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The Center Field Conundrum

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Assessing the options in center field in a George Springer-less world

Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

George Springer is no longer a member of the Houston Astros. The reality has set in that he’s likely to sign elsewhere this winter in free agency. As the everyday center fielder for the Astros the past several years, his departure creates an enormous hole. Replacing a player of his caliber under any circumstance is extremely difficult. Now, given the current situation MLB is in financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s going to be even more challenging.

By no means am I condoning billionaires crying poor. It’s a joke, honestly. Nevertheless, it is what’s going to happen this winter, and in fact, it’s already begun. As a result of this, indisputably cheap moves will be made, and some already have, such as the Cardinals declining Kolten Wong’s 2021 option and the Indians declining Brad Hand’s 2021 option.

Having said that, I do not believe Jim Crane is as “economical” as most owners are. That’s not saying much, but it does allow for a smidgen of hope to exist. This is notable because the Astros, from my perspective, do not have a viable center field option internally.

McCormick & Schmick’s Straw

21st-round pick Chas McCormick has quietly become one of the better prospects in the Astros system. McCormick had displayed a sound approach at the plate and a knack for making tons of contact since he was drafted in 2017, but in 2019 he increased his launch angle substantially and subsequently hit 14 HRs combined in Double-A and Triple-A. It is worth mentioning that 10 of them did come at Triple-A, and the ball was juiced at the Triple-A level in 2019. I suppose that won’t matter if the ball remains juiced at the big league level as well.

McCormick also stole 16 bases in 20 attempts in 2019, and continued to produce terrific BB/K rates, including a 39/28 ratio in Double-A, where he was about league-average in terms of age for the level. As for defense, check this out:

Oh, and this:

So, he can go get it. He also has experience in center field and could probably play at least passable defense there — perhaps even better — at the big league level.

As much as I like McCormick’s well-rounded profile, his most likely outcome is that of a solid, quality fourth outfielder, although I do think he could sneak into being an average regular in center field.

Myles Straw is a plus-plus runner and can cover a lot of ground out in center, but I don’t think his bat is a big league-caliber one. Straw has absolutely zero power, as evidenced by the fact that he’s played more seasons (6) than he has hit home runs (5), and has never hit more than two in a single season. He did hit over .300 in multiple seasons in the minor leagues and consistently drew a lot of walks while making a good amount of contact, but translating that production to the big leagues against vastly superior pitching is something that I’m pessimistic about, given the complete lack of thump in his bat.

People can point to Straw’s .269/.378/.343 major league slash from 2019 — albeit in only 128 PAs — and say that he could be a regular in center field with an impactful glove, but it’s highly unlikely to see him post a walk rate of nearly 15% again. I’d be thrilled to be wrong about Straw, but major league hurlers have zero reason to fear him, and have every reason to pound the strike zone and make him earn his way on base.

Ultimately, I think Straw winds up being a defensive replacement/pinch runner. It’s a nice piece to have on the bench, but the bat prevents him from being anything more, in my view.

It Gets Better, Right?

A shortened season and a high likelihood that free agency spending will crater is bad. Having no suitable center field replacement in the farm system is also bad. At least there’s a good crop of free agent center fielders.

Wait, no, there isn’t.

Per MLBTradeRumors, here is how that crop looks:

Jackie Bradley Jr. (31)

Rusney Castillo (33)

Jarrod Dyson (36)

Brett Gardner (37) — $10MM club option with a $2.5MM buyout

Billy Hamilton (30)

Jon Jay (36)

Jake Marisnick (30)

Kevin Pillar (32)

Mallex Smith (28)

Michael A. Taylor (30)

It’s fair to say that most of those names aren’t even worth considering signing, and I think it’s safe to assume that Yankee-lifer Brett Gardner does not want to sign with the Astros should the Yankees decline his ‘21 option, which seems likely. Let’s take a look at the reasonable options:

  • Jackie Bradley Jr.

JBJ has been one of the top defensive center fielders in baseball for quite some time. Despite now being on the wrong side of 30, he’s still one of the premier defenders out in center. In 2020, he hit .283/.364/.450 with 7 HRs in 217 PAs, with a 119 wRC+. That is great.

What is not great is that it could be totally illegitimate. While Bradley Jr. posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career and matched his career-best walk rate this past season, his exit velos were the worst since Statcast originated in 2015. In addition, his launch angle decreased sharply to a meager 4.4 degrees. This culminates in a .334 xwOBACON. The league average is .376, and Bradley Jr.’s is .398. Yikes.

To sum this all up, Bradley Jr.’s wOBA - xwOBA discrepancy was the eighth worst in baseball, making him one of the luckiest hitters in 2020. For further confirmation, his ‘20 xwOBA was a career low, dating back to 2015.

With that out of the way, let’s put things into perspective:

JBJ’s career slash line is .239/.321/.412. He has been a steady contributor in the home run department, and though he can be incredibly streaky, he’s not an inadequate bat in the lineup. Combined with his stellar defense, he’s a capable regular in center field, and is arguably the top non-Springer center fielder in this year’s free agent class.

  • Kevin Pillar

Pillar made some noise in 2020 by hitting .288/.336/.462 and continued to produce solid power and speed numbers, as he’s done consistently since his breakout 2015. He was traded to Colorado during the season and proceeded to hit .359 at Coors Field. Away from it, he hit .227. So, there’s that.

Pillar’s a free-swinger and has a career sub-.300 OBP, but it’s his defense that makes up for it. Or it used to. That’s not to say that Pillar’s currently a bad or even mediocre defender in center field, but his defensive metrics as a center fielder the past two years are not what they once were during the mid-2010s.

Defensive metrics aren’t nearly as conclusive as offensive ones are, however, so it’s not black and white. Pillar still does run well and his routes appear to be fine, but his reaction time and initial burst are lagging, or so Statcast says.

In any case, Pillar’s been a fringe regular at-best the past few years and it’s unlikely that he’ll make any significant improvements, given his age.

You Were Expecting a Longer List, Weren’t You?

So, there aren’t many internal options, nor are there many external options, either. Not on the free agent market, anyway (acquiring a center fielder via trade is a different and more complicated conversation).

As much as I’d like to see Marisnick in an Astros uniform again, I’d prefer the Astros give McCormick the everyday job in center instead. There’s nothing illuminating that I could write about Jake, as he’s practically a finished product at this point in his career. He barely played in 2020 with the Mets.

Players like Marisnick, Mallex Smith, Michael A. Taylor, etc. would likely be redundant on this team. Taylor does possess some fairly explosive tools but he’s never learned how to adequately hit and he can’t get on base either.

TL;DR Version

With Springer gone, there’s maybe only one actual regular who could replace him in free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. McCormick getting a shot wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, though it’d be far from ideal. Barring a Bradley Jr. or Pillar signing, a McCormick/Straw battle in spring training for the starting job in center seems likely.

(Or... Kyle Tucker gets moved to center field and the Astros sign multiple corner outfielders (and there are some decent ones to be had (I’ve achieved parenthetical inception)). To be discussed in a later article...)