The Duality of Brett Wallace

Brett Wallace has always been viewed in two contrasting ways.  (Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.)

Brett Wallace has always been viewed in two contrasting ways. (Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.)

Brett Wallace, who was released today by the Astros, has always been a contradiction.

There was a distinct dichotomy between Brett Wallace the “can’t miss” prospect and Brett Wallace the stocky, unathletic player struggling just to find a position on the field.  On one hand, he was considered a tremendous offensive prospect and was one of the top fifteen players drafted in 2008.  On the other hand, Wallace’s athleticism and ability to play a position well enough to be an everyday major leaguer were always questioned.  This inherent juxtaposition has followed him throughout his career.

Originally drafted by the Blue Jays in the 42nd Round of the 2005 Major League Baseball Draft, Wallace opted to attend Arizona State University instead.  In college, Wallace played third-base and, in addition to winning the Pac-10’s Triple-Crown in 2007 and 2008, Wallace was named the conference’s Player of the Year in 2007.  Wallace was the best player on a team steeped with talent (Ike Davis, Jason Kipnis, Mike Leake, and Josh Spence).

Leading up to the 2008 draft, Wallace was universally considered to be “the best pure bat in the college ranks.”  As explained by Kevin Goldstein (who, at the time was a writer for Baseball Prospectus and is currently the Director of Pro Scouting for the Astros), “it’s hard to find a scout who doesn’t think he’s going to mash.”  However, many scouts hated his “less than ideal” body and frame, which resulted in the nickname “Walrus,” and doubted that he could remain a third-baseman – or even a first-baseman – at the major league level.  

Ultimately, the Cardinals drafted Wallace in the first round (13th overall), and true to form, Wallace “mashed” over two levels in the Cardinals minor league system (A-AA) in 2008:  .337/.427/.530/.957.  He also showed some power, as he slugged 8 home runs and drove in 36 runs in a shade over 200 at bats.  The following year, Wallace was promoted to Triple-A just over one month into the season.  After only 330 professional at-bats, Wallace found himself at Triple-A Memphis, where he largely held his own (.293/.346/423/.769).

Wallace’s immediate offensive success led Baseball America to praise him for having “an elegant and refined approach” at the plate.  Similarly, in his 2010 Top 100 Prospects List, Keith Law ranked Brett Wallace twentieth.  Although questioning his ability to be anything more than a “fringe-average” first baseman, Law was confident in Wallace’s ability to hit in the majors:  “Wallace is going to hit for average and get on base at a high clip while providing average to above-average power . . . and he’s ready to step into a major league role right away.”

In a journey fit for such a polarizing prospect (or for Odysseus), Wallace was then traded three times in little more than a year.  First, he was traded to Oakland as the key part of the package for Matt Holiday.  Five months later, Wallace was swapped to the team that originally drafted him (Toronto) straight up for power-hitting prospect Michael Taylor and was converted to a full-time first baseman.  Then, after the Astros traded Roy Oswalt for a package of prospects (J.A. Happ, Jonathan Villar, and Anthony Gose), the Astros immediately flipped Gose to the Blue Jays for Wallace.  When fan-favorite Lance Berkman was subsequently sent to the Yankees at the trade deadline, the organization tabbed Wallace as his replacement at first base.

Brett Wallace was 23-years-old when he was inserted into the Astros lineup as Berkman’s successor, and the dualistic nature of Wallace again came to the forefront.

As a first round draft pick with a stellar minor league track record to that point (.303 BA and .836 OPS in just over 1,1000 minor league at-bats), he certainly had the pedigree to be a franchise player.  Yet, there was a distinct lack of excitement about Wallace’s arrival, and most fans punctuated the sentence “Wallace is Berkman’s replacement” with a question mark.

Although Wallace predictably struggled in his first taste of the majors, he was the opening day first baseman in 2011.  Over the course of the first two months of that season, Wallace actually created some believers as he hit .316/.385/.463/.848.  But, Wallace batted .230 in June en route to a simply horrific July (.182), all of which culminated in Wallace being sent to the minors (along with fellow prospect Chris Johnson) on July 31st.  After Wallace hit .105 during a September call-up, his hot start was forgotten and the question was no longer if Wallace will be the team’s first baseman of the future, it was if Wallace would even make the opening day roster in 2012 (he wouldn’t).

Over the past two seasons, Wallace did accumulate 491 at-bats with the Astros but he never really had a defined role on the squad.  The writing was on the wall when Wallace was dropped from the forty-man roster in February to accommodate the signing of Jerome Williams.  After clearing waivers, Wallace re-signed with the Astros in the hopes of making the team as a non-roster invitee this Spring.

Today, however, the Astros released Wallace.  According to Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle, Astros General Manager Jeff Lunhow explained that the team simply “didn’t see a role for him at the big league level.”

Throughout his career, Brett Wallace has always had to reconcile his competing images as a top prospect striving to meet the lofty expectations set for him and as an underdog minor leaguer out to prove the naysayers wrong about his ability to compete at the highest levels. 

With his release from the Astros, people will now either view Wallace as a first-round bust or as a player who the critics were right about.  Whichever way one chooses to look at it, there is simply no escaping the duality of Brett Wallace.