George Springer ready to turn the corner

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The landscape can change quickly for a baseball phenom with wondrous skills, a strong work ethic and the dedication to execute a long-term plan.

A year ago at this time, George Springer was generating a huge amount of buzz in Houston Astros camp, only to be dispatched to Triple-A ball before the season opener. His agent, Greg Genske, complained that the decision was more about "cost savings" than baseball judgments, and Springer, through no fault of his own, became the latest in a long line of prospects caught up in the service-time trap.

Sound like a familiar story? If Cubs prospect Kris Bryant needs any advice on how to navigate the increasingly testy exchanges between the team and his agent, Scott Boras, Springer is just the guy to provide it.

“I would tell him to go out and keep playing baseball," Springer said. “If you ever get caught up in a situation where you’re not just playing the game, you’re going to distract yourself from doing your job. For me, it’s all about being a baseball player. I don’t have to worry about anything else."

At 25, Springer is entering a new phase in his development. Four years after arriving in Houston from the University of Connecticut with the 11th overall pick in the draft, he has 1,616 professional plate appearances on his resume. He came to grips with the concept of deferred gratification when he began the 2014 season with the Oklahoma City RedHawks (he was called up April 16), and he dealt with disappointment and downtime after a quad injury ended his season in July.

There’s no hangover effect this spring. Springer is on track to be in right field when the Astros begin their season against Cleveland at Minute Maid Park on April 6, and he’ll serve as the principal wing man to the team’s best player.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch is keeping an open mind, but the most likely scenario has Springer batting No. 2 in the order behind All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who led the majors with 225 hits and reached base a staggering 268 times by hit, walk or hit by pitch in 2014. Altuve also stole 56 bases -- a big, fat number that positions Springer to see plenty of fastballs.

Hinch thinks Springer is well-equipped to take advantage. Similar to Angels manager Mike Scioscia, Hinch talks about groupings of hitters in the batting order and how they complement each other, as opposed to hitters batting in conventional spots based on stereotypes. Springer isn’t the classic No. 2 hitter from the Placido Polanco school of pesky contact. But Mike Trout and Joey Votto don’t fit that description, either, and they’ve both seen their share of time in the second spot.

“George is a well-rounded hitter," Hinch said. “If you get your mindset away from certain players having to fill certain roles in the order, having him behind Altuve is a very dangerous combination.

“I’ve never told George, ‘You’re a real guy if you hit third, and if you hit second you’re supposed to be this little small-ball guy.’ That doesn’t apply to him or our team. He’ll adapt a little bit. Altuve will be on base a lot, and it’s fun having guys on base."

In contrast to last spring, when Springer was burdened by so much hype, this year he has the freedom to settle in as part of a deeper Astros lineup that will allow him to relax and play ball without the tag of “franchise savior." Chris Carter hit 37 homers last year, and the Astros added veterans Jed Lowrie, Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena and Colby Rasmus to the mix in the offseason. In addition, shortstop Carlos Correa has recovered from a leg injury and is about to start attracting more attention as the Astros’ Next Big Thing.

Wherever Springer hits in the order, it should be fun to watch. He raised his five-tool profile in a big way with 37 homers and 45 stolen bases in the minors in 2013, and he hit 20 homers in 78 games before his season-ending injury last summer. Even though Springer struck out 114 times in 295 at-bats, he showed some selectivity by offering at a modest 26.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone.

“He’s not a blatant ‘chase’ guy," Hinch said. “Like every hitter, he’ll chase some pitches here and there. But he has great pitch recognition, and that’s a great start toward being a good, disciplined hitter. As he matures, he’ll be able to dictate the damage at-bats versus the RBI opportunities versus the times when he tries to keep the ball low and hit line drives. He’ll learn himself as a full, well-rounded guy. He’s not an all-or-nothing guy."

Springer knows it’s incumbent upon him to find ways to counteract scouting reports and build upon his natural athleticism. He embraced a new, gymnastics-style training regimen back home in his native Connecticut over the winter, and he’s become extremely disciplined about nutrition and the proper dietary habits.

For what it’s worth, he’s having a strong spring numbers-wise. Springer hit .333 with a .636 slugging percentage in his first 33 Grapefruit League at-bats.

“You just watch him play and you can see an All-Star," said Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie. “He’s got every tool a scout or advance guy would look at. He’s going to continue to refine his game and get better. I think he’s a smart enough kid to learn how to make the adjustments."

Springer surprised and amazed his new teammates in Houston as a rookie by doing backflips on call and showing some innovative dugout dance moves. Now he’s ready to take his natural gifts to another level.

“He’s a baseball player who’s a really good athlete -- not an athlete trying to learn how to play baseball," Hinch said. “He’s raw in the sense that he hasn’t had that many repetitions at the major league level. But this guy knows baseball and he knows how to use his strengths within the game.

“He’s in a really good place in his career. He’s surrounded by some good influences here, and he doesn’t have to carry our team. There will be days when he carries us, but he just needs to be George Springer and take care of himself, and his ability will shine."

Keep the glove handy

The Astros have enough position players in the Opening Day roster mix, and it’s led to speculation that general manager Jeff Luhnow might explore his trade options to make room. Springer, Rasmus, Gattis, Jake Marisnick, Alex Presley and Robbie Grossman (who’s hitting .344 in the Grapefruit League this spring) are in the outfield picture, and Jon Singleton, Carter, Gattis and Matt Dominguez are potential first-base options.

Carter, 28, started 118 games at first base, 14 games at DH and six in left field a year ago. He’s not regarded as especially nimble afield at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, but he logged a creditable plus-2 defensive runs saved at first base last season, according to Baseball Info Solutions.

“I told him he’s too young to fall into that trap of being a DH-only guy at this point in his career," Hinch said. “He has to leave that up to the older guys. On this team, we don’t have too many older guys, so he feels like the elder statesman. But he can wear a glove and contribute as a well-rounded baseball player."