Timing Is Everything: Should Luhnow Pull The Trigger at 3B or LF?


In May 1991, I made friends with a guy named Steve. He was a buddy of my best friend, but Steve and I had never met. Serendipity, it seems, had kept us apart until that fateful time.

Steve and I worked late each night together, and one night we were talking books. I recommended to him “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” A couple of nights later, Steve took the book up to a nearby Perkins (kind of like a Denny’s or Village Inn) where he read it, occasionally laughing because, well, read the book and you’ll understand.

Anyway, seated at the next booth was a young lady who kept hearing the freaky goth guy giggle. Finally, she popped up over the partition and said, “If it’s so funny, why don’t you share it with the rest of the group.”

The next night, Steve told me I needed to go to Perkins with him after work. He’d met some people who were loads of fun. So I went with him, and that’s the night I met my wife.

Serendipity.

When it’s working for you, well, timing and good fortune are on your side. When it’s working against you, it seems any decision made is wrong for you. Don’t believe me? Ask Anne Frank.

She was arrested about a month before the last train to Auschwitz. She died at Bergen-Belsen about a month before it was liberated by the Allies. In both instances, bad timing worked to send her to her death.

What’s all this got to do with Jeff Luhnow and the Astros, you ask? Well, Houston’s GM has some decisions to make this offseason. He needs to sign some bullpen pieces. That’s just a simple fact.

But at two key positions that underperformed for Houston in 2014 — third base and left field — any move he might make is at the whim of serendipity.

Do you sign or trade for a third baseman now, some guy on the other side of 30, give him four years, $40-plus million? Or will Colin Moran be ready in July to start producing? Is there some outfielder out there that’s the answer to Houston’s prayers? Or is Robbie Grossman ready for full-season prime time?

Let’s have a look at some of those decisions that are coming his way.

Third Base

Oh, sure, Luhnow can pony up for Hanley Ramirez or Chase Headley. The Astros could make all of Pablo Sandoval‘s dreams come true. Or the Astros could trade for David Wright or send a couple of starters to the needy Twins for Trevor Plouffe. All of these are upgrades over the .586 OPS and not-good-enough glove of Matt Dominguez.

But any free agent is going to want a minimum of three years and $35 million. More likely, the Astros would be looking at five years and $60-70 million. As for trades, David Wright, whom the Mets would happily unload, is signed through 2020. His first four years are at $20 million apiece. Plouffe is entering his second year of arbitration, and would likely command well north of $4 million after getting $2.85 million last year. Still, that’d be a bargain for a guy with a .751 OPS who hit 14 homers and 40 doubles while striking out 109 times (53 BB) in 582 PAs.

As good as Plouffe would be, would Houston be giving up too much — I’m picturing Mike Foltynewicz or maybe Brad Peacock plus Colin Moran — to get him? Then you have got to believe he’s replaceable by Joe Sclafani (.858 OPS, .339 BA, 27 Ks, 26 BBs, 218 PAs in AAA) this year or Rio Ruiz in 2016?

Honestly, Plouffe is probably someone the Astros should target. He’s young. There’s team control for a couple of more years. He produces. But are we giving away the farm to get him, when we have guys who can produce as well.

Look at Moran himself. After being liberated from the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Moran went to Corpus and hit .304 with a .760 OPS while whiffing 20 percent of the time. Don’t like Moran or Sclafani? How about Matt Duffy, who combined in AA and AAA for a .288 BA, .786 OPS and 18 HRs.

Or maybe Matt Dominguez rebounds. (Yeah, I’m not banking on that either.)

See the problem?

Left Field

This is really any outfield position, but let’s just call it left field for the time being. After all, unless a trade happens, the Astros have Dexter Fowler and George Springer pretty much locked into two outfield slots. That leaves one spot. Left field.

If the Astros stand pat in the outfield, the likely alignment is either, left to right, Fowler, Marisnick and Springer, or Grossman, Fowler and Springer.

We all talk about how great Grossman was after the break, but in reality Grossman posted a .706 OPS after the All-Star Break. Not exactly lighting it up. If that’s great offense, I’ll take Jake Marisnick and his defense … and his .669 OPS. Or maybe the Astros bring up Preston Tucker, whose AA and AAA combined OPS of .834 looks promising. Tucker hit 24 homers while striking out 120 times (about 20 percent) and walking about half as often. Or maybe Houston takes a chance on Andrew Aplin, who walked more than he whiffed in 2014 and posted a .717 OPS across AA and AAA.

