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Astros hope for more, but Villar likely the bridge to the SS future


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?

LOOK BACK.

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.

DARKHORSE.

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.

PREDICTION.

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?
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About Chip Bailey

Chip Bailey lives in Colorado Springs, CO, and is an author and former sports editor and sportswriter who has followed the Astros for more than 40 years. A native of Natchitoches, La., Chip enjoys watching baseball at most any level, especially pro and college. Several years ago, he worked as an associate of Pastor John Bosman, who enjoyed giving nick names to his staff. He came up with Chipalatta, and it’s stuck.

27 comments on “Astros hope for more, but Villar likely the bridge to the SS future

  1. Dan P
    January 27, 2014

    Villar is kind of a rickety bridge to the future.
    Plus side:
    – Very young
    – Very fast
    – Showed an ability to bunt his way on base
    – Could sting the ball the other way at times
    – Has very good range in the field
    – Has a decent walk rate approx. 10%
    Negative side
    – Has been an absolute error machine at every level he has played
    – His range allows him to throw even more balls away
    – Runs into outs and seems to leave his brain at home half the time
    – High K rate – close to 25% of plate appearances.

    Like

  2. Bo Weaver
    January 27, 2014

    Some believe that Villar is not the bridge, and Marwin G wins that role. Neither can hit a lick, but at least Marwin is a suitable defensive stand-in.

    Others believe than neither wins the game of bridge, and that Luhnow snags a suitable scrub off the waiver wire the the 11th hour.

    Like

  3. Steven
    January 27, 2014

    Bo – Villar can help you in a lot of areas that Gonzalez cannot.

    I don’t see Villar as a long term SS in the majors, more likely he will get shifted to an easier position – maybe CF? Has the arm, speed, and instincts for it, and doesn’t have to do the proverbial catch and flip that he so often makes look difficult.

    I am not one to think too far in the future, waiting on 19 year olds to become stars is a waste of now. Correa is exciting to think about, but if you are Luhnow the here and now has to snap at you. Villar is the opening day SS, but too many problems defensively could sink him. I think offensively there is potential, I even think he will develop double digit homerun type power, will steal bases, but will strike out a little too much to hit .300 – a hallmark of this team.

    I think Villar will have to fall flat, and I mean Wallace first 3 weeks of the season last year, type of flat, to get removed. If he is, obviously Gonzalez is the stop gap, defensively not rangy, arm questionable, no power, but at least he doesn’t strike out a lot.

    Like

  4. Steven
    January 27, 2014

    And no – the Astros should absolutely not sign Stephen Drew. He was pretty good offensively last year, but he has had lapses, and Murphy’s law almost always dictates those lapses happen in an Astros uniform.

    Second – he is a Drew, and like Drew’s before him, he is one hangnail away from the 60 day DL. Save your money, Villar may end us as effective.

    Like

  5. kevin kuns
    January 27, 2014

    Agree with you all here on Villar, be nice if he can grow up up a bit and just do the job man. I love Correa, I just hope he doesn’t grow out of being a SS, with Domingo and Ruiz options at 3rd long term. I also really like Altuve, I think this is a big year for him to prove his our long tern second baseman, As I’m typing this it just hit me again, how awesome, we may have so many options at all positions next couple of years. Three years ago we had little to None.. Go Stros!

    Like

  6. Dan P
    January 27, 2014

    I got interrupted in what I was trying to write earlier about Villar.
    Bottom line – I think he is our best option for the short term as we wait for a Fontana or Sclafani to pop up followed by Correa. You can’t teach speed and range – but you can teach better fielding techniques and 22 year olds can mature.
    Marwin might be a steadier choice – but he might be a stagnant choice as far as development goes.

    Like

  7. rj1953
    January 27, 2014

    villar may well surprise us to the upside this year. i think he, singleton, dominguez, carter – even altuve and castro just need alittle more time patience and seasoning. things are getting better albeit a bit slow for some.

    fowler cf
    altuve 2b
    castro c
    carter dh
    springer rf
    singleton 1b
    santana lf
    domiguez 3b
    villar ss

    not saying thats our lineup, but could be at some point and it doesnt look all that bad to me.

    Like

    • kevin kuns
      January 28, 2014

      Like it

      Like

  8. BrianT
    January 27, 2014

    I think the job is Villar’s to lose. Pity, but that’s where we are. We’ll grimace and bear it, and pray Correa earns a promotion to Corpus this season. Of course, maybe he’ll just dominate and pull an “Altuve,” jumping from A+ to Houston in about 3-1/2 months. If all other shortstops fail miserably, it’s possible.

