Astros position breakdown: first base

Before we break down how the Astros shape up at first base, here’s a reminder that in the next few days I plan to answer some of your questions with a long-awaited Inbox. So if you have some questions you want answered about the Astros, click here.

Now, let’s get back to our series on examing the Astros one position at a time. Today’s topic is first base. And boy, how things have changed at first base in the last few months.

FIRST BASE

2010 Opening Day starter: Geoff Blum (Lance Berkman would have been starter if not injured).

2010 end-of-season starters: Brett Wallace/Carlos Lee.

Others who were in the mix: Pedro Feliz.

Combined stats of Astros first basemen: .241 BA/.332 OBP/.397 SLG, 30 doubles, 19 homers, 80 RBIs, 72 walks, 127 strikeouts, 585 at-bats.

Free agents: Blum (mutual option for 2011 was not exercised).

Arbitration eligible: None.

What happened: Lance Berkman injured his knee in the middle of Spring Training and had to undergo surgery, which put him out for the first 12 games of the season. Pedro Feliz, who was signed to be the starting third baseman, and veteran utility man Geoff Blum shared the first base duties until Berkman returned to the lineup, April 20, against the Marlins.

Berkman got off to a terrible start at the plate and never really recovered, which along with the early offensive woes by fellow sluggers Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee put the Astros in a huge hole in the NL Central. The Big Puma hit .242 in April and .221 in May and had five homers in his first 37 games. He managed to hit .278 in June, but had only two homers. That forced the Astros to come to the conclusion they wouldn’t pick up his $15 million option for 2011 and they wound up trading him to the Yankees at the Trade Deadline in exchange for right-hander Mark Melancon and Minor League infielder Jimmy Paredes.

Berkman is one of the Astros’ top five offensive players in club history, and watching him get traded away only hours after Roy Oswalt was dealt to the Phillies was quite a shock. Whether Berkman has any game left remained to be seen, but it was clear the Astros were ready to get younger. Brett Wallace, one of the players they acquired in the Oswalt deal in a secondary trade with Toronto, was plugged in as the starter at first base.

Wallace got off to a nice start in his first week on the job in his Major League debut, but he scuffled offensively for much of the season. The power numbers he put up in the Minor Leagues never materialized. Wallace hit just two homers in 144 at-bats and struck out 50 times, but his September was better than his August at the plate and he turned out to be a surprisingly adept defensive first baseman despite his large frame. Wallace hit .222/.296/.319 with two homers and 13 RBIs.

He didn’t hit right-handers (.218) or left-handers (.240) exceptionally well, but found himself splitting time at first base in the final three weeks of the season with Lee, the team’s starting left fielder. Lee started nine of the final 18 games at first base – primarily against lefties – and was adequate defensively, though not nearly as good as Wallace. Lee hit .235/.257/.456 with four homers and 14 RBIs in 19 games as a first baseman.

Feliz saw occasional time at first base before he was let go, and Blum made 10 starts at the position.

What’s next: Considering Wallace has only 144 career Major League at-bats to his name, the Astros are going into next season with him penciled in as the starting first baseman of the future. The one thing that stands in his way is Lee. It wasn’t by accident that the Astros got a long look at El Caballo at first base in September, and it’s not a stretch to consider Lee will come to Spring Training with a shot to be the starting first baseman on Opening Day.

Not only would this give Wallace some more at-bats in the Minor Leagues, but it would allow the Astros to free up a spot in left field for somebody with more range and a better arm than Lee, who is not a good outfielder. Had Wallace come to the Astros and tore the cover off the baseball in Chris Johnson fashion, Lee likely never would have been taken out of the outfield at any point last season.

Who’s on the farm: Like many of the Astros’ positions, you’ll have to go down to Double-A Corpus Christi to find a player who might have a long-term future at first base with the big club. Koby Clemens started at first for the Hooks and was named team Most Valuable Player after hitting .241 with 26 home runs, 85 RBIs and a .350 on-base percentage. The jury’s out on whether he can be a Major League first baseman, but he might get a shot to come to Major League camp next spring.

Mark Ori (.284) and Brian Pellegrini (.283, 16 homers, 45 RBIs) put up good offensive numbers in Class A Lancaster, and Houston native Kody Hinze had a breakout season at Class A Lexington, hitting .277 with 19 homers and 97 RBIs.

In summary: Unless the Astros acquire another player they feel could start at first base, they will come to camp with Wallace and Lee in the mix. It’s probably going to be up to Wallace’s bat to decide who’s going to be manning first base when the season begins next April in Philadelphia. Don’t be surprised to see an older veteran in camp in the mold of Darin Erstad and Geoff Blum who could play first base in a backup role.

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