The alternative is to sign or trade for something expensive. Melky Cabrera or Victor Martinez might be out of Luhnow’s price range, but Michael Morse might be affordable at around $11-12 million a year for two or three years. Cabrera, Martinez and Nelson Cruz might be the big-name options, but Morse would cost less and provide a quality bat. Other mid-level guys might include Nori Aoki or Nick Markakis who look like opposite answers to the same question. Colby Rasmus might cost about $12-13 million a season.

Want to really break the bank? How about Yasmany Tomas for about $100 million over seven years. That’s a pretty penny for a guy that may need a few months in Fresno.

If the free agent possibilities are confusing, I won’t even go into the trades. That said, anything that’s a major upgrade over Grossman or Marisnick is going to cost one MLB player (think Grossman as a return outfielder for the trade partner) plus an MLB-ready arm and a lottery ticket from A ball.

Or, like I said, we give Tucker a shot or maybe Domingo Santana another shot.

Serendipity

All this goes back to how you feel about timing. Are the Astros farmhands more than a season or two away? Is there not enough guaranteed quality at the top levels? Or would you rather Luhnow spent that $20 million elsewhere than a free agent or higher-priced player through a trade?

Questions

What third baseman should the Astros target if they plan to replace Dominguez from outside the organization?

If you had to — HAD TO — use someone within the organization to play third base next season, who would it be?

Who should Houston try to sign or trade for — be realistic — to fill their outfield hole? How much, in either dollars or talent, would it cost?

If Houston stays within the organization, who will be the third outfielder on Opening Day? Who will be the fourth outfielder on the bench?

What farmhand who could be in Houston before the All-Star Break has you most excited among all the position players?

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43 comments on “Timing Is Everything: Should Luhnow Pull The Trigger at 3B or LF?

  1. Castro – War 1.7
    Singleton – War Negative .8
    Altuve – 6.0
    Villar – 0.5
    Dominguez – Negative 1.6
    Grossman – 1.2
    Fowler – 1.7
    Springer – 2.0
    Carter – 1.9

    (From Baseball Reference). Not arguing stats but IF ANYONE in the FO is a geek, they should be able to see where they might need to improve.

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    • I think the “investment” in Sungleton means he’s going to get every opportunity. I don’t count Villar because I think Marwin gets the nod out of spring training.

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    • WAR is a resultive stat – it shows how bad someone has been but doesn’t necessarily show where they are going.

      It’s better to pay attention to their contact rates, FB/GB ratios, line drive rates, etc., to try and demonstrate where they could go.

      Singleton shows some promise in these areas, thus will get his shot.

      Dominguez has shown little progression in these areas, and frankly has never even been satisfactory in most of them. The “predictive” stats suggest he has small chance of ever posting a decent BABIP or walk rate.

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  2. I think the Astros need to replace Dominguez. They really needed him to step up last year and he couldn’t. Love is blind, but if a guy strikes out a ton, hits into a ton of double plays, can’t draw a walk, can’t score from second with two outs and consistently stretches doubles into singles I think you have to put somebody else out there.
    I’m for giving somebody like Torreyes or Sclafani or both a chance to play there. If we keep Springer, Singleton, Carter and Castro in our lineup we will have enough K’s and HRs, so we need guys to get on base.
    Since I didn’t get the look at Moran in Florida after the season ended, I don’t have a clue how far away he is from the majors and we’re not going to know as fans until we see where he starts the year, so I think his prognosis determines whether we stay put, play youngsters or acquire through trades or FA.
    After going back and reading what Luhnow said about Carlos Perez the day he moved Perez to the 40-man, I am convinced we cannot take anything seriously that comes out of his mouth, so listening to what he says right now is worthless when predicting what the club is going to do.
    Luhnow traded for Fowler and knew what Fowler’s salary was going to be. He traded for Marisnick and knew what his salary was. I just don’t know whether he is going to pay bucks for another outfielder, after trading for those two last year.
    All I do know is that if he doesn’t make major changes in the lineup, he had better buy one of the best bullpens in the majors because he will need it.

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  3. Matty D. can’t be any worse than last year – can he? If the decision makers think he can show ANY improvement in his numbers (his lack of foot speed can never be improved), I think he’ll open the season at 3b, and they’ll hope for Moran to get off to a quick start, earning a promotion to the big club.

    The outfield is set as answers to any questions are already in the organization. Whatever money is available to spend this year needs to be directed to pitching, on both the rotation and bullpen.

    Of course, this is how I see things today. Making any trades – and I feel certain some are coming – and the dynamics of the entire situation change.

