Even though they finished under .500 for the first time since 2014, the Astros still found a way to overcome key injuries and make it to their fourth consecutive ALCS this year. However this offseason pans out, the Astros could still have enough talent on hand to push for another playoff berth in 2021. For now, though, general manager James Click & Co. are at risk of losing two high-end hitters in free agency.
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
Outfielder George Springer has been a premier hitter and a face of the Houston franchise going back to his first year in 2014, though his Astros tenure may be on the verge of ending. After rejecting the Astros’ $18.9MM qualifying offer, the 31-year-old is now unquestionably one of the few elite players on the open market, where MLBTR predicts he’ll rake in a five-year, $125MM payday. Of course, that’s assuming teams will be willing to spend that type of money this offseason after the pandemic took its toll on the league’s finances over the past several months.
The Astros, for their part, have doled out some huge contracts in recent years (the club also took on Zack Greinke’s money in a trade). They also threw around a bit of cash this fall when they made the somewhat eyebrow-raising move to re-sign first baseman Yuli Gurriel to a one-year, $7MM contract despite an uninspiring campaign. However, it remains to be seen whether all of the guaranteed deals on the payroll will have a negative effect on their chances of re-signing Springer, as owner Jim Crane may be reluctant to go to $100MM-plus lengths for him. Furthermore, as Cody Poage of The Crawfish Boxes recently explained in a rundown of the Astros’ payroll, they only have about $37.5MM to spend if they want to stay under the $210MM luxury-tax threshold in 2021. That would make it a challenge to combine re-upping Springer with adequately addressing their other needs.
Of course, along with Springer, the Astros may wave goodbye to another major offensive piece in outfielder/designated hitter Michael Brantley. The Astros didn’t issue him a QO, but they have had talks on a new deal with Brantley, whom they signed to a two-year, $32MM pact a couple offseasons ago. Brantley should get another reasonable deal in that range this time, though Houston would probably have to trust the 33-year-old as an everyday outfield option if it’s going to bring him back. Brantley spent the majority of the season at DH because knee problems wiped out Yordan Alvarez’s 2020, but Alvarez figures to regain control of that spot next year.
With Josh Reddick also on the open market, the only sure bet for the Astros’ outfield is big-hitting corner option Kyle Tucker. The cupboard is close to bare otherwise. Myles Straw endured a miserable year at the plate, so it would be hard to pencil him in as Springer’s replacement in center. And while Chas McCormick is a farmhand of some note, the 25-year-old is hardly a can’t-miss prospect, and he has no big league track record at all. So, as is the case with Straw, it’s difficult to envision the Astros handing McCormick a starting job and hoping he can somehow help fill the Springer/Brantley void.
Considering their outfield issues, the Astros are going to have to use free agency and/or the trade market if they lose Springer, Brantley, Reddick or all three. Those players aside, there probably isn’t a better fit in free agency than longtime Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. Granted, there’s a significant drop-off from Springer to Bradley, but JBJ is still the second-best center fielder available and someone who should be in the Astros’ price range (MLBTR predicts Houston will ink him to a two-year, $16MM). Joc Pederson and Jurickson Profar are the next highest-ranked outfielders in free agency, though neither would address the Astros’ hole in center. In Pederson’s case, there may still be bad blood stemming from the Dodgers-Astros World Series in 2017, so whether Houston would even have a chance at signing him is unknown. Even someone like Brett Gardner could be difficult to get in the wake of the Yankees-Astros 2017 ALCS and the animosity directed at the team’s sign-stealing scandal.
Beyond those names, there isn’t much to get excited about on the open market. But if Houston spends little in the outfield and settles for the next tier or two, they’ll be looking at the likes of ex-Astros Robbie Grossman and Jake Marisnick, Kevin Pillar, Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor. Yasiel Puig could be a wild card to keep an eye on after missing all of 2020. The Astros-Dodgers rivalry could be in play with Puig, but he may be desperate enough to sign with anyone who shows interest in him.
Outfield troubles aside, most of the Astros’ position player group looks to be in place for 2021. Gurriel, Alvarez, second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa (if the Astros don’t unexpectedly trade him one year before free agency) and third baseman Alex Bregman are still there. Martin Maldonado is the favorite to return as their catcher, but if the Astros are willing to spend for an upgrade, J.T. Realmuto and to a much lesser extent James McCann may be on the table. Otherwise, the Astros could at least look for an upgrade over reserve Garrett Stubbs. Yadier Molina, Mike Zunino, Tyler Flowers, Alex Avila, Wilson Ramos and former Astro Jason Castro are among the top backup/timeshare types looking for work.
On the pitching side, the Astros’ rotation somehow held its own in 2020 despite almost no contributions from reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who underwent Tommy John surgery in October. The timing of that procedure means Verlander also won’t help the team in 2021. However, they do still appear to have their one through five locked up with Greinke, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. The Astros could at least pursue some depth signings in case of injury and/or underperformance, but they don’t look like a team that has to fret over its starting staff or pour substantial resources into it this offseason.
The bullpen, on the other hand, could be a different story with Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski on the market. The good news for the Astros is that they were able to adjust to life without them in 2020. Osuna missed almost the whole season with elbow problems, leading the Astros to cut the potential Tommy John patient. Likewise, Peacock and Devenski barely factored in for the club.
Even with the Osuna-Peacock-Devenski departures, the Astros still do have at least a handful of enviable relief arms in Ryan Pressly, Andre Scrubb, Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor (though Scrubb and Taylor did struggle with walks in 2020). Joe Smith could reenter the fold after sitting out all of 2020, while Austin Pruitt, Brooks Raley, Cionel Perez and Josh James are also among those who could vie for roles.
Although the above names may well comprise most of Houston’s bullpen next year, it won’t be a surprise if the team searches for a reliever(s) who’s more of a sure thing. Luckily for the Astros, free agency is overflowing with veteran relievers who figure to come at fair prices. Even the heads of the class (Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Trevor Rosenthal, Blake Treinen and Trevor May) shouldn’t be overly expensive, and there are other credible hurlers in the lower tiers with Alex Colome, Kirby Yates, Jake McGee, Shane Greene, former Astro Mark Melancon and Greg Holland just some of many seeking MLB employment.
While it would behoove the Astros to bring in any relievers along those lines, it’s clear that the outfield is the biggest question Click will have to answer over the next few months. If Click is able to find two good complements to Tucker, it would go a long way in assuring the Astros remain in contention a year from now.