Are the Astros a better team when Carlos Lee plays first base?

During Brad Mills’ daily session with the media on Tuesday, the skipper revealed that he and Ed Wade had talked extensively last winter about moving Carlos Lee to first base and Lance Berkman to left field.

Berkman had volunteered to do so if management felt that would give them the best chance to win, and although they ultimately decided against pulling the switch-a-roo, it does raise an interesting question about what the Astros might have in mind for 2011.

Lee has played a lot at first base lately, more than Brett Wallace, and you have to assume that Lee, at this point, has the edge on Wallace as to who might be playing over there come Opening Day next year.

This isn’t so much about Wallace’s performance so far as it’s about the team putting Lee at a position that best helps the ballclub. And I think it’s pretty obvious that Lee is much better at first base than we thought he’d be, and he’s also a much better first baseman than he is a left fielder.

You also have to wonder if playing first base has helped Lee at the plate. Is playing a position where he is involved in nearly every play, which in turn requires non-stop concentration, helping him focus better at the plate? There seems to be long stretches of nothingness while standing in the outfield, and I can see where it would be easy to become distracted or let your mind wander. Maybe the concentration that’s there when Carlos plays first base lingers when he is hitting. It could be the best explanation as to why his bat has come to life after hitting around .240 for the better part of four months.

So if Carlos plays first base next year, where does that leave Wallace? More than likely, it would leave him in Oklahoma City, which on Wednesday will be formally introduced as the Astros’ new Triple-A affiliate.

Wallace is a young player with options on his contract, which means the Astros can send him to the Minor Leagues without penalty. And when you’re a young player, sometimes the numbers game — not statistical numbers, but rather, the numbers that total what a team is paying a veteran player — trumps productivity, or potential for productivity, on the field.

Wallace playing first base at Triple-A gives the Astros depth at the first base position — a plus for the club. It’s probably not what Wallace wants to hear, and we’re getting way, way ahead of ourselves by even trying to look seven months down the road. But it’s an interesting discussion nonetheless.

The other question is, if Carlos plays first, who plays left field? I went back and forth on this topic with a lot of you over Twitter, and many of you suggested Brian Bogusevic. My response? I am all for taking a look at him out there, but I have not seen him play enough to make a concrete judgment on how he’ll perform if he plays, say, 150 games out there. That would be one of the many questions the front office and field staff would have to answer between now and Opening Day next year.

Some suggested Jason Michaels be given a chance to start, but I do not believe that is the answer. It’s easy to look at the nice year Michaels is having and assume he should be an every day player. But I believe Michaels is perfectly suited for what he’s doing right now — starting once or twice a week to stay fresh, and coming off the bench as a late-game pinch-hitter in RBI situations. That’s what he’s here for, and it’s what he does well.

The Astros will have some money to spend — how much is to be determined — and could pursue a free agent outfielder. Or they could take a look at Jason Bourgeois or other outfielders currently in the system. First and foremost, they must decide where they want Lee to play. I still think Wallace is the long-term solution at first base, but there’s nothing that says that long term has to begin in 2011.

If you were a decision-maker, what would you do?

________________

The Astros made their annual trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center Tuesday morning, and by my count, they batted 1.000 in attendance. The entire team (which, you’ve probably noticed, is pretty expansive this time of year), the coaching staff and the athletic training staff were accounted for, as were Wade, Dave Gottfried and the Grand Poobah himself, owner Drayton McLane.

That there were not as many wounded soldiers to meet this time was a blessing, of course. Those who were there rehabbing were gracious with their time when the Astros approached, and as usual, in terms of lifting spirits, the players left feeling they got more out of the visit than the soldiers.

“They tell you they wish they could go back (to the Middle East),” Mills said. “Because they’re soldiers, and that’s what they do. There’s a sense of gratitude for that.”

We were asked not to take pictures or film video inside the medical center, but I did manage to capture a few images with my iphone before we went in…

Bagwell, McLane (I was fighing the sun on this one)
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______________

And finally, here are some images from batting practice at the Nationals’ (really impressive, fan-friendly) ballpark:

Press box view:  

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Michael Bourn, who will be out at least a couple more days with a strained oblique, hangs out at the cage with hitting coach Jeff Bagwell and tries not to lose his mind with boredom. Not playing appears to be not sitting well with the speedy center fielder.

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Jason Castro

 

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Hunter Pence

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Brett Wallace

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Lots of Astros fans in the stands for the first two games. Here’s a shot of one particularly interesting fan we met Tuesday.

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Jim Deshaies found him interesting, too. I think JD made a ZZ Top reference during the exchange.

