Jeff Luhnow's Big Decision

added 6/7/2015 by Bob Hulsey

Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow has a big decision to make soon. No, it's not about when to call up super prospect Carlos Correa (late note: the Astros did just that after Sunday's loss). No, it's not about whether to trade for Cole Hamels or another front-line starting pitcher. No, it's not about which two players to choose with the first five picks of this week's draft. Those decisions will all take care of themselves.

The real decision for Luhnow is what to do about the trio of Chris Carter, Evan Gattis and Jon Singleton. All three have their reasons why they should be starting for the Astros but only two of them can. Although each has been tried in the outfield, all three are primarily first basemen and designated hitters. With the American League style of play and the small replacement benches caused by 12-man and 13-man pitching staffs, it's impractical to have all three on the roster at the same time. Unless one gets injured, somebody needs to go.

Singleton made the decision easy this March because of his offensive struggles in Spring Training. Singleton went to Fresno, Carter went to first base and Gattis became the DH. The Astros prospered but Carter and Gattis both hit below .200 while Singleton was killing the ball in AAA, prompting demands that he be called back up.

In the past few weeks, Gattis and Carter have picked up steam. Gattis leads the club in runs batted in and has batted .297 with a .912 OPS over the past four weeks. Gattis, who will turn 29 in August, won't be arbitration eligible until 2016 so he's a cheap, productive bat which, for now, is enough to overlook the fact that he's walked just nine times all year and carries a horrid .265 on base percentage.

Carter recently inched over the .200 batting average mark for the first time all season yet he's still among the club leaders in home runs (10) and RBIs (30). Unlike Gattis, Carter has learned to take a walk (27) so his OBP is a decent .302. However, he leads the American League in strikeouts with 78 and might break his own club record of 212 set two years ago.

Carter's defense at first base has been surprisingly good with just three errors all season. He is probably the best baserunner of the three and exudes a calmness that doesn't seem to change no matter how often he whiffs.

Carter turns 29 in December and is already eligible for arbitration. In his first year, he's earning $4.18 million and that figure would be expected to double for next year if he can reach 30 homers like last season (second in AL with 37).

Maybe this situation would be fine if Singleton weren't burning money in Fresno. You see, Singleton signed a multi-year deal last summer that pays him $10 million through 2018 plus a club option through 2021.

Remember all the fuss when George Springer refused to sign such a long-term deal with the Astros? Do you recall Luhnow also tried to lock up Matt Dominguez and Robbie Grossman to long-term contracts? The Astros are hoping you forget while Dominguez and Grossman are probably cursing their agents for turning the money down.

Singleton said "I do" however and the marriage has been a little bumpy. Despite some highlight-reel games in Fresno, Singleton's numbers this year look eerily similar to the ones he had last season in Oklahoma City before he was brought up to Houston where he hit .168 with 13 homers in 310 at bats last year.

Observe:

2014 OKC 54 gms, 195 ABs, .267 BA, .941 OPS, 14 HR, 52K
2015 Fre 53 gms, 199 ABs, .271 BA, .954 OPS, 14 HR, 45K

Modest improvement, at best. But his AAA numbers aren't what bothers anyone. It's how they project to the big league level. I'd guess he might be a .210-.220 hitter with above average power, high strikeouts and a .700 OPS if he played the second half of the season in Houston - approximately what the Astros are already getting currently from Chris Carter.

And that's the problem. Carter exploded in July and August last year to suddenly become what his supporters always believed he could be. The Astros don't want to trade that Chris Carter away but they also have no assurance that the molten-lava-hot version of Chris Carter is ever going to re-appear.

Singleton might also become a .900-OPS player in Houston and he wouldn't be the first future star to bomb out on his first trip to The Show. Only the Astros have no way to find out which Jon Singleton they'll be getting without first unloading (or disabling) Gattis or Carter.

What is apparent is that Singleton has learned whatever lessons he going to learn in AAA and the longer the Astros wait to call him up, the more his confidence may erode that he's in their long-term plans despite the contract.

Defensively, Singleton is also below average. He's committed six errors this year for Fresno, double the number Carter has.

Luhnow has four ways to play this:

1) Trade Gattis. He's probably limited to AL teams in trade and dealing him makes the least economic sense plus Luhnow had to give up three prospects, including Mike Foltynewicz, to get him from Atlanta. The only way you do this is if you're absolutely sold on both Carter and Singleton.

2) Trade Singleton. He's on a very team-friendly contract and his best years are clearly ahead of him. Yet he could also be the centerpiece of the trade for a Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto. If the Astros have doubts Singleton will ever become mature enough to be trusted as a major league regular, perhaps this is the right move to make.

3) Trade Carter. He's likely to be not worth the money after this season and the lineup might flourish without that strikeout magnet in the middle but he's unlikely to fetch anything in return comparable to what the Astros would like to think he is worth. There's also the danger of trading him just before his next summer explosion - especially to a team the Astros may need to beat in order to make the playoffs.

4) Do nothing and wait until the end of the season. Unless Gattis and Carter wind up carrying the offense while Singleton slumps in the second half, this seems the least desirable option. Carter could have value as an unsigned free agent next winter, fetching a draft pick in return, but that might not happen either.

Forcing Singleton to wait the year in Fresno (or at least until September when rosters can expand) seems like a waste of both talent and money. He needs to see big league pitching again before he has any chance of conquering it. Singleton must wonder what the organization thinks of him if he's being blocked by one guy hitting .230 and another hitting .200.

This will not be a simple decision but it may be the most important one Luhnow has had to make thus far in his tenure as General Manager.