On The Astros: Designating The Solution To The Designated Hitter Problem

Two Crawfish Boxes Writers examine two distinct paths to address the Designated Hitter position for 2018

Hello again, Astros fans! This promises to be a fairly lengthy article, but we hope you hang in there to read to the end, and we hope you join in the comments section conversation. Thanks for reading!

Jason Marbach (@TheArmoryBand):

Hey, Brian! I thought the time might be right, given the status of the World Champion Houston Astros as a team with a recently-retired Designated Hitter, to examine two primary avenues the Astros might explore in order to supplement the best offensive team in baseball. There are some interesting internal options available, and there are a few intriguing free agents bouncing around out there. But which course should the Astros pursue? I’ll defer to you to weigh in first.

Brian Stevenson (@Ashitaka1110):

I love the fact that we can actually say that there are interesting internal options, and more than merely interesting; multiple prospects that are MLB-ready and have the upside of legitimate, average-or-better MLB everyday hitters.

That said, I’m of the mind that, while this team is intact, we should be doing all we can to maximize our chances of winning. You don’t need to go crazy, like dealing for Giancarlo Stanton, but a free agent signing or trade acquisition (which is to say, someone with an MLB track record) might be the better option.

Before even that, maybe we need to talk about the 1,000 pound bear in the room, Evan Gattis. After having seen him get significant time behind the plate, it’s clear that he’s really not up to snuff as a catcher. I think we need to assume at this point that Houston will be looking for a different option at catcher next year. He’s certainly an option at Designated Hitter, though, so the question becomes cost versus production. Projections have him estimated around a 110 wRC+ with 28-30 home runs. Now, that’s not anything to sneeze at. But MLBTR’s arbitration estimates have him earning over six million dollars ($6.6 million, to be precise) in 2018. That’s not terrible for a guy who could provide one win with his bat alone. But with the payroll ever increasing and Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez and others fast approaching free agency, it might be time to make some tough choices about who we hang onto. Gattis isn’t a key member of this club in terms of on-field production, and the six or more million might be better allocated elsewhere.

So with that established, any free agent signing or trade is going to need to provide more value than Gattis might to be considered and upgrade worthy of the cost. One option might be local product Jay Bruce. While his overall numbers are similar to Gattis, the southpaw Bruce crushes right-handed pitchers (Gattis’ career splits are pretty even) and would help even out a very right-handed-heavy lineup. He could sit against tough left-handed pitchers and open up the DH spot for a day of partial rest for Springer, Altuve, etc. He reportedly wants a pretty healthy deal, but has also expressed specific desire to play for either the Astros or the Rangers, and to play for a contender. A hometown discount is not out of the question.

Another enticing option is Carlos Santana. He’s a switch-hitter who is more than 20% better than average from both sides of the plate on his career. He doesn’t have quite the raw power that Bruce or even Gattis do, but he’s a walk machine who rarely strikes out, an approach that would fit quite well in this lineup over the next four years or so, especially if Marwin Gonzalez walks in free agency after 2018 (which seems highly likely).

JM:

I have to admit, Carlos Santana is a guy I’ve wanted for more than a year now, and I still like him a lot. I love that he’s a switch hitter, and I love his really patient, low-K approach. I like that he can still play good defense. I like a lot of things about him, to be honest.

Know who else I still like a lot?

AJ Reed.

Yeah, I know. Bad body. Slow bat. Hasn’t yet exploded in the 150 or so total plate appearances he’s been given in the show. We’ve all hashed and rehashed that countless times. He might not end up being a particularly useful major league option.

So, too, might Colin Moran. Or Tyler White. Derek Fisher might not quite catch on in a full time role and move someone else (like Marwin Gonzalez, who might not repeat his 2017 career-year performance) to Designated Hitter. Preston Tucker may be gone forever. JD Davis might not have quite enough upside for his legitimate two-way playing possibilities to be fully realized in the big leagues.

Maybe. All of that is very possible. It’s likely that many of those eventualities come to pass, if not all of them.

Here’s where my head is at, though.

No reasonable person can say with any kind of real certainty what any of those guys are at this point, with the possible exception of Preston Tucker. More accurately: it isn’t clear at this point beyond reasonable doubt that any of those guys are busts, and a couple of them still hold legitimate upside. The Astros, meanwhile, have quite a few young star players who are either arbitration eligible this offseason or will be next offseason. While the payroll is increasing and can probably continue to increase to a certain extent over the coming years, it doesn’t make very good sense to spend money that may or may not need to be spent…especially when comparable production may be achievable at league minimum salary.

This is the part of this debate where the well-worn path leads straight to the “But competing teams can’t afford to experiment with their starting lineup” trope.

To which I would say…but can’t they?