    Hey, a guy can dream, right?

    Like

  9. BrianT
    January 27, 2014

    Last few opening day SS? How about Cedeño, Lowrie, Barmes and maybe Tejada?

    Outside of Correa I’m not overly excited about any SS. Mier was a wasted draft pick. Fontana needs to learn to hit, not just watch.

    It’s for that reason I think Altuve is safe at second, unless DeShields gets moved back to the infield, then maybe.

    It’s not the second-round pick that bugs me on Drew, it’s the money associated with it.

    And, yes, it’s highly probable Villar could piss off Luhnow or Porter enough to find himself north of the Red River.

    Like

  10. daveb
    January 27, 2014

    I’m guardedly optimistic about Villar this year. I had not realized until looking over his stats that he was one of the best hitting shortstops in the league when at home last year.

    .317/.398/.439/.837. Heck, maybe he’ll get used to non stop flights and quality hotels this season.

    Another oddity. On 1-2 counts and 0-2 counts he hit .000 on the year with 39 strikeouts. Not a single hit in 49 at bats. I looked this up three times before typing it. Did he give up on these counts? If he learns how to make contact in even some of these situations, he becomes a pretty fair hitter overall.

    Another screwy one: Going after the first pitch, he went 15 for 28 with a 1.286 OPS.

    I don’t know what any of this stuff means, but if a 22 year old kid can go .317 at home, you’ve got to figure he might become a hitter someday, if someone can get into his head and figure him out.

    And defensively, he’s still young enough to get better at short too. No doubt he’s a good athlete. That’s got to work in his favor, assuming he matures.

    One more note from the odd stat department. I missed the weekend Dominguez post, but when leading off an inning last year, the guy hit .305/.355/.519/.874 in 141 plate appearances.

    Like

    • Dan P
      January 27, 2014

      Fun and interesting stats daveb – I always wonder if some of these stats mean something or if the samples are too small – but I think Villar will be given a fair shot to show something.

      Like

    • Bo Weaver
      January 27, 2014

      These stats are a very limited sample, however very indicicative of a batter who can’t battle. Thus, the scouts and opposing pitchers will seize on this and eat him alive. Villar is not a legit pro until he establishes that he can make contact and keep the count alive in the pinch, especially when the league adjusts to him over time.

      Like

      • Bo Weaver
        January 27, 2014

        And, granted, that is what you originally said daveb. IF Villar can somehow figure out how to hang tough at the plate, then the Astros might be on to something. The baserunning is definitely correctable, and even the defensive skills are (probably) correctable.

        I didn’t watch much of Villar last year. (Gee, I wonder why?). But what I saw is a guy struggling at the plate and the field — big time.

        If he sticks this year I’ll be amazed. Too much ground to make up at the Big League level.

        Like

  11. becky
    January 27, 2014

    It might be Villar’s position to win, but I’m pretty sure Bo Porter will have him on a short leash this year. In the limited time we saw him, he was put in Porter’s dog house twice. Luhnow gave him specific things to work on in Winter ball……we will have to “see” if he improved. This kid
    HAS talent…..and I think he has potential, but when you are the captain of the infield……you gotta use your brains.

    Like

    • daveb
      January 28, 2014

      Chances are that Bo Porter is on a shorter leash.

      Like

  12. Bo Weaver
    January 27, 2014

    The problem with Villar is that his only true assets equate to little value. For example, what good is speed if you can’t get on base,and have poor instincts as a base runner? What good is a cannon arm and good range if you can’t field the ball cleanly?

    And his bat just doesn’t impress me. He’s just not a tough out. He can’t battle deep into the count. These things certainly matter if you want to play with the Big Boys.

    And we already know what we have in Marwin G. A bonafide scrub.

    The team needs depth at this position AND defensive depth at 3B. Matty D needs a defensive replacement, no doubt. Poter needs BOTH.

    Is Porter going to rely on Marwin G to take that role if, God forbid, Matty goes down?

    Thus, Luhnow will be forced by the end of spring training to make a move. Don’t worry it won’t cost much, Losing draft picks and money to acquire Drew are not in the cards.

