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New Astro: Brett Wallace

For a player taken with the 13th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Brett Wallace sure has spent a lot of time packing suitcases. The Arizona State Sun Devil star was originally selected by the Cardinals, but he was shipped to the A’s as part of a trade for Matt Holliday last July. Oakland then swapped him to the Blue Jays this past off-season in a rare prospect challenge trade, with outfielder Michael Taylor going to the green and gold. And yesterday, the Astros acquired Wallace in exchange for Anthony Gose, a 19-year-old OF prospect just picked up in the Roy Oswalt deal with the Phillies. In Houston, “The Walrus” looks like the heir apparent to Lance Berkman at first base.

Wallace was a third baseman in college, and he mostly manned the hot corner in the minors up until this season. But scouts panned his work there (Baseball America said he “lacks the agility and athleticism for the position”), and Sean Smith‘s Total Zone rated him as a poor fielder. The stoutly-built 23-year-old shifted to first base with the Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in 2010. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Wallace’s value lies entirely in the quality of his bat. So, how good is that bat?

Here’s what Baseball America had to say about his offensive ability prior to the ’08 draft:

Many see the best natural hitter in the West. Wallace has a strong swing with above-average bat speed; his swing path stays in the zone a long time and he has outstanding plate discipline…Those that don’t care for him cite his body and the short careers of players built similarly, such as Bob Hamelin. Wallace’s bat should get him drafted in the first round regardless, and most scouts give him at least above-average raw power grades.

Wallace hit the ground running in pro ball in 2008, putting up a .337/.427/.530 line in 234 plate appearances spent mostly in the Low-A Midwest League (he also logged some time in the Double-A Texas League). The lefty hitter walked in 8.1% of his PA, punched out 19.3% and had a .193 ISO. Wallace didn’t draw a ton of walks and he did benefit from a .400+ BABIP, but it was still a quality debut.

Since then, Wallace has hit well, though it would be difficult to say that he has lived up to the “hitting machine” label often bestowed upon him. Last season, he batted a combined .293/.367/.455 in 600 PA taken in Texas League and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (for the affiliates of both the A’s and Cardinals). He worked a free pass just 7.8%, while striking out 21.8% and posting a .162 ISO. In 2010, Wallace has hit .301/.359/.509 in 423 PCL plate appearances. Wallace has walked 6.4%, whiffed 21.6% and holds a .208 ISO. It’s worth noting that Cashman Field, home of the Las Vegas 51’s, is a fantastic offensive environment. According to Minor League Splits, Wallace’s park-adjusted line is .287/.349/.479.

Considering Wallace’s limited positional value, I think it’s fair to say that his lumber to date has been somewhat underwhelming. Though BA once praised his plate approach, Wallace hasn’t drawn all that many walks. And that above-average raw power hasn’t really been on full display. It’s not that he projects poorly in the majors, but his secondary skills don’t exactly stand out a position with a cumulative .270/.355/.460 triple-slash in 2010. Wallace could become an average starter at first base, perhaps a tick above that if you’re optimistic. But I don’t see a future offensive juggernaut here.