Hope Springs Eternal

added 3/11/2007 by Scott Barzilla

Some people wonder why Spring Training garners so much more interest than the other pre-seasons. I was having a debate at work about why I love baseball more than the other major sports. The answer came back to the placement of the best minor league system in professional sports. Players that come to the big leagues are generally more prepared than their counterparts in other sports. No one can deny that MLB is experiencing a zenith in terms of overall quality of competition.

Watching the youngsters ply their craft is the best part of Spring Training. Of course, watching young players assert themselves creates tons of debates. In 2005, it was Luke Scott that found himself in the center of the storm. Last season, it was Eric Munson causing waves. This year, it is Hunter Pence's turn. In each of the other two cases, the players made the big team and failed in their inaugural audition. Yet, the Astros have high hopes for Pence where the other two weren't necessarily seen as long-term solutions.

This is where the debate rages. As of this moment, Pence is hitting north of .700 with a slugging percentage in the four digit range. Of course, small sample sizes and questionable competition always should make people take pause. Still, if we expand our sights outside of Astroland, we can recall several stars announcing their presence in March. Most notably, some in bulletin board land are touted the comparison between Pence and Albert Pujols. Dreams of another Pujols type of player patrolling the outfield in Houston are likely just that. Still, March is the time to dream. This raises the question: how similar is Pence with Pujols the bushleaguer?

                PA    OBP    SLG    OPS    HR    SO    BB
Hunter Pence   1319  .376   .556   .932    67   229   139
Albert Pujols   541  .378   .543   .921    19    46    47

            HR/100    SO/100    BB/100 
Pence        5.08      17.36     10.54
Pujols       3.51       8.50      8.69

Obviously, we can see how different the two organizations are. Both spent an equal amount of time in college, but Pence has two additional seasons in the minors. Of course, Pujols has been a better major league hitter than minor league hitter. The likelihood of this happening to Pence is slim. However, if he produces his minor league numbers then he will obviously be better than the lot in right field. Of course, it is easy to drool over Pence after seeing what Luke Scott, Chris Burke, and Jason Lane have become at the big league level. It might be instructive to put their minor league numbers against Pence.

          PA    OBP    SLG    OPS    HR    SO    BB
Pence    1319  .376   .556   .932    67   229   139
Scott    2198  .366   .534   .900   113   467   244
Lane     2310  .371   .518   .889    97   367   227
Burke    2072  .372   .425   .797    28   239   186

          HR/100    SO/100     BB/100
Pence      5.08      17.36      10.54
Scott      5.14      21.25      11.10
Lane       4.20      15.89       9.83
Burke      1.35      11.53       8.98

As we can see, all of these players exhibited great promise in the minor leagues. Naturally, Chris Burke is a second baseman and should be a second baseman, but that is a different argument for a different day. However, if we put Burke at second and compared Pence to the other three we would actually see very little difference between them. Pence appears to be slightly better than Lane and arguably just as good as Scott. Perhaps, a Pence in centerfield with Scott and Lane platooning in right would be the answer. Sadly, it won't be this year.

So, the question remains. Do the Astros go by past major league performance or the promise of potential? Potential is often seductive and elusive. Jason Lane had potential once. Chris Burke had potential once. Luke Scott actually produced on his potential for a brief half season. Now, some fans are willing to throw that all away. At the same time, it is easy to dismiss the plundering of Hunter Pence as freak luck or a AAA slugger feasting on AAA pitchers. The Cardinals guessed right on Albert Pujols several years ago. Most teams guess wrong when they go with the flavor of March.

Personally, I have to say I'm torn on Hunter Pence. Generally speaking, most experts agree the Astros wait far too long to promote their youngsters. Yet, they also agree that Pence won't be served at all on the Houston bench. So, the question is whether he should start in Houston or start in Round Rock. If he starts in Houston who will he replace? Yet, if he starts in Round Rock some people will always wonder whether the Astros second best outfielder is actually in AAA and not Houston.