    Like

    • BrianT
      January 27, 2014

      I think if Matt D. goes down, you’re looking at the kid from Corpus Christi last year being called up. Jonathan Meyer put up a .721 OPS at Corpus hitting 15 HRs in 484 ABs. He followed that up with a .748 OPS in 49 ABs in the AFL. Best of all, folks rave about his defense, which means we can calm down about the “hot corner.” I think this kid needs to concentrate on his bat in OKC. Hopefully we don’t need him, but he needs to be ready just in case.

      Like

      • becky
        January 27, 2014

        Brian……think he starts the season in Corpus, or in OKC? I hope he
        goes to OKC, by the end of May.

        Like

    • daveb
      January 28, 2014

      I think Villar managed a .321 OBP. That’s almost serviceable. If he gets better in a couple of areas, such as hitting on the road a bit and improving on that 0-49 split I mentioned above, then he’s going to be better offensively. I don’t expect him to hit .317 at home again, but he was just 22 last year. He’ll improve. He was 18/8 stealing. That should improve too. Defense? I don’t know. Seems that quite a few of his errors were on throws. Maybe someone can teach him mechanics in that area.

      I think a back up for Dominguez is Guzman. But there will be no late inning defensive replacement for him. That will remain his job.

      Like

  13. devin_
    January 27, 2014

    Villar made a couple errors that put the Astros in position to lose last year, but did an admirable job offensively after being called up. There is a lot of mediocrity at the SS position across the league…which is why Peralta signed an 8 figure, multi-year contract despite being a cheater. I think we’re being a bit too glass half empty on Villar. I don’t think he wins us a world series, but he has a chance to be one of the bigger contributors on this team.

    I’m reserving judgement on Correa until I can see him field. We know he can hit, and should he continue to develop would be a special player. I can’t see any benefit to rushing him through the system though. I would like to see him face AA pitching at some point this season.

    Like

  14. Dan P
    January 28, 2014

    Let’s face facts – with the youth and lack of major league experience of so many guys who debuted in 2013 – there is room for improvement with a lot of players. Villar needs to improve in a lot of areas and probably won’t in all – but he can and should get better. And SS is a position with not a lot going for it around the league – so it is not the end of the world to have a mediocre hitter. But he has to improve the fielding and decision making.

    Like

    • devin_
      January 28, 2014

      The thing about baseball is if your pitching can keep games close even a poor hitter (say, Juan Uribe) can be a hero. I think daveb has Villar pegged. If he learns to fight off pitches with 2 strikes, or even just put them in play as slow rollers to the SS, he would dramatically increase his productivity. That’s a maturity thing for hitters. I’d also carry it over to his defense. He needs to maintain focus on the routine plays and know when to take risks on the near impossible plays. The improved range over options like Cedeno, Greene, Elmore, and Gonzalez is something the pitchers appreciate though. Over a full 162 I would imagine Villar can keep enough runners from scoring from 2B on ground balls near his spot to offset the lapses. We focus on the offense scoring given second chances, such as when a foul pop-up is dropped. The same impact happens on the defense where preventing runners from scoring or taking extra bases and forcing the offense to get one extra hit can save the pitchers.

      No – I don’t think he’ll be an All Star, but believe he can improve enough to be one of the more valuable players on the field this year.

      Like

  15. Bo Weaver
    January 28, 2014

    Guzman, like WAAAllace, is not well-suited to play 3B. I think he played 126 games for the Friars last year, and guess how many of these at 3B?

    Answer: 2.

    Like

    • daveb
      January 28, 2014

      Bo, did not say that it was a good option, but the most realistic option. To put things in perspective, based on what we’ve got to work with today, this is still a 90 to 100 loss team in 2014.

      Like

  16. Dan P
    January 28, 2014

    Dominguez, if healthy will play 90% of the games at 3B – he does not need a late inning defensive replacement. Gonzalez and Guzman or Wallace will pick up the few left overs. If Dominguez gets hurt they will have to pull someone from the minors like Meyer.

    Like

  17. 1oldpro
    January 28, 2014

    Maybe it’s because Cedeno was so bad and Villar looked so stupid out there last year, that we completely forget Marwin’s horible year at the plate and his astoundingly average defensive stats. Basicaly he was a meh field/ not hit SS and those are even cheaper than a dime a dozen, right Bo? Correa is the future, Villar is the bridge and maybe Fontana is the up the middle backup of the future bbecause he will be cheap and will take a walk.

    Like

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2014 by in Astros.
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