Astros Playing Time Battles: Hitters by Scott Strandberg January 25, 2016 We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag. The Astros shocked the baseball world in 2015, improving from a 70-92 record in 2014 to an 86-76 mark, which earned the team a playoff berth for the first time in a decade. Houston benefited from great pitching — finishing the season with the best team ERA in the American League — but that’s not to take anything away from the team’s prolific bats. The Astros were second in the majors in home runs (230) and on base plus slugging (.752), as well as sixth in runs scored (729). Still, Houston approaches 2016 with a huge question mark at first base, as well as potentially complicated situations in the outfield and behind the plate. Time to sort these situations out, and see if there’s any sneaky fantasy appeal at hand. FIRST BASE Jon Singleton currently projects to be the Astros likely Opening Day first baseman, but his leash will unquestionably be mighty short. The 24-year-old hasn’t had much of an issue handling Triple-A pitching in the last two years, but neither his power nor his contact abilities have translated to the majors. That’s a bit of an issue when discussing a defensively limited 1B. I’ve long been a fan of Singleton, as indicated by the two times I’ve written about him on this very site. However, some of the things I point to as positive indicators in those pieces from 2014 (cutting down on strikeouts, playing better defense) haven’t carried over to the game’s top level. Weirdly enough, one thing that did was his increased ability against left-handed pitching. He’s hit .256/.343/.465 with four bombs and six doubles in an (admittedly small) 99-PA sample in the majors. Unfortunately, Singleton has been woefully inadequate against major-league right-handers, hitting an embarrassing .144/.274/.288 in a not-as-small 321-PA sample. While he may be penciled in as the tentative starter, he’ll be on thin ice from day one. Singleton still possesses the upside to be a 25-30 homer guy at his peak, but his odds of reaching that level are looking ever slimmer. So, what happens if Singleton falls flat on his face? That is a very good question, and one without a clear answer. The most exciting option in the Astros’ system is top prospect A.J. Reed, who the team selected with the first pick of the second round (42nd overall) in the 2014 draft. The 22-year-old Reed tore the cover off the ball in both High-A and Double-A last year, crushing 34 homers with a .340/.432/.612 slash in 622 PA between the two levels. Reed will likely start the season in Triple-A, but the Astros haven’t exactly been shy about promoting players aggressively. He isn’t currently on the 40-man roster, but the Astros do have two spots open. Even if Reed has a red-hot spring while Singleton struggles, Reed is most likely starting the season in the minors. Still, he’s certainly worth watching as the season begins, and for those of you with an NA slot in your leagues, he’s a highly intriguing stash candidate. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if Preston Tucker sees time at first base in Spring Training. The 25-year-old played first for three years in college before moving to the outfield, and he saw 98 games of major-league action as an outfielder last year. The good news was that Tucker’s power translated to the majors, as he blasted 13 homers in 323 PA. The bad news was his sub-.300 OBP. Tucker never had an issue getting on base in the minors, with a career .363 OBP in 1,530 PA, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to make the necessary adjustments. If the Astros feel that Reed isn’t ready, they need a contingency plan should Singleton struggle. Tucker is by all accounts a poor defensive first baseman, but he’s a subpar outfielder too, so I’m not sure that’s much of a net loss. Plus, it’s not like Singleton is a whiz with the glove out there to begin with. If the Astros decide to keep Tucker strictly in the outfield, and feel Reed isn’t ready, and Singleton fails to hold down the job — which all combined still isn’t an unlikely scenario — the remaining options are utilityman Marwin Gonzalez and 3B/1B Matt Duffy. Gonzalez made 20 starts at first for the Astros last year, but he’s far more valuable in his utility role than he would be as a semi-regular first baseman. Duffy received only nine plate appearances in the majors in 2015, but showed a strong ability to hit in Triple-A. However, he’s also 27 years old, and isn’t considered to be much of a prospect, so he’s likely just a bench bat. As you can see, the first-base picture gets awfully cloudy in Houston if Singleton doesn’t produce. All told, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Reed seeing regular at-bats in the majors before the All-Star