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A renewed free agent market gives the Astros more options in the outfield

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The selection of free agent outfielders for the Astros remains unremarkable, but this year’s batch of non-tendered players has given it a boost

Colorado Rockies v. Texas Rangers Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

MLB’s non-tender deadline has come and gone, and with it, several notable players were made free agents. The Astros entered free agency in desperate need of outfield help. As luck would have it, several of the top players who were non-tendered are outfielders. It’s an impeccably timed coincidence. Of course, the driving force behind it is the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in each team reportedly losing around $100 million in revenue.

Despite the league bringing in record revenues in prior years, including its highest total yet in 2019, many teams have decided to slash payroll this winter. Because of this, there were some surprising names on the non-tendered list. Regardless of how these particular players came to be free agents, the fact that they are now presents more opportunities for the Astros as they search for replacements for departed outfielders George Springer and Michael Brantley.

Prior to the non-tender deadline, the list of free agent outfielders left much to be desired. In one of my previous pieces, I assessed which ones were the best of the worst and if they could be a fit in Houston. Now, after the non-tender deadline, not only is there a larger crop for the Astros to choose from, but it’s frankly a higher quality one as well. Here are the outfielders who I think are the best of the new bunch.

David Dahl

To surely no one’s surprise, Dahl’s name is at the top of this list. An All-Star in 2019, Dahl’s production cratered in 2020, posting an abysmal .470 OPS. In 99 plate appearances this past season, Dahl was helpless at the plate. It’s likely that it was due to a shoulder injury that had been bothering him since January. Small sample size aside, there’s no other reasonable explanation for such an enormous drop in output.

Dahl underwent shoulder surgery in late September but has said that he’s rehabbing well and will be healthy for 2021. At this point, he is scheduled to be ready for spring training.

Unfortunately for Dahl, he’s no stranger to dealing with injuries, as he’s been plagued by them throughout his career, and effectively missed a full season because of one. After an electric rookie year in 2016, Dahl suffered a stress reaction in his rib the following year in spring training, which limited him to just 19 games played in 2017, none of which were in the big leagues.

This is all worth mentioning because the risk with Dahl is high. The potential downside isn’t that he’s liable to produce mediocre numbers away from the hitters’ paradise that is Coors Field (which I’ll get to below), it’s that he won’t produce at all because he’s nursing another injury. With that said, few free agents in the 2020 class possess as much upside as Dahl does.

He’ll be 27 in April and, health permitting, theoretically could be entering his prime. While he has yet to play more than 100 games in a single season at the major league level, his career slash line is an impressive .286/.334/.494, and that’s taking into account his terribly skewed 2020 numbers. Defensively, Dahl has played all three outfield positions, but seems best suited for left field. He could provide adequate defense in center field, however, and it’ll help that he’ll no longer have to patrol Coors Field’s gargantuan center field.

Dahl was the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft and has long been known for having a broad set of quality physical tools, as well as boasting excellent bat-to-ball skills. His career production to date reflects those attributes. But there’s an asterisk attached to that production.

No one questions that Dahl’s a tremendous talent, but what is in question is his ability to make an impact offensively away from Colorado. At Coors Field, his career slash line is .318/.361/.556. Away from it, his slash is .248/.302/.420. That is a sizable drop-off. One of the biggest reasons for this stark decrease is Dahl’s strikeout rate. At Coors, it’s 22.6%. On the road, it’s 29.9%, which is fairly alarming.

I did look at the advanced home/road splits to try to discover why there was such a significant discrepancy, but there was no one definitive answer. Dahl’s plate discipline and contact skills were worse on the road, but both his chase and whiff rates away from Coors were only about 3% higher than they were at Coors, and it’s the same story when viewing his data in two-strike counts. Suffice it to say, Dahl might have an impending strikeout problem with his new team.

The Rockies will rightfully be questioned for jettisoning Dahl without receiving anything in return for him. He was projected to make a relatively cheap $2.6 million in arbitration, and more importantly he was one of their most talented players, injuries notwithstanding. In an offseason full of penny-pinching, this is by far the most egregious instance.

Dahl would be a good fit for virtually every team, with the Astros needing his services as much as any other club in the league, if not moreso. It would’ve been sensible to expect a bidding war for a player of Dahl’s talent — even in this suppressed market — but since the Rockies presumably could not get value for him via trade, perhaps there won’t be.

Dahl is a gifted hitter with power, but in order to maintain his career averages, he may have to alter his aggressive approach at the plate. Projecting his numbers post-Coors Field is no simple task.

Eddie Rosario

Unlike Dahl, Rosario does not have an extensive injury history that needs to be covered. Rosario also has a much longer track record, so evaluating him will be simpler.

Rosario quietly has a profile that is a rarity in today’s game. He possesses plus power — as evidenced by his home run total (83) from 2017 to 2019 — and he makes a fair amount of contact. This has resulted in a strikeout rate that has been under 20% the past four years, including under 15% the past two. Moreover, Rosario is a career .277 hitter. This looks like a shiny offensive profile, but what drags it down is poor on-base skills.

