MLB.com Astros beat writer Brian McTaggart is about to be very disappointed. Following last night’s moves to call up Jason Castro and Chris Johnson from Triple-A, he wrote:
Simply put, this youth movement is exciting. The Astros will never admit to rebuilding, but the arrival of Castro could be a watershed moment in the franchise’s future. And that future is now.
Unfortunately for McTaggart and the Astros not all “top prospects” are created equal. Teams like the Nationals (Stephen Strasburg), Pirates (Pedro Alvarez), Indians (Carlos Santana), and Marlins (Mike Stanton) calling up their best prospect represents an “exciting youth movement” and “watershed moment in the franchise’s future,” but the Astros doing the same doesn’t represent much of anything, really.
Castro was the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft, but was considered an “overdraft” immediately and has hit .287 with a modest 16 homers and .411 slugging percentage in 215 pro games. He has good on-base skills and should be a solid enough player, but Castro certainly doesn’t project as a star, let alone someone whose arrival is capable of creating “a watershed moment in the franchise’s future.”
Johnson has even less chance of developing into a building block-type player, because he’s almost 26 years old and has hit .282 with a .321 on-base percentage and .459 slugging percentage in 172 games at Triple-A. He was off to a strong start there this season and giving him a chance to supplant the washed-up remains of Pedro Feliz at third base makes plenty of sense, but Johnson’s upside is somewhere between role player and mediocre starter.
All of which shows why the Astros’ situation is so ugly. Not only is the big-league team 26-44 with an aging core of veterans and mistaken-prone general manager who seems uncertain about engaging in a full-on rebuild, the farm system is among the worst in baseball. I don’t mean to pick on McTaggart, because he’s one of the better beat reporters in baseball and trying to find some reason for optimism might be his only chance to stay sane covering this team, but he’s in for a massive letdown.
There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.
It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.
Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.
Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.
It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.
On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.
At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.
If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.
Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.
Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.