It’s simple math. You take 12. That’s the number of pitchers on the 25-man roster. Then you add 8. That’s how many positions are on the field other than pitcher. Add 1 DH, and finally you have 21.
Then you subtract 21 from 25.
4: That’s is how many roster spots are left for the bench. Those guys need to be able to play (between them, not apiece) every position on the field in case of injury, ejection, substitution or just general pinch hitting.
Oh, and they occasionally start to give your starters a day off (rest, pulled muscles, sprained fingers, wife giving birth). So, who will man those four important spots on the pine for Houston this season.
For starters, like every team, the Astros need a backup backstop. Here, Houston is in capable hands. Again. The Astros have (allegedly) traded up from Carlos Corporan, who was the all-star of backup catchers, to Hank Conger. Last season with the Halos, Conger posted a .221/.293/.325 line, striking out only 57 times and walking 22 in 231 AB. Of course Conger isn’t here for his bat. He does something called “pitch framing” better than anyone else on the planet, apparently, and therein lies his true value.
On the off chance Conger breaks a nail or gets a bad case of food poisoning, Evan Gattis still carries his catcher gear, but it’s likely he’s in the lineup somewhere else. Down on the farm, Max Stassi is the perennial catcher-in-waiting. He’s only 24, which still qualifies as young — unless you’re Jose Altuve — and his career (10 games) MLB slash line of .333/.357/.407 isn’t especially far from his career MiLB slash line of .252/.318/.420. He strikes out like he’s Jonathan Singleton, so another year at AAA might suit him.
The second obvious backup is Houston’s version of a super-sub. For the Astros, that’s Marwin Gonzalez. In the major leagues, MarGo has played everywhere but pitcher, catcher and centerfield. By trade, he’s a shortstop, and if Jed Lowrie looks more like 2014 Jed Lowrie than 2013 Jed Lowrie, I’d have no problem starting MarGo at short and calling Lowrie our super-sub.
At just 26 (finally, it seems like he’s been an Astro longer than anyone not named Dominguez or Altuve), he put together a career year at 25, going .277/.327/.400 in 285 AB, striking out about 20 percent of the time and only working 17 BB. That said, Lowrie goes down with an ouchie, we’re in good hands. Neither Luis Valbuena nor Matt Dominguez cuts it at 3B, we’ve got our guy. Altuve needs a couple of games off for Jimmy Paredes sighting, we’ve got a capable backup.
If something happens to MarGo, the “obvious” choice for that super-sub, middle of the infield guy is Jonathan Villar. (Don’t hit me, Becky!). His hot-and-cold defense aside, this is a guy who’s 473 career MLB at bats have netted a .224/.291/.338 slash line. And he’s only had one really good offensive season (2013 in AAA) in the minors. Yes, he’s young. Yes, a little Ritalin might help. But for me, I’m willing to give someone else a try if we need a super-sub not named MarGo.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Smokin'” Joe Sclafani. In the minors, he’s played all the position MarGo has played except 1B, manning SS more than any other spot. (And do we really see our super-sub filling in at 1B?) He’s posted a career MiLB slash of .295/.384/.404, and he just keeps getting better as he goes up levels. At AAA last season in 193 AB, he slashed .339/.420/.438 with 27 Ks and 26 BB.
Oh, I know the conventional call-up is Gregorio Petit (.278/.300/.423 in Houston, .297/.340/.457 at OKC), who did admirably in Houston for a brief stint last year. But I like “Smokin'” Joe.
Where It Gets Tricky
So, the next part will be determined by factors that have little to do with the actual players. Does Singleton hold onto the 1B spot? If so, say “Hello” to left fielder Evan Gattis. Then there’s a ripple effect for the two outfield/DH spots. Of course, if Singleton doesn’t make it, then does Houston need a backup 1B? I mean, you could say Gattis and Chris Carter back one another up at 1B, but if they’re both in the lineup, maybe you need an emergency first baseman. Is that MarGo? Is it Jason Castro or Conger? Is it (don’t shoot me, OldPro1) Matt Dominguez?
So, here are the rest of the potential bench players. I’m going to guess that Singleton defies the early expectations and holds onto his first base job. If that’s the case, either Carter or Gattis is your left fielder, and the Astros need two backup outfielders.
Jake Marisnick: The Astros’ little defensive insurance policy in the outfield, Jake From State Farm has amazing range, a great glove, a laser arm, and offers you a free pen with his name on it. His offense is a bit suspect, but the soon-to-be 24-year-old JFSF hit .239/.281/.326 between Miami and Houston, and put up .277/.326/.434 in 343 AB with 64 Ks and 17 BBs.
Alex Presley: The million dollar man put up .244/.281/.346 in 254 AB with 44 Ks and 13 BBs. That’s slightly worse than his MLB average, but not far off the mark. With his contract, I’m sure Presley will get some extra consideration when it comes time to cut the rosters, thank you very much.
Robbie Grossman: Mr. Second Half at least gets on base at a better clip than the rest of these guys. Last season, for example, Grossman hit .233/.337/.333 with 105Ks and 55 BBs in 360 ABs. That’s a lot of Ks and a lot of free passes. If an out is an out, then Grossman could be a good fourth or fifth outfield option. And if Singleton is in Fresno, a guy who gets on base that much would be a good option.
So, if Singleton is living in Cali, that’s your outfield. One of those guys is starting, and the others are backing up.
The other 40-man options are L.J. Hoes (.172/.230/.287 in 122 Houston ABs) and Domingo Santana (we’ll skip the bitter cup of Houston coffee and focus on his .296/.384/.474 in 443 K-heavy AAA at-bats). I’m not really fond of either. I just don’t think Hoes is a major league player, and Santana needs another full season working on reducing the holes in his swing.
Instead, I’d be a big fan of promoting either Preston Tucker, .282/.352/.481 combined between Corpus and OKC last season, or Andrew Aplin, .265/.372/.345 at the same two stops. Aplin is more of a patient Luhnow-type hitter, while Tucker’s more of a whiff-heavy slugger.
So, as we sit here collecting splinters, here are some questions to consider:
1. How much of an upgrade is Conger as the backup backstop: Big upgrade, nice Luhnow move or meh?
2. I did not include Matt D as an option. Well, not really. Would you platoon him at 3B with Valbuena (essentially giving him one of the bench spots, probably taking one of the outfield positions), or do you think he’s ticketed for Fresno?
4. Over the course of the season, someone is going to get a call up. Who, not on the 40-man roster, would you like to see most?
5. How do you rate Houston’s bench if we’re talking about MarGo, Conger, Grossman and Presley? Or MarGo, Conger, Presley and JFSF? Is this better or worse than last season? Does Houston have one of the better benches around?
6. How does Houston’s bench rate defensively?
7. Who is your top pinch-hitter? Top pinch-runner?