While baseball hasn’t exactly been on the front burner for most of us over the last few weeks, we have learned much recently about how MLB is planning to respond to the current public health crisis. Perhaps the most important point that has come to light thus far is that major leaguers will continue to accrue service time during the current indefinite delay, meaning there will be no changes to the 2021 free agent class.
For the Astros, this means that they might have to replace two starting outfielders before they play their next official game. A total cancellation of the 2021 season doesn’t appear to be the most likely outcome at the moment, but it remains a real possibility. At the conclusion of the 2020 league year, the contracts for George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick will have been completed, and the Astros will be without all three of their opening day 2019 outfielders.
Obviously, this means that Houston will have plenty of additional funds to play with compared to this past offseason, but with few internal replacement options, they could have their work cut out for them regardless of available spending money. Internally, the club hopes that Kyle Tucker can seize the right field position for the long haul, but further options are slim. Fan favorite Myles Straw has shown a lot of potential, but with his total lack of power at the plate, carving out an every day role is an uphill battle. That said, Straw’s combination of top of the scale speed, patience and bat-to-ball skills do give him a promising future as a bench outfielder at minimum, and depending on how the CF market shakes out, he could end up the Astros’ best option as a starter there in 2021.
While there are other outfielders in the organization who show some big league potential, largely they either have an upside problem or a proximity problem. 2019 draftees Jordan Brewer and Colin Barber both have enticing tools but need serious refinement at the plate, Ronnie Dawson is a rangy CF with impressive power capable of handling big league defensive duties right now, but has severe contact issues that will likely relegate him to bench duty. Day 3 draft find Chas McCormick has grinded his way from college baseball obscurity to spitting distance of the majors on the back of an elite plate approach and supremely polished defense, but profiles best as a fourth outfielder given his lack of impact speed or power.
Finally, the most exciting outfield prospect to the Astros’ name is a player who technically isn’t under contract with the club yet- Cuban phenom Pedro Leon, who agreed to terms on a deal north of $4M earlier this year. With the lack of depth ahead of him, he’s likely already being penciled in for a 2021-2022 gig, despite not having reached the states yet. Leon is a compact, explosive player with an exciting combination of speed, power, top of the scale arm strength and feel for hitting. There is little data on Leon to date, but those lucky enough to have seen him play rave. He’s also older for an international prospect and should rise much more quickly than a typical 16 year old July 2nd signee. His upside is that of a dynamic top of the order bat with power and impact arm strength.
While players like Leon, Barber and Brewer are exciting and Dawson and McCormick worthy of praise in their own right, none can reasonably be projected as every day big leaguers at this stage. Even in the most optimistic view of their internal situation, the team will have one full vacancy next spring, and two is more likely. With a lot of money coming off of the books between then and now, they’ll be able to bid in the free agent market, but entering free agency with such a glaring need could put them in a vulnerable negotiating position. How new GM James Click handles this precarious situation will shed a great deal of light on exactly what kind manager he will be.