The Houston Astros open 2014 with a huge hole at first base.

On the plus side, the club has sometimes-first-baseman Chris Carter earmarked for the designated hitter role so he could shift over, and Top 10 prospect Jonathan Singleton could be ready for The Show before the year is out. But if you want to take a negative spin, Carter doesn’t play defense overly well and Singleton is coming off of a poor offensive performance, as well as a 50-game suspension.

The club has a few other options at first base in the form of veteran Mexican league slugger Japhet Amador, outfielder Marc Krauss, utility man Jesus Guzman, and recently-demoted Brett Wallace.

I won’t delve into the different options because I already looked at many of those options recently, but what I will do is look at whether or not it makes sense to view current first-string catcher Jason Castro as the first baseman of the future in Houston.

There has been some talk among fans and the media that the move makes sense — mainly because of his checkered injury history. Castro has suffered through a variety of ailments so the move makes sense on the surface; a switch to a less physically-demanding position would (theoretically) lessen the likelihood of injuries cropping up. And with Carlos Corporan serving as a solid big league back-up, it would allow the club to hand a role to solid catching prospect Max Stassi (who also suffered through injury last year).

But the big questions is: Would moving Castro from catcher to first base diminish his positional value to the point that it would hurt the team more than it would help it? After all, the offensive expectations for a first baseman are far more substantial than they are for a catcher.

According to Baseball Reference, the average triple-slash line for first basemen in 2013 was: .261/.337/.436 (approximately .340 wOBA). According to the same source, the average triple-slash line for catchers in 2013 was: .245/.310/.388.

So, how has Castro fared on offense?
Castro’s career: (1,003 ABs) .255/.332/.417 (.327 wOBA)
Castro’s 2013: ( 435 ABs) .276/.350/.485 (.361 wOBA)

What these numbers show us is that, for his career, Castro has been an above-average hitting catcher but would have been a below-average hitting first baseman. Looking just at last year, he was a well-above-average-hitting catcher and slightly-above-average for a first baseman.

If his bat continues to follow his established development path, then he could become an above-average hitting first baseman but that’s not a foregone conclusion. As it stands, Castro would be an average-ish first baseman — as opposed to an all-star level catcher. And that’s not even taking his above-average defensive skills behind the plate into consideration — including his leadership with the pitching staff and ability to control the running game.

Unless Castro’s bat takes another big step forward, the move from catcher to first base would not be advisable, and it would also hurt his future trade value.

The Houston Astros have significantly upgraded their bullpen for the 2014 season with the additions of veterans Matt Albers and Chad Qualls, as well as Jesse Crain, who will likely open the year on the disabled list. However, even with the upgrades, the bullpen appears to have a weak spot: the left handers.

There are currently seven left-handed pitchers on the 40-man roster but we can immediately remove Brett Oberholtzer from the discussion since he’s earmarked for a spot in the starting rotation after a strong 2013 season. Interestingly, the Astros invited exactly zero southpaws to spring training as non-roster invitees.

There will clearly be a competition in the spring and the performances of the six left-handed pitchers during the month of March will go a long way to deciding those (likely) two southpaws that will earn the two coveted 25-man roster spots. However, diving into the pitchers’ historical statistics can give us an idea about which players might be best suited to the jobs, especially if you consider the fact Job No. 1 should be the ability to consistently get out left-handed hitters.

The Least Deserving:

Luis Cruz: Already behind the eight ball because of his lack of experience above A-ball (just 17 innings games). Cruz, 23, has decent stuff and has produced a good ground-ball rate in his career against left-handed hitters but his strikeout rate, walk rate and home-runs-allowed percentage are all worse against lefties when compared to righties: 25.3 vs 18.7 K%, 7.0 vs 8.0 BB%, 1.02 vs 1.10 HR/9. The walk and home run numbers are massively different but you want to see it swing in the other direction, for sure.

Darin Downs: This lefty has more MLB experience than most of the other six pitchers but it doesn’t really work in his favor. A quick look at his splits show that big league, left-handed hitters actually hit Downs, 29, harder than right-handers: 15.2 vs 22.9 LD% and 0.60 vs 0.99 HR/9 rate — as well as a walk rate that jumps unfavorably: 6.6 vs 11.0 BB%.

