- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Houston manager Brad Mills was hoping for a better April after an 0-8 start in 2010, but the early schedule threw some pine tar into the works. First came a visit to Philadelphia and encounters with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. That was followed by a trip to Cincinnati, where the Reds look like a budding juggernaut this spring.
Predictably enough, the first week wasn't pretty. Closer Brandon Lyon blew a two-run ninth inning lead to lose the season opener, and the Astros hit .214 and scored 17 runs on a 1-5 road trip, helping validate the perception that they're a candidate to finish last behind Pittsburgh in the National League Central. It's going to be a challenge regaining the momentum forged by last year's 39-27 finish.
But all the doubts and setbacks in the world can't prevent an aspiring .300 hitter from tending to business. Brett Wallace, Houston's first baseman, likes to arrive several hours before game time, head to the indoor batting cage and take enough hacks to work up a good sweat. Wallace, 24, is systematic and purposeful in his approach, whether he's dissecting video or attacking soft tosses from hitting coach Mike Barnett. Even as a lefty, Wallace isn't averse to studying Albert Pujols' setup or Alex Rodriguez's two-strike approach in search of tips. Good hitting principles apply regardless of which batter's box a player calls home.
When you get traded one year out of the draft, it's an eye opener. It doesn't matter how much a team likes you or doesn't like you.
Things can change.
”-- Brett Wallace
Connoisseurs of the baseball prospect landscape can remember when Wallace was really hot stuff. In June 2008, the St. Louis Cardinals picked him out of Arizona State with the 13th pick in the first round. After becoming the first player to win two Pac-10 Triple Crowns, Wallace raised the stakes with a .337 batting average in his first two minor league stops.
"Wallace has an elegant and refined approach," Baseball America wrote in 2009. "His balanced, level swing creates consistent line drives, and he isn't easily fooled because of his keen eye and quick adjustments."
Wallace has since gone on a head-spinning, Carmen Sandiego-like baseball odyssey that tested both his self-confidence and his equilibrium. In July 2009, the Cardinals sent him to Oakland as part of a package deal for Matt Holliday. Five months later, Oakland traded him to Toronto for outfielder Michael Taylor. Finally, the Blue Jays dealt him to Houston for speedy outfielder Anthony Gose just before the 2010 trade deadline.
Wallace didn't have the option of breaking in gradually with the Astros. Two days after the Gose deal, the Astros traded Lance Berkman to New York and summoned Wallace to replace him. On July 31, Wallace made his big league debut against Milwaukee at Minute Maid Park.
The final inventory: Three trades in a span of 371 days. Four professional franchises by age 23, and an accompanying move across the diamond from third base to first. It's enough to give a young player a complex. But rather than take the news personally, Wallace put a positive spin on his travels.
"The way I choose to look at it, the teams that traded for me all had a plan for me and believed in me," Wallace said. "But it definitely makes you step back and see the business side of baseball. When you get traded one year out of the draft, it's an eye opener. It doesn't matter how much a team likes you or doesn't like you. Things can change. Things are going to happen, and anyone is touchable."
If the Astros plan to defy expectations, they're going to need Wallace and third baseman Chris Johnson to produce consistently enough to complement Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn in the batting order. Johnson, the son of Red Sox coach Ron Johnson, hit .308 last year, but his 16 walks and 104 strikeouts as an Astro suggest he better become more selective if he wants pitchers to continue throwing him strikes.
Wallace, meanwhile, is putting up numbers that bear little resemblance to the carnage he inflicted in Springfield, Quad Cities and Las Vegas. After going 3-for-4 with a home run in a 4-3 loss to Florida on Friday night, he's hitting .225 with 11 walks and 55 strikeouts in 58 big league games.
Although Wallace's fluid swing is easy on the eyes, some scouts and personnel people have grown dubious: Can he handle the hard stuff inside and hit with sufficient power to be a long-term asset at first base? The Astros plan to give him time to figure it out.