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Astros are on Facebook

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Check out Astros witticisms at PumaOneLiners 

Questions? Send to afooter@astros.com 

17 Comments

Shoehorning Lee into first base is the kind of half-a-loaf thinking that got the Astros into the terrible shape they’re in right now. Your speculation about playing first having a positive impact on Lee’s production sounds plausible, but he hasn’t been there nearly enough to call it conclusive proof and making a decision on that basis would not be good judgment.

We’re agreed that Wallace is the first baseman of the future. If he’s not going to be able to fill that role, we need to find out as soon as possible, so let him sink or swim the rest of this year and starting the next. If he absolutely can’t hack it after a fair shot, we have other 1b options at AAA that OremLK mentioned. Putting Lee at first now just delays the inevitable. Sunk cost is exactly the right way to describe him. Releasing or trading him are both options that are very unlikely to occur, so we’re stuck with him. Moving him into a position where he’s blocking the development of a top prospect is just shooting ourselves in the foot.

As you point out, moving Lee to 1b only creates another hole in the lineup in LF. We don’t have a more advanced hitting prospect than Wallace ready to step in and signing another expensive free agent veteran just ties us up again. Wallace has hit all throughout his college and minor league career. He’s probably going to hit at the MLB level. A month and a half is too short a time to decide that he’s not ready. For next year, the most likely scenario is that Wallace and Lee together in the lineup provides the most overall offense of any combination we currently have at hand.

Thanks,
Lucas

Lee should start in left field. He has had a horrible season any way you slice it. I don’t buy that he will actually be more productive at first base than Wallace; he’s not as good of a fielder, and Wallace is a young player likely to improve, while Lee is 34 years old and likely to continue declining.If Lee has another bad start to the season like he did this year, I hope the Astros release him outright. The Astros can’t afford to have a player batting .250/.291/.425 in the four hole, and they especially can’t afford to have a player posting those kinds of offensive numbers with horrible defense in left field and below average defense at first base.Lee’s contract should have nothing to do with what the club does with him. His contract is a sunk cost. The organization should make the right baseball decision without regard to factors outside their control, like money which will be spent regardless of what they do. Whether that means playing him, benching him, or cutting him just depends on what’s best for the team, both in terms of player development and immediate win/loss record.One other thing: Sending Wallace to AAA introduces problems there. Koby Clemens will be playing first base at AAA. J.D. Martinez may also need some starts at first base, depending on the club’s plans for him. Leaving Wallace on the bench at the MLB level costs him valuable playing time which he needs in order to develop.In short: Wallace should be penciled in at first base. The Astros should not be afraid to cut ties with Carlos Lee, even if it means releasing him.

Lee at 1B makes a lot of sense, and I think another part of a season (or even a whole season) at AAA wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

That said, LF provides no obvious solution. I would think if Astros management think they can win the division in 2011, they might try to acquire a proven free agent, assuming one can be had at a reasonable price. (I haven’t kept up with who would be available this off-season, so I don’t know what the market will be like.)

Otherwise, I think Bogusevic would be the obvious choice. That kid is an athlete all the way. And he’s smart. He may not be a gold glove calibre player, but he should be at least adequate in LF. The question is whether or not he will hit well enough to merit an everyday spot. If not, I really hope the Astros don’t go for a player on par with Preston Wilson or Kaz Matsui (i.e. lower-tier veterans with low potential to contribute in a meaningful way.)

Things are looking up for the Astros, but how they handle questions like this that will determine whether or not they’ve developed a coherent, integrated strategy for building s winning ballclub

@oremlk

Releasing Lee doesn’t make much sense, and benching him makes even less sense. They have to pay his contract either way, and I don’t think they will find another player to provide the same kind of production he would at a price the Astros could afford, especially if they are eating his salary.

The popular opinion is that Lee’s season has been a disaster. But I think that’s a misconception born out of the bad start he had on the season. While he has had a down season, especially when his salary is taken into account, he hasn’t exactly been unproductive. He has done much better in the 2nd half, and he is still a good, productive hitter. And I don’t think the Astros can easily replace the production he offers, even if that production has been less than we expected out if him. Baring injury, Lee is almost certain to be on the field on Opening Day. The question is where?