An ultra-aggressive approach and non-existent plate discipline has Rosario’s career walk rate at a paltry 4.7%, and subsequently he’s never posted an on-base percentage above .328, his high mark in 2017. The league average is usually around .317, and Rosario’s OBP since 2017 is .314, rendering it only slightly below-average. This is doable because of Rosario’s aforementioned power, and his wRC+ being above-average for the past four years seems to confirm that notion.

As described above, Rosario isn’t a prototypical power hitter, but it’s not just because of his low strikeout rate. Simply put, he does not mash the ball. In fact, his exit velocities are mediocre at best. His career barrel rate is only somewhat above-average. His average home run distance has continually been below-average each year.

But Rosario can still hit bombs, because his ability to consistently put the ball in play and frequently lift it into the air has maximized his power output.

In 2019, Rosario hit a career-high 32 home runs. He did so with a barrel rate of 8.5%, which is good, but it’s not great. While that percentage ranked 160th out of more than 300 players (10 results min.), Rosario’s total number of barrels (41) cracked the top 50 in the league. It’s an uncommon power profile, but it’s effective nonetheless.

Defensively, Rosario has primarily played in left field. He’s an average runner and has one of the stronger outfield arms in baseball.

Rosario has seldom played right field in his career, and did not do so in 2020. His glove isn’t the finest and he isn’t a burner, but he takes solid routes and he has the arm to man right field if a team needed him to. Overall as a defender, the results from an analytical perspective are mixed. Strangely, his defense graded out atrociously in 2019, but the bat plays in a corner and 2019 may prove to be an anomaly.

Rosario turned 29 in September and looks to still be capable of being a decent or better regular for a good team. He’s probably a finished product at this point, but it’s worth noting that he was considerably more patient at the plate in 231 plate appearances this past season and showcased improved plate discipline, which generated an 8.2% walk rate. If that’s a legitimate development, Rosario could be a savvy signing.

Nomar Mazara

If there is a list that consists of the most frustrating players of the past five years, Mazara should undoubtedly be on it. Before his debut in 2016, Mazara was one of the top prospects in all of baseball. He’s well built at 6’4” and athletic for his size. He could hit, hit for power, get on base, play a fine right field and was a well-rounded and advanced player at a young age. He was projected to be a foundational player for the Rangers. After a satisfactory rookie year, his breakout was considered to be imminent.

That never happened.

Now at age 25, Mazara has become a free agent after the White Sox non-tendered him last week. This happened just a year after the Rangers had given up on him and cut their losses via trade. Despite hitting a combined 79 home runs in his first four years in the big leagues, Mazara’s overall numbers have been completely ordinary, and has yet to produce an even average wRC+ in a single season.

Mazara has periodically shown glimpses of breaking through, but they’ve proved to be nothing more than occasional moments. He’s been consistently inconsistent.

Overall, Mazara’s profile is drowning in mediocrity. He’s a career .258/.318/.426 hitter with middling walk and strikeout rates. He’s never hit more than 20 home runs in one season. His approach at the plate has not improved palpably, nor has his plate discipline. Defensively, he’s merely passable in right field. It’s remarkable how he essentially plateaued as a 21-year-old.

In spite of all of this, Mazara remains an intriguing player. His exit velocities in recent years are strong and his barrel rate has increased as well. Also, few players are capable of launching a baseball more than 500 feet.

Mazara’s yet to figure out left-handed pitching, but with platoons becoming more prevalent, his development against southpaws may not be terribly important. Teams are no doubt aware of the fact that he hit .288/.344/.500 against right-handed pitching in 2019, and advanced metrics mostly authenticate the legitimacy of that gaudy slash line.

His substandard production in 2020 — albeit in just 149 plate appearances — isn’t encouraging, but the bottom line with Mazara is that he’s still a young player with untapped potential who can perform well against righties and play sufficient defense in right field. If a team is able to adjust his swing so as to reduce his inflated ground ball rate, that alone could yield substantial dividends.

Honorable mention

Kyle Schwarber

Schwarber is the modern day slugger: a three-true-outcomes beast who can only hit right-handed pitching. He would’ve easily made the list above had it not been for his defensive limitations. While some advanced defensive metrics like UZR indicate that Schwarber is a decent defender in left field, others such as DRS and Statcast’s OAA paint a much different picture. In fact, the data on Statcast show Schwarber to be a total liability in left field.

Teams in the American League are likely to be the ones most interested in signing Schwarber, and while the Astros are in the AL and have the DH next year (somehow it’s still undecided if the NL will), the return of Yordan Alvarez, who missed all but two games in 2020 due to injury, means that the Astros’ DH slot will already be fully occupied. It would be reasonable to expect the Astros to rarely play Alvarez in the field next year, if at all, as he underwent surgeries on both knees in August.

The Astros will sorely miss Springer’s production, and the only feasible way to offset it will be through Alvarez, which makes his health a top priority for the club. Alvarez could be even more vital if the Astros fail to re-sign Brantley.

Schwarber occasionally having to play left field is an acceptable notion, but to run him out there in practically every game he appears in may not be.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that Schwarber’s offense could make up for whatever poor defense he provides in left, and it did in 2018 and 2019. Nevertheless, the fit between him and the Astros is still a questionable one. In any case, he’d be a clear upgrade over what the Astros currently have.

With the free agent market now more plentiful, the Astros will have a better chance of coming away from this critical offseason with multiple outfielders signed.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant and FanGraphs