Why Astros GM likes move to the AL
February, 14, 2013
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
AP Photo/David J. PhillipBrett Wallace will likely see some at-bats as the designated hitter this season.The Astros are already in the business of doing things their own way. They've made that clear from the outset, going back to 2011 when they tabbed talent guru Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals' front office to be their new general manager. They made the move knowing their franchise would eventually have to move from the NL Central to the AL West in the latest bit of embroidery to Bud Selig's grand design for Major League Baseball.
And not to put too fine a point on it, the leap means moving to the designated hitter league and all that goes with the territory: mainly, employing another hitter. An extra expense? Maybe, but with a budget under $30 million, that's no big deal. More importantly, it means more playing time to develop their younger hitters. It's just like these Astros to see it as an opportunity for a franchise on the rebound.
Luhnow is very upfront about the benefits having the designated hitter affords the Astros. “I like it," he said. "It's an opportunity to find a particular kind of player, a hitter who may be more limited defensively. In the National League, you can get such a pileup at first base or left field.”
Looking ahead, Luhnow also sees this as an opportunity to take a few chances on bats. “While I don't think it'll change how we develop our hitters or our approach to how you teach hitting as an organization, in the AL -- with the DH -- you might go out and draft somebody you might not without it.”
With four first-base types on hand in Brett Wallace, veteran Carlos Pena, and now Chris Carter from the Athletics and Rule 5 pick Nate Freiman from the Padres, it might seem like they already have those players on hand.
So who is going to be the Astros' inaugural DH? It reflects the organization's adaptability that the answer will be "nobody." Because, like many teams these days, the Astros aren't going to give the majority of their DH starts to one player. Having the DH to spread at-bats around gives the Astros the opportunity to take a few chances on defense and play matchup games that keep their best and most promising hitters active.
“We're fortunate -- Carlos Pena is a very good first baseman. We're going to see if Chris Carter can play some left field. And while [trading for] Matt Dominguez changed things at third base, Brett Wallace is going to get some more looks at third,” Luhnow said. “And [Rule 5 pick] Nate Freiman, he'll get some at-bats; we'll see if he hits.”
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireFirst baseman Chris Carter may also spend some time in left field for the Astros.
That might sound daring when you consider that neither Wallace or Carter has been seen as anything other than a first base/DH in the big picture. Carter's playing experience in the outfield amounts to 85 games across eight seasons as a pro, and none in the majors since 2010, when he was fairly brutal in left for the A's. And the bulky Wallace's best position ever since he was drafted in 2008 -- by Luhnow and the Cardinals -- was always “hitter.” Although Luhnow cited last year's five-start experiment with Wallace at the hot corner as an indication he will be able to handle the position in 2013.
Speaking about that flexibility and the likelihood that manager Bo Porter will be free to play daily matchups across several positions, Luhnow said, “Bo would consider using Jose Altuve at DH to give him a day off [from second base]. We have seen teams that use the slot more creatively, not just to get a lumbering power hitter into the lineup, but to spread playing time around and give some of those at-bats to a speed guy.”
One of the reasons Luhnow appears confident about spreading around those at-bats is because of the challenge that DH'ing represents for young players. Where someone like Eddie Murray could win rookie of the year as a 21-year-old DH in 1977, the more recent example of “can't-miss” offensive prospect Jesus Montero flopping badly as a 22-year-old DH in 2012 demonstrates that it might take a special player to make the adjustment.
As Luhnow notes, “It's not an easy transition. As an organization, you have to be extremely cautious with that. And as a hitter, you need to be more involved, more disciplined. It's definitely a change for a player used to going back out on the field every half-inning.”
Does that challenge rise to the level of a mental block? One major league scout who evaluates the AL West recalled one wrinkle to the previous winter's hot stove: “Remember when Prince Fielder was a free agent, and he was adamant that he wasn't going to sign anywhere as a DH? That might be fine for now, but at some point it's a bridge he's probably going to have to cross, and I wonder if that statement, given how mental hitting is, puts a pre-emptive mental block in his head.”
In short, the mental challenge of DH'ing is something that affects different players differently, and can make an impact on personnel decisions. As the scout notes, “Making it even more odd, it seems to happen with the greatest of great hitters. Albert Pujols had an OPS 164 points lower at DH than at first base last year. Granted, it was his first year with any extensive time doing it, but if it happens again, it really could affect how a club values him towards the end of that contract.”
Regardless, for 2013 and for the time being, Luhnow stresses that “Giving somebody 120 starts at DH doesn't make sense for our club. We're going to have a lot of people going up and down from [Triple-A affiliate] Oklahoma City this year. For example, take our rotation -- we'll choose our best five to start, but I expect we'll see some of our next-best five at some point during the season.”
In short, guys will be challenged to earn their keep or their walking papers. After years of unglovely work in the field toiling in the minors, Carter might be a defensive disaster in left field. But thanks to the playing time available with the DH slot, he'll get regular at-bats spread out between left, first and DH. If Wallace picks up all of the starts at third that Dominguez doesn't draw when he isn't in the first base/DH mix, so much the better to see what he can do.
If they're bad, is there really that much difference if the Astros lose 105 games or 110? Not really; not compared to what they'll get to learn about the talent they have on hand.
If Carter can play an acceptable left and Wallace an adequate third 30-40 times a season, the flexibility will give Porter options a lineup-card maestro like Rays skipper Joe Maddon might admire. It also assures Carter, Wallace, Dominguez and left fielder J.D. Martinez the at-bats to show the organization whether they get to stay -- or go.
Of course, there is one other downside of employing a DH: taking the bat out of your pitchers' hands when they might actually enjoy hitting. From where he sits, Luhnow doesn't seem to mind that much, noting that it will help prevent injuries to his pitchers while batting or running the bases.
But he also recalls, “When I was with the Cardinals, we had some pitchers who really loved to hit.” Pausing to chuckle, “And Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris do fancy themselves hitters.”
Which, even after the Astros have moved to the DH league, sounds a lot like Selig's other big fiat as czar -- interleague play -- will always have a built-in constituency.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.