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  4. For third base, I’d look at in house guys this spring and see how things shake out. I think a guy like Sclafani can get on base, but can he play the position without butchering it?

    My leftfielder would be Fowler, with Springer in center and Grossman/Marisnick in right. Of course I’m in the minority with this particular configuration. The only other thing that makes real sense to me would be to give Keuchel a Christmas present by signing Markakis. That would give us a pretty solid three in the outfield.

    All that said, I don’t think the money needed to make any kind of a FA splash is available. And we might be better off long term anyway. I also think that Luhnow will change the complexion of this team considerably, by trading away a couple of minor league guys that we all like.

    And as oldpro also notes, if we even have 20 million to spend, then pump it into the pen.

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  5. Back in college I helped put on youth retreats at my church. One of my friends went into one of the CCE classes and was recruiting juniors to come to the retreat. One girl was interested but she didn’t have the $5 on her to sign up. Her mom was picking her up after CCE and had five $1 bills. She ran back in and signed up, came on the retreat, ended up on the retreat team. We dated for a while and have been married for 34 years.

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  6. My gut feel Brian is that the Astros should do the following in this order:
    – Fix the bullpen – really fix it
    – See if there is another good SP that can be picked up to solidify the rotation.
    – Then look at doing something / anything at 3B to replace Dominguez. His OBP / OPS of .256 and .586 were so low that almost anyone could improve this. My lean would be to do something internally. I would not have a problem with letting Duffy filling in while they wait on Moran / Ruiz. Torreyes had been tossed out there as a possibility too.
    – Left field – I would leave it with Grossman and see what happens at AAA. When Preston Tucker is ready – bring him up. And maybe Domingo Santana might break out in 2015 – who knows.

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    • I think I’d rather see pitching addressed externally and the positions internally. I just think for what we’d need to invest, we can probably fix it from the farm. Duffy or Torreyes to start. Moran in July if he’s ready.

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    • With you all the way, Dan. Since we had so pitifully little contribution from Matty D last year; since he did not go to Winter Ball to work on anything that might give us a glimpse of hope for improvement in 2015; and since we have heard nothing of substance about any injury in 2014 that would make his horrible performance at the plate look like a possible anomaly, surely NOBODY IN THE SYSTEM COULD BE EXPECTED TO DO WORSE. Petit? Marwin? Duffy? Sclafani? Ruiz? Moran? I hope we give them all a lot of looks at 3B in ST.

      The kind of FA money we supposedly have available is better spent on bullpen help, and trades are better aimed at bolstering the back end of the rotation and/or providing us a short-term shortstop option that can also serve as a supersub and pinch runner once Carlos Correa gets here. I don’t suppose anybody thinks that is 23-year old Nolan Fontana, do you?

      Meanwhile, considering his age, if Domingo Santana ‘breaks out’ next year, I suspect it will have more to do with eating too much chocolate, drinking too much soda, and failing to use facial scrub than anything else.

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    • Almost all the impartial national sites are pegging the Astros as the main player for Maeda if he is posted. I am not one that thinks Maeda is another Darvish, the Rangers pretty much won that lottery, but I think he can be a plus .500 pitcher.

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  7. I would sign Markakis to play RF, he helps the contact rates, will walk a decent rate, have some power, play better than average D, and doesn’t have to managed around. You can write his name in 155 times, and it works. Can’t do that with Marisnick or Grossman. Fowler in LF, Springer in CF, and Markakis in RF, with Marisnick and Grossman both available. Now what I would do and what the Astros will do, two different things.

    Third – call me in the heavy minority – but I sign Callaspo. I start Dominguez, but I use Callaspo whenever the matchup is bad for Dominguez – and both probably end up around 400 plate appearances. Say what you will about the resultives on Callaspo – but his contact rates are still great, he still walks, his LD rate is about the same, and his O-swing rate last year was actually lower than his career average. He certainly struggled and scuffled – but he also had some bad luck. I know that he is no better than a .260 hitter, and has marginal power, but he helps a lineup that is struggling to make contact and work pitchers – two things he will help – and you aren’t going to have to trot him out there for 150 games. He also plays above average D at 3B, and can fill in at 1B, and provide emergency services at 2B – though metrically you don’t want him there.

    It will send a message to Matt D, here is your competition, not a guy that can straight take your job, but he is here if you continue to stink up the joint.

    Now all this is moot if Callaspo is looking for any real money – I can be chancy, but not that chancy.

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    • I think Fangraphs had an article a couple of weeks ago that described Markakis as Aoki at twice the price.