The Most Deserving:

1. Rudy Owens: A career starter in the minors, Owens has produced some encouraging numbers against left-handers and could service a dual role in the Astros bullpen as a lefty specialist and a long reliever. Over his career, a number of his statistics are better against lefties than righties: 38.5 vs 42.1 GB%, 17.2 vs 15.5 LD%, and 7.0 vs 5.0 BB%. Oddly, the one area where his numbers favor his work against right-handers is his home-run rate: 0.79 vs 1.13 HR/9.

2. Dallas Keuchel: Perhaps the most recognizable name on the list based on the time he spent on the Astros staff in 2013, Keuchel may have been miscast as a starter. Consider these Major League splits that favor his work against the same-side hitters: 50.9 vs 55.8 GB%, 19.7 vs 15.3 LD%, 12.9 vs 18.7 K%, and 9.1 vs 7.6 BB%. The only main area where his numbers are a (very little) bit worse against lefties is the home-run percentage: 1.26 vs 1.37 HR/9.

3. Kevin Chapman: Chapman is an intriguing player. He has good stuff for a lefty but is haunted by struggles with both his command and his control. The southpaw is tough against both right- and left-handed hitters but a couple of his statistics stand out. While facing lefties, his strikeout percentage jumps 24.3 to 33.0 K% and his home run rate drops from 0.62 to 0.39 HR/9.

4. Raul Valdes: The 36-year-old Valdes has more than 90 games of big league experience but he’s been hit hard by both right- and left-handed hitters in the Majors with a combined line-drive rate of about 22%. His ground-ball rate has a history of dipping against left-handers in comparison to righties: 43.4 vs 38.5 GB% although he has a 7% higher strikeout rate against same-side hitters, which more or less causes a wash between the two stats. He’s basically equally effective against both types of batters.

–Marc Hulet

*Numbers may not be 100% complete; career minor league splits obtained via minorleaguecentral.com

The Houston Astros will open spring training with a hefty contingent of 24 non-roster invitees in camp vying for coveted 25-man roster spots. With 40 players ahead of them on the depth charts, it will be no easy task to catch the eye of the coaching staff (and front office) while also proving they’re more capable than players with a guaranteed contract.

Working in their favors, though, is the fact that the Houston roster is in a state of flux as the front office looks to rebuild the organization from the ground floor up. The most vulnerable positions on the 40-man roster appear to be the bullpen, outfield, back-up middle infield, and first base/designated hitter.

Below is a ranking of the Top 10 non-roster invitees likely to impact the club during the 2014 season.

The Rankings:

1. George Springer, OF: This is the man the fans want to know about. Service time considerations will probably keep the young outfielder in the minors until about June but that’s not such a bad thing. He is loaded with talent but his (lack of) contact issues will probably hinder the effectiveness of his offensive tools until he trims it to a more manageable level in the 20% range.

2. Mark Appel, RHP: The Astros’ first round draft pick from 2013, Appel will likely need at least half a season in the minors to establish himself but he was considered a fairly polished product during his senior year of college. It makes sense to have both Appel and Springer start their service clocks around the same time so the second half of 2014 could be an exciting time for Astros fans.

3. Cesar Izturis, SS: Izturis, a veteran of 13 MLB seasons, could be a key player for the Astros if the streaky Jonathan Villar struggles during his sophomore campaign. The slick-fielding veteran infielder will never be an offensive threat but he could be a stabilizing presence for a club that had the highest error total and the third worst (advanced metric) UZR/150 out of the 30 MLB clubs.

4. Japhet Amador, 1B: The Astros acquired two Mexican league players in 2013, Amador and Leo Heras. The latter player is a more appealing prospect in the long term but he still needs some polish. Amador, on the other hand, is a more advanced hitter with impressive raw power but tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds when he became an Astros farmhand. He held his own in the Arizona Fall League but needs to get a little more serious about his conditioning and also become more selective at the plate (well, actually, at two plates).

5. Mike Foltynewicz, RHP: The flame-throwing Foltynewicz flies under the radar a bit but he has premium stuff with his heater hitting the upper 90s. The development of his secondary stuff will ultimately dictate whether he sticks as an innings-eating starter or moves to a high-leverage role in the bullpen. He should open 2014 in Triple-A but has to be added onto the 40-man roster this November anyway so he’ll likely get at least a courtesy promotion in September.