Break, but Tucker’s worth keeping an eye on here as well. OUTFIELD With Colby Rasmus accepting a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer, all three regular outfield spots are seemingly on lockdown. Unless there’s an injury, George Springer will be in right, Carlos Gomez will man center, and Rasmus will play left. The only immediate path to semi-regular playing time seems to be for Jake Marisnick, who will likely see playing time over Rasmus when the team faces lefties. Marisnick — who will be 25 years old this season — is an interesting case, in that he was a can’t-miss prospect who has essentially come up empty. Marisnick’s never had a tool that wowed scouts, but he was a highly well-rounded prospect who seemed like a safe bet to be an above-average regular for years to come. 238 major-league games later, and he’s hitting .232/.273/.342. The big issue for Marisnick is his terrible plate discipline, with a 4.4% walk rate against a 27.4% strikeout rate. This problem first cropped up when he was promoted to Double-A in 2012, and hasn’t shown many signs of improvement. He still had his impressive moments last year, as his nine homers and 24 steals in 372 PA gave fans a glimpse of that balanced power/speed profile. Marisnick is a strong defender who can easily handle all three outfield positions, so he’ll get his playing time even if everyone’s healthy. If there’s an injury to one of Springer/Gomez/Rasmus, Marisnick will get the first crack at filling the vacated everyday role. The problem is — even with his HR/SB contributions — he’s such an undisciplined hitter that he’ll do more harm than good, outside of AL-only leagues. The next man up for outfield playing time is the aforementioned Preston Tucker. Tucker’s got several possible avenues to major-league playing time this season, and I like his chances to improve on that poor OBP from last year if given an opportunity. Someway, somehow, Tucker’s going to play a decent amount of major-league ball this year. It’s the whole when/where/how that’s anyone’s guess. The other outfielder of note for 2016 is Andrew Aplin. Aplin was added to the Astros’ 40-man in November, and is entering his age-25 season. He possesses otherworldly plate discipline; amazingly, he has more walks (260) than strikeouts (226) in his four-year professional career. Given that information, it’s probably not surprising to hear that his career OBP is .385. Aplin isn’t crazy-fast, but he’s quick enough to capitalize on his on-base skills to swipe some bases, averaging 26.5 SB per season. This is where the good news ends, as there are valid concerns regarding his hit tool playing at the next level. His minor-league batting average is .284, which is fine if you’ve got some power to go with it, which Aplin absolutely does not. In both 2014 and 2015, his slugging percentage was lower than his OBP. If Aplin sees significant time in the majors this year, that probably means the Astros are in a world of trouble. Aplin is quite clearly sixth in the outfield pecking order, behind Springer/Gomez/Rasmus/Marisnick/Tucker, and doesn’t possess the upside to pass any of those guys. If he’s playing regularly, it’s because three of those five guys got hurt at the same time. Why did I write so much about Andrew Aplin? Evan Gattis will probably see a few games in the outfield again this year, but for the sake of all that is holy, let us all hope that he stays firmly entrenched in the DH slot where he belongs. Nothing good ever came from Gattis wearing gloves of any sort. CATCHER Jason Castro’s stock sure has tumbled since his All-Star season in 2013. In the two years since then — an 887-PA sample — he’s hit just .217/.284/.365. The 28-year-old is still an excellent defensive catcher, so he’ll get plenty of time behind the plate, but his struggles against left-handed pitching have grown painfully obvious: 2014 (126 PA): .237/.272/.347 (.619 OPS), 3.2% BB, 31.7% K 2015 (111 PA): .192/.243/.269 (.512 OPS), 6.3% BB, 34.2% K Enter Max Stassi. The 24-year-old’s development has stalled several times due to injuries, and I’ll freely admit that his Triple-A numbers look rather terrible. Still, he’s always shown solid power at every minor-league stop, and he really seemed to figure things out last year after an awful start, posting an .800+ OPS in July and August, before receiving his September call-up. The right-handed Stassi offers the Astros a platoon partner to prevent Castro from getting so much exposure against lefties. Stassi isn’t much more than an average defender, so he’s certainly not going to steal the job from Castro, but at the very least I expect him to start against southpaws. If Castro were to get injured, Stassi would be in line for huge playing time, because the organization is extremely thin at catcher behind these two.