- FanGraphs Fantasy Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy -

Chris Carter Dons a Cowboy Hat

Yesterday, seemingly out of nowhere, the Astros acquired first baseman Chris Carter from the A’s. Carter was a one-time top prospect in the White Sox system, boasting elite power and above average plate patience. Of course, that came with its share of strikeouts, making Carter the prototypical slugging first base prospect. Carter is no spring chicken though, he is already 26 years old as he moves onto his third team. Sadly, last year represented his most expanded audition in the big leagues, even though he recorded just 260 plate appearances. His massive power was on full display, though, as he launched 16 homers to notch a .275 ISO. So now in Houston, does he shoot up sleeper lists?

Let’s start off by checking in on how the change in home venue may affect Carter’s performance. Here are the relevant 2012 right-handed park factors for the two parks:

Ballpark K 1B HR Runs
O.co Coliseum 100 95 89 93
Minute Maid Park 108 97 109 96

As alluded to earlier, Carter has trouble making contact. Last year, Minute Maid inflated strikeouts by 8%, which is problematic. His strikeout rate wasn’t as bad in the minors of course, so there is some hope for better days ahead. We know due to the large amount of foul territory in Oakland that the park supresses hits. I did not know that Minute Maid also reduces them. So on the BABIP front, he shouldn’t be affected much. Unfortunately, as an extreme fly ball hitter, he will have a difficult time exceeding a league average BABIP level.

As expected, home runs is where Carter should see the biggest boost. Oakland is unkind to power hitters, no matter what side of the plate they hit from. On the other hand, Minute Maid is notorious from increasing right-handed power. Recall that when the All-Star game was played in Houston, Lance Berkman, a switch hitter, chose to bat from the right side even though the majority of his regular season at-bats come from the left.

Staying with the home run theme, it is worth noting that Carter’s average home run plus fly ball distance last year was just 286 feet. That’s a decent mark, no doubt, but it usually matches with a HR/FB rate in the low-teen range, not 25%. That said, it’s still a tiny sample size and given the mammoth power he has consistently shown throughout his minor league career, it seems safe to say that he should manage a HR/FB in the high teens, at the very least, with Houston.

So we have established that due to his issues making contact, he will probably hurt fantasy owners in batting average. But, with potentially gargantuan power, he could contribute nicely in home runs. The next question is that of playing time.

Oddly, after the trade was announced, everything I read, whether it was on fantasy news sites or Twitter, assumed he would have the chance to play every day now as the designated hitter. There was nary a mention of Carlos Pena, who was signed in mid-December, or Brett Wallace, a duo that was expected to flip-flip between designated hitter and first base. Carter did play 156 innings in left field, but his abysmal -42.0 UZR/150 should tell you all you need to know about whether that experiment ever gets repeated.

Both Wallace and Pena are left-handed, while Carter is right-handed. In normal circumstances, a platoon would be in order. Wallace wasn’t terrible last year against lefties, while Pena hasn’t managed a wOBA above .290 against them since 2010. So at the very least, Pena sits against southpaws while Carter starts. But, it would be silly for a rebuilding team not to give Carter as many chances as possible against right-handers as well. So the possibilities include:

1) Pena continues his downward spiral and proves that last season’s disaster was the beginning of the end. The Astros only signed him to a $2.9 million contract, so they might not give him an exceptionally long rope.
2) Wallace proves that he has already shown his best, which is a wOBA of .320-.330, and that’s just unacceptable at first base or designated hitter.
3) Like the supposed playing time distribution between the four D-Backs outfielders for three slots, the three Astros first basemen will simply split the 1,400 or so plate appearances relatively equally. That would leave Carter with a bit more than 400 at-bats.

So the playing time situation is murky at the moment. Unfortunately, spring training is unlikely to decide anything, so Carter will remain an intriguing cheap power source in AL-Only leagues, and that’s all.