      I think Callaspo would be a smart move.

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  8. It’s not like Matt Dominguez is *horrible* at 3rd, he’s still one of the best gloves in MLB. Look for a guy inside your own organization before you kick Matt to the curb!
    MLB Rumors has the Astros as one of the teams in on Jason Hammel’s. He’s ok
    but not GREAT. We can sit here and arm chair quarter back Lyhnow all day, but remember he’s got a budget, and he’s got to spread that money VERY thin. We will know better how this organization is going about filling “holes” after the winter meetings next month. I’m not too worried about 3rd. base…….short stop???
    Yeah…..THAT’S what I’m concerned about! Sell Villar to a team in Japan!

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    • We don’t want to have to kick Japan’s butt in another war started by this Villar trade and then build them back up so they can kick our butt selling cars again…..

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  9. I’m not ready to dump Dominguez. He was fine in the second half of 2013 and was also good in 2014 through May. He then fell off a cliff…which appeared to cause havoc to his fundamentals. If he falls flat again this spring, we may have torreyes, petit, Marwin, Duffy, or Sclafani to try as band aids. In other words, there is a better netthan at any point in 2014. FWIW, if Villar hadn’t been so ineffective they might have pulled Dominguez in July or August. Our roster prevented that.

    I’ve soured on Kung Fun Panda. His price would prevent us from improving. Our team has to get to the postseason before we can find out if he would bring us postseason magic. Also, Hammel makes no sense unless we get him for one year. Even then, it would seem like money poorly spent (barring another trade).

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  10. If Tropeano had been ready, I don’t think they would have traded him with another catcher for Conger. If Folty were ready to be a starter they wouldn’t be looking at paying millions for a Hammel.
    If Shirley were a starter he wouldn’t have been mostly a reliever when he arrived at AAA. Appell isn’t ready, McCullers and Velasquez have never pitched above High A, Feliz has never pitched above low A, Hader is not yet 21, and nobody at AAA has shown they are ready to start in the majors. Kyle Smith?
    So I have covered all our top pitching prospects and all the talk about being so rich in starting pitching is talk. Signing a Feldman clone like Hammel as a fifth starter to begin the 2015 season seems like a no-brainer for the Astros.
    In order for that fifth-starter-money to be worth it we still need to upgrade two positions in our lineup and one of those positions has to be third base where we were terrible. You are not going to upgrade a terrible position by putting the same player who was terrible last season back on the field.. The other position that we were worst in the league at is 1B.
    I think that putting the same two guys back on the corner IF positions we had last year would be asking for trouble. You have to make sure your gun is loaded before the fight starts or you are going to lose the battle. Reloading during the first few seconds of a battle is a good way to lose the war. Reloading with a Callaspo is like putting one of your dead comrades up on the wall with a gun wedged under him to try and fool the enemy. It didn’t even work in the movies.
    If we spend all our money on pitching it is ok by me, but that means our upgrades at the two positions have to come from the minors. It is time to subtract the non producers from our lineup, even at the expense of losing power, and get some guys on the field who get on base, can run and will produce runs.

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    • OP, you are way out in the weeds on this. I don’t know if we are talking baseball, war, or war movies, or wins above replacement.

      The players you reference represent the talent in pitching for the Astros. The depth we keep referring to includes Wojo, White, Deduno and Peacock (not that they are bereft of talent). They are about two pitchers from the expected 10 starters they will probably use in ’15. Nitro will need to be replaced and someone like Hammels (did I say Hammels? I meant Hammel) should be better than what we would have expected from Nitro.

      Callaspo brings a skill the line up needs more than anything else, contact. Steamer projects him to be a 93 wRC+, which is excellent for 3B (Matt Duffy 83, Petit 73, Moran 87). He could be better if managed properly. He will not prevent anyone from being brought up. I think he is ideal given our current situation.

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      • How much do you think Callaspo will cost? Is he enough of an upgrade over Torreyes, who will cost the league minimum and provide better D?

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    • And I really think, TBH, the Tropeano trade wasn’t about giving up Nitro, it was about getting Conger. I really do believe Luhnow’s geek squad sees something that Conger does to affect games in a dramatic fashion – and in a moneyball manner, cheaper than other methods. If his defense really is what these computer geeks say it is – and he ends up being in some mathematical way being 5-6 wins better than Castro or Corporan, it beats spending 15 million to upgrade 3B that way.

      It probably doesn’t hurt that in the minors Conger drew a walk or two and doesn’t strike out a lot, and projected as a much better hitter than he has been so far.