If I may be honest, the whole situation is disgusting to me. We will NOT compete next season; what Chris Johnson and J.A. Happ are doing is an illusion, they will NOT have this kind of success next season. Bud Norris will never be more than average as a starter because of his terrible command. Paulino might never stay healthy, and there’s no way that Myers keeps up this run. We will have a solid-but-average rotation, a shaky bullpen and a terrible offense. It is time to PLAY THE KIDS, and that does NOT mean sitting Wallace and Castro, the two best prospects in the whole blasted system, during HALF the games like Mills has been doing. It’s sheer lunacy.
Carlos Lee has rebounded fairly well offensively, and his no-trade clause is GONE after this season is over. Eat 100% of his contract if you have to, but get him OFF this team. Ship him to an AL team needing a DH/1B and get a decent prospect or two like you did with Berkman. This opens up 1B and LF for the two guys that SHOULD be playing there every single game; Wallace and Bogusevic.
In case anyone doubts Bogusevic, if he had put up the numbers in the Majors that he did in AAA, he would currently lead our team in OBP and walks, he’d be second in steals and first in SB percentage, and he’d be playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in LF. We would have THE best defensive outfield in the Majors. Will he have the same level of success? Maybe, maybe not. But there’s only ONE way to find out, and that’s PLAYING him FULL-TIME. He has all the TOOLS, he just needs the CHANCE.
Do the right thing, Astros. For ONCE, do the right thing; play the kids. Not some of them, not some of the time. Don’t do what you did with Towles and name him the starter, then play him LESS than Quintero and ship him back to AA. Don’t do what you did with Burke and jerk him around from position to position in favor of the aging veteran who can’t play well anymore. PLAY THE KIDS. DO IT.

Alyson…..WOW did this subject stir up the pot!!!!! I’m ok
with Lee at first, BUT….I want to let Wallace have a clear shot at it. Lee’s 19mill. for the next two years….has Drayton’s hands “tied”. I doubt Drayton wants to eat more
salary, like he did this year with Roy. Personally, I REALLY
like Bourgeois in left. He has WINGS on those feet! Can you
imagine what an outfield with Bourn, Bourgeois and Pence?!
DANG!!! What an outfield!!! Becky:) :) :) :)

I would love to see this team sign Carl Crawford. I know he’s going to be HUGE money, but in all honesty I’d love to see him and Bourn in the same outfield, PLUS he’s from Houston. This is a legitimate 5-tool player who deserves the Lee-type money. If we have the money to spend, would it be a bad idea to go after Crawford?

The Astros would be much better off releasing Carlos “El Cabrito” Lee, eating his salary whilst bringing up more rookies from the farm.

Am I the only one who remembers Carlos “El Burrito” Lee telling Greg Lucas that he was looking forward to knocking the cobwebs off his first-baseman’s glove? I got the impression it’s a position he’s already familiar with…

As far as who to put in left, I can’t find fault with either callup from Round Rock…but then again since moving to Houston last fall we haven’t seen as many Express games this year as we’ve been accustomed to. :) Bourgeois has a little more major league experience, but I think he & Bogusevic are both good defensive options. Neither one is a slugger. Drew Locke was playing left for the Express at the end of the season, but he’s not a young player. J.D. Martinez was mentioned as an option at first, but I think he was playing the outfield in Corpus, wasn’t he?

jasonact, respectfully, but what production from Carlos Lee? He’s batting .250/.291/.425 with bad defense as an out of shape 34-year old. At this point, he’s not helping the team by playing–he’s hurting it. I think there is a possibility he could have a bounce back season, but it’s much more likely that he is as bad or worse than he has been this year.Since there is a chance he could rebound, I guess you have to give him a shot for maybe April and May, but after that, if he’s not producing, I would definitely consider cutting him.

If it were me – I’d cut Tortuga loose and take the loss on his contract (the way we’ve done most of the season anyway), play Wallace at first, and platoon Left with Bogusevic & Michaels. I look forward to the day when we no longer have to be subjected to him putting the team after himself (Rodeo, “accidentally” missing flight back after All Star Break).
I’ve also seen enough of his embarrassing lack of ability to run or play his position. I won’t miss his jack*** overacting and goofy faces whenever he overexerts himself out there.
As I’ve mentioned on the message boards, I have a bottle of champagne waiting for the day he becomes El Goodbyo.
The rest of the team – I’m comfortable entering next season largely unchanged from what we are now. More playing time and a good Spring Training under their belt and we’ll be fine.

In spring training, tell Lee & Wallace 1B is up for grabs. Tell Lee this winter, in plenty of time, so he won’t have “visa” problems or “accidentally” miss a flight to ST. If Lee beats him out, send Wallace to AAA. If Lee hibernates at the plate again, he is done, and bring Wallace up.

I see us being a contender….for 2nd or 3rd place next year. The Reds are real, and St Louis will still be dangerous. I see good things in 2012, as St Louis ages and the Cubs retool (again). Who knows about how Pitt, Mil looks for the next 2 years?

Never commented before…but read all the time. Felt like I had to jump in on this one.

