Panic at First Base

By Nathan Petrashek

Position review and previews start this week, and coming into spring training I thought first base would be pretty easy to write.  Not so fast.

Right knee surgery will cost Corey Hart a month plus, and yesterday the Brewers announced that Hart’s likely replacement, Mat Gamel, would miss all of 2013.

Someone’s going to have to man first base, though.  So without further ado, here are a few potential replacements.

Carlos Lee
A career .285/.339/.483 hitter, Lee has plenty of first base experience and is currently a free agent.  Lee’s age (36) has really started to catch up to him the last few years; at this point, he’s probably ideally suited for a bench spot, which is where he would find himself when Corey Hart returns.  According to Doug Melvin, though, Lee is still looking for a full-time gig, even if that will be hard to come by as spring training games begin.  If Lee was a little more realistic about where he is in his career, he would be my preference.  Lee’s power would play pretty well on what projects to be a fairly weak-hitting bench.

Hunter Morris
Morris tore it up in the Brewers’ AA system last year, belting out a .303/.357/.563 triple slash line.  That earned him a Minor League Player of the Year award, but it will probably take more than that to earn him a berth as the team’s starting first baseman.  There are plenty of defensive concerns, and Morris didn’t showcase nearly as much offensive talent in 2010 and 2011.  Doug Melvin was careful to note that Morris would cost someone a 40-man roster spot, and he would surely like to delay the start of Morris’s service time.  Toss in the uncertainty surrounding Morris’s capabilities, and the fact that he hasn’t played a single game above AA, and he’s unlikely to win the job unless his case is undeniable.

Khris Davis
The Brewers’ 7th-round pick in 2009 has really come into his own.  An outfielder by trade, fellow BrewCrewBall.com writer Noah Jarosh suggested Davis might be a good fit at first base.  The numbers certainly play, as Davis has carved up the minors with a triple slash line of .294/.400/.513.  Davis has a keen eye at the plate (career 10.2% walk rate that could climb) and plus power (.211 career ISO).  He might be an unconventional choice, but he may be the best in-house option the Brewers have right now.

Taylor Green
3B/IF Taylor Green has had a few opportunities in the major leagues, but hasn’t done much (read: anything) with them.  We have to be careful there, though, because he’s garnered only about 150 plate attempts in his 2 years coming off the bench.  Green has several solid minor league seasons under his belt, and perhaps all he needs is consistent playing time to show his solid hit tools.

Alex Gonzalez
This is apparently Ron Roenicke’s brainchild.  A shortstop for his entire 14-year career, Gonzalez has precisely zero experience at first base.  Gonzalez is such a good defensive shortstop that it’s easy to overlook his offensive shortcomings, but those will be glaring at a corner infield spot: very little pop, and on-base skills that leave a lot to be desired.  There are better options.

Bobby Crosby
A former first-round pick and AL Rookie of the Year, Crosby hasn’t played baseball since 2010.  His triple slash line over 8 seasons wasn’t pretty (.236/.304./.372), and neither were the injury bug and mental struggles that dogged him throughout his career.  But Crosby’s pedigree has garnered him another shot at the bigs, and it’s anyone’s guess where that will go.  Crosby is on a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Mike Carp
Carp, a recent DFA by the Seattle Mariners, is the longest of long shots to even find his way on the Brewers, let alone wind up the team’s Opening Day first baseman.  There are quite a few suitors looking to swing a trade for the 26-year-old, including several AL teams that would have waiver priority over the Brewers, as Kyle Lobner notes.  Carp would be a decent fill-in, but according to Ken Rosenthal, the Brewers aren’t all that interested right now.

Let’s keep in perspective that Gamel’s replacement will be filling in for just a month or two before Corey Hart returns, so despite the post title, this isn’t a crash and burn scenario for the Brewers.  The best case scenario for the team is to find someone who will have value coming off the bench for the remainder of the season.

2012 NL Central Division Preview: Houston Astros

By: Ryan Smith

The 1962 Mets are pretty excited that someone may be joining them this year.

120. That’s how many losses the 1962 Mets finished with. The only other team to finish with more losses in one season was the Cleveland Spiders in 1899 (that team folded the following year), so we’ll say the modern-day record for most losses in one season belongs to that infamous Mets squad.

