When you almost win the World Series in seven games it has to take a toll on your body and mind. When you get wrapped up in the biggest baseball scandal since 1919 AFTER just losing the World Series in seven games it is hard to imagine what kind of serious hangover you get to wear to start the season. Welcome to the 2020 Houston Astros! There are new articles daily about TrashGate so I am not going to add to the pile. Instead let’s look at the Astros outfield where probably two-thirds of the top of their batting order play the field and they are packed with star power.
George Springer has become the prototype leadoff hitter in this era of launch angles. The Cubs are planning on putting Kris Bryant in the one hole and MLB analysts are comparing the move to what the Astros do with George Springer – and they’re right. There isn’t a Rickey Henderson out there and besides stealing bases is no longer de rigeur even for leadoff hitters, so why not give a guy with a good on base percentage and lots of power more at bats so he can get on base more and hit more home runs? Sounds like a pretty good way to score more runs. In 2019 Springer slashed .292/.383/.591 with 39 home runs, good for a wRC+ of 156. Note that Rickey Henderson’s wRC+ in his age 29 season was 149, so good for George. 2019 was Springer’s best by WAR (6.5 – previous high was 5.0) and in a number of categories such as batting average, on base percentage, and slugging, as well as home runs, and runs batted in. Not surprisingly, the Astros star center-fielder (his primary position) also had his best walk rate at 12.1%. But wait – there’s more! Springer also had his best defensive season ever as measured by dWAR. There is no doubt that George Springer is one of the most dynamic players in all of baseball and, at 30, isn’t likely to begin a speedy decline in 2020. Will he experience the hangover from this off-season with as much intensity as the rest of his club? Hard to say. He has always come across as a really good guy in interviews so being booed regularly for what his team did might cut a little deeper.
To Springer’s left, if you are the batter, will be Michael Brantley. The former Cleveland Indians star is now two seasons removed from a lost season and a half due to injury and has firmly established that he is back. Brantley had his best season since 2015 slashing .311/.372/.503 for a 133 wRC+ leading to a WAR of 4.2 – second best in his career. Not a big power hitter, the 32 year old lefty still hit 22 home runs. Brantley isn’t a masher – more of a slasher. He hit 40 doubles last year and is a great guy to have near the top of the order because he gets on base a lot – career .354 OBP – and doesn’t strike out much – 10.4% K rate in 2019. As a defender, well, UZR/150 and DRS liked him fine in the corners but not so much in center anymore and that’s fine because the ‘Stros have Springer and some young bucks to man center. Another complete player, Brantley was a big piece of the Astros success in 2019 and should be again in 2020 if he continues to be healthy.
In the other corner, 33 year old Josh Reddick looks to have lost a gear or two and is no longer putting up championship level starter numbers. With consecutive seasons with WAR below 2.0 (1.1 and 1.0 respectively), his days as a starter could come to an end as soon as the second half of 2020. Reddick has a 32 home run season (2012) and a 20 homer season (2015) but has otherwise never reached the 20 mark. He slashed .275/.319/.409 which was an improvement on 2018 at least in batting average. But in spite of the 33 point jump in batting average, Reddick’s on base percentage increased only 1 point due to a dramatic dip in his walk rate from 10.1% to 6.5%. Possessing a great arm has helped him put up decent defensive numbers in right although he struggled with arm issues last season. What it comes down to is the fact that as a corner outfielder on a team this good with a system this deep, it isn’t enough to generate wRC+ numbers of 99 and 94 – Reddick’s last two seasons. Unless he sees a return to his 2017 numbers, Josh Reddick is going to be chased down.
Probably the front runner to take Reddick’s job is Kyle Tucker who mainly played the two corner outfield spots in his second short taste of Major League living. Tucker has more power than Reddick and at triple-A showed an ability to take a walk. There is some swing and miss to the former #5 overall pick in the 2015 draft, but not what you would expect from a rookie power hitter. His K rate at triple-A last year was 21.6% to go with 34 home runs and a slash line of .266/.354/.555. Tucker is also a base stealing threat, nabbing 30 bags last year in the minors and another 5 in 5 attempts during his 72 plate appearances with Houston. The overall look for Tucker is pretty, with power, a 60 hit tool projection and a good arm, and his second short stint in the bigs was much better than his first. There is some star possibility here. Tucker saw some big at bats in the post- season so the writing is on the wall for someone – cough – Josh Reddick.
Yordan Alvarez played some outfield and, with Yuri Guriel blocking him at first base, the Rookie of The Year from 2019 will probably play at left field from time to time while mostly DHing. How do you win a ROY award as a DH? You hit the snot out of the ball and flat out terrorize pitchers. Alvarez is only 22 and in just over half a season last year slashed .312/.412/.655 – yes, .655. His very first taste of major league pitching resulted in an OPS of 1.067. Gulp. His 178 wRC+, 27 home runs, and 14.1% walk rate speak to a future as one of the best hitters in baseball mostly because he already is. Defense, schmeefense – he can stay at DH, play some first, and hide in the outfield from time to time because he has to be in the lineup everyday.
The Astros are strong everywhere – that’s why they keep going to the World Series – but they are particularly fat in the outfield where they can run out two potential All Stars, a potential Rookie of The Year, and spell them with an actual Rookie of The Year. Even the player most likely to get pushed aside is solid. It will be fun watching Tucker make his way into the lineup this year or watch Reddick fight him off – either way the Astros win. The whole team will be under intense scrutiny and a lot of pressure to prove that they can win without cheating schemes, but the outfield is quality no matter how you configure it.