Looking ahead to Astros 2015: The Bench is Johnny on the Spot

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.

The Obvious
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?

3. Would you rather see Singleton in Houston or let Grossman, JFSF and Presley join George Springer and Colby Rasmus in the outfield?

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?


34 comments on “Looking ahead to Astros 2015: The Bench is Johnny on the Spot

  1. Brian T – I’ve slept since then – but I think I wrote the bench last season and it is a confusing tough thing to sort out as your post admirably shows. Having 10 guys in the lineup really knocks down the bench flexibility. So looking at your questions…..
    1. Conger over Corporan? I think between defense, pitch framing and hitting – Conger might be a little upgrade. I am still not sold on why we gave up Tropeano and a young C for him. Maybe he will frame his way into my heart.

    2. Matty D Hard to picture Matt D making this team, if Valbuena is upright or is not being used elsewhere due to injury. Have this gut feeling they are setting him up to be traded.

    3. I will be floored if the Astros have 5 OFs on the roster – unless it is Gattis mostly playing 1B/DH and being the “emergency” fifth OF. I would love to see Jon Singleton with a fire in his belly (not on the end of his doobie) and putting up numbers like he has done in the minors. Does that guy exist? We will see – the most intriguing question of the spring to me.

    4. Non- 40 man call up? Preston Tucker would be my first choice – Gregorio Petit might be the first choice.

    5. Rating the bench – Sorry, impossible to rate their bench against others for me , because I just don’t pay that close attention to other clubs. I think the groupings you throw out there are adequate – low on the power side from my stand point.

    6. How does Houston’s bench rate defensively? If you have Conger, MarGo and JFSF over there – you have a pretty darned good defensive bench no matter who the 4th guy is.

    7. Who is your top pinch-hitter? Top pinch-runner? My top pinch hitter will be Carter or Gattis days they are sitting out – but on days when it is just the bench…hell, it ain’t too great…MarGo? Pinch runner – I guess JFSF.


  2. Brian, can I straighten out a misconception I see in your post and also that I have seen reference to in general.
    You refer to Preston Tucker as a “whiff heavy slugger”
    Tucker’s career K rate for MILB is 16.3% which is a very good K rate for a guy with a big time SLG rate of .495. Now compare those stats to Grossman’s career MILB strikeout rate of 21.8% and an MILB SLG of .405. I feel comfortable comparing them because they are both limited COF and Grossman is not known as “whiff heavy”.
    Tuckers career MILB OBP is also a very good .364. I would not be so fast in considering Tucker a high strikeout guy, because he has not shown an indication of that. What he has shown is a tendency to figure out higher levels of pitching and adjust to them. He needs to figure out AAA pitching this year and turn into an above .300 BA hitter because if he is to cut it in the majors he has to hit for average and power and continue the decent K and BB rates or he will be a fringe player for his career because of his defensive liabilities.
    The thing about Tucker is that he was a hitter in college and he was drafted because of it. He has been a hitter in the minors and has moved up quickly because of it. Now he has to hit good pitching in AAA and the majors in order to hang at that level. There are fifteen teams out there who will be in the market for a power bat with a decent K rate and who would hit major league pitching at a .275 clip in a DH role. If Tucker fits that description he will have a good career as a DH somewhere, especially hitting from the left side.


    • I would like to see Tucker spend the season at AAA where he will play everyday. His career K rate is good in MiLB, but his half season last year at AAA was meh and his power was down from AA. A season of adjustment would be great. I think he has the potential to be our DH in 2016 when Carter and his astronomical K rate prices himself out of town.


      • Tucker’s AAA stint was meh and down from AA until it wasn’t. Notice how I point out that he has made adjustments at every level? Tucker’s line for AAA for the entire time there was .287, .356, .429. But he got used to the league and his last month there he hit .317, .383, .519.
        He followed the same path and for similar lengths through the minors as Springer did, and pretty much got promoted into Springer’s power slot right after Springer moved up a level. But Springer also always seemed to have some power around him with Singleton and Santana in the lineup. When they would move up Tucker would be left with a lesser lineup and less protection. Preston was pretty much the only gun in CC while he played there last spring. Tucker final got promoted last June and got into the lineup with Santana and after a couple of months adjusting Tucker got hot.
        Last spring George was sent to AAA and for two weeks he literally tore the cover off the ball and forced the Astros to finally bring him up. Tucker is 24 years old and will be arriving at his prime power years this season. It will be very interesting to see if his August numbers from last year carry over to his start this year and he can push his way into Houston with a big bat.