6. Jake Buchanan, RHP: An eighth-round selection out of North Carolina State U in 2010, Buchanan continues to fly under the radar. In his fourth pro season in 2013, he split the year between Double-A and Triple-A while making 30 appearances (25) starts. He’ll never post eye-popping strikeout rates because he’s a pitch-to-contact guy with a sinking 87-91 mph fastball and a good cutter. He rounds out his repertoire with a curveball and changeup. He could develop into a solid long reliever for the Astros, if given the chance.

7. Adron Chambers, OF: There are a number of non-roster outfielders coming to camp but Chambers offers something the current 40-man roster is lacking: A back-up outfielder capable of playing above-average defense in center field, with the potential to also utilize his above-average foot speed as a pinch runner.

8. Jorge De Leon, RHP: Now 26, De Leon finally made his MLB debut in 2013 but it wasn’t enough to keep him on the 40-man roster. Interestingly, he went unclaimed by the other 29 teams when he was passed through waivers. The right-hander has good velocity and can hit the mid-90s while backing it up with an average slider. His greatest downfall to date has been his lack of fastball command, which makes it hard to sent up his breaking ball as a chase pitch. 

9. Jason Stoffel, RHP: Acquired from the Giants in 2011, this former fourth round draft pick out of the University of Arizona has been a prolific closer in the minors and could eventually develop into a solid middle reliever or set-up man for the Astros. He combines a sinking fastball, which induces good ground-ball numbers, with a slider. He keeps the ball in the yard, which is a key skill for any reliever but he needs to throw strikes more consistently.

10. Carlos Perez, C: The Astros have three competent catchers on the roster in Jason Castro, Carlos Corporan and Max Stassi. The rookie will likely open the year in Triple-A, along with Stassi, but both Castro and Corporan have health concerns with the former battling through numerous ailments (not to mention he may be the club’s best trade chip) and the former suffered through an always-worrisome concussion last year. As a result, both Stassi and Perez could be called on to play key roles in 2014.

–Marc Hulet

Well, the Brett Wallace experiment appears to be over.

After parts of four seasons with the Houston Astros, the former first round draft pick has been designated for assignment to make room for free agent pitcher Jerome Williams, formerly of the Los Angeles Angels. Wallace, 27, could end his Astros with an uninspired batting line that includes a strikeout rate just shy of 30%, a .704 OPS and a -3.5 UZR/150 as a first baseman. In short, his career has been a disappointment no matter how you look at it.

The first baseman will now be made available to the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball but he could also end up remaining in the organization and be assigned to the Astros Triple-A ball. He’s currently out of minor league options, making it less likely that another club will take a flyer on him. Although he’s belonged to four different organizations — Cardinals, Athletics, Blue Jays, Astros — Wallace has never appeared at the MLB level for any other club other than the Astros.

He was originally selected 13th overall out of Arizona State University during the 2010 draft and has racked up a lot of frequent flyer miles. Wallace was traded by St. Louis to Oakland for outfielder Matt Holliday in mid 2009. He was later dealt to Toronto as an offshoot deal sending Roy Halladay to Philadelphia in late 2009. Finally, he was dealt to Houston for outfield prospect Anthony Gose, who had just been obtained by the Astros from Philadelphia as a part of a trade for Roy Oswalt in mid 2010.

What Now for Houston?

With Wallace on his way out of town, Chris Carter is the favorite to fill the void at first base. The former White Sox prospect split his time equally between three roles in 2013: first base, left field and designated hitter. Newly-acquired Jesus Guzman, capable of playing multiple positions, could now see increased time at first base.

The shift of Carter to first base opens up more playing time at the designated hitter role for someone — possibly sophomore Marc Krauss, non-roster spring invitee J.D. Martinez, Top 10 prospect Jonathan Singleton (coming off a disappointing season), or sleeper prospect and former Mexican League slugger Japhet Amador. Astros fans will also be clamoring for a quick promotion for top outfield prospect George Springer, although he’s still unlikely to break camp with the big league club.

—Marc Hulet