George Springer hit .302/.397/.562 in three-plus seasons in the minor leagues. (Matt Slocum/AP)
The Astros' rebuilding program will enter a new phase on Wednesday, as the team is calling up George Springer. The 24-year-old outfielder is the first blue-chip position prospect to arrive in Houston since the Astros embarked upon a drastic and controversial rebuilding program following Jim Crane's purchase of the team in November 2011. His promotion — which many consider overdue — heralds the arrival of an impressive wave of talent that should go a long way toward reversing the fortunes of a team that hasn't seen a winning season since 2008.
The 11th pick of the 2011 draft out of the University of Connecticut, Springer has hit a combined .302/.397/.562 with 65 homers in 284 minor league games spread out over three-plus seasons, destroying pitching at every level in which he's stuck around long enough to draw a meaningful sample of plate appearances. Last year, he hit an eye-popping .303/.411/.600 with 37 homers and 45 steals split between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City, a performance that pushed him into the top-20 for Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN's prospect list; he had cracked all three in each of the previous two seasons as well.
As you might surmise from those numbers, Springer offers a tantalizing combination of power and speed. He possesses quick hands and outstanding bat speed, producing a whole lot of hard contact via a pull-heavy approach. The knock on his hitting, however, is a whole lot of swinging and missing. Last year, he struck out 161 times in 589 plate appearances (27.3 percent). He tends to miss pitches even in the strike zone — particularly quality offspeed stuff — and both BP's Jason Parks and ESPN's Keith Law have noted that he makes no adjustment to his approach with two strikes. Despite that, he does have good plate discipline to go with his power and speed; even if he hits .240 or .250, he'll be a productive hitter who could combine 30 homers with 30 steals, with Parks describing him as "a more electric version of Chris Young," and Law writing, "I could easily see him being a consistently high-BABIP guy who strikes out 180 times a year and still hits .280 or better, because of how quick his hands are, and that player in centerfield would be an All-Star."
At least at the moment, Springer doesn't appear bound for center, where he's made 247 of his 275 minor league appearances in the field. While Springer possesses a good glove as well as outstanding speed and a strong arm, the Astros traded for centerfielder Dexter Fowler over the winter, and they have one more year of club control over him before he reaches free agency. For the moment, they'll play Springer in rightfield, where he has played seven of his 13 games this year and 25 total. Having sent down struggling leftfielder Robbie Grossman as the corresponding move to Springer's recall, it appears as though they'll shift also-struggling rightfielder Alex Presley to left for the moment, though he's less likely to figure into their longer-term plans than Grossman.
In most organizations, Springer's dominating 2013 performance would have been rewarded with a September cup of coffee in the majors. The Astros didn't recall him, however, in part because he didn't have enough minor league service time to necessitate adding him to the 40-man roster for protection in December's Rule 5 draft. More controversially, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported in March that the team had sent Springer to the minors to start the season because he (and his agent) turned down a seven-year, $23 million contract offer last fall. Because a full major league season is longer than the number of days needed to accrue a year of service time (183 days versus 172 days), by waiting this long, the Astros have delayed Springer's potential free agency by a year; he will now be under club control through 2020 instead of 2019.
Assuming that he remains in the majors, Springer is still in position to become a Super Two player with four years of arbitration eligibility instead of three; avoiding that would mean waiting to recall him until sometime in June, though there's guesswork involved as to exactly when. Via the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the top 22 percent of players with between two and three years of service time qualify for arbitration early and thus have four years of eligibility instead of three; the cutoff this year is estimated to be at two years, 128 days. If Springer lives up to expectations, the likelihood is that the Astros will make another attempt to buy out his arbitration years, and as the recent extensions of Starling Marte (six years, $31 million) and Jedd Gyorko (six years, $35.5 million) show, Springer may wind up with a much bigger deal than was on the table last fall.
Beyond the money issues, Springer is the vanguard of a coming wave of prospects from a minor league system that ESPN ranked first and both BA and BP ranked fifth among the 30 teams, one that predates the hiring of current general manager Jeff Luhnow; predecessor Ed Wade drafted or otherwise acquired several of them. Law included seven Astros among his top 100, BA six and BP five:
Delino DeShields Jr.
Appel was last year's number one overall pick, Correa was the number one from the year before, McCullers was a 2012 supplemental first-rounder, and DeShields was the eighth pick of a 2010 bumper crop that also included Foltynewicz (19th pick) and Velasquez (58th pick, from the second round). Singleton, the only player above not drafted by the Astros, was a 2009 eighth-round pick by the Phillies who arrived via the mid-2011 Hunter Pence trade. That deal also brought righty Jarred Cosart, who's already a member of Houston's rotation, and 21-year-old rightfielder Domingo Santana, who cracked the BA and BP team top 10 lists and just missed that of ESPN.
It's not out of the question that most of those players could at least taste the majors this season; Parks estimated 2014 ETAs for Correa, Appell, Foltynewicz, Singleton and Santana — meaning their debuts, not necessarily full-time jobs — as well as Springer, while the other aforementioned sources were more conservative. The likelihood is that they won't all pan out, but that enough of them will to begin reversing the fortunes of a team that has lost 324 games over the past three seasons. The system isn't barren beyond those prospects, either, and it will get another influx of talent with the overall first pick in the June amateur draft as well as three of the top 42 via a competitive balance pick at 37 and then the first pick of the second round.