  3. 1. I think he is a big upgrade both offensively and defensively from Corp or an. Was he worth a rotation piece? Probably not. I still there they botched something in San Diego and failed to move Castro’s salary.
    2. Fresno? Does he have options? I suspect he gets claimed.
    3. Singleton needs at bats. He can’t be a bench guy in HOU. If Gattis is not your LF, then Singleton needs to be putting up scary numbers in Cali.
    4. I’d like to stick to the 40 man at this point. As much as we like Sclafani, he is a defensive downgrade (supposedly) from Torreyes or Petit. White, Peacock, Straily, etc. Should be given a look unless you get a breakout year from someone else. If bullpen worries pop up I look at Cruz. Let’s be optimistic we don’t need to pull from other areas.
    5. Better on paper for sure. All guys you listed have legit arguments to be in a starting lineup a few times a week.
    6. Solid. I don’t think anyone hurts you. JFSF might save some games preventing late inning extra base hits.
    7. I’m not sure any of them can pinch hit. No one on the team last year could do it. I don’t think any of them can outrun me, either, so stolen bases off the bench are out.


  4. If you have Springer, Rasmus, Gattis, Castro, Valbuena, Singleton and Lowrie in your lineup you are not going to be hurting for power off the bench. If you send Singleton down because he’s not hitting and put Marisnick in the OF you still have a lot of power in the lineup and more speed and defense. So the trick is to have your bench made up of adaptable, versatile role players who can give you speed, a hit, a walk and DEFENSE when you need it at any position.
    If Singleton gets demoted the club interestingly does not have a LH hitting 1B, but if you are going with Carter or Gattis full time at 1B and DH then you have committed to RH power in those two spots and won’t be PH much for your first baseman anyway, so you just need a guy to play the bag if your 1B gets hurt.
    So, my bench is this and the positions they can fill in at defensively:
    Conger C
    Grossman LF, RF, CF.
    Gonzalez 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, emergency COF
    Sclafani 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, LF
    All four guys are switch hitters. Between them they cover all the OF/INF positions. Two of them have speed and all of them I would describe as savvy, scappy 100% dedicated ballplayers who will do anything to help your team win. What you have to do is make sure Marwin or Scafani get some time learning 1B in case they are needed there in a pinch. But I will bet that both of them would jump through hoops to learn that position and make this team.


      • Yes, but it also could mean Singleton at 1B, Gattis in LF and Marisnick in CF at Fresno. Why? because I think Marisnick needs to be playing every day to get better. So, if Singleton is playing a good 1B and hitting and Gattis has to be in the lineup in LF with Carter at DH, I would rather see Grossman in a backup role here and Marisnick getting 4ABs a game in AAA to work on his hitting.


    • I love versatility in my bench players. Speed, defense, a little power, a guy like Marisnick. I would rather see Grossman not here if he isn’t starting. Grossman does one thing particularly well – get on base. Matter of fact, from 1 June on he was among the leaders in all of baseball in OBP. He also is only average defensively in LF and awful everywhere else, he has a little speed but not a lot, a little power, not a lot, an OK baserunner but not good, he is just a very pedestrian ballplayer with the exception of OBP, and you don’t see the effects of high OBP without significant at bats. He doesn’t help you anywhere if he isn’t batting 4 AB’s a day. If he doesn’t get the LF nod, or at least the higher end of a matchup platoon, I don’t want him here.

      Marisnick on the other hand can help you in a dozen ways without needing 500 AB’s to do it. He can pinch run for a Carter or a Valbuena in the 7th with one out after a walk. He can replace anybody on the planet in CF and do it better – especially a Grossman. He can pinch hit for a Gonzalez with 2 outs in the 9th with noone on and down by a run and have a much better chance at punching one out. There are literally a dozen other situations where he can help. The one thing I don’t want to see is him bat 500 times though because I am sold on the analytics side – if he bat 500 times, and gets on base 30-35 times less than Grossman would, it will have a big enough negative impact to hurt you more than those other things help.

      I love JFSF, I think he is the kind of player that helps you win, if he is used correctly. The reason I am willing to make him that super sub bench player now is also simple analytics – I can find you dozens of guys that came to the majors that have 37% O swing rates and terrible walk rates that never improve, but when you go looking for the opposite its extremely rare (tbh, I haven’t found any). The best example of what I see in JFSF is Chris Johnson – a slightly bigger guy that swings the bat hard, but his instincts for pitch recognition and his timing and speed for such are just below average – so you get a guy that is BABIP driven, to have a good season he has to be “hot,” or confident. He can’t excel against good pitching, and if his BABIP drops from a slump or cold spell he doesn’t have OBP to fall back on. Remember when CJ went through a slump? We all do because his slumps are memorable. Much like CJ, Marisnick swings at a lot of non strikes, he doesn’t draw any walks, but he can tatoo a hitters pitch enough that his average should always be passable, and at times good. But long term, you need a guy that can survive those slumps by getting on base in other ways.

      Marisnick is much more valuable than CJ because he can run and defend. I was ready to move on from CJ (as long time members of the Chip family can attest), but I would love Marisnick to be a long time Astro. He can be our modern day outfield version of Casey Candaele, there are a million ways to help. One thing I dont see, is our CF’er of the future, or RFer of the future, because I don’t think a .300 OBP (or less if a slump happens), is not what I want unless he comes with a .450+ SLG, and that likely won’t be the case either. Now if either of those DO develop, and it’s not beyond possibility, just probability, than I am all in, but I don’t see him being a 25 HR guy, or even a big doubles guy.


  5. So, after an email exchange with Chip where I patted myself on the back for being a great editor, I see at least three mistakes I’m kicking myself over.

    That’s the kind of Bush League editing that you find on TCB. Ugh!


    • The same in depth interviewing that got us Bud Selig? Yeah I know that Bud was just one of the boys an owner working for owners.
      Maybe I was asleep but it was really an under the radar job search – not even the normal Bob Costas for commissioner hokum.


    • If he wants to make any changes how about getting rid of interleague play and the unbalanced schedule? These would be 2 items that, in my opinion, need to be changed immediately.


  6. I think MarGo is a great super sub in the defensive flexibility he brings. I don’t see Dominguez or Singleton on this roster unless they win their respective jobs.

    I think Marisnick, Springer, Rasmus and Gattis are tagged for OF duty with Presley as a 5th. If Singleton does win his job then I would think Grossman will be pushed out. I would be interested to have dinner with Hinch and pick his brain about where he is going. If you read between the lines in interviews it would seem like the Astros are going to make Presley and Grossman compete for the 5th spot, put Gattis in LF, and give Marisnick the nod as the 4th. It sounds like to me the Astros are committed to giving Singleton a chance to lose the job. It would probably match what I would do.

    Spring training is a rough place to get that answer. As OP pointed out before – a pitcher doesn’t care that you know a curve is coming, he is out there to throw 10 curves in a row because he is working on other things with it, not the hitter himself. Hitters could also be working on small adjustments they made and seeing live pitching for the first time with those adjustments. I am not sure a hot streak by Singleton will be legitimate, and I am not sure that a .160 average in a short sample would be significant either. I think Hinch and his staff will probably pay more attention to Singletons approach to things versus the actual result.

    Singleton has gotten a lot of attention here lately – and for good reason. He is a lynchpin, he will determine where Gattis gets his AB’s – and you better bet Gattis will get his AB’s. That impacts where Carter gets his, and how often we see Marisnick, and if Grossman and/or Presley even have a job come 1 April.

    In the end bench wise – MarGo, Conger, Marisnick and Presley is my pick to be the guys in the dugout, though I suspect MarGo and Marisnick will see significant enough time that I wouldn’t consider them traditional bench players. I expect we will see Dominguez and Grossman get opportunities sometime by 1 June. It will probably be 1 August before we see Tucker make his ML debut if Carter is a deadline deal – my suspicion is he will be.

    I haven’t seen Sclafani. If he wants to make the roster he will have to replace MarGo or Presley, and he won’t do that unless he is a plus defender. All the OBP in the world doesn’t help if you are only going to see 100 plate appearances. He needs to be able to help in other ways. If I made a list of small middle infielders with no power that could get on base in the minors, the list would be long. If I made a list of small middle infielders with no power that could get on base in the majors, not so long. Shuck showed me one thing – it takes at least the threat of a homerun for a major league pitcher to seriously consider not giving in and putting one in the zone to hit – don’t have to be Barry Bonds, just have to have enough power to be a threat to do it.