Last year, the Astros fielded the best offense in baseball (and one of the best offenses in recent history) in spite of receiving a .298 wOBA and an 86 wRC+ from the DH position. Evan Gattis posted a reasonable effort at a .325 wOBA/105 wRC+, but Carlos Beltran had all but six of the remaining plate appearances of the season for the team at DH, and he had an objectively bad final season of his arguably-hall of fame career en route to posting a .283 wOBA and a wRC+ of 76. In fact, if you glance around baseball, only five teams fielded Designated Hitter positions that turned in performances better than a league-average wRC+ of 100 in 2017. Evan Gattis was one of only nine players in all of baseball to post a wRC+ of 100 or better as a Designated Hitter last year – the fact is, the position just isn’t the offensive bastion it once was. Only four active players have at least six hundred plate appearances as designated hitters since 2015 with wRC+ marks of better than 114, and only fifteen active players have at least 600 plate appearances with a league average (100) wRC+ or better in that time frame.

What does all that mean for the Astros? Well, besides the presence of a reasonable (relative to the rest of the players at the position) safety net in Evan Gattis, the Astros appear to be in a unique position to dedicate extensive playing time to a young hitter in 2018, ahead of the not-too-distant arrival of highly regarded younger prospects like Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, in order to evaluate the young hitters at the upper level of the minors in extended Major League playing time.

In other words, take players like AJ Reed or Colin Moran or JD Davis, slot them in at Designated Hitter and bat them eighth, and give them a couple hundred plate appearances in the Major Leagues, regardless of outcome. Just let those internal options fight through their growing pains and see who (if anyone) steps and takes the role for themselves. If no one does, Even Gattis is still here and can step in as needed. If someone does step in and claim the role, then Evan Gattis can easily be traded as needed. And either way, if the spot isn’t claimed by a young hitter like AJ Reed or Colin Moran, then after a 2018 which would likely resemble 2017 in terms of Astros Designated Hitter production, the Astros could conceivably move forward in a new direction for 2019 secure in the knowledge that they truly evaluated the best options available to them to that point. Then, if no starter for Designated Hitter has really presented themselves, the Astros might conceivably be in a position to enter the ridiculously stacked 2018-2019 free agent class.

Thoughts?

BS:

Good points. One counter-point could be injury concerns. If you give that spot away to the young guys to struggle in, that’s probably okay…until one or two of the key guys in the lineup hits the Disabled List for a few weeks, or worse. Then you suddenly have two or three or more spots in the lineup that are dead. In other words, depth. We all remember what happened when Carlos Correa went down for a while.

It should also be noted that the Astros’ all-time epic 2017 lineup was thanks in no small part to career seasons for George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, and Josh Reddick. Do those guys repeat? Does Yuli Gurriel, who is turning 34 next June, have essentially a sophomore slump? At what point does Brian McCann (34 years old in February) stop being a league-average hitter? If watching our entire rotation hit the DL all at once last year taught me anything, it’s that there are no guarantees. Having a guy who is more of a known quantity you can plug in to the lineup could end up being a bigger add than it looks like on paper right now.

You also might not have to spend too much to get it. Carlos Santana would be nice, but there could be other, cheaper options. Maybe you go out and get Matt Adams, who was non-tendered by the Braves, and let him do what he does; mash right-handed pitchers. Or maybe you make a trade. The Marlins are looking to slash payroll and Justin Bour is entering his arbitration years; maybe a package built on A.J. Reed could tempt them to go cheaper, meanwhile we plug a guy in who is realistically as good as Reed likely ever will be, and who is cost-controlled for a few years.

JM:

I can definitely see an argument to be made for certain additions. I personally have been pretty focused on an idea of adding Christian Yelich from the talent-shedding Marlins, but the Bour idea you suggested is also interesting.

The main thing for me is that I consider this a transitory year in many ways, and I don’t want the opportunity (“our primary DH from a year ago retired, leaving us with one season’s worth of playing time available for at least one internal hitter before one of the best free agent classes in baseball history will begin”) to pass by with us locking into someone externally instead of using the 2018 season to seriously evaluate some of our Triple-A hitters at the Major League level. Talent, if under-utilized, tends to atrophy, right? I just think this is a good year to evaluate who we have that may be able to contribute as part of a long-term plan to prune our system and remain a juggernaut as long as possible, all while keeping our payroll (and depth chart) a little more flexible and open so that we can be positioned to be major players for at least one premium free agent next winter.

Repeating as World Champs is an excellent goal, in my opinion. I don’t see any hindrance to that goal by swapping out Carlos Beltran’s below-league-average (24% below, to be precise) on-field production for a combination of players who may exceed but will probably at least match that production. But even if that did hinder us to an extent, our pitching is better now with Justin Verlander than it was last August when we went 11-17 without Correa, and I’d even go so far as to say that I would personally accept a minor step backward this year (if I absolutely had to) if it means adequately evaluating our young talent in Major League playing time in anticipation of (and preparation for) one of the biggest free agency periods in history.

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