LH OF Free Agents
The Astros’ batting lineup typically has fewer Left Hand bats than most any other MLB team. This reduces the bat diversity in the lineup, since ideally 3 or 4 LH bats would provide better match ups when a tough right hand pitcher is on the mound. When Micheal Brantley returned to the lineup in late 2023, he provided the third LH bat for the lineup, playing either LF or DH.
I don’t know if the Astros have any interest or intent in re-signing Brantley, but most fans assume that the 37 year old favorite will not be returning. So, I will take the tact of screening free agent replacements for Brantley, namely LH outfielders in this free agent class.
The Astros have not specifically mentioned that they will look for a LH outfielder in the free agent market, and perhaps they have no intent to do so. However, before the mid-season trade deadline, when Branley’s status was questionable, GM Dana Brown identified a LH DH/LFer as a priority. If Brantley is not expected to return, I assume the interest in a LH OFer will continue this off-season.
I have screened LH OF free agents from the Fangraphs Free Agent Tracker and limited the candidates to the most attractive performers, taking into account the Astros’ probable financial constraints. In some cases, Fangraphs’ readers provide crowd sourcing for probable contracts. The group is fairly limited, due to handedness, and admittedly there are RH candidates some of you may prefer.
- Cody Bellinger (wRC+ 134). Bellinger is outside the Astros’ financial parameters, but I have listed him as the top free agent for this group. The crowd source contract estimate is 6 / $144 Million, and some analysts believe this projections is low. After two consecutive poor offensive seasons with the Dodgers, Bellinger rebounded with a .881 OPS for the Cubs. However, the signs indicate that this 2023 offensive performance may be unsustainable. The x- stats (expected) all indicate that Bellinger’s expected wOBA, Batting Average, and SLG are significantly lower than the actual stat. For instance, Bellinger’s SLG is .525 compared to his x-SLG of .433. Even if the Astros were willing to pay his probable contract amount, most likely his offensive performance will not live up to the cost and duration.
- Kevin Kiermaier (wRC+ 104). Primarily known as an elite CF defender over his career, Kiermaier posted his second above average offensive season since 2017. However, like Bellinger, his “x-” stats indicate that he probably over-performed in 2023. But despite questions about his future offensive performance, he remains an excellent defender in CF (+14 runs saved). The crowd source projects a 2 year, $20 million contract. Perhaps the Astros could afford this price range, but is he THAT much better than Jake Meyers? He likely is a better player than Meyers and offers the LHB benefit, but is that worth paying, say, $6 million more in annual salary.
- Jason Heyward (wRC+ 121). Heyward is another outfielder who made his name as an elite defender in right field. Before 2023, he posted two seasons of very poor offense with the Cubs. Supposedly, his offensive rebound is due to changes the Dodgers made in his swing. But there is reason to question whether the rebound is real (including weak x- stats). The crowd source projects a 1 X $10 million contract, which may be in the Astros’ price range. But Heyward has indicated a preference to stay in Los Angeles.
- Eddie Rosario (wRC+ 100). Rosario is available because the Braves declined the $9 million option in his contract. The 32 year old Rosario has plenty of power (.195 ISO, 21 HRs in 145 games), and could be a good pick up if the price is right. Rosario’s defense is not top rated, and he would likely be confined to LF/DH, like Brantley. He has good splits against RHPs, and clearly should be used as a platoon bat. If he could be acquired on a cheap 1 year contract, he might fit the Astros’ needs.
- Joc Pederson (wRC+ 111). Pederson may be the most attractive match for the Astros, provided that his contract demands are not excessive. Unlike Bellinger and Heyward, Pederson’s x- stats suggest that his offensive numbers should be higher. He appears to be a good match for Minute Maid Park; in a small sample of 2 starts at MMP this year, he hit a HR, batted 2 for 8 with 3 RBI, and a 1.025 OPS. San Francisco’s home park suppresses his HR power. Statcast indicates that he would have hit more HRs in each ballpark in the AL West—meaning his power numbers are likely to improve if he joins a AL West team. Pederson is not a great defender, but should be capable of playing LF/DH. He also has a limited history of playing 1b. Crowd source indicates a probable contract of 2 X $12 million.
