With the likely departures of George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick, the 2021 Houston Astros will have changes in store. Staring down the prospect of paying a repeater luxury tax penalty and with holes in the roster still, the new front office will surely look to maximize efficiency in their new outfield. The position begins by building around Kyle Tucker, who could in theory transition to CF after posting 5 DRS in this shortened season of LF work, or he might stay put and build on his success in the corners.
While it is not impossible for one of the three impending free agents to be re-signed, it is certainly unlikely. George will command a 6 year deal that would hamstring the organization’s finances once this new crop of cost controllable players reach arbitration, and Uncle Mike frankly has no reason to want to stay for the 2021 media circus. The Astros are desperate for draft picks after two years of having theirs stripped away, so both of them declining the impending qualifying offers helps establish some level of sustainability with smart drafting.
Here, I’ll run down the realistically available and affordable (so, staying under the $210m luxury tax threshold for 2021) OF available in free agency, and make a case for each fit on the team next year and beyond. Additionally, there will be some speculation on trade targets. Since predicting trades, especially in the offseason is often a shot in the dark, however, I will try to keep those brief and more focused on value than individual names.
- Jackie Bradley Jr.
Astros rumors started swirling in September when the Red Sox season ended, but 30 year old JBJ will be a hot commodity in this year’s market. He looks likely to slot in as a top-five highest paid outfielder by AAV in the FA class. Plenty of teams are in need of a defense-first CF who can swing the bat a little bit (Astros, Phillies, Mets, Indians, Diamondbacks at least), and Bradley Jr. is coming off nearly career-high production in the shortened season. He murdered the fastball in 2020, slashing .383/.460/.635 on that pitch while offering almost no production on either breaking balls or offspeed pitches, a pattern consistent with his career numbers. However, that fastball production represents some massive outperformance of his peripherals, with .120 point overachieving between SLG/xSLG and nearly a .100 point difference between BA and xBA.
So, JBJ got a little lucky in an injury shortened season and is probably due for regression leading to production more in line with his career OPS around .740; slightly below league average. One thing that will remain constant, though, is the defense. He was the premier defender in the MLB, first overall in Outs Above Average (OAA) with 7 in the 2020 season. In the last five years, he has never ranked outside the top 20 in OAA, and that’s across all positions, not just outfield! Additionally, JBJ hits high velocity very well, offering an above average .347 wOBA on 95+ MPH offerings for his career. The Astros have operated on a “hammer the fastball” philosophy for years now, and Bradley Jr would fit right into that.
With a 2 WAR floor and a 5 WAR ceiling, a 3 year/36m deal should be enough to secure JBJ’s services, leaving financial flexibility to help the other vacancy in the OF and bolster the thin pitching staff.
2. Robbie Grossman
The former Astro and Houston native experienced a power surge this year, due in large part to a change in mechanics leading to dramatically increased barrel%, of which he used to rank near the league’s worst. Grossman is a solid big league hitter, who practically never swings and misses, is patient, and can make a pitcher pay for a mistake. Like Bradley Jr, he excels at hammering the fastball. His disappointing 2019 production shows some signs of getting unlucky from his peripherals, which holistically outperformed actual production. All of Grossman’s power comes from the left side at this point of his career, with all 8 of his 2020 home runs coming against righties. He’s also a threat to steal, surprisingly swiping 8 bags this year while being caught only once. He may be more useful in a platoon against RHP than anything despite being a switch hitter, which might be possible in specific matchups with Aledmys Diaz or another new face in LF.
Defensive metrics are far kinder to Grossman than his reputation would have you believe, especially for those who remember his time in Houston. Over the last two years, Robbie has molded himself into a plus defender patrolling the cavernous left field of Oakland Coliseum, with a very solid 4 OAA + 0.7 UZR/150 this shortened year, and 2 OAA + 4.8 UZR/150 in 2019. Compare that with a -13 OAA in 2016, and it’s clear Grossman has put in a lot of work on the defensive side of things. All that said, he is strictly a corner OF, which would necessitate either a second OF signing, a Tucker shift to CF, or Myles Straw as an opening day starter in the likely event Yordan is restricted to DHing.
