This is the worst-case scenario. Finding a replacement for George Springer is already a near-impossible task, but the possibility of Michael Brantley also signing with a new team puts the Astros in a potentially dire position. The notion of replacing two All-Star outfielders in any offseason is impractical. In this economy, and in this free agent class, it’s even worse. Godspeed, James Click. Welcome to your first offseason as GM of the Houston Astros.
To quickly recap, Springer was officially extended a qualifying offer on Sunday. Brantley was not. According to FanGraphs’ value data, Brantley’s production in 2019 was equivalent to $33.3 million. In 60 games in 2020, it was $10.7 million, but if converted to a full season, that number would be about $28.9 million. The qualifying offer is worth $18.9 million this offseason.
For full context, Brantley’s 2020 numbers may have been slightly inflated, as his wOBA was 42 points higher than his xwOBA, which ranked 26th in favorable discrepancies out of more than 250 qualified hitters. Brantley’s 15% K rate was the highest it’s been since 2011. In 2019, it was just 10.4%. Granted, these numbers are from a 187-PA sample, so it’d be unwise to give them too much credence. This past season was highly irregular and was not of normal length and circumstance. Having said all of that, he hit .346/.424/.558 with three home runs in 13 games in the playoffs. If Brantley is gone for good, his postseason performance is quite the lasting impression.
A Necessary Rant
Brantley will be 34 next May, but despite that fact he’s not yet shown any tangible signs of slowing down from an offensive output standpoint. Even defensively, he’s shown that he can still play a semi-competent left field. The metrics appear to back that up.
And yet, Brantley was not extended a qualifying offer. It’s not because Click didn’t think he’d be worth it, but because Jim Crane chose his money over the Astros. Yes, at the end of the day, MLB is a business, but the extent to which the mantra is being seemingly embraced by the owners so far this offseason is astounding, the shortened season notwithstanding.
Unless the notoriously confidential financial documents of MLB teams are ever made public — which will never happen — it’s impossible to know definitively how badly 2020 hurt the owners. The league lost a few billion this year, but its revenue from 2018 and 2019 combined was $21 billion. Of course, not all teams generate the same revenue — hence revenue sharing existing — but I think it’s safe to assume that the owners are going to come away from this year more than OK. Maybe better than that since, you know, they’re billionaires.
I thought Crane would have the foresight and wisdom to authorize something as important as extending a qualifying offer to Brantley. If Brantley would’ve accepted, that would’ve been great. That’s one less All-Star outfielder to replace, and he’d likely be worth the nearly $19 million price tag next year, if not more. If he would’ve rejected it, the Astros would’ve come away with a sorely needed compensatory pick for the 2021 draft, where they will still be without a first- and second-round pick due to the sign-stealing scandal.
In my previous piece, I wrote about the Astros’ impending
crater hole in center field with Springer all but guaranteed to sign with a different club this winter. In it, I detailed how the Astros have no practical center field replacement internally. It’s more of the same when it comes to the corners. Yes, both corners. What happened to Kyle Tucker? He’s moving to center field. There is no proof of this happening yet, but considering the overall atrocious assortment of center fielders in free agency, as well as Tucker’s defensive capabilities, I think it’s more likely than not that he does move to center in 2021. He also has experience playing the position in the minors. So, operating under that premise, let’s see what can be done.
Internally, one option is Chas McCormick, a prospect who I explored in my prior article, and the other is Taylor Jones, a prospect who primarily plays first base, but did log 27 games in left field at Triple-A in 2019. While McCormick could provide solid to above-average defense in either corner, he probably lacks the bat to match the production expected from the position, particularly on a playoff contending team.
Jones is the reverse, sort of. His defense in the outfield is relatively unknown at this point, as he’s played there in only 38 games in his minor league career. While he is 6’7” 230 lbs, Jim Callis of MLB.com noted that Jones is athletic for his size and possesses a quality arm, so with more reps, perhaps he has the makings of an adequate defender in left or right field.
What makes Jones relevant is his bat. He hit 40 home runs combined in 2018 and 2019 at Double-A and Triple-A. He has shown the ability to make contact. He also does a good job of lifting the ball and will draw a walk. It’s a nice offensive profile, but the caveat is that he’s been fairly old competition-wise at each minor league level and he’ll be a 27-year-old with seven big league games to his name heading into next season. There are certainly worse players to give a starting job to but it would not exactly be ideal if he’s the opening day starter in left or right field come April.
What’s Actually Feasible
Free agency is the only logical route here. As I reference the MLB Trade Rumors free agent list, there are some decent corner outfielders available. Let’s examine some potential fits:
Marcell Ozuna (30)
Joc Pederson (29)
Hates the Astros.
Brett Gardner (37)
Also hates the Astros.
Nick Markakis (37)
Really hates the Astros.
