HOUSTON -- The departure of George Springer -- the high-flying center fielder and dynamic leadoff hitter who was a core player on the Astros’ rise to an American League power that culminated with the 2017 World Series championship -- has left a huge void in the lineup that will be difficult to replace.
Springer has reportedly agreed to sign a six-year, $150-million deal with Toronto, ending his time in a Houston uniform after seven seasons. There are also reports the Blue Jays are among the teams trying to sign free agent Michael Brantley, who spent the last two years with Houston. Springer (.899) and Brantley (.847) ranked first and second on the Astros in OPS last year.
Houston had hoped to sign at least one of the veteran outfielders, but losing both wouldn’t be totally unexpected. Still, Astros general manager James Click could have to fill two spots in the starting outfield with the start of Spring Training only one month away.
Houston will return up-and-coming outfielder Kyle Tucker, who emerged last year and showed star potential. He’s likely to start in right field, but the only other outfielders currently on the 40-man roster are Chas McCormick and Myles Straw. Slugger Yordan Alvarez is listed as an outfielder, but he is expected to get most of his at-bats at designated hitter, especially considering he’s coming off a pair of knee surgeries.
The Astros spent $4 million last week to sign 22-year-old Cuban center fielder Pedro Leon, but he’s not likely to impact the Major League roster until 2022 at the earliest. What’s more, Houston doesn't have any Major League ready outfield prospects. That means Click will have to look externally for replacements.
Among the free-agent outfielders on the market, Jackie Bradley Jr. is the top option remaining. Others include Kevin Pillar, Joc Pederson, Marcell Ozuna and Jake Marisnick, who spent six years with the Astros (2014-19). The team is also exploring the trade market, where Andrew Benintendi of the Red Sox remains a possible target. Benintendi is a left-handed hitter who plays left field and could be a candidate to replace Brantley.
The Blue Jays, when they sign Springer and if they sign Brantley, will have a glut of outfielders and could be poised to trade some of them away. Randal Grichuk, who’s from the Houston area, posted a .793 OPS in center field for Toronto last year and has three years of team control remaining.
Of course, trading for an impact player will require moving assets. Houston’s farm system has been decimated by trades in the last few years, including deals to acquire front-line pitchers Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, as well as the promotions of Tucker and Alvarez. Can they put together a package to get a deal done?
The Astros believe they can contend this year with the return of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Tucker. They advanced to the AL Championship Series for the fourth year in a row last year and are still one of the best teams in the AL West in 2021. They have a solid rotation, though they need depth, and signed relievers Ryne Stanek and Pedro Báez in recent weeks to solidify the bullpen.
Finding replacements for both Springer and Brantley is paramount for Click and owner Jim Crane. But the fact the Astros only have five impact players (not including the injured Verlander) remaining from their 2017 World Series championship team is an indication their window of contention isn’t open as widely as it was a year ago.