      Welcome to Houston Moneyball.

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  11. I don’t know what you mean about weeds. We obviously agree that our pitching prospects aren’t ready and Hammel would be better than our present AAA guys,Deduno included.
    As far as projections, Callaspo burned the King of Projecting(Beane) with his lousy 2014 performance and in his 32 age season, with that body and no speed, I see Callaspo as a huge gamble to replace someone like Dominguez, who burned the Prince of Projections, (JL) last season. Replacing Dominguez w/Callaspo seems like replacing Wallace w/Pena. Trusting stupid projections leads to walking out to the parking lot carrying all the stuff from your desk in one box. Maybe projecting from past numbers gets you another year of the worst 3B in the league, when maybe you should paid attention to the player instead.

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    • Yes, we agree on the pitching, but I’m going to stop just short of calling Steamer “stupid”. I think they have a little bit better track record than The Baron of the Blogs.

      Callaspo’s BABIP was down 40 points. All of his peripherals were around his career averages.

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      • Streamer’s track record on Callaspo sucked just like he did. He was negative WAR offensively and defensively. A team like the Astros cannot afford to pay a free agent his money after that kind of performance in a CONTRACT year. That’s a suicide move. Your name calling is not going to make Callaspo’s resume’ look any better and a guy who fell apart at age 31 with a body of 5’9″ and 225lbs is not somebody who is likely to rebound when he’s one year older and gets a new contract. Let somebody with money to burn take a chance on Callaspo, who had a year like Dominguez had, even though his big contract chance was riding on it and he was playing on a playoff team.

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    • Your downfall in the argument is you are stuck on resultive stats – the result of some bad luck. WAR shows where someone has been, it doesn’t show where they are going. Neither does average, etc. You have to pay attention to the contact rates, the swing percentages, to guess where they are going.

      Callaspo is no superstar. He is better at drawing a walk, he is much better at making contact, and not a bad defensive third baseman who has experience at multiple positions.

      All the predictive stats, the ones someone like steamer or fangraphs or Bill James, throws into a computer to project stats suggest Callaspo had a down year. He can be had cheap, and he puts pressure on Dominguez.

      Just stating that he is fat is a bad argument. So is half of major league baseball.

      BTW – I am pretty sure Bill James, the steamer crew, BP, etc., all have a better track record at projecting players than any of us.

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      • Your downfall is that you think past stats can tell you future success and you don’t really know enough about players and your comment about half of the players being fat proves it. When your stats fail, you keep adding more stats into the equation and give the excuse that the fomula was not efficient enough when the truth is the player was just on his downslide.
        Stats are useful and I use them a lot but the truth is that if you think stats tell you Callaspo is a good investment then you are being had. You need to get your head back in the game and out of the books.
        I have heard countless people say Preston Tucker has a questionable body type to be a successful major leaguer at 6′ and 215 lbs at age 24. So what does that make a 5′ 9″ 225 lb 32 year old SS. It makes him the Larry the Cable Guy of shortstops and makes you seem really odd at judging baseball players. And he was a lousy fielding third baseman that you have a crush on for some unknown reason.
        Negative D War means worse than replacement. Negative O WAR means worse than replacement. And you think the Astros should sign him because you think he will be cheap. Dominguez will be cheaper and younger and he doesn’t need to be replaced by Callaspo.
        Thanks for the lecture on resultive stats and your Bill James namedropping, but James is shaking his head at Callaspo and saying how bad he missed on that one while you stick your head in the sand and dig in.

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      • Your complete ignorance of the acceptance of what these people do for a living – and how successful they have been in predicting results – dumbfounds me. You win.

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  12. I know this is piling on. Throw the flag on me. Matty numbers for 2014 215 .256 .330 .586 — Pedro Feliz numbers in Houston 2010 – .221 .243 .311 .555 and he was out of the “bigs” the next year. Matty has to be on a short leash to show improvement.

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  13. Admittedly, I don’t usually look deeper into stats than what I see at Baseball Reference. But I’d be concerned about Callaspo because outside of his solid 50 game stretch for Oakland in 2013, he has not done much since 2011. Will he really be just 32 on Opening Day? Unless we get a trade done for the thrid base position, and that will mean losing more of our already thinning pitching depth, we’re going to have to go with guys within the system at third. Third base is a black hole in MLB right now. Any upgrade from outside is going to be very costly. I think we have guys in house that can produce more offensively in 2015 than Dominguez or Callaspo would give us.

    Liked by 1 person

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