Trades involving Brett Wallace are reminders that general managers believe the Arizona State product can be an impact hitter.
Traded three times since he was the 13th overall pick five years ago, Wallace is back in Triple-A with the Oklahoma City RedHawks. It's a pivotal season for the 26-year-old first baseman once ranked among the top 40 prospects in the minors.
Wallace has experienced mixed results in two previous auditions win the Houston Astros. But after he opened the season in a prolonged slump, he was sent to Oklahoma City to work on his swing.
“In this game you never give up,” said RedHawks infield coach Tom Lawless. “He ran into a tough spell for two weeks. If you get off to a tough start they're probably going to try and find somebody else.”
That somebody else was RedHawks corner infielder Brandon Laird, among the Pacific Coast League leaders in RBIs the first two weeks of the season.
Wallace has been given abbreviated opportunities in Houston, including being handed the starting job out of spring after he hit .273 with three homers and 12 RBIs.
But when Wallace opened the regular season batting .042 with Houston, a 1-for-24 slump with 17 strikeouts, the Astros sent him to OKC.
“This game is crazy,” Wallace said. “You can lose your rhythm pretty quickly. But it's also a game if you get at bats you can get it back quickly, too. I'm trying to find that rhythm again and get comfortable again.”
Wallace is starting to get some of his rhythm back. In seven games with the RedHawks, Wallace is hitting .250 but also has a .351 on base percentage and two home runs.
“I'm just trying to have fun,” Wallace said. “I just go up there and see the ball and hit it. I'm not over thinking things. It goes back to being natural and doing what comes easy to you. I'm getting back into that rhythm. I'm excited trying to build at bat after at bat.”
Wallace originally was drafted by the Cardinals in 2008.
Ranked as one of the top prospects in the minors, Wallace hit .337 his first year in pro baseball and played in the Futures Game the following year, slamming 20 homers in Oakland's system.
Three years ago, he hit .301 with 18 homers to earn a midseason promotion to Houston.
“He earned the right to play in the big leagues last summer,” said RedHawks hitting coach Leon Roberts. “He had a good year. He had a good spring. But he got off to a rough start. There have been numerous guys that have gotten off to a rough start in the big leagues early in their careers.
“The biggest thing is physically, mechanically and mentally get back on track and let his ability take over from there.”
Three years ago, Oakland traded All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday in a deal that featured Wallace. That offseason, Wallace he was traded again, this time to Toronto. After acquiring outfielder Michael Taylor in the Roy Halladay deal with Philadelphia, the Jays traded Taylor for Wallace.
Wallace lasted only six months with Toronto. The following summer the Astros traded speedy outfielder Anthony Gose to the Jays to acquire Wallace, who started his career at third base but now plays first.
“He hits .300 every year no matter where he plays,” Lawless said. “He'll get his stroke back. He just needs to put in his work in here. He'll get back to the big leagues again.”
A career .306 hitter in the minors, Wallace spent most of the 2011 season with the Astros. He batted .259 with a .334 on-base percentage but hit only five home runs in 336 at bats.
The power returned last season. He split time between Houston and Oklahoma City, smashing a combined 25 homers with 81 RBIs, including nine homers with the Astros.
“I know I can hit. I've done it in the past, which gives you confidence,” Wallace said. “It's never a question of whether I can do it or not. I came here to work hard and get my rhythm back.”
Wallace has compiled some hot streaks in the majors but has lacked consistency.
In roughly 800 major league at bats, Wallace has hit .243 with 16 home runs with 66 RBIs with the Astros. But in addition to frequent strikeouts (231) he also draws a ton of walks, compiling a respectable .316 on base percentage.
“The biggest thing is he wasn't on the ball, which is what hitting is,” Roberts said. “He just needs to continue making sharp contact, and he'll get back to the big leagues.”
Houston's roster has changed since Wallace joined the organization.
This past offseason, Houston signed veteran 34-year-old first baseman Carlos Pena to a one-year $2.9 million deal with up to $1.4 million in incentives. The Astros' future first baseman is Jonathan Singleton, the organization's top prospect, one of the top hitters in the minors.
Singleton, 21, hit .284 with 21 homers and a .396 on-base percentage last year in Double-A but is serving a 50-game suspension after testing positive for an illegal substance, his second violation.
Astros officials plan to take a hard look at Singleton. The 6-foot-2 California product probably will spend several weeks with the RedHawks. But if he hits well Singleton could join the Astros by the All-Star break.
“All I can really control is take care of my work and make sure I'm prepared,” Wallace said. “You have to take it in stride and work hard to get to where you want to be.”