Since being drafted with the 20th pick of the first round in 2016 by the Dodgers, high expectations have been placed on Gavin Lux. By 2019, he was one of the top prospects in baseball, ranked 40th overall by Baseball America and 70th by MLB Pipeline. Lux was so impressive in the minors, he appeared in 23 games with the Dodgers that season at the age of 21, slashing .240/.305/.400 with two homers and nine RBI.
In Double-A and Triple-A in ’19, Lux slashed .347/.421/.617 with 26 homers, 76 RBI, and 10 steals. That showing moved Lux up the prospects rankings in 2020 as he was ranked as the fourth overall prospect by BA and second by MLB.
Sadly for Lux owners, the Lux Era never became a reality. In 2020 he played sporadically before being given a chunk of time to prove himself last season. However, instead of establishing himself as the second baseman of the future, he turned into a utility player, seeing time at second base, shortstop, left field, center field, and even one game apiece at third base and right field.
Lux is only 24-years-old, so there is much more future than past when it comes to his career. Unfortunately, he has not established himself. Thus, we have to ask “is Lux really is going to be the player we expected him to become?” If not, who else should we look at who may have a better future?
There are two middle infielders who are basically the same age as Lux – 24-year-old Jeremy Pena of the Astros and 23-year-old Jose Barrero of the Reds. Pena has yet to play a game in the majors but has been given the task of replacing Carlos Correa. Barrero, who has had a couple of cups of coffee with the Reds the past two years, suffered a broken hamate bone and is now out until at least May, but we are looking into the future and not just today.
Let’s discuss these three players and find out what I think their future is.
Gavin Lux Career
Lux thrived in the minors, which is what a top prospect is supposed to do. Great slash line, nice stolen base numbers, and good power and RBI numbers. But instead of ascending to new heights with the Dodgers, he has been stuck in neutral. He appeared in 19 of the Dodgers’ 60 games in 2020 and struggled at the plate, slashing .175/.246/.349 and had a strikeout/walk percentage of 27.5/8.7.
Given more of a chance to prove himself last year, Lux had mixed reviews. He slashed .242/.328/.364 with seven homers and 46 RBI to go along with four steals in 102 games. He improved his walk rate to 10.8% and cut down on his strikeout rate to 21.8%, which is below league average. But the Dodgers obviously weren’t sold on Lux as their second baseman as they traded for Trea Turner and had Lux spend time in the outfield.
Jeremy Pena Career
Pena was drafted in the third round of the 2018 draft out of Maine. Do you know what the Maine Black Bears baseball program is famous for? It’s not producing major league talent. Larry Thomas and Mark Sweeney, both drafted in 1991, are the last two Black Bears to reach the majors.
Pena, the highest drafted player from Maine since Thomas was selected in the second round by the White Sox in ’91, has a major league glove. What is not known is how he will produce at the plate. COVID led to a lost year in 2020 and Pena suffered a broken wrist that forced him to miss most of last season. Upon his return, he spent seven games at rookie ball before slugging 10 homers for Triple-A Sugar Land in 30 games.
He won’t duplicate those numbers with Houston, but he has enough strength to pull the ball into the Crawford Boxes and hit 15-20 homers per year. Additionally, he has some speed. He is not a burner on the bases, but he had 30 career steals in 163 college games and has 29 in 182 career minor league games. That is a good enough indication that he could easily steal 15 bases, perhaps more.
Jose Barrero Career
Barrero, who was signed out of Cuba under the name of Jose Garcia, is highly regarded by the Reds, joining the parent club for 24 games in 2020 despite never playing above High-A ball. Like Lux and Pena, Barrero has a nice combination of power and speed, hitting a homer every 17.4 at-bats in the minors last season while also swiping 16 bags. He also put up a nice slash line.
What Barrero has not done is carry his minor league success to the majors yet. While 117 career at-bats is not a large sample size, his slash line of .179/.242/.248 isn’t something that makes you jump for joy. His walk rate of 3% is horrible and 34.7% doesn’t give a potential fantasy owner a lot of confidence. However, he was much better at making contact in the minors, with a rate of 20.7%.
Barrero is also a good athlete as he appeared in seven games in center field last season as well as two games at second base. If Kyle Farmer establishes himself at shortstop, the Reds could put Barrero in center field and let him get his at-bats there. But for a team that is rebuilding, why let a 31-year-old veteran supplant the younger Barrero at short?
A Little More Information
If you want to know what the 2022 projections are for these three players, let me save you some time and provide them here:
- Lux: .242/.328/.364 with 7 homers, 46 RBI, 4 steals in 335 AB
- Pena: .246/.302/.428 with 19 homers, 60 RBI, 9 steals in 445 AB
- Barrero: .251/.309/.439 with 9 homers, 31 RBI, 5 steals in 228 AB
So the slash lines are pretty even in average and OBP, with Barrero having the edge in power followed by Pena then Lux. Without question, unless Pena bombs, he will be starting nearly every game, allowing him to rack up the counting stats.
If you are only concerned about this year, then I would take Pena. Unless he bombs, he will get more playing time and thus help more in the counting stats. And he likely isn’t going to fail. Before last year, he never played about Class A ball before destroying Triple-A pitching over the last month of the season.
But we aren’t concerned with just this year. We are concerned about this year, next year, and the next three years after that. With that in mind, I give a very small advantage to Lux over Pena, with Barrero being added in only very deep leagues.
Why Lux? He’s been a top prospect across the board, and that helps. Additionally, he has shown the ability to succeed in the majors. Last season he slashed .286/.346/.490 with five homers and 19 RBI in May before falling off the face of the earth in June, July, and August. But he finished the season strong in September, slashing .360/.467/.500 with nine walks and only eight strikeouts in 60 plate appearances.
He also has shown the ability to play all over the field. If there is one thing fantasy owners love, it’s players who can play multiple positions. Yahoo lists Lux at 2B, SS, LF, and CF. ESPN currently has him at 2B and SS, but he will likely see enough time in the outfield to gain eligibility out there. The only thing keeping me from jumping fully on board is his unknown status with the Dodgers.
Will he start at second or is that going to Max Muncy. If Muncy is the starter, does he start nearly every day, just at a different position each game? I don’t like the uncertainty now, but his versatility is going to be an advantage. Just ask fantasy owners of Chris Taylor.
Not a Bad Consolation Prize
With Pena, we know he is going to play every day at short for the Astros. He has the glove to stick there even if he struggles at the plate. Manager Dusty Baker has been slotting Pena into the leadoff role during some spring training games. That is a sign that the team has a lot of faith in Pena. If he actually hits leadoff, he has Jose Altuve hitting behind him. That is good protection.
And think of this – if Pena matches his projections of 19 homers and 60 RBI, that is only seven homers less than Correa has ever hit, and those 26 homers came last season. Correa, however, has topped 90 RBI twice, but that comes with the fact he hit in the middle of the lineup for Houston while Pena will be at the top or bottom, limiting his RBI production this year. In a couple of years, however, Pena could slot more into an RBI role to boost those numbers. I’m not saying Pena will match Carlos Correa, but as a second shortstop/middle infielder, his numbers would be nice to have.
Barrero isn’t a slouch. While his injury hurts his value this year and the few chances he has had with the Reds have not gone well, he plays in a great hitter’s park and for a team that has nothing to lose trotting him out every day. I like his power and speed potential, and the fact that he may give owners a multi-position player is great.
Looking into the crystal ball, however, I think Lux will be firmly established (either with the Dodgers or another team if traded) in the next three years, Pena will still be the starting shortstop for the Astros and provide a little more fantasy value than Barrero will.