It’s a good time to be a Houston Astros fan. The team is coming off their first ever World Series win and the near future looks good with an absolutely stacked roster that is projected to win over 100 games this season by a variety of prognostication systems. The core of the team remains spry, with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman all checking in at 27 years old or younger, while the periphery of the batting order is filled with above average veterans like Josh Reddick, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel.
If that weren’t enough, Houston’s prospect system is one of the best in baseball. Baseball America ranked it #2 in 2016, #4 and 2017 and #10 heading into the 2018 season, with the recent drop off related to major league promotion rather than deteriorating prospect quality.
This combination of a stacked MLB roster and flush prospect pipeline has made life difficult for a handful of Astros players. AJ Reed, a hulking power-hitting first baseman, won two minor league home run titles in the last three years but only has 128 MLB at bats to his name. JD Davis, a soon-to-be 25-year old third baseman, received a cup of MLB coffee towards the end of last year but looks destined to start the season with AAA Fresno due to the presence of starting third baseman Alex Bregman and utility man Marwin Gonzalez. And last but not least, Tyler White, the most experienced of the bunch with over 300 MLB at bats, faces the prospect of a fourth straight AAA season if the MLB roster remains as-is.
Players like Reed, Davis and White would receive ample major-league opportunity for most other franchises, but due to Houston’s organizational depth they’re stuck in purgatory. What’s more, Reed and White lost their rookie status due to their accrued MLB service-time, meaning that they don’t even show up on Houston top prospects lists anymore. They’re shifting into obscurity and it’s a shame because I suspect all of them could be solid MLB and fantasy contributors if given the opportunity.
Incumbent first baseman Yuli Gurriel, 33, recently broke the hamate bone in his left hand. Surgery was successful and it appears like Gurriel will be sidelined into mid-April, at which point he will need to serve a five-game suspension for casting racial epithets towards Yu Darvish in last year’s World Series. Gurriel’s injury opens up an opportunity for the aforementioned triumvirate to make the Houston roster and accrue significant at bats in the beginning of the season. Let’s explore them one by one.
Reed is a gargantuan man, standing in at 6’4″ and tipping the scales at 275 pounds. He channels that range and girth into a powerful left-handed swing, one that is capable of inflicting major damage to baseballs. Reed led the minor leagues in home runs in 2015 when he blasted 34 across high-A and AA. He repeated the task last season with 34 in AAA. His only real MLB action came in between, with 141 uninspiring plate appearances with Houston in 2016.
Reed’s size leads to a positional inflexibility that confines him to first base or DH. This is a big mark against him in the eyes of Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, who value versatility more than most. However, Reed’s minor league track record is impeccable, and he should be afforded an opportunity to prove himself at the MLB level.
The fact that Reed, who had a 662 slugging percentage and 22 home runs in 239 plate appearances after July 1st in AAA, didn’t get a September last season call-up after rosters expanded is mind-boggling. He has Joey Gallo-like potential if given the opportunity to hit the juiced MLB baseball.
Davis might have an even bigger issue cracking the Houston lineup, as there is little chance he supplants 23-year old Alex Bregman as the every day third baseman. His path to at bats will likely need to come through first base, where Davis played 40 combined innings between the minors and MLB last season.
Davis, a righty, was the first pick of the third round in the 2014 draft. He’s been a beacon of consistency across every minor league level, never posting an ISO below .210 or wRC+ below 130. Davis’ power, while always present, really manifested in 2017 with 30 combined home runs across all levels. Davis’ brief MLB time was particularly impressive, where he belted four home runs and four doubles in only 62 at bats.
I like Davis the best of the bunch. His flyball-pull tendencies will play well as a righty in Minute Maid Park, which boasts the second highest left-field home run factor in baseball. The question is whether the Astros are comfortable with converting him to first base when they have two other natural first baseman battling for the spot in Reed and White.
If you feel bad for AJ Reed’s purgatoric plight, then you should weep tears for Tyler White. The 27-year old first baseman been in the Astros’ minor league system since 2013 and has spent significant time at AAA over the last three years.
White was given an extended MLB look in 2016, when he made the big-league team out of camp. Things started off well when he won MLB player of the week in early April, but White’s production waned and he was sent back down to AAA, where he started in 2017. Eventually White was able to earn a call-up last year and performed very well, with a 526 slugging percentage in 67 plate appearances.
White, at 5’11”, 225lbs, doesn’t look very athletic but brings more positional flexibility than Reed. He spent time at first, second and left with Houston last year, and is taking grounders at second this spring. That might give him a leg up on the competition in GM Jeff Luhnow’s and Hinch’s eyes. But given White’s age – he’ll be 28 in October – I suspect that Houston probably doesn’t view him as a viable full timer down the line. His bat also possesses less upside than Reed and Davis.
Gurriel’s injury creates a real opportunity for one of these three to make their mark over the first several weeks of the 2018 season. I also think that the enigmatic Gurriel is a likely trade candidate down the line, as the Astros organizational depth should enable them to deal him and his $12.4 million contract for something of value.
Reed and White will likely battle it out for Gurriel’s roster spot with Davis having an outside shot at leapfrogging them, although he would need to transition from third to first. From a fantasy perspective it will be important to monitor this spring training battle as anyone with an opportunity to get consistent at bats in Houston’s lineup is someone with intriguing upside. Reed and Davis both have tremendous power upside at the MLB level and should be on fantasy rosters if they’re set to receive semi-regular at bats with the Astros.