Key Position Battles

added 3/27/2009 by Scott Barzilla

I don't know what occurred to me first. It may have been the six game winning streak that brought the Astros from historically comical to currently palatable. It might have been re-reading my past few columns and seeing the dark clouds in all of them. Or, it could be the fact that there is a little more than a week of exhibition baseball left. Either way, it's time to start analyzing what could be your final roster.

With the demotion of J.R. Towles, there are two major battles left in Spring Training. The first appears to be coming down to who will man the final two infield slots. The other appears to be who will close out the pitching staff. Both look to be quite interesting and have plenty of players performing well this Spring. Competition seems to be bring out the best in people and this spring is no different. We will focus on the position battles first.

With Aaron Boone's open heart surgery complete, the Astros have a couple of questions facing them in the infield. First, do they want to keep Chris Johnson up and let him give it the ol' college try at third base? Johnson certainly has his advantages. He is only 24 years old and hit well over .300 last year at Corpus Christi. If there is such a thing as "third basemen of the future" in the Astros farm system, he appears to be it. However, he only got a cup of coffee with the Round Rock Express. So, do they let him skip Round Rock or do they send him back down to get more at bats in AAA?

The Astros have a second question, but before they even ask it they have to answer the first question. The second question is whether they want more offense out of their second utility infielder or do they want more defensive flexibility. Jason Smith appears to be the better hitter, but Edwin Maysonet is a better defender and able to play more positions. Of course, if the choose to send Johnson down then the second question is moot.

The easy temptation is to look at the Spring numbers and make an easy decision. At the most, we are talking about 50 plate appearances. That's the equivalent of two weeks of regular playing. I apologize off the bat if I'm a bit skeptical that this could tell us anything of value. In some ways it can if the decision is a close call and we will get to those numbers in a second. However, the career numbers in the minors are so much more valuable.

                   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   SO/100   BB/100
Edwin Maysonet    .257  .332  .383  .715    17.35    9.10
Jason Smith       .258  .293  .414  .707    24.82    4.84
Chris Johnson     .266  .304  .395  .699    16.38    5.00

You could throw a blanket over these numbers and see nothing. What you have are three mediocre minor league hitters that shouldn't be competing for anything of note. Thus is the state of the Astros. At first glance, I would pull Johnson out because he is 24 and can still grow into something with more seasoning. The fact that he hit over .300 last season has to be encouraging. The other two are 26 and 30 respectively. Smith has spent part of several seasons in the big leagues. We've all seen prospects and they ain't it.

However, when you look at the numbers and defensive prowess thrown in, Maysonet begins to separate himself. He makes more contact and draws more walks. He also can play several positions well. Someone threw out the name Eric Bruntlett the other day and I'd be inclined to agree. Bruntlett appears to be the upward mobility that Maysonet should aim to immulate.

That being said, it's not as if Smith is vastly inferior to Maysonet. Truth be told, utility infielders aren't that hard to find. In particular, utility infielders that project to an OPS under 700 can practically be had by giving a monkey a dart with a copy of a waiver wire on the wall. Well, the monkey threw his dart and Smith is the name it landed on. When the big numbers result in a tie then the smaller numbers then become more valuable.

              PA    AVG    OBP    SLG     SO     BB
Maysonet      23   .318   .348   .773      4      1
Smith         48   .422   .458   .600     11      3
Johnson       42   .237   .326   .368      7      4

Maysonet and Smith's numbers appear to be a bit cartoonish. A .773 slugging percentage is enough to make Barry Bonds blush. Obviously, we should take that with a huge grain of salt. Most of that came in one contest when Maysonet hit two home runs and a triple. He probably hasn't had a game like that since pitching machine. However, I include the last two categories because they can give us something. Maysonet is the best contact hitter of the bunch.

Similarly, Smith's spring has to be taken with some degree of skepticism, but he is hitting and hitting well. He's also striking out at the same clip he always has. His walk rate is also fairly similar to career norms. So, we can just look at his numbers the same way we would of any particular stretch in the season. It's a two week hot streak.

The irony of Johnson's numbers is that they approximate his career norms in terms of OPS. However, he is walking more and that is an encouraging sign. The odds point towards Johnson going back down and hoping to continue where he left off last season. Ed Wade told him he was definitely part of the future plans and given the dearth of talent at third base, that appears to be a promise Wade can deliver on.

Of course, the last question would be whether Smith or Maysonet should join Blum at third base. I would submit that this is not a question that needs to be answered by the end of Spring. Both players can play multiple positions, so both can serve a role on the bench even if they fail an audition at third base. Of course, if both fail miserably than Johnson is waiting in the wings. It's not an ideal scenario, but it looks a bit better than the scenario we had behind the plate before Rodriguez was signed. Who knows, maybe the Astros can catch lightening in a bottle as Gerry Hunsicker used to say.