Astros position breakdown: second base

Before we get to the latest in our Astros position-by-position breakdown, here’s a reminder that I’m currently fielding Astros-related questions and plan to answer them in the coming days via an Inbox. You can fire off you questions by clicking here.

Back to the task at hand. Our position-by-position breakdown takes us to second base, which for years was occupied by franchise icon Craig Biggio.

For the time being, second base is a position the Astros aren’t too worried about. Jeff Keppinger seized the starting job from Kaz Matsui early last season and was one of the team’s most consistent players all year. He comes with a relatively low salary and is a downright bargain based on his production, so things appear pretty set at the position after a tumultuous regular season.

Here’s a look at what’s going on at second base:

SECOND BASE

2010 Opening Day starter: Kaz Matsui.

2010 end-of-season starters: Jeff Keppinger.

Others who were in the mix: Geoff Blum, Anderson Hernandez, Angel Sanchez, Matt Downs, Jason Bourgeois.

Combined 2010 stats of Astros second basemen: .252 BA/.313 OBP/.345 SLG, 35 doubles, 7 homers, 59 RBIs, 56 walks, 57 strikeouts, 624 at-bats.

Free agents: Geoff Blum (option declined), Anderson Hernandez (Minor League).

Arbitration eligible: Jeff Keppinger.

What happened: Kaz Matsui, entering the final year of his three-year, $16.5-million deal, began the season as the incumbent starter at second, though he was actually platooning with Keppinger if you consider the number of starts each got in April (Keppinger had 12, Matsui 10). Matsui got off to an awful start and hit .141 in 27 games before the Astros cut him loose and handed the everyday job to Keppinger in mid-May.

Jeff Keppinger, 30, certainly didn’t disappoint and hit .288 with six homers and 59 RBIs in a career-high 514 at-bats. He was the team’s most consistent hitter all season and led the Astros in doubles with 34. He also struck out only 36 times in 514 at-bats while drawing 51 walks. Keppinger’s doesn’t have great range, but he made all the routine plays and was a steady hand at second base. He made only six errors, and his .990 field percentage was fourth in the NL among second baseman.

Keppinger missed 15 games in August after going on the disabled list with left big toe sesamoiditis, which was basically a stress fracture near the ball of his left foot. It forced him to take a few days off later in September, which allowed Anderson Hernandez and Matt Downs to make occasional starts. Veteran Geoff Blum also saw time at second, and shortstop Angel Sanchez was put at second on occasion when Tommy Manzella started at short late in the year. Outfielder Jason Bourgeois made a brief appearance at second base as well.

What’s next: Barring a trade or free agent signing, Keppinger will begin next season as the starting second baseman. The club admittedly needs to upgrade its offense and won’t shy away from a chance to add some pop at second base or shortstop, even if it forces a platoon situation somewhere in the middle infield. Sanchez will again be in the mix at second base, where he’s better suited than at shortstop because of his limited arm and range.

Who’s on the farm: The Astros used their No. 1 overall pick last year on Delino DeShields Jr., an outfielder who will be converted to second base from the outfield. He went to the instructional league to make the transition, but was slowed by elbow problems and was limited to designated hitter duties, though he did field ground balls at second and will continue to work at the position in the winter and heading into Spring Training next year. Jose Vallejo, acquired as part of last year’s Ivan Rodriguez trade with Texas, hit .111 in 99 at-bats in Corpus Christi. That was encouraging considering he severed tendons in two fingers of his right hand in a cooking accident late last year and had extensive surgery. The injury was believed to be career-threatening. He was a six-year Minor League free agent, but has re-signed with the Astros.

Jose Altuve was a South Atlantic League All-Star with Lexington before being promoted to high Class A Lancaster. He hit a combined .301/.357/.448 with 15 homers and 67 RBIs in 125 games. He stands 5-foot-5, but knows how to play the game, has outstanding hands, good speed and surprising pop. He’s liked by every guy on the Minor League staff. Jimmy Paredes, acquired in the Lance Berkman deal with the Yankees, hit .299 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 34 games with Lexington. For the season, he hit .287 with eight homers and 65 RBIs combined between Lexington and Charleston (Yankees). Other second basemen to keep an eye on are Enrique Hernandez (Tri-City) and Ben Orloff (Tri-City). The Astros also re-signed Wladimir Sutil, who can play shortstop.

In summary: The Astros like what they have in Keppinger, and he should provide a solid option until one of the Astros’ youngsters in the Minor Leagues shows he’s ready to take over. Who knows how long that will take, but the Astros are slowly building some quality depth at the position in the Minor Leagues.

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