  7. How about this question – I don’t think the Astros would consider it, but could an outside the box thinker say with this pitch framing idea that is catching on – Conger catches all the relievers and 1 starter? Gattis still carries his catching gear in case Castro has been removed and something happens with Conger – and it is outside the box. I would be excited to see what a Fields or Sipp could accomplish with a call or two a game being switched to their side of the advantage.


    • I can’t tell whether everyone is being sarcastic when they praise pitch framing anymore. The benefit of Conger (other than no passed balls) is that he stays really quiet. Umpires generally have decided ball or strike within 15 feet of release…just like hitters. Unlike hitters, however, they get to change their mind. When a catcher has to reach for a ball, it means the umpire sees something unexpected. He expects it to go where the catcher set up and that should coincide with his first 15 foot impression. Fields probably gets a couple calls every few appearances on borderline strikes if Conger can receive them without much movement. I’m not sure on Sipp…it may swing the other way where he gets squeezed. Why? Questec.


  8. Margo makes the team because he made it last year and no one better was signed. Presley makes the team because he is older and overpaid, and we can’t admit we made a mistake. Conger makes the team because … well we need an extra catcher that is not an emergency catcher. Singleton is on first for a minimum of 1/2 year for the same reason as Presley. So that leaves only one position up for grabs. Probably whoever has a decent ST between Robbie & Jake. I just don’t see Hoes or Matty D. even in the picture no matter what happens. At to pinch hitting, as long as it is not Orlando Palmeiro or Jason Michaels – I can live with whoever gets chosen.


  9. I really don’t think Singleton is going to start the year with the big league club. I have a feeling Luhnow is not happy with Big Jon’s offseason and wants to send him a message by putting him back in AAA. I think he will have to have a very strong spring to earn a starting job. Thus, I think Grossman will be in Fresno and Marisnick and Presley make the big league club with MarGo and Conger completing the bench.


    • I can’t figure out your lineup if that is your bench. Gattis in LF? Carter at 1B? Who is the DH?

      I think either Singleton or Grossman make this team but not both.


      • Carter at 1B with Marisnick starting in the OF with Springer and Rasmus. Presley will get starts as well. Not a full platoon with JFSF, but Presley will start many games against RH pitching. Gattis is DH.


  10. Relative to Manfred and strike zones – they have been talking about cutting off the low strikes that are being called. That is not helpful to our staff that lives at the bottom of the zone. Yes, it would probably raise run production, but so would slow pitch underhand throws. My big complaint in football is that they keep making rule changes to make pass defense more and more difficult in order to raise scoring. Are we going that way here too?


    • Dan, I don’t mind the league enforcing the strike zone that has always been in place. If the zone is the width of the plate including the black and from the knees to the letters, then call it that way. If the umps have let the zone slide downward over the years, then it is the umps who need to get it back up where it belongs. I don’t see that as a rule change, but a getting back to what the rules say and I’m okay with that.
      Now, if they want to officially change the strike zone above the knees to actually change the game itself, I’m totally against that.


    • Personally from watching the games I’ve always thought there was a lot more problems with the width of the strike zone being called too wide and the top of the strike zone being ignored (rarely called high strikes). I thought the bottom of the strike zone was the one place where they were closest to the rules. Just my opinion.


      • I agree. They never give the pitcher the upper part of the zone anymore. It seems like over the years the zone has just fallen two inches. If they raised it back up where it is supposed to be, batters would have to learn how to swing at high strikes again and stop golfing the ball.


  11. What I love about this year is how the bench shows the improvement on the team. MarGo, who had an OPS+ of like 107 or something is a bench player. Grossman, who has a great OBP tool, might not even make the team.

    There’s depth, and the bench is the proof.

    This, as much as Gregerson and Neshek, is why this team is headed for 81 wins or more.


    • Robbie Grossman was 161st in the majors on OBP among all players in 2014. If you arbitrarily stuck his numbers into players stats who actually qualified to be leaders in the OBP category he would be around #57. His career OBP of .335, nor last year’s number of .337, in no way qualifies as great.


      • I think it’s more a matter of selective memory here when talking about his MLB stats. Take a look at his Avg/OBP/SLG by month last year:

        April: .125 .236 .313 (55 PA)
        May: .238 .333 .286 (24 PA)
        June: .156 .283 .200 (54 PA)
        July:. 293 .423 .414 (71 PA)
        Aug: .220 .331 .320 (118 PA)
        Sept: .307 .367 .386 (100 PA)
        Oct: LOL

        His MiLB numbers were nice though – .278 .387 .405 over almost 3000 PA.


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