Contract estimate: 2 years/$20m.
3. Kevin Pillar
At this point in Kevin Pillar’s career, you know exactly what you’re getting. While the 31 year old used to be a premier defender in CF, he now grades out closer to average, and even put up -2 OAA in this weird season, his first ever season of minus defense. It’s possible Pillar has lost a step (in 2015 he graded in the 90th percentile in sprint speed, while 2020 ranks him in the 73rd), and his bat never was his calling card. After years of big league hitting, however, he now consistently hits the ball hard and has shown increasing numbers of barrels in each of the last 5 years. Often, it’s easy to forget that development can happen at any time during a player’s career, and is not restricted to the good side of 30. Pillar put up a .798 OPS in 2020, while absolutely mashing LHP with both the Red Sox and Rockies. He rarely swings and misses, often puts the ball in play, and almost never takes walks, having never reached 6 BB% in his entire career. The outfield versatility is valuable, as is the bat against lefties in an outfield that may feature Tucker and Yordan in the other two spots at times.
It’s hard to imagine Pillar magically lost his reaction time and first step on the ball in the OF as his defensive metrics indicate for 2020, after ranking in the top half of the league in regards to both for 2019. Some optimism about neutral or slightly plus CF defense in 2021 is not out of the question.
Pillar took a small one-year deal late in the 2019 free agency period, fresh off arbitration (and a 20th place MVP vote! Come on, San Francisco writers), and will probably continue to do so seeing as he does not fit the mold of modern day baseball. A good estimate for Pillar is 1 year/$5m.
4. Joc Pederson
I think that it would be unlikely for Joc Pederson to come to Houston, all things equal, given his comments on the 2017 team. However, if bygones are allowed to be bygones, his bat would be very effective in a LF platoon, perhaps with Taylor Jones or Aledmys Diaz taking up the duties against LHP. The former All-Star has a career .238/.349/.501 slash line against RHP, contrasted to only .191/.266/.310 against LHP.
Joc is coming off a tough 2020 campaign that may dampen his value slightly, but in the previous two full seasons he averaged an .850 OPS while establishing himself as one of the league’s better power bats. Far from a reclamation project, Joc’s years of production outweigh this gimmicky season’s struggles, and he projects to perform at a consistent level over 162 games. ZiPS projects Pederson to be a 2.3 WAR player in 2021, with an .850 OPS and 25 homers, so he will presumably be paid accordingly. You may begin to notice a pattern here; Joc Pederson also punishes the fastball, and can operate as an extremely effective platoon bat in the shallow Minute Maid Park left field.
His days of playing an effective CF are over, and even Kyle Tucker profiles better for a position switch out there. Additionally, his defense fluctuates between aggressively bad and middle-of-the-road by defensive metrics yearly. In MMP’s left field, Pederson could represent a middle of the order power bat and average defense.
Contract estimate: 4 years/$49m
5. Marwin Gonzalez
Versatility is inherently valuable, and Marwin has been an excellent case study on how that works in the MLB. While many of the names listed above may have reservations to come join the “shame tour”, here’s somebody for which that is not a concern. We cannot expect 2017 Marwin Gonzalez, who posted a .900 OPS with an elite .381 wOBA, to magically reappear in 2021. Luckily, that’s not the market he would command either. The 2017 Champion was fairly valuable in his only full season with Minnesota, posting a 1.4fWAR before having a very rocky COVID season.
ZiPS projects 2021 Marwin to produce a .743 OPS while providing moderately positive WAR. Because of his positional versatility and durability, he is likely to command slightly more in terms of money than a typical LF with that outlook. However, the Astros were able to unlock a power surge out of Marwin multiple times in the past (even outside of 2017, his ISO (isolated power) in 2015 and 2018 represent career highs), and they may bank on being able to do it again.