- Robbie Grossman (31)
For the past two years, Grossman has played for the the Astros’ chief division rival, the Oakland A’s. It’s likely that he harbors some resentment for the Astros for a multitude of reasons, but I’ve not seen or heard anything that would deter him from considering signing with Houston — Grossman was in the Astros organization from 2012 to 2015.
2020 was a career year for Grossman. Despite playing less than half as many games as usual, Grossman posted the best fWAR of his career. This past season, he more than doubled his barrel rate of the past few years and hit eight home runs in less than 200 plate appearances.
Grossman has long been an at-bat grinder with his tremendous plate discipline and excellent contact skills, but if this newfound power
thanks to the juiced ball is here to stay, he could be a rock solid regular in left field, a position he’s excelled at defensively the past two years. Even without the power, he’s probably the superior option to McCormick and Jones, given his outstanding defense and .350 career OBP.
- Ryan Braun (37)
Braun and the Astros have some similar history so perhaps this is a match. Joking semantics aside, he’s still a damn good hitter. He makes plenty of contact and much of it is hard contact. His 2020 looks mostly uninteresting at first glance but he did some noteworthy things in his 141 plate appearances. His production in prior years is what’s most enticing about him. Even though he’s potentially a liability in left field, I think he has enough bat to make up for it. Even in his mid-30s, he can still do damage.
- Jurickson Profar (28)
Remember when this guy was supposed to be the next big tamale? Simpler times. Profar’s actually become a solid big leaguer despite the career-altering shoulder injury he suffered several years ago. He can play a fine second base, but he’s actually become a capable defender in left field.
After an unlucky 2019, Profar righted the ship in 2020 with the Padres. He’s a decent source of power and makes an awful lot of contact, but he’s more of a jack-of-all-trades than anything else. Aside from the 15 to 20-HR power, he can get on base a bit and is quietly 26 of 28 in stolen base attempts the past three years. His exit velos are unattractive, to put it kindly, but I’m curious to see how he’d fare with The Juicebox as his home park. He wouldn’t need to hit the ball too far here.
- Adam Eaton (32)
Eaton could be a savvy signing for a team this winter. He’s another veteran who slumped in 2020, but his defense in either corner is satisfactory and his career slash of .282/.360/.416 is something that I believe he’s still capable of replicating. He makes a lot of contact, he gets on base, he can steal a bag. With Minute Maid Park at his back, he could realistically hit 10 to 15 home runs. There’s still a fairly solid regular here in my view.
- Domingo Santana (28)
I remember back when the Hunter Pence trade was made, at-the-time Baseball Prospectus writer and soon-to-be Astros front office executive Kevin Goldstein said Santana could ultimately end up being the best player in the trade. Jarred Cosart and Jon Singleton were the headliners of the deal and received the most hype when the deal was swung. Good call, Mr. Goldstein. Hopefully, KG gets another job. He was recently laid off by the Astros. He’d been with the club since 2012.
As for Santana, he’s a three-true-outcomes player but with the ability to hit for a decent batting average. He’s a wildcard defensively, as he was one of the worst analytically in 2019, but he’s also periodically played some acceptably mediocre defense during his career.
His 2020 was a wash, as he received only 84 plate appearances. He’s had some durability issues in the past but his bat could easily be worth whatever low salary he’ll command on the market. He posted an elite xwOBACON of .490 in 2019 and his career average is substantially higher than the league average. He doesn’t chase often, it’s just about making contact with him. If he can adequately do so, he could be a somewhat valuable player, provided that his defense doesn’t nullify whatever he does at the plate.
- Marwin Gonzalez (32)
Marwin appears to still be Marwin. He’s still the defensive Swiss Army knife that we remember. Offensively, 2020 was not kind to him, but it doesn’t look indicative of what he’s capable of going forward. Unspectacular offense, above-average defense. I would welcome a reunion.
- Brock Holt (33)
Holt is basically Robbie Grossman lite and Grossman is already a lite version of some other player, so think of that what you will. I suppose I’d rather trot Holt out in left field than McCormick or Jones. He’d also provide some infield versatility with his glove. He’s not terribly interesting.
The Astros must prepare for life without Springer and Brantley. In fact, they should count on it. If Tucker is in fact moved to center field, there are a handful of free agent corner outfielders who could contribute to this team. If Click is given sufficient funds to work with, he would be able to sign multiple outfielders, which will likely be necessary. Some are more preferable than others, but in this market, preference may not be a luxury afforded to the Astros, though of course it’d be of their own making.
Click has his work cut out for him this winter. It’s going to be a stagnant and painfully slow moving offseason. He took over nine months ago, not long after the sign-stealing scandal had rocked the industry. Taking charge of a club under those circumstances isn’t what he imagined when getting his first GM job. Was it unfair to him then? No, he knew what he was signing up for. Is it unfair now? Yes, it is. Why? Because there’s nothing fair about being tasked with replacing two cornerstones without ample support from ownership. But that’s life as a GM.