Astros looking at different paths to man left field
SAN DIEGO -- The pursuit of a starting left fielder remains one of the Astros’ priorities at the Winter Meetings, along with finding another catcher. Michael Brantley has handled the majority of starts in left for the Astros the last four years, but he’s a 35-year-old free agent who’s coming off shoulder surgery.
The Astros still are interested in bringing back Brantley, but it’s going to depend on his health. He’s just started to do baseball drills after undergoing an arthroscopic labral repair on his right shoulder in August. With that in mind, the Astros have also shown interest in free agents Michael Conforto and Andrew Benintendi -- a pair of left-handed bats who could balance out Houston’s predominantly right-handed lineup.
“I think it’s one of those situations that we’ll continue to look at and run down opportunities there and talk with [owner] Jim [Crane] about it,” assistant general manager Bill Firkus said when asked about left field. “We could go into next year not doing anything and be fine.”
Firkus touted the Astros’ “swath of outfielders” who could cover left field, which includes Yordan Alvarez, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, Mauricio Dubón and even rookie David Hensley.
“We have a lot of different options we can mix and match,” Firkus said. “Yordan’s going to DH a fair amount and he likes playing out there and staying in the game. It’s a matter of filling that time [elsewhere]. We feel like with Jake and Chas you get a good bat and really good defense. You get some increased value on the defensive end there.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker said Monday that Alvarez would play in left field “65, 70 percent” of the time next year in an ideal situation, but that’s probably too aggressive. Alvarez started a career-high 56 games in left last year while starting 77 at DH and he’s likely to continue to get more starts at DH than left field.
“That will be a continual discussion with Dusty and Yordan as a player,” Firkus said. “How do we get the most out of him? He has said in the past getting out on the field helps him stay locked in and focused on the game. I would defer to our field manager there and what your player is telling him what’s best for him and his health.”
McCormick, a solid defender, started 32 games in left last season, but he appears to be the favorite to start in center heading into 2023, leaving Dubón as the only player on the roster other than Alvarez and McCormick having started a game in left in 2022.
As far as the Astros' free-agent search, either Benintendi or Conforto would be solid fits in Houston.
Benintendi, 28, was an All-Star last season with the Royals before being traded to the Yankees in July. He scuffled in New York and broke the hamate bone in his right hand on a swing Sept. 2 and underwent season-ending surgery.
He’s a high-contact hitter who last year set career highs in batting average (.304), on-base percentage (.373) and strikeout rate (14.8 percent). His 120 OPS+ and 3.2 bWAR were second only to his 2018 totals. A Gold Glove winner in 2021, he had two defensive runs saved last season, which is a large drop-off from when he produced 11 and 12 DRS in 2017 and '18, respectively, while with Boston.
Like Brantley, Conforto, 29, is coming off shoulder surgery, which he underwent in April to address an injury he suffered while training in January. He didn’t sign with anyone last year and missed the entire season after hitting .232 with 14 homers, 55 RBIs and a .729 OPS with the Mets in 2021.
Defensively, Conforto can play all three outfield spots, which would be a plus considering the Astros’ center-field situation is still a bit unstable. Conforto bounced around the outfield in his first five seasons, seeing time at all three positions, but he was exclusively a right fielder in 2020-21. He isn’t an elite defender by any stretch, but he possesses a strong arm and has recorded a combined 10 outs above average (eight in left, two in right) as a corner outfielder.