Why the Astros are auditioning minor league prospects for different positions

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The positional addition is the Astros’ latest innovation in player development, providing a way to increase the value of some of their most athletic prospects.

An organization without a lot of high-end talent continues to tinker with some of its prized ones, dividing time between their natural position and its polar opposite.

The tactic confuses some but favors the player’s long-term future over possible short-term setbacks. Three spring trainings ago, when reporters spotted Myles Straw taking ground balls at shortstop, former manager AJ Hinch joked “this isn’t a lab.” That season, he threw Straw 14 times at shortstop in the absence of Carlos Correa.

“When we get into these things, everyone understands the concepts and the ideas behind them,” said field coordinator Jason Bell. “It’s not a lab, and we don’t do it with everyone.

“I think it might seem like it if every player did that, but I think our organization does a good job of communicating those things holistically. Coaches often like it because it gives them a challenge. They take great pride in trying to make a center back a shortstop because it’s not an easy thing to do and it’s rare.

The Astros aren’t looking for the total positional change described by Bell. Part of the plan is functional. Minor league rosters are crowded. Positional versatility allows the Astros to get as much playing time as possible and avoid lockups. Raising a player’s floor remains the main focus of the organization, providing so much flexibility to adapt to any number of roster setups.

“We think the opportunity cost is quite low for some players in terms of not forgetting how to play in their original position, but potentially adding another position or another skill. to their resume,” assistant general manager Pete Putila said.

“There are different layers. I think some guys might become regulars. Some guys could become replacements. Some guys could become emergency reinforcements. Even an emergency save provides some flexibility to the roster if something happens for a few days – where it’s not a serious injury but the player in front of them needs a few days.

The trend started with Straw but gained mainstream notoriety with Pedro León and Tyler Whitaker. Both are center field prospects, but now spend most of their time in the infield. The Astros gave León a $4 million signing bonus and advertised him as a “quick mover” in center field. León started 48 of his 74 games at shortstop in his first full professional season.

Whitaker began his career with eight field starts in the Florida Gulf Coast League. The Astros picked him with their first selection in the 2021 draft. They touted Whitaker’s athleticism, speed and fly ball reads as reasons he could stay in center field. The outfield comes naturally to him, a comfort he passed on to team officials during their early conversations about his future. Bell still asked if he had any experience in the field.

“I told him I grew up playing shortstop,” Whitaker said. ” I am open to everything. I just want to hit. I just want to hit. Wherever I can be in alignment every day, I will.

Hundreds of people in Whitaker’s place share that dream. Rarely, Bell said, do they realize the variance involved. Player development is not a linear exercise. Neither is list building. Never has roster flexibility been more important or attractive, especially in an Astros organization that values ​​it more than most.

“A lot of times after getting drafted, the perception is, ‘I have to hit to get to the big leagues.’ Which, yes, (is true),” Bell said. “But it always comes down to what position are you going to play in?”

Players with more adaptability are inherently more attractive. In 2019, the Astros called Straw to the major leagues ahead of Yordan Alvarez or Kyle Tucker. Manipulation of service time obviously delayed Alvarez’s arrival, but Bell still uses that fact to sell versatility to younger prospects.

“You really never know when you’re in Low-A what the major league roster will look like when you’re in Triple-A,” Bell said. “You never know. Your first call may be in the playoffs and because you can pinch the run and play an infield and outfield position, it allows the roster to have maybe an extra pitcher. Maybe there’s an injury or maybe you’re replacing for a few weeks.

Of Houston’s 23 minor league minicamp position players, 12 are part of a defensive group labeled “infielder/outfielder”. Bell says all but two can play both infield and outfield. The group has one hour each day set aside for defense – enough to split the time between the two positions.

“From an outfield perspective, playing those other positions helps them understand the game in a more holistic way. They’re more involved in the rundown, involved in everything that happens on the infield, defense against bunt, first and third. It can help them on the bases to see the game from an infielder’s perspective. There are so many little quirks that I think can be beneficial.”

Not all outfielders are legitimate candidates to add a position. The Astros prioritize those with supreme athleticism and good hands. Prior field experience is not required. Houston hit León a few on-the-go ground balls during a pre-signing practice in 2019. The team liked what they saw and told León to prepare for the on-court game .

Roilan Machandy, a 20-year-old Cuban who hasn’t played above the Florida Coast League, recorded the fastest 30-yard rush time in Astros history. He too is part of Bell’s “infielder/outfielder” group.

“Could that speed translate to the outfield with reads and, perhaps, could it translate to the infield?” Bell said. “Otherwise, and he’s just an outfielder, he’s so young that maybe by the time he’s in Double-A or Triple-A we’ve tried him enough that we can perfect against the opposite where we have to wait until later in their career to try it and then indulge in it on a late level.

Targeting young players is no accident. Bell still regrets not exposing Taylor Jones to more third base and left field earlier in Jones’ career. Jones can still play both positions — he made a few major league cameos in left field last season — but Bell wonders how different Jones’ career might be had he started earlier.

“It always depends on what the major league roster looks like going forward,” Bell said. “But I think it raises a lot of floors from these guys. I think our guys have been pretty open to it, which has been a little surprising, and I think a lot of times they think it’s fun. A lot of times outfielders can feel like it’s a redundant position, sometimes they can be complacent, but sometimes in the infield they’re like, ‘Why not? Let’s have a little fun.

After Bell introduced the plan last season, Whitaker has started four of his last 20 Gulf Coast League games at third base. He worked all offseason on his footwork. Whitaker estimated 60% of his daily defensive routine during minicamp centers on the field game.

“With the infield, that’s something I’m really proud of because I know I’m not as good as I was in the outfield,” Whitaker said. “I want to match that and the more value I can bring playing in both positions, the more it helps me.”

Whitaker threw in high school and can throw from multiple arm slots. Outfielders moving to the infield often have trouble adjusting their throwing style across the diamond. Whitaker does not. The 19-year-old said he felt like “two different players” at times, but understood the team’s ultimate goal.

“Anything that can help the organization,” Whitaker said, “and help me move further and faster.”



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