The Astros picked two hitters in the first round of the 2010 draft: a toolsy up-the-middle player with boom-or-bust written all over him (Delino DeShields Jr.), and a college slugger with defensive versatility, if not defensive talent (Mike Kvasnicka). In 2009, the team’s first pick was a toolsy shortstop from California (Jiovanni Mier). In 2008, the first year that scouting director Bobby Heck helmed the draft room, the team took a “safe” college hitter in the first round (Jason Castro), before going for a raw, toolsy high school outfielder in the second round (Jay Austin).
Pardon if this is repetitive, but by trading Roy Oswalt to the Phillies today, the Astros acquired a Dominican shortstop with some raw, exciting tools (Jonathan Villar), and a former first-round slugger whose been relegated to first base (Brett Wallace). Clearly, Houston believes in a certain kind of diversification of their prospect portfolio. This is a good thing. The bad thing is that they don’t seem particularly adept at talent evaluation. Let’s ignore the fact that Kvasnicka is struggling out of the gate, or that Jiovanni Mier has a .610 OPS in his full-season debut, or that Jason Castro‘s offensive potential seems lower than ever.
The Astros have simply not added a single position player to their system with star potential in Bobby Heck’s tenure. Not a single player mentioned above is ever going to profile as someone that could contribute 5 WAR in the Major Leagues. Trading Oswalt was one of the team’s few opportunities to find its next star, and they didn’t do it. This is a team mining for role players when they don’t have the budget to find their foundation pieces through free agency. It’s terribly misguided management.
Villar is a fun prospect, a switch-hitting athlete with the rare combination of speed and arm that should allow him to stick at shortstop. But he doesn’t profile to hit for power, strikes out very often, and will need to learn a lot to develop some patience. Stars don’t ever have to overcome that many obstacles. Brett Wallace is a smooth swinger that most people believe can hit .300 at the Major League level. But he’s not even a good defender at first base, his walk rate isn’t improving, and in 869 plate appearances in Triple-A, his ISO is just .185.
The Astros didn’t need to acquire three players for the Roy Oswalt trade to be a success. They needed to acquire one star, and it’s hard to imagine a future where Villar, Wallace or even J.A. Happ reach that level.
Certainly, the best chance at someone doing so is Villar. It isn’t a stretch to believe the toolsy shortstop could develop patience down the road, as he entered this season with 47 walks in 410 career plate appearances. This season, in his first test at full-season baseball, the ratio has slipped to 6.2%. But there is potential there. Scouts also like Villar’s defensive actions, even despite his 42 errors in 99 games. Errors are a part of minor league baseball, but with his speed and arm, sticking at shortstop should be easy. He also should become a very good baserunner, capable of adding 5 runs per season with his legs.
The problems in Villar’s game are all offensive. His career strikeout rate stands at a robust 27.4%, so for example, this season he’s needed to maintain a .369 BABIP just to post a .272 batting average. Even with his speed, this won’t be easy to maintain at higher levels. Secondly, Villar really doesn’t have a swing that profiles to hit a lot of power. Minor League Splits has his groundball rate at 60.7% this season, so he’ll need a change in both swing and approach to hit for power. It’s just not going to happen. Even if Villar has 600 plate appearances at shortstop, and even if he develops into a +7.5 shortstop and +5 baserunner, I don’t think we’ll ever see him at the +10 wRAA mark he would need to reach 5 WAR.
Wallace is pretty much just the opposite. His game is so dependent on offense, that even getting to 2-3 WAR consistently will be an issue. After Lance Berkman moves out of Houston, Wallace is the future at first base. He’s not good there, and is surely somewhere worse than 2.5 runs below average. To even reach 3 WAR, he’d have to produce 25 runs with the bat to be worth three wins. And given the fact that he’s never walked 50 times or hit 25 home runs in any season, getting to a .370 wOBA seems impossible.
Houston didn’t do well today. With their best chance to finally acquire a player they could build their future around, they acquired two players with role player ceilings.
Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the Wallace-for-Gose swap, as well as Wynn Pelzer, the Baltimore Orioles acquisition for Miguel Tejada.