Saturday, April 13

Smith: Somehow, Astros are making Trey Mancini controversial

Bob Dylan said it best way back in 1963.

“Some of the people can be all right part of the time. But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time,” sang Dylan with a folksy twang, namedropping Abraham Lincoln in a funny tune teasing World War III.

The Astros entered Thursday afternoon tied with the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League — even after falling 8-4 to the bad Rangers in 10 innings the night before — so it would be an overexaggeration to state that Houston’s MLB team is a struggling train wreck. 

This isn’t 2013. Or 2020.

But this Trey Mancini thing sure is getting interesting, isn’t it?

I wrote Monday that the World Series-or-bust Astros had to figure out where Mancini fit. He was the team’s biggest acquisition at the trade deadline. He was acquired to boost a lineup that has obvious holes and is tied for 17th in the majors in batting average (.240). During back-to-back defeats at Cleveland last weekend, the Astros totaled one run. 

Defense isn’t the Astros’ weakness. Neither is catching fly balls in left field. Pitching is a serious strength. Offense has been a season-long problem at several positions and could undercut a playoff-bound squad in October.

Yet Mancini, a veteran first baseman/outfielder/designated hitter, didn’t appear in Tuesday’s lineup written by veteran manager Dusty Baker, which followed a team off day. Mancini’s name also was absent from Wednesday’s lineup. When he was inserted as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, he singled, improving to 5-for-19 with three home runs and seven RBIs since joining the Astros on Aug. 1.

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Baker, after bench coach Joe Espada filled in, returned to the dugout Thursday after a COVID-19 absence and was asked about Mancini.

An extended answer only created more questions and reinforced what I wrote Monday: Shouldn’t the Astros have had a better plan for fitting in Mancini before they traded for him?

“It depends on who’s pitching for us,” Baker told reporters. “If I got Framber (Valdez) pitching, then I need Yuli (Gurriel). He’s the Golden Glove. There’s only one Golden Glove, you know what I mean? And then if I got a fly ball pitcher, he only played 13 games in the outfield in Baltimore before he got here, you know what I mean? And so I’ve got to play my best fly ball guy out there. And he played right field in Baltimore because it’s a short porch, so I’ve got to play him more here in left field. But what do I do with Yordan (Alvarez), who wants to play outfield? And (Chas) McCormick). And (Jake) Meyers, who I’m trying to get going, you know what I’m saying? He’ll find a way to play.”

Not unless his manager consistently writes his name into the lineup.

On Thursday, Mancini was Baker’s DH and hit sixth, with Aledmys Díaz in left field, Meyers in center and Kyle Tucker in right.

Look, I’m not saying that Mancini is Aaron Judge and the Astros are leaving 45 home runs and 99 RBIs on the cutting-room floor every time that the former Oriole doesn’t make the daily list.

But Baker’s reluctance to regularly play Mancini is fascinating — that’s the nice way of putting it — when you factor in that he was the only big bat that the team added at the deadline. And that a struggling Gurriel, who went 0-for-5 in Wednesday’s home loss, entered Thursday batting .235 with a .658 OPS.

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Christian Vázquez only has 12 at-bats and six game appearances since joining the Astros on the same day as Mancini. He also was out of the past two starting lineups.

Michael Brantley is receiving a second opinion on an injured shoulder and might not play again this year. 

At the plate and in the offensive runs column, the 2022 Astros need all the help they can get.

In discussing Mancini’s supposed limitations, Baker’s numbers don’t add up. The same manager who sometimes forgets that he’s seen MLB pitchers pitch before seems to have missed that Mancini played 98 games in left field for Baltimore in 2018 and has recorded almost 300 games in the outfield since ’17.

The oddest parts of all of this?

Mancini has hit well and provided an immediate power boost (when he’s played). He also went out of his way to tell everyone how excited he was to join the Astros, despite suddenly leaving the only team that he had played for in the middle of an AL wild-card race, and that he was willing to do whatever his new club required.

“I just want to contribute in any possible way that I can and just be a part of this,” Mancini said the day after the deadline, after a solo blast into the Crawford Boxes ignited a 6-1 Astros win over Boston. “Because I know they’ve really had something special going on for a long time, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it now.”

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At the start of this season, Baker was a Jose Siri-over-McCormick supporter. Until Siri couldn’t cut it with the Astros and was eventually traded to Tampa Bay in a three-team deal that brought Mancini to Houston.

Mancini exudes good guy, good teammate, good player.

The Astros need his bat, leadership, 270 career average, 117 home runs and .799 OPS. If not, why did they trade multiple players for him?

This might all work out in the end. Mancini becomes an October regular and the Astros win the final two games that they couldn’t last year.

Almost 10 days after a hectic deadline, it doesn’t make sense. 

It also appears that Baker is trying to prove a new point, win an old argument, and appease too many hitters batting .235 and below at the same time. 

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