Kvasnicka at 3B; weekend roundup

From a long-term perspective, the most important part of Sunday night’s loss was not the outcome of the game. Instead, it was the transition of one of the most promising young ‘Cats: Michael Kvasnicka started at third base for the first time, after playing the first two games in right field.

Although he was primarily an outfielder in college and was seen by many teams as a catcher, the Astros drafted Kvasnicka to play third base. The 33rd overall pick from the University of Minnesota has played everywhere on the diamond, but spent most of his time in the outfield and will be raw as third basemen go. He’s been taking grounders there all week, but today was the first time Kvasnicka was at the hot corner in live action.

He had plenty of chances to prove himself, too. Most notably, Alex Nunez led off the third inning by laying a bunt down the third base line, challenging the rookie’s chops at the new position. Kvasnicka picked the ball up nicely, and his throw almost pulled first baseman Tyler Burnett (moved off the hot corner to make room for Kvasnicka) off the bag, but he got the out. It wasn’t a terribly difficult play as drag bunts go, and most third basemen will get that out, but it was nice to see Kvasnicka handle himself well on it.

Kvasnicka had four other fielding chances at third, and handled them all with ease. The second batter of a game hit a slow chopper to third; Kvasnicka smartly checked off a double-play throw to second, set himself and threw to first, getting PJ Polk by a step and a half. The two other grounders Kvasnicka saw were easy – a two-hopper right at him in the fifth and a soft broken-bat grounder leading off the sixth – and he caught a high popup in foul territory; he had to come back towards the infield late to catch the ball, but he made the play.

One other ball went through Kvasnicka’s zone – a hard, one-hopper through his left side in the fifth inning off the bat of Matt Mansilla. It was a clean base hit, but he had a chance at making a great play if he made a little better read and/or moved better to his left. Not that we should be holding him to these standards yet, but I’d imagine a good percentage of big-league third basemen would have at least gotten a glove on that ball.

But overall, I think Astros fans have to be optimistic about what we saw from Kvasnicka defensively today. ValleyCat fans should be encouraged, too, as the move should strengthen the Tri-City defense. Kvasnicka right now is a downgrade at third from Burnett (who made a nice diving play in the first inning of Saturday’s game), but Burnett at first should be an upgrade over Nick Stanley, who did not technically commit an error in two days but saw three hits go off of his glove. Also, if any of the outfielders who have been DHing are average defenisvely in right, that will probably be a net plus to the ‘Cats run prevention. Kvasnicka made a fielding error trying to pick up a blooper in right in the first inning on Friday, three-hopped a throw home 20 feet up the line on Saturday and took a couple other awkward routes to balls in the outfield this weekend. That also frees up the DH spot for Stanley, should management decide they want his veteran bat in the lineup.

In fact, if you’re looking for a source of worry regarding Kvasnicka’s development, I’d take a look at his performance against lefties. The switch-hitter famously had no trouble adjusting to the speed of the professional game from the left-handed batters box, blasting an opposite-field homer and a double to the same place on the first two pitches he saw. But Connecticut turned him around in his last two at-bats yesterday and for all four today, and Kvasnicka looked shakier as a right-handed batter. From the right side, he’s 0-for-6 with three strikeouts, two popups to second base, and a weak grounder to third. He was up in a key situation in the eighth inning today with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, but was way behind an 87 mph fastball from Logan Hoch and then chased an offspeed pitch in the dirt for strike three. Six at-bats is obviously a tiny sample, and I’ll keep an eye on this one throughout the season.

Some other assorted notes from Opening Weekend:

I mentioned this in my gamer, but Connecticut starter Luis Sanz pulled off an interesting feat on Saturday: he allowed three batters to reach base in innings 2-5, but still faced the minimum 12 batters. Even more interesting was the way he did it. All three baserunners were retired in different ways – Renzo Tello was caught stealing, Tyler Burnett was erased on a double play and Dan Adamson was called out on a stolen base attempt due to batter interference on Tello. The call drew an angry reaction – not to mention confusion – from the crowd, but Pankovits didn’t really argue, and it looked like the right call. It was a 1-2 hit-and-run, Tello swung at a pitch way outside to protect the runner and ended up falling over the plate. Catcher Eric Roof still got a throw off and I think Adamson probably had even a good throw beat, but Tello was definitely in Roof’s path and the catcher sold the call.

Sanz had a really incredible outing, in the literal sense of the word: I was amazed at how he turned on and off his command. He threw six pitches, all strikes, to strike out Orloff, but after getting ahead of Figueroa he completely lost it. He threw only five strikes the rest of the inning, with 14 balls and three free passes mixed in. He was lucky Burnett swung first-pitch and Stanley on 2-0, each hitting into outs, because otherwise it could have taken him a long time to get out of the inning. But just as I was preparing for a long day, he found the switch again, needing only 44 pitches to finish the next four innings.

Murillo Gouvea did not have his best outing tonight. In particular, he had very little command of his pitches. In four innings, he managed to limit the damage to just two walks, but he needed 72 pitches to make it through those frames. He left stuff up in the zone all night, the main cause of the single, double and homer in the first inning, and threw quite a few curveballs that never made it below the hitters’ eyes. But the bullpen generally picked him up, and as a team, when you allow five runs you still definitely have a shot to win.

The story of tonight’s game, rather, was the fact that Tri-City hit just 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position. But while it may seem to read, “the ValleyCats offense sucks,” I don’t really agree. Let’s wait a bit longer before declaring the Tri-City bats dead in the water. For one, they weren’t really that futile today – they just picked up their hits at inopportune times. Tri-City didn’t string together two hits in an inning until the last one, and with four doubles and a triple, the ‘Cats were certainly in dangerous positions often. For another, although they didn’t do much yesterday, it was only two days ago that the ValleyCats racked up twelve hits off the Connecticut opening day starter. Finally, Guichardo is a very good pitcher: he posted a 1.73 ERA as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League last year and pitched well in a start at high-A Lakeland.

The run prevention, particularly the defense, is another concern. But I don’t think the last two sloppy days are much more indicative of Tri-City’s true talent level than the opener, when they were incredibly sharp (one harmless error, 15 K, 0 BB). As shaky as some of the pitchers have looked, the ValleyCats still walked only six batters in 18 innings (not good but certainly no disaster), and that’s with 15 different players taking the mound. Eventually a rotation and a bullpen will be set, and the better pitchers will get more innings. Converted shortstop Jorge De Leon looked very good in the ninth tonight, touching 97 on the stadium gun and inducing four groundballs (the first one a single through the 3-4 hole).

I’m not sure if the ValleyCats have 17 pitchers on their roster because they needed 15 of them this weekend, or if they used 15 pitchers this weekend because they had so many that needed work. Either way, as someone tasked with scoring and covering the game, I’m kind of hoping they get rid of a few soon, just so I don’t have to deal with so many pitching changes.

Kevin Whitaker

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