When the off season began, the Astros had their sights set on improving the bullpen, upgrading the rotation, finding a middle-of-the-order bat and perhaps finding a solution for first base.
Jeff Luhnow apparently considered some positions checked off his list. Or, at the very least, much lower priority.
Shortstop is one of those positions. No matter what you think about Jonathan Villar, for better or for worse, he’s the bridge to the future. Note: not the future, the bridge to the future.
At least for now. At least for today.
While Houston awaits the coronation of Carlos Correa as the next Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitzki or Nomar Garciaparra, the organization will fill the gap. In fact the team has already spent its money on the future at shortstop so, don’t expect a major trade or free agent signing (read: Stephen Drew) this year.
And here’s another thought to chew on: Assuming that Correa is King — and nothing he’s done thus far would suggest otherwise — Villar and any other middle infielders in the system (e.g. Nolan Fontana, Delino Deshields Jr, Jiovanni Mier et al) should be honing their skills for a possible move to another position…or another team.
They may have better odds at unseating Jose Altuve than competing successfully against a #1 pick.
Which brings us back to the bridge.
Stop gap shortstops are nothing new to the Astros. Think Miguel Tejada, Clint Barmes or Jed Lowrie. Barring an unexpected major change, Villar will become the sixth different opening day shortstop in the last six years. In other words, a new year, a new shortstop. Any chance you can name even three of the previous five opening day shortstop starters?
After the Tyler Greene experiment finally concluded with his spring training release, Houston turned to another also-ran, Ronny Cedeno, hoping to capture lightning in that proverbial bottle. Jake Elmore, another Cardinal castoff who played 10 different positions for Houston last year, even started 20 games at SS.
Marwin Gonzalez was a suitable backup — yes, he’s the primary safety net again — and got his share of starts in the revolving door that was SS before Villar finished out the year.
While he ranks #13 in the Astros top players under 25 according to Baseball America, Villar doesn’t project high in any stat category, traditional or metric. All of which supports his so-so minor league career where he hit .260 over six seasons and once committed 56 errors in a single season (2010).
MOST LIKELY STARTER
You may as well move on from denial to acceptance. Barring a catastrophe or unforeseen trade or acquisition, it’s Villar without question.
MOST LIKELY BACKUP
The Astros continue to try to find veteran leadership at SS, even if it’s just a bench role. The latest attempt is Cesar Izturis, a glove guy who can man backup spots at 2B, SS, 3B. With a logjam of players vying for position at 1B and DH, it’s not practical the Astros can keep both Gonzalez and Izturis. Take your pick. May depend on who has a decent spring and who’s healthy on April 1.
Watch Fontana. He will likely start the season at Corpus Christi. Baseball America didn’t show the love (he doesn’t rank anywhere), but he’s a Craig Biggio-type whose grit, work ethic and determination will always get the attention of coaches and scouts.
Will he play in Houston in 2014? Probably not, but his through-the-roof on-base propensity will have Luhnow and manager Bo Porter salivating if he continues the trend he started in college and in the minors (.415 OBP). Plus, he walks more than he strikes out.
Correa is handed the starting SS reins in spring training 2016 and Fontana moves from SS (where he played in 2015) to second base after Altuve is traded.
- Well, can you name at least three of the last opening day shortstops?
- Outside of Correa, who is the best hope for Houston at SS?
- Can Deshields or Fontana challenge Altuve for his 2B spot?
- Should the Astros give up their second pick in the draft and sign Stephen Drew for one or two years?
- Assuming Villar starts the season at SS, how long before he’s on the bench or back in Oklahoma City?