I point this out only because 2012 could be a record-breaking year for the Houston Astros. Since that historic ’62 season, few teams have come close to that mark of ineptitude. The 2003 Detroit Tigers finished with 119, missing out on their place in the record books by one game. The 2012 Astros could be the next challenger to this dubious mark.

The thing is, the 1962 Mets were an expansion team. The Houston Astros were a respectable franchise as recently as 2006, when they were eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the season. Since then, each season seems to have gotten worse than the previous year, a trend which looks to continue this season.

Let’s start off by looking at the team slogan for the 2011 Houston Astros: “We Are Your Astros.” That’s it. Couldn’t even muster up an exclamation point. You see, a team slogan is typically centered around a marketing campaign for that season; a way to drum up excitement and support for the upcoming year. Before last season, the marketing team for the Astros couldn’t in good conscience create a marketing campaign that created false hope for the fans. And that was before they traded Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne for 40 cents on the dollar.

What will the 2012 team slogan be? “We Promise We Won’t Trade Any More Stars For Less Than Equal Value…Because We Don’t Have Any More Stars To Trade.”

(If you want to submit your own team slogan for the 2012 Houston Astros, feel free to use the comment box at the end of this column)

Okay, enough Astros-bashing for the moment. Let’s shift to actual analysis of the state of the Houston Astros.

(Thanks again to fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com for the following stats)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Brett Wallace, 2B Jose Altuve, SS Jed Lowrie, 3B Jimmy Paredes

Moving a closer for an everyday play like Lowrie is a step in the right direction.

Analysis –
Once upon a time, Brett Wallace was viewed as a potential star. He was a major trade chip in the deal that sent Matt Holliday to St. Louis. After bouncing around with a few teams, it seemed that he would finally get his chance to shine in Houston. Last year, Wallace played 115 games at first base for the Astros and produced a pretty underwhelming performance. 1B is supposed to be a position that provides offense, but Wallace just couldn’t seem to put it together at the plate. His line of .259/.334/.369 just doesn’t get it done from that spot on the field. And it’s not like he’s adding a ton of defensive value either; his UZR/150 of -6.9 isn’t going to help anyone forget about his struggles at the plate…Altuve gets his first chance at a full season of ball in the majors. I was somewhat impressed with what I saw from him in 2011, albeit a rather small-sample to judge. He’s going to need to raise his OBP of .297 if he wants to be productive batting at the top of the order, though…I still don’t know what I think about Houston’s acquisition of Lowrie. On one hand, they used RP Mark Melancon’s decent 2011 season (20/25 in Save opportunities, 2.78 ERA) and flipped it for a switch-hitting premium position player in Lowrie. Anytime you can acquire value for a relief pitcher (a position that fluctuates more than any other from one year to the next), you should do it. The problem is, Lowrie is somewhat average at the plate (.252/.303/.382) and he has never really played one position consistently enough to have an accurate gauge of his defensive abilities (he’s never played more than 49 games at one position in a season). He also has struggled to stay healthy over the course of a full season. One the bright side, he was a man without a position in Boston, while Houston should at least provide him with the full-time shortstop position…Paredes is similar to Altuve – he showed promise in his debut with the Astros last year, but the jury is still out on what he can do. His UZR/150 of -8.3 looks like it might be a defensive liability, but I like to make my judgments based on sample-sizes larger than 46 games.

Outfield – LF Carlos Lee, CF Jordan Schafer, RF J.D. Martinez

Analysis – Remember when Carlos Lee was one of the more feared hitters in baseball? Those days are long gone now. Lee’s .171 ISO and .339 wOBA suggest that we shouldn’t be putting El Caballo out to pasture just yet, but he is no longer the type of cleanup hitter that you need to gameplan around…In about a half-season in the majors last year (in Atlanta and Houston), Schafer failed to impress with his bat, producing a .245/.314/.311 line. Defensively, his UZR/150 of -4.3 also suggests that he needs to work on his defense as well. Once again, this is a very small sample. The bigger concern with Schafer is his off-the-field issues. In October, Schafer was arrested for possession of marijuana. If he’s going to get a chance to fulfill his potential, he’s going to have to make better decisions away from the field first. Martinez is the real wild-card of this group…In 53 games last year, Martinez produced a line of .274/.319/.423. He played a majority of his time in left field and had an impressive UZR/150 of 27.9. He did strikeout on roughly 25 percent of his at-bats, but overall he had a favorable first impression. If the Astros are going to have a breakout player this year, it’s going to be Martinez.

