For the Astros, the task of replacing George Springer, who recently departed for Toronto in free agency, is a mighty tall one. An impossible hurdle to clear in a single offseason, if ever. As good as this roster appears on paper, it is worse without one of the best players in franchise history. That is the cold, hard truth.
One of the key storylines in Spring Training will be the competition for Springer’s old job as the club’s starting center fielder. For better or worse, the expectations will be high for this eventual successor. The presumptive favorite as we head into March is Myles Straw, who was measured as one of the fastest players in the game during the last full season in 2019. There are a couple of other names to watch in Chas McCormick, Jose Siri, and Steven Souza Jr., yes, but the job is Straw’s to lose in Spring Training.
Unlike Springer, one of the most complete outfielders in the game, Straw’s value isn’t primarily driven by his hitting prowess. Instead, it is his incredible speed and potential for above-average defense along with the possibility of becoming a strong base-stealing threat. Straw’s hitting, on the other hand, is a work in progress. As quoted in a recent piece by the Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome, he is aware that getting on-base is imperative to the offensive value he provides to the lineup. This opportunity he has to claim a starting role on a potential contender is greatly tied to his ability to get on-base.
Much like Kyle Tucker before him, it isn’t entirely fair to point to Straw’s limited sample size in his career as a point for or against him. For example, his .327 on-base percentage in just 224 plate appearances doesn’t provide a clear indicator of how he’ll perform in 2021. In fact, it actually takes about 460 plate appearances, or roughly 115 games started, for an on-base percentage to stabilize for a hitter. It is still too early to write off Straw prematurely as a starter in center field, even if his numbers in the majors thus far failed to inspire greater confidence.
There has been plenty of chatter about the Astros needing to sign center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who remains a free agent today. That probably won’t happen primarily due to the club’s insistence to duck below the $210 million tax threshold for this season. The asking price would have to drop to make that pairing happen. Also, Straw may provide comparable value to Bradley Jr. for a fraction of the cost in 2021. If Straw can post somewhere around a .320 on-base percentage (league average in 2019 for a center fielder) with above-average defense, then it is possible he may become a two-win player this season. That was basically Bradley Jr. from 2017 through 2019 when he posted just a hair more than two wins per season and a 90 wRC+ during that time period. The distinct advantage that Bradley Jr. has over Straw is not only his track record of producing at that level as a floor but possibly even higher as we saw in 2016 and 2020.
Straw has an incredible opportunity in front of him and it might be the only time in his career to claim such a role. Budget constraints aside, the Astros do think highly enough of him defensively to give him a clear path to the starting job in 2021. It all hinges on his ability to generate competitive plate appearances and get on-base to help generate havoc on the basepaths. Let’s see what happens.