Who's on first?
It's the age old question immortalized by Abbott and Costello, and the 2013 Astros appear just as confused heading into Spring Training as Abbott was when it comes to figuring out which player will be at first base on Opening Day.
If one every day position is going to get the lion’s share of attention during spring training, it’s going to be first base. Like the pitching staff, the Astros remedy in 2013 appears to be to throw as many options as possible at the spot and see if any stick. If multiple candidates play well, whichever player doesn’t win the position will likely be in mix for DH. Jeff Luhnow and Bo Porter have four possibilities to choose from and there are no sure things among them.
Brett Wallace has been with the Astros since the team picked him up from Toronto and are still waiting for him to claim the position. If this past offseason is any indication, the team’s patience is wearing thin. To his credit, Wallace has transformed his body over the past year and arrives at Kissimmee easily in the best shape he’s been in since joining Houston.
The transformation was underway last year and it showed up in improved pop in Wallace’s bat, hitting nine homers in 66 games in 2012 and his slugging percentage was 50 points higher than his career average. It still needs to improve if Wallace wants the Astros to stop bringing in people to compete with him for his job.
Last year the club put Carlos Lee at first because the team couldn’t justify sitting Lee and his $18 million salary. That put Wallace in Oklahoma City to start the season. There are no obstacles for Wallace this time around, just competition.
One of the players Jeff Luhnow brought in to compete with Wallace is Nate Freiman, a Rule Five draft pick from the Padres organization. As a Rule Five pick, Freiman has to remain on the Astros Major League roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Padres so it stands to reason that he will be given every opportunity (and then some) to earn a spot on the team. His size limits him to first base in the infield and possibly corner outfield. Freiman has power to go with that size, he’s hit 46 homers and driven in 216 runs in the last two seasons and he kept his strikeouts under 100 in both seasons (138 and 137 games played).
The one free agent the Astros brought in and paid seven-figures for is also in the mix at first base. Carlos Pena, a gold glove caliber defender at first has been a feast or famine type player offensively over the past few years. He has undeniable power, 277 career home runs and no fewer than 28 homers in any season from 2007 to 2011, but there are plenty of red flags.
His average is one. The least amount of strikeouts he’s had in a season since 2007 is 142. Pena’s average is another. He hasn’t hit higher than .227 in any year since 2009. If Pena’s going to win the starting job either at first or at DH he’s going to have to lower the strikeouts without losing much of his power.
Most fans thought the team was content going to spring training with those three candidates but Luhnow pulled off another deal and brought Chris Carter into the mix. Carter, who was part of the Jed Lowrie deal with Oakland, mashed the ball for the A’s last year while displaying a similar profile to Carlos Pena.
Carter his 16 homers in 218 at bats, projecting out to almost 40 in a full season’s worth of at bats, but the average, .239 in 2012, and the strikeouts, 83, are cause for some serious concern.
On Opening Day I think Brett Wallace will be starting at first with Carlos Pena as a DH. Chris Carter will be on the roster as well and Freiman will be offered back to the Padres.