Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Astros first round pick castoff club

The projections for 2013 for the Houston Astros are all pretty grim. And that is understandable considering the team lost 107 games in 2012, have to switch leagues in 2013 and have a projected 2013 payroll of $14.6 million. Baseball Prospectus expects the team to lose 97 games in 2013. And any kind of optimism for the Astros to surprise anyone in the coming year would be supremely "pie-in-the-sky." But the second-year Astros' GM, Jeff Luhnow has done something fairly interesting in compiling a team with a starting lineup that will feature no less than five former first round picks and the rotation will feature one starter who was once the third overall pick in the country. What if two or three or four of those former first round picks were to suddenly recall that kind of promise?

Yeah, it probably won't happen. Most of them were given up on by their original drafting teams, which means something because you don't easily give up on a first round pick simply because of the money involved and the emphasis placed on their development. Even so, it is always fun to dream. Maybe a couple of the castoffs can find the star brilliance that garnered them that kind of pick placement in the first place. Let's take a look at who they are.

Well, yeah, Pena doesn't really fit the profile here. The guy has already logged twelve years in the big leagues and his first round pick (Texas) was way back in 1998. Pena is pretty much a known commodity. As a DH and occasional first baseman, he is going to strike out thirty percent of the time, walk thirteen to fifteen percent of the time and hit in the low .200s (if that). But he can still hit 20 to 25 homers and give the Astros an on-base percentage over .320 no matter how badly he hits. And that is worth something at least for a team like the Astros. Pena is going to be 35 in May, but who knows, he could have one more decent season in him.

Wallace was the thirteenth pick overall (Cardinals) in the 2008 draft and is already with his fourth organization. He mashed at every level in the minors (.307/.381/.491). But he hasn't hit his stride with the Astros in parts of three seasons and has only compiled an OPS of .699 (.304 wOBA) in 792 plate appearances. Unlike Pena, Wallace can hold his own against left-handed pitching though he does not walk as often against them. The problem with Wallace is that even if he can still put it together as a batter, his glove is fairly catatonic. It would almost seem that Pena would be a better option at first base to let Wallace DH, but Pena is a short-term option whereas the Astros hope Wallace becomes a big Major League hitter long-term. Projection systems see him progressing in the power department with a little fewer strikeouts and a few more walks. And they grant that his fielding will improve marginally.

Castro is not a castoff as he was drafted by the Astros as the tenth overall pick in the 2008 draft. In parts of two seasons with the Astros, the catcher has not shown the promise as of yet that he can become a top flight catcher in the majors. But part of that problem can also be attributed to some pretty severe injury problems involving his knee and his foot in that time frame. He is having a monster spring this year if that can be taken with any kind of optimism. His minor league career showed very good patience at the plate and much better defense than he has shown in the majors thus far. Projections for 2013 are soft and perhaps justifiably so. But Castro is going to get the opportunity to be the starting catcher this season and if he is healthy, could be one of the nicer surprises of 2013. I am going to keep an eye on him optimistically.

Dominguez was cast off by the now Miami Marlins  for Carlos Lee. The Marlins may live to regret that trade. Just add it to that team's pile of trash legacy for the last year. Dominguez can become a star that befitted his tenth overall selection in the 2007 draft. The third baseman is still only 23 years old and is hampered somewhat by a lack of patience at the plate. But that is combined with a low swing and miss rate and a fairly good strikeout rate considering. If he can be more selective and not swing at 33% of the pitches out of the strike zone, he could be quite good. The projections aren't buying it, of course. But he, at least, is one of the few players that ZiPS at least predicts will be league average for the Astros in 2013. I think he can be much better if his fielding improves (league average right now) and he gets in the lineup for 150 games. Thus far, he has hit too many ground balls in his brief Major League career and that probably stems from his lack of selectivity at the plate. His home run to fly ball rate was 20% in a small sample size. So, if he hits the ball in the air a bit more, he can hit 20 homers or way above projections.

Perhaps no player has ever engendered more arguments by Cardinal fans over the years than Tyler Greene. The Cardinals drafted him in the first round of the 2005 draft and then never really gave him a chance to be their shortstop. When he did get calls to the big club, they moved him all around the field--so much so that he has played seven different positions in his 266 games played. Greene had good hitting numbers in the minors, especially for a shortstop. But, whether because he is over-matched in the majors or because of a lack of a true shot at playing regularly, his hitting has never gelled in the majors. His .292 career on-base percentage is fairly pathetic. His fielding metrics are equally troubling. But then again, how much of that was from being bounced around and knowing he wasn't going to really get a shot with the Cardinals? He is going to get that shot with the Astros, especially now with Lowrie gone to the A's. At the age of 29 now, this will be a make or break year for Greene.

Philip Humber was the third overall pick (Mets) in the 2004 draft. After a long and winding road, he became a surprisingly decent pitcher for the White Sox in 2011. Then he started the 2012 season well and in his second start of the 2012 season, threw a perfect game. You go, Philip Humber! Well, not exactly. The wheels came off after the perfect game and his season went to hell in a hand-basket. The final numbers were ugly: A 6.44 ERA with a 5.77 FIP, a 1.539 WHIP and a 2.0 homer per nine rate. Woof, that is some stinky pitching. His ground ball rate tumbled and everything else fell apart. But Humber is pitching well this spring for the Astros so maybe he can bounce back to his 2011 form, which is certainly going to improve on the Jordan Lyles of the world.

Six former first round draft picks. Six possibilities to live up to that long lost hype. Of the six, Matt Dominguez and Jason Castro can be special. Tyler Greene could be a middle of the pack shortstop. Stranger things have happened. If it does, it still won't make the Astros a great team. But they could be a heck of a lot more entertaining than last season.

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