Rotation – LHP Wandy Rodriguez, RHP Bud Norris, RHP Brett Myers, LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Jordan Lyles

Analysis – Rodriguez is easily the ace of this staff. In 2011, he produced yet another impressive season, considering how the team around him performed. His 7.82 K/9 was down slightly from his career norm, but I’m more concerned with the fact that his BB/9 (3.25 in 2011) continues to rise each year. Still, his xFIP (3.72) suggests that, despite the increase in walks issued, Rodriquez is performing above the league average level…Norris had an impressive 8.52 K/9 and lowered his BB/9 from 2010 to 2011, going from 4.51 to 3.39. Norris has a solid upper-90’s fastball that he commands pretty well and a changeup that he’s still learning to use (it’s pretty effective against lefties). His big “out” pitch is his slider; he throws it hard and gets good late movement, causing some batters to look foolish at the plate. Along with Martinez, Norris is the other Astro most likely to take the next step this season…Myers is the veteran of this staff; a groundball pitcher with average stuff. At this point in his career, you know what you’re going to get with Myers in the rotation. He can eat up some innings (200+ innings each of the last two years) and he’ll pitch to contact. He’s not going to carry the team and he’ll have some pretty rough outings. The young, questionable defense behind him won’t help things much…Happ was a big part of the Roy Oswalt heist from a few seasons ago. By all accounts, he had a pretty miserable 2011 season. I could throw some advanced stats out at you, but I think his 6-15 record and his 5.35 ERA are pretty accurate in describing his season last year. His BB/9 of 4.78 is brutal, and his xFIP (4.59) shows that he performed quite a bit below the league average last year…Lyles is a bit of an unknown. Opinions on Lyles have sifted over the years, with some calling him an innings-eater who will throw strikes and others saying he is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. He has a fastball that sits in the low 90’s and he throws strikes with some consistency, though he does seem to be learning that throwing near the strikezone is also a valuable tool, as his K% has dropped in the last few years. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles his first full season in the big leagues. Of course, he has to make the rotation first.

Catcher – Jason Castro

Analysis – Castro tore his ACL in spring training last year, causing him to miss most of the 2011 season (he played in a handful of minor league games at the end of the year). But the former first-round pick in expected to be healthy and ready to take over the catching duties in 2012. Castro struggled in his debut with the big league team in 2010, producing a .205/.286/.287 line. Expect some growing pains this season, but the job is his to lose.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Juan Abreu looks to be in line for the closer role…Brandon Lyon provides a veteran presence to a young group out in the bullpen. Basically, if anyone impresses during the first half of the season out of the ‘pen, you can expect them to be wearing another uniform by season’s end…Humberto Quintero has your typical backup catcher qualities: serviceable behind the plate, not a ton of power, strikes out a lot…OF Jason Bourgeois provides speed and defense off the bench. I expect a lot of guys to get chances on the Astros bench; with a team this bad, you might as well give someone a shot and see how they respond.

Jeff Luhnow might be the best acquisition Houston made this offseason.

Overall Analysis – It’s going to be a long year for Astros fans. I just don’t see a lot of upside on this club, outside of a few of the young guys. If Wandy Rodriguez continues to put up decent numbers, I wouldn’t expect him to be in Houston after July. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t get moved last season. On the bright side, Houston is moving in the right direction as a franchise. With new owner Jim Crane and new GM (and former St. Louis Cardinals VP) Jeff Luhnow in charge, I think we won’t see any more trades that make us wonder what kind of blackmail Ruben Amaro has on the Houston front office personnel. It may take a while, but these guys will help turn this team around.

But that doesn’t change what’s in store for the 2012 Houston Astros. It’s going to be a long season. Triple-digit losses seem almost like a guarantee, though I don’t think they’ll surpass the level of ineptitude that the ’62 Mets reached.

It’s really a shame that the Houston Astros’ last year as a member of the National League is going to be this pitiful. But, as a Brewers fan, I’ll take it. Let Crane and Luhnow turn them around when they’re in the AL West.

Prediction: 49-113, 6th Place in the NL Central

Next Up: 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview