A Gamble that Fans Love

6/24/2013

 
The Houston Astros not only are playing (and winning) baseball at a better rate over the last five or six weeks, but also elevating some of their top minor league prospects to get them one step closer to the team.

Baseball fans love that sort of thing. Not all baseball front office folks or scouts are as totally enthusiastic. Oh, they all love the winning more thing, but the promotion toward the majors is always debated. More than anything there are two reasons. Number one has to do with a club having control of a player with a reasonable contract during his prime seasons. Statistics over the years have shown the prime of most players comes between 28 and 32 years old. There have been exceptions on the lower end, but now that PED’s are being more strictly monitored there are few exceptions on the high end.

Clubs don’t want the “clock” on arbitration to start too soon or the chance for players to file for free agency too soon. They want control during those peak years. Therefore, if a player comes up well before the peak the chances of having to get involved in a bidding war at some point to keep him becomes very real.

A second factor is whether the players are ready or not. This is where the decision to promote or not takes the most study. Can the player handle set backs when he finds success in the major leagues is considerably tougher than at his minor league stops? Could his confidence be shaken so badly that he never is able to live up to what his potential showed? Does he have holes in his swing or lack of pitching command that he is getting away with in the minors, but will be exposed on the major league level?

A player’s statistical success in the minor leagues can lead to rapid promotion. But it is no guarantee that same statistical success will continue in the major leagues.

Consider just some examples on the current Astro 40 man roster. Jordan Lyles was promoted to the major leagues at a very young age. He was less than 20 years old. He had been performing well at his minor league stops and was the best young arm in the system. His debut with the Astros had its good moments, but was not particularly successful overall. He was send down and came back up on a few occasions. But Lyles was not affected negatively either by his early lack of success in the majors or his having to be dropped from the club. He took his demotions in stride and continued to work hard to get back. He was in no way shell shocked. Now he appears to be well on his way to a long career as a key starting pitcher. He has made the adjustments including finding release points which have given his fast ball at least two or three more miles an hour than he showed when he first joined the Astros. He has mastered his control and learned what it takes to get major league hitters out.

Another Astro example is Jose Altuve. The 5’5″ second baseman is still learning all the intricacies of the game on the major league level. He is getting that chance for a very basic reason. He has shown he can hit no matter where he plays. The best hitter for average on the team, Altuve’s rise through the system was rapid. He deserved it. Certainly his skill set is somewhat limited. He won’t ever be a power hitter or stolen base leader or likely a gold glove winner. But he appears to be a consistent .290-.310 hitter and he can steal a base or make all the plays with his glove. The fact that he was not a prized draft pick, is a second baseman and has some other prospects behind him in the system made it easy to skip worrying about when he became arbitration eligible or a free agent. The Astros needed a second baseman–and a new face of the franchise for that matter–and he was it. So far it has worked well.

Things have not worked out so well for Brett Wallace. A highly regarded draft pick by St. Louis out of college he was part of several trades before getting a shot with the Astros. When he started playing with the team holes in his swing became quite evident. Using the common theory, “I ‘ve always done things this way and things have worked out,” he was reluctant to accept coaching according to one former Houston batting coach. Eventually, Wallace started to accept some help and had some moments of success. There were just not enough of them. With the first base job given to him to lose he did just that twice. And every time he would be send back to Oklahoma City he would begin to hit again. He is in that spot again. Is Wallace one of those 4-A hitters who are too good for Triple A, but not good enough for the majors? The Astros will likely give him another look before the year is out if he continues to succeed at OKC. Now, however, nothing will be given him. Jon Singleton, a first baseman, has been promoted to OKC. Wallace will be used more as the DH and some at 3b it would seem. But in sports nothing is guaranteed until a player signs a guaranteed contract. Will Singleton continue his rise? Will Wallace hold on and yet be a key Astro? Fans love to speculate about such things. General managers and scout agonize over them.

The Astros have made some moves with top prospects George Springer, Singleton and others. Fans want to see them in Houston uniforms as soon as possible. Management wants to see them as soon as feasible. That determination involves some intricate decision making. But more than anything it involves those players continuing to show (with stats and observation by scouts) that they are truly ready to succeed. If they are and the club has a hole to fill they will get their chance.

While the Astros farm system had not been strong for awhile there were some top level prospects who stayed down longer than some fans would have liked. During that period in the early to mid 2000s part of the reason was there was no room. The club had invested in free agents or already had veteran players manning the positions. There was room for debate whether some of the free agents or even veterans should have been on the club, but the situation as it was did not leave room for youngsters.

The current Astro club has none of that. If a young player shows he is ready to play he has a place. And the Astros have more players close to being ready to join that competition than ever before.

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About gregclucas

Author, "Baseball-Its More Than a Game" available through Amazon.com, BN.com or by order. Veteran sportscaster with extensive play by play experience in MLB, NBA and college sports.
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