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May 31, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Astros' Killer S's

by Andrew Pentis

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Andrew Pentis spent the past four years covering baseball in some manner for MLB.com: as an associate reporter with the Giants in 2009 (a year before they won the World Series) and the D-backs in 2010 (a year before they were any good again) then becoming an editorial producer on the prospects beat in 2011. He is now a free agent living in New York. Search for him on Twitter @AndrewPentis, or drop him a line at apentis@gmail.com.
 

Jonathan Singleton and George Springer occasionally catch an Astros game on TV. More often than not, however, Houston's best prospects, ranked 25th and 55th respectively on Jason Park's preseason Top 101 list, simply scan online box scores. Springer, worried I might misunderstand this pastime, clarifies why. "It's not to see if anyone did bad."

But then what else is there to see?

Way back on the night of March 31, the Astros won the first game of the 2013 major league season. Their chances of winning the last are not good. At 15-37 so far, they have more wins than only the 13-39, similarly-stripped-down Marlins. And this 52-year-old franchise will age further before having even a remote chance of winning its first World Series—and before Singleton and Springer arrive. The real question is whether this duo—call them the Super S's—can accomplish for south Texas baseball anything close to what their forebears, the Killer B's, did: six of the 'Stros’ nine all-time postseason appearances in one nine-year span (1997-2005).

Neither says he feels the pressure.

"These kids today, they don't know who Willie Mays was, never mind Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell," says the gruff, Brooklyn-born Keith Bodie, who has managed both S's at Double-A Corpus Christi. "They're not historically motivated to fill anybody's shoes. They have a sense of their own identity. When you pigeonhole guys or compare them, you can do more harm than good."

Forgive me for the world of hurt I am about to cause.

***

Start with Singleton. Every time I talk with him, I feel as though he is sitting on a bus in the middle of nowhere, Crash Davis alongside him eyeing every twitch of his lips. He does not like to talk about playing baseball. He only likes to play it. But to those who are around him most, from Bodie and Springer to Astros player development director Quinton McCracken—Singleton isn't shy. He is, in their words, introverted, introspective, and generally quiet, soft-spoken, and withdrawn.

"I'm not exactly vocal. I'm more of a lead-by-example guy," Singleton deadpans over the phone—and not while on the bus—in Davenport, Iowa, where he made his season debut at Class A Quad Cities on Tuesday, homering and singling in two at-bats. (Singleton is there, all the way down the ladder, because he was tabbed as the first minor leaguer this year to be suspended under Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, testing positive for marijuana and missing 50 games. He is slated to join Corpus Christi briefly before his first promotion to the Triple-A level by next week.)

Bagwell had a similar personality. According to one writer who covered the Astros during the Killer B’s era, he actually commanded more respect in the clubhouse than Biggio. The former was often stoic but strong. The latter played things up for the press. "We both like to play hard," Singleton, who has yet to meet Bagwell, says of himself and the far less laconic Springer. "I think that's the one thing we have most in common."

Springer, who at 23 is one day short of being two years older than Singleton, is still called “Little Guy” by his bulkier teammate. "Once you get through that shell," Springer says, "he's as outgoing as anybody." Springer broke through when both S's were teamed up in the last Arizona Fall League. To keep things interesting, they set stakes on who had the best BP session on a given day, and who hit the ball the hardest in a given game. With a 1.012 OPS in 21 games for the Mesa Solar Sox, Springer won more bets. But despite that and his hot start to this season—see his 1.015 OPS through 49 Texas League games—he's not as far along in his development.

***

If Bodie, who detests player-to-player comparisons, is going to put a comp on Singleton, it's not a comp at all. "I had [coached] Tino Martinez at the minor league level," Bodie says. "'Singy' has the ability to exceed the career that Tino had at the major league level."

Acquired by the Ed Wade regime in Houston—he was one of four Phillies prospects sent south for outfielder Hunter Pence in July 2011—Singleton also resembles the first baseman he could have replaced in Philadelphia. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, he is not quite as big as Ryan Howard, but scouts seem to think he'll hit for a higher average and strike out less frequently. He's also more athletic around the bag. (One National League scout told me in March that he thought Singleton was the best defensive first baseman in the minors. Others aren't so sure.)

On the offensive side, observers note that Singleton's confidence in managing the strike zone sometimes costs him. He's so amenable to working counts that he'll lack aggressiveness when fastballs come his way. They see his 21-homer total in 2012 and wonder why he didn't get to 30.

Springer has almost the opposite problem. Ready to delve into details when I call him, the svelte center fielder talks about competing against the pitch (not the pitcher) and slowing his body down (while quickening his recognition of said pitch).

As one National League scouting director who had a top 15 draft pick when Springer came out of the University of Connecticut in 2011 told me, Springer, who went 11th overall in that class, had the same aim then. This tempered scouts' enthusiasm in his first full season at the Class-A Advanced level. In fact, less than two months before Kevin Goldstein announced his departure from Baseball Prospectus for Houston's front office last August, Goldstein tweeted in response to a follower these words describing Springer: "Lot of tools, HUGE holes in swing, Lancaster helping numbers." Three weeks later, Goldstein told another follower he might even prefer another Astros outfield prospect, Domingo Santana, to Springer.

The necessary adjustments are mental, not physical. Bodie says Springer needs another 1,000 at-bats, either in the minors or above, to have the experience necessary to manage the strike zone. (His range and plus arm in the outfield and speed on the basepaths would already represent upgrades at Minute Maid Park.)

"It's a fluid swing," says McCracken, a competitive peer of the B's, "but he's trying to find that happy medium where he can hit for power and continue to hit for a decent average."

More accurately, where he can hit for power and make more frequent contact. Springer is batting .297 for Bodie as spring turns to summer. His 15 homers lead the minors, but his 63 strikeouts in 182 at-bats aren't far from tops either.

***

Re-frame our question then: Can the S's, physically gifted as they are, be counted on to create the kind of grind-it-out clubhouse that the B's pioneered in Houston? While Springer is learning how to hit, will Singleton reach the point where he's not only sprinting out every ground ball, but calling out teammates who lollygag down the line?

Asked directly about living up to his predecessors, who thrived as leaders well into their 30s, Springer says he admires the players who are in Houston right now. He and Singleton reference the difference in tone set by second-year GM Jeff Luhnow, Wade's replacement. Play hard and expect to win—that is the message from on high. "I notice the difference," Springer says.

Which is a roundabout way of stating that the Astros will need more than a powerful pair in the middle of their lineup and an effort-emphasizing manager like Bo Porter. Biggio, a special assistant to Luhnow, and Bagwell, who weren't made available for interviews by the organization, had help in their heyday. Consider that just one those six B's-led playoff teams allowed more than 700 runs—and that Porter's are on pace to yield 929 this season. With numbers like those, it's hard not to wonder how Super these S's are going to need to be.

"Time will tell. Time will tell," McCracken repeats. "You talk about the Biggios and the Bagwells, that's a lot of accolades. Those are All-Star, Hall of Fame-caliber players. To put that kind of expectations on these young kids would be unfair to them. They have great potential. The operative word is potential. We're trying to get them to harness that potential and make it reality."

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