The Astros are finally promoting one of their top prospects, George Springer, after months of watching him dominate the upper minors while Houston struggled to field a competitive team. Like it or not, that's all part of the plan to bring watchable baseball back to Houston, but let's not get into that debate. Instead, let's focus on who George Springer is, and what we and the Astros can expect from him now that he's making his big-league debut.
Springer is an all-around player who can help the Astros win games at the plate, in the field, and on the bases. He stole 45 bases between Double- and Triple-A last year and was caught just eight times while also mashing 37 homers. The 24-year-old Springer has spent most of his time in center field, where his speed should help him succeed, giving him the potential to be an all-star-caliber up-the-middle player for Houston.
Springer is nearly perfectly well rounded, with his arm, speed, power, and defense all rating as plus according to Baseball America, who ranked him the #18 prospect in the game prior to 2014. The one tool he is not plus in just happens to be the one that could make the rest come crashing down, however: if Springer can't make contact, he's not going to be a star.
Baseball Prospectus lists plenty of weaknesses for Springer, all relating to his hit tool:
Swing-and-miss concerns; approach can get loose; two-strike approach can lack adjustment; tendency to miss in the zone... if he doesn't learn to make adjustments at the plate, especially when he's down in the count, major league arms will exploit him at will and it could lead to a very high strikeout total.
Not only do these issues keep him from being plus in every tool, but Prospectus also states that his hit tool might end up below-average, which could put a dent in his value and power. While the potential to be a star is there, he's likened to Chris Young, who had similar issues making contact that, despite his speed, defense, and power, kept him from ever living up to his prospect hype: you have to hit the ball at all in order to hit it far. It might be hard to remember now that Young spent his late-20s as a part-time outfielder, but he was the 12th-ranked prospect in the game prior to 2007 by Baseball America's reckoning, and eighth according to Baseball Prospectus. Springer could very well go down the same road.
Conversely, if Springer is able to adjust enough that he can keep his average in a reasonable place, then he's going to be exciting for fans inside and outside Houston. Baseball America says that if Springer bats .270, he'll be "a perennial all-star", and that even if he hits .240 instead, he can still help the Astros win. That's the key here: even though Young seems disappointing because of what his contact issues eventually did to him, when he was in his prime, he was still great. From 2010 through 2012, in Young's age-26 through age-28 seasons, he compiled a .243/.331/.436 line with 61 homers, 58 steals at a 75 percent success rate, and played spectacular defense that helped push his three-year wins above replacement total over 12. If the Astros get a couple of four-to-five-win campaigns out of Springer while he's inexpensive and in his mid-20s, then they've done pretty well for themselves, especially if they occur at a time when the rest of their talented prospects have arrived on the scene.
It's worth remembering two things before pointing at Springer's minor-league stats in defense of his future performance. Springer isn't like a lot of the much-hyped prospects of the past few years in that he's already 24 years old: Mike Trout has finished second in the MVP voting the past two years, and is just now in his age-22 season.* Springer hasn't been well ahead of his level in terms of age, and has instead basically been right around where he should be, if not slightly behind. In addition, his last 75 games of dominance, in which he batted .319/.431/.630, came in the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League. The average player in the PCL owned a 756 OPS last year, and to this point in 2013, they're at 772. Springer is far ahead of that of course, and his park specifically isn't one of the ridiculous, offense-inflating ones, but the difference isn't as stark as it looks at first glance when you remember that MLB's OPS was 714 last year.
*Not that Trout is a reasonable expectation for any player, but age-related context is important when evaluating prospects: they have to still be kids for you to refer to them as such in analysis.
Plus, scouting the stats generally leads to disappointment, especially when the player in question has problems that won't even show up until he's facing competition that can exploit them. That's the potential case with Springer, who is obviously too much for minor-league arms at any level thanks to his plus power: he wouldn't be the first player to receive a wake-up call once they arrive at baseball's highest level in spite of what appeared to be an easy ride through the farm.
It's not a given that Springer forever struggles against major-league pitchers who are more capable of exploiting his weaknesses than anyone else he's faced, though. Time with big-league coaches, fellow big-league players, and the experience he'll gain from playing at this level could be the push he needs to tighten up and adjust with two strikes on him, and result in the opportunities for additional hits and at-bats that go on long enough for a pitcher to throw something they'll regret. Recent history reminds us that these adjustments do not always occur, however, so be prepared for a future where Springer ends up a pretty good ballplayer instead of an organization-changing one, just in case.