- Joey Gallo (wRC+ 104). The former Rangers and Twins hitter has always had one of the most unusual offensive profiles. He strikes out a lot and walks a lot. He has huge power (.262 ISO) and low batting averages. That is who he is. He can play all three OF positions creditably, and has a strong throwing arm. He can also play 3b and 1b, if needed, and is a positive DRS defender at 1b. His strong splits make him a pure platoon hitter. The crowd source contract is 1 X $8 million, which might fit the Astros’ wallet. If the price goes down another million or two, he could be an attractive free agent target. I doubt the Astros would go for Gallo, because they typically avoid high K rates. But, with a new GM and a new manager, who knows?
- Robbie Grossman (wRC+ 102) switch hitter. If the 34 year old Grossman signed with the Astros, it would be a subtraction from the Rangers, and a “back to the future” for the Astros. Luhnow originally acquired Grossman in a trade for Wandy Rodriguez, and he played his initial years in the majors with the Astros. Grossman probably isn’t an exciting signing, but he fits the bill if the Astros feel like they need a veteran platoon bat. There is some risk of offensive regression—the Steamer projection predicts a wRC+ of 95. I guess this all comes down to whether he is a really cheap option. Grossman’s current contract is 1 X $2 million, which put him in the affordable range.
There are several LH outfielders in the $10 million range, with Pederson and Rosario as my favorites for the Astros. But, by and large, I wouldn’t view the market as impressive. The Astros really don’t have LH OF depth in AAA that projects to be MLB average. Justin Dirden had a poor AAA campaign and was left unprotected. Joey Loperfida had a 79 wRC+ in AAA and projects around the same (89 wRC+ and .687 OPS) in the majors. He also was left unprotected, which is not a good indication of his perceived “readiness” for the majors. Jacob Melton and Kennedy Corona are highly prized by the front office, but it appears they will require another year of seasoning—even though I suppose that a surprising 2024 minor league campaign could lead to a mid-season call up.
Given the LH OF free agent market, I return to the idea of re-signing Michael Brantley. If that is a possibility, Brantley may need to agree to a reduction in his current contract salary. (And, of course, his willingness to do so is unknown.) It would also be desirable to structure the contract in a way that matches contract salary with the number of plate appearances he can give the Astros. Otherwise, Brantley’s injury history is a detriment to re-signing him. That said, he is a player who is well known to the Astros and carries a positive force in the clubhouse.
Astros’ Player Development and Outfield Defense
Since the Luhnow era, the Astros’ player development has been described as cutting edge. It’s an important success story for the Astros. But sometimes I’m curious as what that means. I ran across an article that perhaps gives us an example.
Tangotiger’s blog carried a link to the article, “What outfield trait can be improved through training;” Tango, the sabermetric expert and author of “The Book-Playing the Percentages in Baseball,” praised the analysis. The article is written by former Astros DSL Academy field coordinator, Marce Alfonsin. As indicated by Alfonsin’s X account, he was field coordinator for three years, but left the organization in October, 2023. His tweets provide some examples of the Astros’ DSL accomplishments.
While Tango’s praise undoubtedly means more than mine, I agree with him that the analysis is excellent. Alfonsin parses the components of Outs Above Average (OAA), comparing “burst,” “reaction,” and “route efficiency” elements of OAA. He considers a variety of factors: each components’ correlation to OAA and 4 and 5 star catches, the impact of player aging on each element, capability to improve the components, and the amount of player development time required for improving each component. Alfonsin concludes that player development should concentrate more on drills which improve “reaction.” He finds that “by focusing mainly on reaction, which we saw is trainable, less dependant on age than burst, doesn’t naturally improve overtime, and correlates well to OAA, we are helping our outfielders become better everyday.”
Alfonsin proceeds to provide details and photos of various drills the team uses to improve reaction. I particularly like the short video of Jose Siri practicing the “rock, paper, sissors” drill to improve reaction time. (By the way, I think this drill is pretty difficult, particularly if Siri is chasing you, which is part of this video.) So, if you find this kind of stuff interesting, read the full article, linked above.
This is a small area of interest in the player development scheme, but it provides an illustration of cutting edge thought process. It’s impressive that the article was written by one of the young guys on the Astros player development staff.