Last season, the Houston Astros opened with a middle infield combination of shortstop Tommy Manzella and second baseman Kazuo Matsui. Manzella was fresh from the minor leagues, having worked his way up the system after being drafted out of Tulane in 2005. Matsui was at the end of a three-year contract he signed with Houston in general manager Ed Wade's first offseason in 2007.
By the end of May, Matsui was completely off the roster and by the end of June, a hand injury forced Manzella from the lineup. Within the first three months of the season, Houston had already been forced to replace both its middle infielders. Why should 2011 be any different?
The circumstances are a bit changed this season, but the problems are no less. Needing to inject some pop into a relatively park-bound roster, Wade went out and got Clint Barmes from the Colorado Rockies for erratic right-hander Felipe Paulino. He then made a big push to sign Orlando Hudson to play second base, but O-Dog chose San Diego over Houston and Wade's fall back plan was Bill Hall. Wade was able to convince Hall to sign largely because he offered him the starting second base job, when other teams were reluctant to do that.
So, Houston went into Spring Training this season with an entirely new middle infield combo. There was a little problem with the incumbent second baseman, though. Jeff Keppinger had taken Matsui's job in May of last season and did a bang-up job. In fact, Keppinger was one of the best hitters on the team last season, hitting a career-best .288/.351/.389 in 575 plate appearances.
Any awkwardness with Keppinger was quickly squashed, though, when it was revealed that his foot injury, suffered at the end of 2010, was still a problem and would require surgery. That put Kepp out until the middle of May, by most estimates, and put off any tough roster decisions.
In spring camp, the Astros had a very tough competition for spots. Angel Sanchez, picked up from Boston last season for backup catcher Kevin Cash, hit well in limited playing time last season, but his defense needed work at shortstop. Anderson Hernandez could play multiple defensive positions and had gotten time with the big league team last season. Also, he was left-handed, a spot the Astros lacked on their bench. Matt Downs got some playing time with Houston last season after Wade claimed him off waives from San Francisco, but didn't show much. He came up big in the spring, though, showing some power and versatility to play three of the four infield positions.
It was going to be a tough decision on who got those two backup infield spots before the Astros traded for left-handed pinch hitting specialist Joe Inglett. That left just one bench spot for three players.
Things got a little complicated, though, when Barmes broke his hand the weekend before the season started. The time table for his recovery was four to six weeks and the Astros suddenly needed a starting shortstop. Manager Brad Mills, who came over from the Boston organization before the 2010 season, went with Sanchez as his starter in the early going. Mills clearly has a good deal of comfort with Sanchez from his time in Boston and what he saw out of him here in Houston.
Sanchez didn't disappoint, hitting for a high average and driving in runs while batting in the second spot in the order. Downs also won a backup infield spot and has provided his share of big hits, both off the bench and as a starter at third base for the struggling Chris Johnson. The only loser in the spring competition was Hernandez, who was forced out by Inglett's acquisition.
As well as Sanchez and Downs have played, there's a day of reckoning coming soon. Barmes has been progressing ahead of schedule and should rejoin the team in the next few weeks. Keppinger has also made progress and should be back sometime in the next month. That means Houston will need to free up two roster spots for these two injured players.
Of the bench guys, Inglett has clearly struggled the most. He's hitting just .143/.143/.143 in 14 plate appearances in 11 games. The problem? Both Sanchez, Downs and Keppinger are right-handed, meaning Inglett is still the only option for a left-handed bat off the bench. His job, then, is most likely safe for the time being.
So who gets cut or sent to the minors? Sanchez does not have any options left, but Downs does. That means, as well as he's hit in his limited time this season, he's probably the first guy to be sent down once Barmes is healthy. The biggest decision will come once Keppinger is ready to rejoin the team.
Houston obviously likes Sanchez, despite his defensive shortcomings. Since they can't send him down, they'll probably try every avenue to keep him on the roster. The two main options they'll have are trading Keppinger and demoting Jason Bourgeois to the minors. If they do decide to trade Keppinger, they won't get much in return until he proves he's healthy in something other than rehab starts in the minors. That means he must get major league time and have a spot on the 25-man roster.
That leaves Bourgeois as the unlikely victim of this middle infield roster crunch. Bourg has played decently in his time on the roster. He's hit fairly well and is stealing bases almost as prolifically as Michael Bourn. Plus, he gives the Astros a very speedy defensive replacement in the outfield, which is a definite asset in the late innings. However, since Houston lists Joe Inglett as an outfielder, the roster push may force Bourg out, leaving Kepp and Sanchez as the backup infielders and Michaels and Inglett as the backup outfielders.
It's not the perfect bench, since I really like both what Downs and Bourg bring to the table. Certainly, with the injury to Barmes and the slow start by Bill Hall, Astros fans won't be happy if a guy gets sent down or the bench who's been hitting well. Either way, the Astros are headed for a roster crunch that won't be easy on anyone involved.