Marwin offered 1 OAA in his last full season of left field with the notoriously strong arm, and still grades out as a plus defender at both 3B and 2B, where Minnesota has deployed him the last two years. The only real conflict with a Marwin signing depends on how the organization views Aledmys Diaz and Abraham Toro, who were supposed to be able to replace Marwin’s security between them. The Astros don’t seem ready to give up on either Diaz because of his injuries or Toro because of his 2020 struggles.
Contract estimate: 1 year/$6m
6. Jake Marisnick
You thought we were done with the family reunions? Jake from Rake Farm is finally hitting the open market this year, only 60 games removed from the Astros dealing him to the Mets for BD Blake Taylor and Kenedy Corona. He was hurt for practically the entirety of the 2020 season, although produced offensively in his very few games. With Myles Straw already on the roster, a Jake reunion would mean he slots into the everyday CF, as they would have no reason to secure two speedy, defensive, light-hitting backup outfielders.
It’s not ideal, and it represents a fairly significant downgrade from a JBJ signing in terms of potential offensive production. However, in Marisnick’s last three years as a Houston backup he has never posted less than 1 fWAR in a season, which is not a far cry from Jackie Bradley’s recent production. Marisnick represents a complete exception to the “hammer fastballs” rule I have been searching to fit. In fact, he’s one of MLB’s few hitters who almost universally hits breaking balls and offspeed pitches better than fastballs, with a wOBA of .337 on 2019’s breaking balls compared to only .293 on fastballs. Hitting directly before or behind Maldonado can protect him in that sense, as Maldonado is notoriously one of MLB’s worst non-fastball hitters. Pitchers will need to change their approach drastically between the two.
Marisnick will not be expensive, and might represent a value play as a path towards plugging other holes on the roster including backup catcher, bonafide closer, and the vacant corner OF spot.
Contract estimate: 1 year/$4m.
7. Jay Bruce
Bruce is my personal favorite budget signing, for a variety of reasons. The 33 year old will not be very expensive at all, nor will the current market be giving him anything beyond a 1 year deal. If the idea of Pederson in a LF platoon was interesting next season, so too should the slight downgrade of Jay Bruce. Additionally, Bruce played 220 innings at 1B in 2018 and 2019, so he represents a nice insurance policy for a 37 year old Yuli Gurriel, should his end-of-season decline prove to last.
In the shortened 2020 season, Bruce was utilized in a Phillies OF platoon. He slashed .218/.282/.538 against RHP, good for an .821 OPS and those numbers are significant underperformances from his peripherals, which indicate closer to an .880 OPS (.347xwOBA/.540xSLG) in a vaccum against RHP. While age is certainly catching up to Bruce, his defense has been marginally positive in the corners for the last two years, with 2 OF DRS in 2019, and the shortened 2020 season respectively. For reference, Josh Reddick had -3 DRS this season. At first base, Bruce isn’t a butcher, fluctuating between slightly below and slightly above average year-by-year. The Astros can use a veteran hitter in the bottom half of the lineup with some thump, and Bruce represents a low-risk option that covers multiple team needs for next season.
Contract estimate: 1 year, $3.5m
8. Andrew Benintendi
Here’s the big splash trade target. Don’t worry, his 2018 ALCS catch still plays on loop in my memory too. Since his eye-opening debut and solid 2018, Benintendi has been on a steady decline in terms of production, which all came to a head in 2020. His slash line for the year, in just 14 games, comes out to .103/.314/.128, good for a .442 OPS. That’s a pitcher line.
