When I checked the alphabetical AL standings and saw Houston were next up in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I groaned aloud. I can only equate writing about the Houston Astros to the chore of doing ironing; no one wants to do it, it’s not enjoyable, relaxing, or even educational – it just needs to be done if something is to be presentable. However depressing the Astros are though, the show must go on. So having yesterday dealt with Detroit’s frittering away of the opportunity to cement themselves as the class of the AL, today I’m faced with previewing a team that has lost 324 games over the past 3 seasons (including their last 15 of 2013), and will once again be picking first in the amateur draft this summer. The last time they weren’t doing so, way back in 2011, the Houston Astros selected George Springer.
As a Phoenix Suns fan, I was all aboard the respective Riggin for Wiggins/Sorry for Jabari/Concede for Embiid tanking trains entering the 2013-14 season. Of course, they’ve gone on to be annoyingly half-decent this season, neither good enough to contend nor bad enough to bottom out, and have thus probably entrenched themselves in the mediocre middle ground of the NBA for the next half-decade in the process. The best amateur talent is available only to the biggest losers after all, a fact especially true in the lottery-free draft practiced by MLB. So I can understand the bold approach of Jeff Luhnow’s Houston Astros; the whole concept of systematically rewarding teams for being atrocious is an inefficiency to be exploited by those shameless enough to do so. Sometimes you have to be bad to get good. And the Astros of this decade have been really, really, REALLY bad.
Having in 2013 become only the the 12th team since 1900 ever to lose 111 games, their third consecutive 100+ loss season, the Astros are finally primed to begin the climb back to relevancy – starting in 2014. The first installment of (un)deserved riches should hit the field this year, a crop of young talent led by 2011’s 11th overall pick George Springer. And if the dynamic center fielder is anything to go by in terms of the general sort of talent on the way, all the painful losses will have been well worth it.
Ranked by both ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball America as the 19th best prospect in professional ball, Springer tore up the minors in 2013, narrowly missing a historic 40-40 season (he only had 37 HRs to go with his 45 SB) on his way to posting a .303/.411/.600 line between Class AA and AAA. He actually improved as he progressed too, upping his line from .297/.399/.579 in Double A to .311/.425/.626 at Triple A – overcoming a .028 drop in BABIP in the process. His isolated power also soared at the higher level – from an already-impressive .282 to a frankly outrageous .315, with Fangraphs recently estimating further gains: “At 6’3″, 205 pounds, Springer has a muscular frame that projects well for future power development if he adds some weight over the course of his career.” Just for good measure, as if his hitting didn’t make him an elite prospect already, Springer also possesses plus speed, a tool he utilized well not only the basepaths, but parlayed effectively into playing a rangy center field.
Before Houston fans need to go take a cold shower however, we should mention the strikeouts, and the odd peripherals that led Keith Law to label him “a mold-breaker”. Seriously, they’re like some weird baseball experiment; despite more than a quarter of his plate appearances last year ending in a strikeouts (161Ks to 589 PAs) and a horrific 65.3% contact rate, the 24 year old also demonstrated above-average plate discipline, drawing 83 walks (good for a 15.4% BB% in his 266 Triple-A PAs). By the numbers, Springer apparently swings hard at everything in the zone regardless of the count, missing at a mindless rate, yet also has the eye to lay off the junk. As Jeff Sullivan put it, “It’s not that he misses a bunch of unhittable pitches. He actually misses more hittable pitches.” The question of whether this unintentional experiment will befoul Springer’s admirable average at the top level of the sport will soon be answered however.
Asked what to expect of the UConn product in 2014, GM Jeff Luhnow vouched ”I think George Springer will be a starting outfielder in Houston this year.. Whether it happens Opening Day or sometime during the season, he’s a special talent.” Most projections have him on track to make it in May, thereby both delaying the start of his service clock and allowing Springer the chance to get some Triple A repetitions in right field – the acquisition of Dexter Fowler presumably pushing him to the corner when he reaches the majors. Once he makes it to Minute Maid Park though, expect big things. Though he would be the jewel of several other teams’ minor league systems, Springer is somehow only the 3rd best prospect in the Astros setup, which already the best in the game is expected to add heralded NC State LHP Carlos Rodon with the first overall pick in this years draft. Springer’s arrival will mark just the beginning of a stream of top prospects then, though his should be among the most memorable.