Since the middle of January, the Astros’ starting outfield was almost assuredly going to have Michael Brantley, Kyle Tucker, and Myles Straw patrolling that large green parcel of land. Barring a disappointing Spring Training (Straw) or injuries (Brantley and Tucker), that alignment was basically etched in stone. For better or worse, we knew what that unit would look like to start the 2021 season.
However, the contingency plan behind the starters is certainly less clear for arguably the first time in recent history. There isn’t a top-hitting prospect like Tucker knocking loudly at the door in Triple-A or a beloved defensive wizard waiting in the wings as we’d become accustomed to with Jake Marisnick. In an ironic twist of fate, the notable outfield surplus that the Astros had from 2017-19 has largely dissipated. But this development doesn’t mean that the cupboard is completely bare.
Chas McCormick, who will turn 26 by mid-April, is the only player outside of the starters listed as an outfielder on the 40-man roster. As a quick side note, I am not counting Yordan Alvarez as an outfielder for obvious reasons. I am not sure anyone is really counting him as an option in the outfield this season, if ever. The Astros’ website disagrees right now, but I would be absolutely floored if they actually counted the 2019 Rookie of the Year as an outfielder of any capacity in 2021. If Alvarez is playing any time soon in the outfield, I’d wonder how did the injury bug take out at least two outfielders and probably Aledmys Diaz before the ninth inning of a single game.
By default, McCormick is the favorite although his .269 OPS in only 23 plate appearances this spring does little to inspire. Too limited of a sample to draw any worthwhile conclusion about McCormick as a hitter, though. Based on the quality of opponent listed on Baseball-Reference, he has faced the equivalent of a High-A pitcher in camp. Yes, not great, but the sample is insignificant at this point for actual results. It also helps when the other main competition, Jose Siri, hasn’t impressed much at the plate as well.
But McCormick’s ability to play center field with a relatively unproven Straw makes sense on the Opening Day roster. He also posted a combined .818 OPS in the minors back in 2019 (AA/AAA), so I am curious to see how he can hit against major league pitching if given an opportunity. Plus, the struggles and release of Steven Souza Jr. earlier today only reinforce the notion that McCormick will be the club’s fourth outfielder for Opening Day.
For the Astros, the idea of tabbing McCormick as the fourth outfielder, if it officially transpires, is also financial. Following the signing of Jake Odorizzi, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Houston is only $6.4 million below the $210 million tax threshold for the upcoming season. In other words, there isn’t much flexibility for the club in the event that they need to acquire any in-season help externally. Souza Jr. was scheduled to make $1.15 million if he made the club out of camp. McCormick, who still hasn’t made his major league debut, will only make the league minimum (probably $565K to $570K) in 2021. Then there is the complication of whether to add Steve Cishek to the roster to fortify the bullpen as he is scheduled to earn $2.25 million at a base level with an additional $1.5 million possible with incentives. That margin will only get thinner and McCormick helps the club stay below that threshold, even if by a hair or two.