The Astros announced this afternoon star second baseman Jose Altuve underwent successful surgery to repair the right thumb fracture he suffered in the World Baseball Classic. He won’t begin baseball activities for two months and will obviously need some time to work back into game shape from that point forward.
Given that timetable, it’s hard to envision Altuve playing in a big league game before June. Houston finds itself in a virtually unheard of position entering a season with some uncertainty at the keystone. Whomever gets the nod next Thursday against the White Sox will be the first player other than Altuve to start at second base on Opening Day since Bill Hall 12 years ago.
Houston general manager Dana Brown addressed the situation this afternoon (link via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com). The first-year GM didn’t rule out the possibility of going outside the organization for infield help but suggested the club preferred to address it with in-house players. “We’re going to look internally first. We have a good, core group of guys here,” Brown said. “We’ll exhaust what we have here in the organization because we do have some good players and we’ve always been interested in depth, (but) sometimes to acquire that depth you have to go outside the organization.”
If the club were to make an addition, it’d presumably be a low-cost depth move. Altuve will obviously take the job back once he’s healthy. It probably doesn’t make much sense to pursue a trade for someone like Isiah Kiner-Falefa; rather, the likelier course of action could be to look to a free agent like Jonathan Villar or a veteran who could opt out of a minor league deal elsewhere before Opening Day.
If the Astros stay internal or merely add a veteran to Triple-A Sugar Land as depth, a pair of players stand out as favorites for second base reps.
Hensley, 27 next week, only has 20 games of big league experience. Four of them came in the postseason, including a pair of starts in the World Series. Those came after a late-season promotion on the heels of an excellent .298/.420/.478 showing in 464 plate appearances with Sugar Land. He only hit 10 home runs but connected on 30 doubles and four triples. More impressively, the right-handed hitter worked walks at an elite 17.2% clip against an average 22.2% strikeout rate. Among Triple-A hitters with 400+ PA’s, only Will Benson had a better on-base percentage while just Jon Singleton, Benson, John Andreoli and Delino DeShields Jr. drew walks at a higher clip.
The San Diego State product now ranks as the #5 prospect in the Houston system at Baseball America. Regarded as a bat-first utility infielder, he predictably draws praise for his plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills. He’s not regarded as a great defender but could offer a decent floor from an on-base perspective towards the back of the Houston lineup.
Dubón, acquired from the Giants last May, offers a very different profile than Hensley. He’s a versatile up-the-middle defender who makes a ton of contact but rarely walks. He’s played 262 MLB games over parts of four seasons, hitting .244/.287/.366 with a 17.2% strikeout rate and 5.7% walk percentage. That’s well below-average offense but he’s held a roster spot on the strength of his glove. Public metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average have graded him positively at each of second base, shortstop and in center field.
The Honduras native is out of minor league option years. That means the Astros will have to carry him on the active roster if they don’t want to risk losing him. Considering they agreed to a $1.4MM contract to avoid arbitration this offseason, it’s hard to envision they’d let him go. Dubón will be on the roster and could see a decent amount of action at second base but might not hit enough to be a regular.
Offseason waiver claim Rylan Bannon is an option at second or third base. The 26-year-old has only played five MLB games. He’s coming off a .249/.367/.421 showing over 99 games in Triple-A and has attracted interest from a handful of teams on the waiver wire. Houston added glove-first veteran Dixon Machado on a minor league deal over the winter. He’s a .226/.285/.292 hitter in parts of five MLB seasons and has struggled at the plate this spring. Minor leaguers Grae Kessinger and Will Wagner have performed well during non-roster looks in camp but likely aren’t immediate options considering neither has yet played a game at Triple-A.
Houston’s lineup should remain one of the league’s best even in Altuve’s absence. Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, José Abreu and Jeremy Peña are capable of driving a strong run-scoring group. Still, it’s obviously far from ideal to have both Altuve and Michael Brantley open the season on the shelf as Houston gets their title defense underway. In all likelihood, they’ll be counting on one of Hensley or Dubón to step up early in the year to fill the void.
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