"Everybody who comes up here has to make some adjustments," Mills said. "Let's not ridicule or kill this kid before he has a chance to make those adjustments. You can sit up there and project, and scouts can say all those things. But at the same time, let's give this guy the same opportunity we give everybody else."
From a small early sample, it appears that opposing clubs have a book on how to attack Wallace. With a single against Cincinnati's Nick Masset on Thursday, Wallace raised his big league average against inside fastballs to .138 (4-for-29). According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wallace is 0-for-21 against breaking balls and changeups on the inside half. In contrast, Wallace is hitting a more respectable .277 on balls over the middle of the plate and .265 on pitches away. When he does attack the inside pitch, he's been inclined to start his bat too early and pull balls foul.
"He stays in there against lefties and takes the ball the other way pretty well. But I think he needs to go back down to the minor leagues and tweak a few things," said an American League scout. "He'll probably do OK against No. 4 and 5 guys in rotations. But there are going to be nights when he faces 1, 2 and 3 starters and really looks overmatched."
Barnett, Houston's hitting coach, is convinced Wallace will develop more home run power with time, in the same way that Don Mattingly, Todd Helton and other prominent first baseman progressed. Right now Wallace is more in his comfort zone driving the ball to the gap in left-center field.
"I know a lot of people say, 'Pound him in,' but he's got plenty of bat speed," Barnett said. "The other thing people say is that he needs to get more [weight] shift in his swing. If you watch Lance Berkman, he doesn't get much shift either. But because he's done it year after year, that's OK for him.
"A lot of people in this game try to fit everybody into a box. Wally is more of a hands-type of hitter, with very good power, and his legs have him grounded. He's not the prototypical weight shift type of hitter, but that doesn't bother me at all."
As super models and Sumo wrestlers can attest, stereotypes spring from body types as well as performance. Wallace has a low center of gravity at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, and it's hard to find a personality profile that doesn't make reference to his "thick lower half." Wallace weighed 11 pounds at birth and has always been stocky, so he's learned to live with the critiques.
"Sometimes people get over-concerned about the typical 6-4, slender frame," Wallace said. "At the end of day it's about what you do on the field to help your team win. If you look around the big leagues right now, there are guys who aren't 6-4 or real slender or slim, and they're driving in 130 runs a year. I'm pretty sure their team doesn't care what they look like."
Everybody who comes up here has to make some adjustments. Let's not ridicule or kill this kid before he has a chance to make those adjustments.
”-- Astros manager Brad Mills
Does the name "Prince Fielder" spring to mind?
If Wallace's agility comes into question, his mental acuity is off the charts. Barnett recalls a recent at-bat against the Phillies when Wallace topped a grounder to third base on an 85-mph cut fastball from Cliff Lee. Wallace returned to the dugout and told Barnett that he was anticipating the cutter on a 2-1 count, but didn't expect Lee to take a little something off the pitch. He has an analytical bent and sense of recall that are impressive for a hitter so young.
"For most guys, it takes 1,500 to 2,000 at-bats in the minor leagues before they're ready to play here and another 1,500 to 2,000 to get their feet on the ground at the major league level," Barnett said. "To me, he's on a faster learning curve. Most young hitters are so hyped up they don't even remember what pitch they swung at. He can go pitch by pitch and tell you the whole at-bat."
The reality is, all prospects don't fit in the same cookie-cutter timetable. Mets first baseman Ike Davis, Wallace's former Arizona State teammate, hit 19 homers and drove in 71 runs as a rookie after only 769 minor league plate appearances -- compared to 1,257 for Wallace. But Davis also hasn't had to deal with constant upheaval and all those changes of address.
"All I know is the Mets," Davis said. "I was drafted by the Mets, I went through the Mets minor league system and I'm playing in the big leagues with the Mets. To get shipped around the minors the way he did, I can imagine that being tough. If they give him a full season up here, he'll figure it out. The guy can hit."
After a huge buildup as a can't-miss prospect, Wallace has spent two years searching for an identity as a Cardinal, an Athletic, a Blue Jay and an Astro. He knows what it means to be on the move. Now he'll try to find his niche within the confines of the batter's box.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick