If you recall, I wrote in these pages back in 2012 that the Astros should begin building their nucleus around Jose Altuve. All they needed to do, I surmised, was add one or two key players a season to reach the goal of competitiveness and regular playoff appearances.
Little by little, one by one, the Astros have added to their nucleus each season since 2012. Altuve. Dallas Keuchel. George Springer. Collin McHugh. Carlos Correa. Even Jason Castro and now Lance McCullers Jr. could be counted among the number.
Now, a few other players are nearing their windows of opportunity. Three in particular stand out as possible difference-makers in 2016. Two have never donned a major league uniform, the third is in his contract year which typically lights a fire that, in this case, Houston could take advantage of.
Here are the three.
Alex Bregman. 21. R/R. SS.
Could the Astros have captured lightning in a bottle…again? Another Carlos Correa? Are we about to witness the rebirth of the Biggio-Bagwell nucleus, only better? Bregman is the LSU product who could play either of the middle infield positions, both presently taken by All Star caliber players. Elite All Star caliber players.
Bregman could actually force the Astros’ hand this season. While Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch could be pressured to bring Bregman south when the team breaks camp, it’s more likely — considering historical and traditional data — that Bregman gets a chance at Corpus Christi or perhaps Fresno before moving on up. That also provides the Astros’ brass the time to determine its course for the second so-called ascension in two years. If, indeed, 2016 is Bregman’s year.
But where does Bregman play? The obvious answer is third base. Then again, many project Correa as a much better possibility for that spot in the future. Shortstops to third base isn’t a new-fangled idea. Alex Rodriguez moved to third when he joined the Yankees. Cal Ripken Jr. also made the move in his later years to make room for Mike Bordick. Correa is less established given half a year in the position, but he’s already staked his claim at shortstop.
Bregman could move to third, he could take short and Correa move to third. Or, the Astros could entertain what would likely end up as a PR fiasco and move Jose Altuve…to another team…to make room. Though that would create a haul, would Luhnow ever be so bold?
To be sure, Bregman must prove himself first. Yes, he seems like a no-brainer prospect with a certain All Star future in Houston.
A.J. Reed. 22. L/L. 1B.
No pressure here, but Reed could hold the season in his hands somewhat. First base has been a black hole since Lance Berkman left. Reed may be ready before other prospects this year and, if he even has a decent spring training, he could be pushed into service right out of the gate.
Don’t salivate, but the Astros could do worse now and in the future than an infield composed of Reed, Altuve, Correa and Bregman. That would potentially make Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey look like a minor league infield. Okay, yes, pushing it a little with emphasis on potential but you get the point.
Reed has hit at every level, including college, he’s a decent fielder though slow afoot, and he has the power Houston needs from a first baseman.
Carlos Gomez. 30. R/R. CF.
Of course, Gomez doesn’t come from the same class as the first two on this list, but he could change the Astros’ lineup completely if he reverts to his All Star seasons (2013-14). Fast with a solid OBP and stolen base threat would give the Astros that extra threat behind Altuve and Correa.
What’s different from 2015? Gomez is in his walk year and, while he could be traded either in spring training or in mid-season, he could be a difference maker while the Astros sort out their crowded outfield situation. If vintage 2013-14, Gomez provides Hinch one less position in the order to be concerned about. Just pencil him in and wind him up every day.
Like the infield, Houston would do much worse — and has done worse — than Gomez flanked by George Springer and Colby Rasmus.
Yes, there are a handful of others who could make a difference in Houston this year. Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, Tony Kemp or even Brady Rodgers or Matt Duffy could possibly break into the lineup, but the three above stand to make the most impact.