Of course, a 14 game sample size can easily be written off, that’s only two and a half weeks of a normal season which can be turned around in the blink of an eye. Couple it with alarming peripherals from 2019’s full season, which saw his K% increase and BB% decrease from the previous season, and it begins to paint him as a prime change-of-scenery candidate. The Fenway Faithful can be harsher than most, and while Boston certainly wouldn’t be selling high, for the right offer they may be tempted to shed his $10m owed over the next 2 seasons and pursue some pitching, or perhaps a Marcell Ozuna. This possibility is far from a sure thing for Boston, especially with JBJ’s departure, and they are likely to simply roll Benintendi out there with Verdugo next year in the hopes he can bounce back. The talent is there, as is the cost control.
From an Astros perspective, Boston needs pitching in their system. A trade package for Benny begins with Bryan Abreu, and probably includes two other top-30 prospects that Boston’s unique amateur and minor-league scouting department likes most.
9. Nomar Mazara
Mazara is especially interesting to look at. With the emergence of Luis Robert and Eloy Jiminez, the White Sox now have a surplus of outfielders. A mixture of Leury Garcia, Adam Engel, and top 15 system prospects Micker Adolfo and Luis Gonzalez to compete with Nomar Mazara in RF makes that clear. Additionally, Mazara is estimated to be owed nearly $6m via his arbitration raise this year, which is right on the threshold where Chicago may simply non-tender him and allow him to test the open market. They could easily want to put that $6m towards bolstering their pitching staff. Mazara will be an unrestricted free agent the following year, at only age 27.
Mazara had a tough 2020 after dealing with COVID as well as a leg injury early in the year, and never got his power back on track in the short season. Although only 26 years old, Mazara debuted with the Rangers at 20 and had shown consistent improvement on his offensive numbers from 2015-2019, especially in SLG% where he gradually improved from .419 to .469. With elite hardhit%, a proven ability to hit 20 or more HR in a full season, and room to develop still, Mazara is a buy low candidate if there ever was one. Aside from a non-tender, the White Sox are also always looking for young pitchers, and if they end up picking up his arbitration salary a trade should not harm the Astros farm too much, while the $6m contract figures to be a slightly better value than the same number for someone like Marwin.
Mazara is not a great defender historically, but showed signs of improvement in 2020, posting 2 DRS and a 10.4 UZR/150 in RF, with a strong arm.
10. Brad Miller
A depth signing for the 2020 Cardinals, Brad Miller has always been somewhat of a statcast darling when it comes to the bat, and he played his way into an everyday role for that team. In a solid 2020 campaign that saw him post an .807 OPS (and .940 in 2019), Miller ranks in the 87th percentile in xwOBA and Barrel%. He’s something of a 3 true outcomes player; he looks to draw walks, lift the ball, and is not afraid to strike out, hovering around the 27 K% mark over the last 5 years. Additionally, Miller is best used in a platoon, with a career .772 OPS and 111 wRC+ against RHP.
Miller and Astros General Manager James Click are familiar with each other, as Miller was on the 2017-2018 Rays team where Click was first promoted to Vice President of Baseball Operations. Two strong, albeit short, offensive campaigns in a row and some familiarity with the new front office may make Miller a nice piece to slot into the Astros outfield as a short term solution, where he also serves as an insurance policy for any injuries elsewhere.
Miller is a true utility player. The only outstanding performance by defensive metrics in his 7 year career was in LF with the Phillies in 2019, but he’s logged over 200 innings at each of 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, CF, and RF. That versatility is valuable, and Miller would be a nice plug-and-play option for Dusty to configure with matchups.
Contract estimate: 2 years/$13m
So, did I manage to talk you into any of these options? With George and Mike gone, the Astros would have to manage to secure two OF this offseason, or start Myles Straw. Hopefully an evaluation of the realistic options (Marcell Ozuna is probably not one of them, unfortunately) helps soften the blow from the reality of things, which is that the beloved Springer extension is unlikely, and that Uncle Mike deserves to play out the twilight of his career where he sees fit.
Who would you like to see the team go after?
Thank you for reading. Go ‘stros.
– Ben (@Midzee4)