounded players, and they have a lot of good athletes who are also good hitters, giving them significant depth in their line-up. In fact, our depth charts project them to get average or better production from seven of their nine spots, and gives them one of the best up-the-middle groups in all of baseball.

But their line-up also has a couple of notable weak spots: first base and designated hitter. These are ostensibly the two easiest positions on the diamond to fill, given that you can focus primarily on offensive production at those spots, widening the pool of available options, but while the Astros have found quality performers at every other spot, they’ve struggled to find guys who specialize in just hitting. Last year, the team got just a 104 wRC+ from their first baseman, and a 101 wRC+ from their designated hitters, ranking in the bottom tier in the league at both positions.

Incumbent first baseman Chris Carter was non-tendered for his lack of production, but interestingly, the team didn’t really make any moves to replace him, and will instead rely on an in-house mix of candidates while looking to get better production than they did a year ago. While there weren’t a lot of quality first baseman moving around this winter, they could have theoretically gotten involved in the Todd Frazier bidding, or gone for a lower-upside play like Yonder Alonso or Adam Lind. But the team was apparently comfortable with what they had internally, and are now using spring training to sort out who is going to grab the jobs at the two bat-first positions. Let’s take a look at those options.

The presumptive favorites for the two spots are Jon Singleton at first base and Evan Gattis at DH, as Singleton looks to again show that he can translate minor league success into big league performance. Unfortunately for the Astros, Sinelgton’s very low contact rates seem to suggest legitimate cause for concern, as he’s made contact on just 65% of his swings in the big leagues, which puts him below even the most extreme swing-and-miss sluggers. Guys like Chris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton are able to make 67-68% contact rates work because of their top-shelf power, but Singleton doesn’t appear to have that kind of thump, so he’s almost certainly going to have to take a big leap forward in contact rate if he’s going to turn into a productive big league hitter.

Contact isn’t a problem for Gattis, who also has some of the most impressive power in baseball, but has had his production limited because of his overly aggressive approach at the plate. Gattis runs some of the highest O-Swing rates in all of baseball, and while he’s got enough bat control to hit pitches out of the zone, it’s certainly possible that part of the reason he has a career .270 BABIP is because he’s regularly swinging at pitches that are difficult to square up. The Astros probably don’t want Gattis to start making less contact, but if he’s going to produce at a level commensurate with being a DH, he’s going to have to figure out how to do more damage when he does put the ball in play.

For both players, the projections aren’t overwhelmingly optimistic. ZIPS and Steamer are in agreement on both players, calling for .320 to .325 wOBAs, which equates to barely-above-replacement production given their defensive limitations and lack of baserunning value. There’s potential there for either to step forward, but neither one necessarily looks like a high-value player for the Astros in 2016. And given that Gattis may end up starting the year on the disabled list, the team has an opportunity to weigh their alternatives.

The in-house option with the most hype is A.J. Reed, who looks to be the team’s first baseman of the future. Dan Farnsworth rated him as the team’s top prospect, and gave his bat a pretty glowing review.

That he complements all that with a solid game plan of attacking good pitches to hit, laying off pitchers’ pitches and the ability to hit line drives and deep fly balls to all fields, I would argue his hit tool is already above average, with a very real chance of being as good as his power tool. To me, he looks like a near-elite overall hitter, and definitely has the tools and mentality to keep his strikeout rate right where it is as he advances. His approach and power will allow his walk rate to translate well against major league pitching, which could effectively propel him into plus-plus territory with the bat, even if his strikeouts increased, as well.

Reed still has to demonstrate success against high-minors pitching to prove he’s ready for the big leagues, but it may be a matter of months before he’s manning first base in Houston. Don’t buy into the bat-speed argument. This guy’s going to hit.

It seems pretty likely that the team declined to pursue a veteran alternative this winter because they wanted to leave room for Reed, and it’s widely assumed that he’ll be taking a spot in the line-up as soon as he proves he’s ready for a job, regardless of what Singleton or Gattis are doing. But because he only has a half season of Double-A ball under his belt, and no time in Triple-A, it seems certain that the team will send him to the minors to begin the year, letting him get a bit more seasoning while they wait for at least the service time deadline to pass.

The team will take some hits from those who believe that service time should have nothing to do with a player’s timeline to the big leagues, but realistically, it’s hard to argue that the Astros should push Reed to begin the year with the big league club. The marginal difference between Reed’s expected performance — ZIPS and Steamer both like him a lot, but have him 10-20 points of wOBA ahead of Singleton in the forecasts — simply isn’t worth punting a year of team control over. We’re talking something like a fraction of a win in April versus an extra peak year of a potential superstar, so it’s almost unfathomable to think that the Astros would carry Reed on the opening day roster. Most likely, he’ll be up around the beginning of May, even though Gattis may not be ready to go on Opening Day.

So Gattis’ injury probably doesn’t influence Reed’s timeline too much. Instead, it should open the door for a less-heralded rookie: Tyler White.

White doesn’t have Reed’s upside, as he’s something of an underpowered bat-only type, a DH who doesn’t hit as many homers as most team’s want from their DH. But let’s quote Farnsworth again:

Though his power is more of the doubles variety, he has an above-average power ceiling with the potential for low double-digit homer totals and a bunch of two-baggers. White has gotten on base at over a .400 clip as a professional, and he has the contact skills to avoid strikeouts against major league pitching, with the power to pressure pitchers into being careful with their location. While it’s foolish to expect the same production in the majors, it’s equally foolish to use his defensive issues to write off his potential as an impact hitter.

I get why a player like White has to perform at such a high level before getting a chance in the big leagues, but his defensive liabilities can only hold down his total value so much. He is absolutely a big-league hitter.

White posted more walks than strikeouts in both Double-A and Triple-A last year, and did that same thing in 43 games in high-A ball back in 2014 as well. Command of the strike zone is his big calling card, as he combines very strong contact rates with the ability to draw walks, which has allowed him to mash his way through the minors even without prodigious power. Because he’s older and lacks a position, his long-term upside is limited, but Gattis’ injury opens the door for the Astros to give White a chance to see what he can do as a big leaguer, and I’m of the opinion that they should do just that.

It’s not that White is absolutely going to hit in the big leagues; these high-walk/moderate power guys often flop when faced with better quality pitching, in fact. As a guy whose value is tied solely to his bat, and a lot of his minor league value tied up in taking pitches, there’s a pretty good chance that White’s career path will look something like Justin Smoak, though his better strikeout rates suggest potential for a bit more production is possible. But given the Astros thoroughly mediocre options, especially with Gattis not at 100%, this seems to be the team’s best chance to give White an opportunity to see what he can do. By the summer, Reed will likely have forced his way into a job, leaving White without an opportunity unless the team wants to both send Singleton back to the minors and bench Gattis, which seems unlikely.

With Reed likely to spend April in the minors for service time reasons and Gattis not at full health, the team has a chance to give White some regular at-bats against big league pitching and see how his skillset might translate. It’s a chance they probably shouldn’t pass up, even though it will require the team to use a 40-man roster spot to get him added to the roster. White’s interesting enough to deserve a look, and the team has a chance to give him one before the real cavalry arrives in May. While White probably won’t be a star, the team should take their chance to see whether they happen to have kids ready to take over both the 1B and DH jobs from the team’s mediocre veterans.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

It was a little weird that they didn’t attempt a temporary solution for 1B this winter. Even Loney might’ve worked.

8 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

I don’t think it is clear to me that someone like Loney is really that much better of an option. They have a abundance of mediocre candidates, adding another mediocre player into the mix probably wont help all that much.