Mostly agree with the “sunk” cost comment on Lee’s contract (that Wade shouldn’t let money we’re already on the hook for dictate his decision), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves saying that we’ve wasted money here. In Lee’s 4 years in an Astros uniform, he’s averaged .291 with 27 HRs and 102 RBIs. All of these numbers are above his lifetime averages. Especially considering his performance this year, that’s not bad. Yes, he’s expensive. Just remember that when we signed him, EVERYONE was really expensive. The market for power hitters and pitchers was booming, and the team had to pay this kind of money to get the guy that everyone thought we needed. We shouldn’t look back and question that decision right now. On average, he’s costing us $15.5M/year, because of his backloaded deal, and I’m pretty sure that given 2007 prices, we got a decent deal. If someone wants to look up similar folks from the 06-07 timeframe that signed deals, I’d be interested in the prices.

To comment on something that Alyson points out, Lee is much better at first than we thought he would be. Could it be that the Astros are playing Lee nearly every day so that other teams could realize this?? This strategy could be deliberately devised to attract AL teams that previously would be wary of Lee given his defensive incapability in the outfield and, therefore, his one-sidedness as a DH-only type of resource. Alyson – would love your thoughts on this idea.

Take care everybody.

I’ll honestly be surprised if Carlos Lee is still in Houston on Opening Day next year, or at latest if he’s still here after July 31, 2011. I expect that Ed Wade will be seriously exploring the trade market for Carlos this winter, and I think his being given time at 1B is at least partially an attempt to increase his trade value. That said, I expect the Astros will go out and sign a LF in the off-season – Carl Crawford is probably too pricey, but I could see someone like Pat Burrell – whether they can move Lee or not. If Lee is still here on Opening Day, I think he gets the 1B job, then Brett Wallace (or Koby Clemens) is called up if/when Lee gets traded.
http://ledzeb99.mlblogs.com/

Putting Lee at 1st next season would slow down our rebuilding process. Playing him at 1st right now is slowing down Wallace. The argument that they may be trying to market him makes some sense and I sure hope that?s what they?re doing. Wallace is certainly not hitting like we all thought he would, but it?s way too early to quit on him. Lee is not part of our future but Wallace could be. Unless we can get rid of his contract, leave Lee in LF and play Wallace at 1st. Adding a LF FA makes no sense; Martinez should be ready for the majors sometime next season or in 2012. Don?t spend millions for a stop gap. Play Lee if he?s still there, if not let Bogusevic or Bourgeois handle it.

@oremlk

I agree that those numbers are not what we would want from a #5 hitter, and they do not justify his salary. He has underperformed this season. No question. But if you simply drop him from the lineup, who do you put in who could even put up THOSE numbers? A rookie? Someone currently filling a bench role? I don’t think you get even that without a free agent who would cost quite a bit of money.

And I think his weak defense is solved by moving him to 1B. He has shown some very good defense there lately, and it may turn out to be a more natural position for him anyway.

My point is that the Astros are going to have to pay his salary either way, and that’s not chump change. (He is completely untradeable. Period. [See below]) If they have to pay him, they might as well put him to work because his numbers, while not worthy of the #5 slot, are worth a spot in the lineup IMO because they won’t find another player for cheap to replicate what he has done.

So if Lee isn’t in the lineup, who do you put there in his place? It can’t just be anyone (another Kaz Matsui or Preston Wilson will not work because we need better production than Lee, not worse). And while Wallace may turn out to be a great player, perhaps as soon as 2011, there’s always a chance that he ends up hitting like he has so far this season. If you cut ties with Lee and make Wallace The Guy and he replicates what he has done in 2010, then what? You’re still paying Lee’s salary but you aren’t even getting the production that he might have provided in Wallace.

@Cockroach
I’m sure Wade will explore any trades he can find, but I will be shocked if he finds anything. With Lee’s salary, there is no trade market for him, and there won’t be any, certainly not in the off-season. There might some interest closer to the 2011 trading deadline, but the Astros will likely need to still pick up most of his salary to move him even if they do find a taker.

jasonact, I would probably keep Carlos Lee around just playing left field through April and May. And reevaluate his hitting then. If June rolls around and he’s not hitting, then release him.We actually do have a lot of outfield options in the upper minors. The ideal situation would be that J.D. Martinez is tearing it up at AAA, and can step right in at left field. But there are other players available as well. Koby Clemens has experience in left field, and I can’t imagine he’s worse there than Lee is. Bogusevic might be good enough to start; he wouldn’t hit as well as Lee, most likely, but he would steal more bases and play better defense, and that might be enough to make up for it. And the list goes on.

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