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Astros’ first-base job up for grabs
The Astros will almost surely be irrelevant in the 2014 playoff picture, but prospect enthusiasts will eagerly await the first wave of talent working its way through the farm system. Four of the top five prospects in the pipeline boast 2014 ETAs, and Jonathan Singleton could earn a promotion to the majors on Opening Day.

That news comes straight from the horse’s mouth, as general manager Jeff Luhnow told reporters on Wednesday, “it’s going to be a good, healthy competition.” Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle relayed the quotes, and noted in a subsequent tweet that the spring training battle could be a five-way race.

To win the job, the challengers must unseat incumbent Brett Wallace, who batted .221/.284/.431 in his fourth season as a big-leaguer. Wallace was once a top prospect, but that shine is long gone. A 36.5 percent strikeout rate in 285 plate appearances will do that to a 27-year-old whose walk percentages are tumbling as his swings-and-misses rise.

Jesus Guzman, who was acquired from the Padres in a December barter for infielder Ryan Jackson, has one calling card: his ability to punish left-handed pitching. Despite playing half of his career games at Petco Park, Guzman has compiled a .286/.358/.460 triple-slash line versus southpaws while playing first base and left field. Unfortunately, Guzman carries virtually no defensive value and is at most a short-end platoon player; his .244 career TAv against righties won’t fly at a premium offensive position.

That leaves the spot open to newcomer Japhet Amador, as well as Singleton and Marc Krauss, whom the Astros got from the Diamondbacks for Chris Johnson in July 2012. Krauss clubbed Triple-A pitching last year, but scuffled in his first taste of the majors and has seen only sporadic action at first base as a pro. Former Mexican Leaguer Japhet Amador is a mammoth 6-foot-4, 315-pounder who will need to prove that he wields more than just a big-time boomstick.

Cutting to the chase, Singleton might control his own destiny for the job—as long as Super Two service-time considerations don’t weigh heavily on the Astros’ decision making. Luhnow was impressed with the 22-year-old’s work in the Puerto Rican Winter League, where Singleton batted .268 with nine home runs in 35 games, washing away the bitter aftertaste of a .687 OPS performance in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He’ll need to sustain that success during Grapefruit League play to emerge from the pack.

Jeff Baker could return to Rangers
Here is a list of the players who logged at least 150 plate appearances last year and finished with a higher OPS than Jeff Baker: Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, Chris Davis, Mike Trout, David Ortiz, Carlos Gonzalez, Paul Goldschmidt, Khris Davis, Troy Tulowitzki, Jayson Werth, Joey Votto, Yasiel Puig, Michael Cuddyer, and Andrew McCutchen.

That’s it. Fourteen players. Baker (154) had the second-lowest at-bat total in the group, topping only the Brewers’ Davis (136), and virtually all of his production came during the first half of the season, but the Bad Kissingen, Germany-born infielder was an outstanding reserve.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Rangers would like to bring him back. Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News heard from a source yesterday that general manager Jon Daniels will make an effort to re-sign Baker, who took home $1.75 million last year after working his way up from a minor-league deal.

Baker appeared at five positions (six, if you count designated hitter) for the Rangers in 2013—first, second, third, left, and right—and his defensive value is tied largely to that versatility. The 32-year-old is not a plus fielder anywhere, but he also rarely embarrasses himself, making him a valuable option to spell regulars, especially those who struggle against left-handed pitching.

In Arlington, those opportunities will most often arise in left field and at designated hitter, where the incumbents are Shin-Soo Choo and Mitch Moreland, respectively. Baker could also give first-year keystoner Jurickson Profar a breather or step in for Adrian Beltre at the hot corner, though Adam Rosales, who avoided arbitration with a $750,000 agreement on November 14, is a better defender at both of those positions.

Baker’s second-half lull came after a 36-day stint on the disabled list with a sprained right thumb, so whichever team signs him will hope that he can bounce back to something more closely resembling his first-half boom. He drew interest from the Giants, Nationals, and Yankees earlier this offseason.

Bobby Abreu: not done yet?
While most of the United States has suffered through an arctic blast, soon-to-be-quadragenarian Bobby Abreu has turned up the heat in balmy Venezuela, earning near-daily plaudits in Jeff Moore’s Minor League Update.

Five Venezuelan Winter League playoff games, five Abreu home runs. That’s two more than Abreu hit during his last stint in the majors—a 100-game showing split between the Angels and Dodgers—but it’s tough to blame him for wondering if those fireworks might convince a team to let him prolong his career.

FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi was the first to confirm Abreu’s desire to give the majors another go, and Tony Lastoria, who covers the Indians for SportsTime Ohio, tweeted shortly thereafter that the Tribe was “very interested.” Alas, that report was debunked by Cleveland Plain-Dealer beat writer Paul Hoynes.

Indians general manager Chris Antonetti has been scrounging in the bargain bin in recent days, adding Jeff Francoeur and Scott Atchison on minor-league pacts earlier this week, but Abreu would seem to be a long shot to earn a spot on manager Terry Francona’s Opening Day roster. With Jason Giambi already on board, carrying Abreu would mean employing two left-handed hitters with no defensive value on a crowded bench. Antonetti also inked lefty-swinging first baseman David Cooper to a big-league deal about a month ago, and the former Blue Jay would also stand in Abreu’s way.

Any team that gives Abreu a shot to compete for a major-league job would have to believe in the power surge he has enjoyed for Leones del Caracas, because on-base skills alone won’t cut it in a platoon or pinch-hitter role. Abreu’s once-excellent speed is now virtually gone—he is 0-for-3 on steal attempts in Venezuela this winter—and if the pop proves fleeting, he is a one-trick pony begging for one last ride.

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captnamerca
1/09
Indians: We are not interested in Bobby Abreu. *Indians sign Jeff Francoeur* Bobby Abreu: Ouch.
AmericanMagpie
1/09
Do you think Baker can maintain such a high OPS if he were given 500+ AB's?? As a Rangers fan I've never been able to quantify it but I've always noticed that he seems to be player who, if given a day to day job in the MLB, could contribute well with his bat. But I'm cautious about my expectations because I don't want to come off as a homer. Thoughts?
statsrath
1/09
I think Baker is a very useful bat-first bench player, because he has a distinct strength (hitting left-handed pitching) and can provide it to the team from multiple positions. That said, I think he'd be exposed versus right-handed pitching—his career OPS is some 230 points lower with a virtually equal number of plate appearances (826 vs. RH, 827 vs. LH). If he could find a way to improve in that regard, I could see him becoming a playable regular, but I see him as more of a corner utility man or platoon type right now.
rocket
1/09
Khris Davis logged at least 150 at-bats but had 136 at-bats? Was the first reference supposed to say plate appearances?
statsrath
1/09
Good catch, thanks. It's fixed above.
johnd311
1/14
I've got Brett Wallace at $1 in an AL only auction league and I just can't decide if he has a realistic chance to snag the 1B job after all of his struggles... The guy went on a TEAR near the end of the year in 2013 but he was so bad in April that the numbers still average out to a poor player. Any thoughts? I will have the luxury of watching him through spring before I have to make a decision...