Inbox: Which free agents fit Astros' needs?

January 21st, 2021

HOUSTON -- Well, it’s been quite a week for the Astros, who have reportedly lost 2020 team Most Valuable Player George Springer to the Blue Jays but were able to reach agreements to bring back outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Jason Castro on two-year deals, according to sources. The teams haven't confirmed those deals yet.

The Astros’ 2021 roster is coming into better focus, though there’s a glaring hole in center field with Springer gone. The good news for Houston is that it only has one opening in the outfield and not two, thanks to Brantley’s return. They could still opt to add some starting rotation depth and get a closer, if they have payroll flexibility remaining to get it done.

Let’s open the Inbox and see what’s on your mind as we inch closer to Spring Training:

What is the biggest need if the Astros have to choose only one -- center fielder or closer?
-- @JamesTalton2

With Brantley and Castro in the fold, it certainly appears center field and closer are the two areas where the Astros have the biggest need. For me, the biggest need is for a closer, for a few reasons. First, contending teams need dependable closers, and the Astros plan to contend in 2021. Keeping in a setup role and signing, say, either , or would come at a cost, but it would give the Astros a competitive bullpen.

Also, they have options in center field. The speedy can play center for the near term. He’s not Springer, but who is? If Straw can give them anything offensively, he’s good enough defensively where you can win with him in a lineup that’s got bats all around him. The Astros signed 22-year-old Cuban center fielder Pedro Leon last week and said he would be a quick mover through the system. Signing a center fielder to a multiyear deal won’t make sense if you think Leon will be ready in 2022. In the meantime, Straw might be your guy.

Do you think the Astros bring in an additional outfielder to rotate with Brantley on days he needs off? Or is it simply going to be Straw being the off-day fill-in?
-- @ChrisOsterman

How the Astros use their outfielders this year probably depends who starts in center. Brantley will start in left and in right, though Tucker can play left field, too. Do they go with Straw or perhaps sign someone like to a one-year deal to bridge the gap to Leon? The Astros had great versatility with Josh Reddick, who could play all three outfield positions, but he’s not back this year. Rookie , who was added to the playoff roster but has yet to make his Major League debut, can play all three outfield positions, though he’s mostly played right. , of course, can play some left field as well. I still see them adding another outfielder to put into the mix.

What is a reasonable expectation for Pedro Leon’s debut in Houston?
-- @houstonken

Considering how much money ($4 million) it took the Astros to sign him, his age (22) and his tools, Leon is expected to move quickly through the Minor Leagues. The Astros even said as much in last week’s press release announcing his signing, with senior scouting advisor Charlie Gonzalez calling him a “rapid mover to the big leagues.”

Still, a lot is unknown about Leon, who defected from Cuba in 2019. He’s played in only 65 games in two seasons for Mayabeque in Serie Nacional, the island’s top professional league, so he’s not coming to the U.S. with years of professional experience like Yuli Gurriel. His future will depend on his development through the system (will there be a Minor League season?), but I get the feeling the Astros would like to see him at some point in 2022 in Houston.

Update on Alvarez injury? Expected full recovery and full season?
-- @ChrisdYoder

After -- the 2019 American League Rookie of the Year -- underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees in August, the expectation was he would be ready to start Spring Training fully healthy. I haven’t heard anything since then that gives me reason to believe otherwise. Alvarez, who had a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee replaced and a routine cleanup in his left knee, has posted some videos on his Instagram showing him running on a treadmill, which is good news for the Astros, but we won’t know where he stands until Spring Training starts.

Did Brantley have a change of heart on signing with the Blue Jays? Was it just misinformation that the deal was done? Or did the Astros have to bump up the ante from what the Blue Jays were offering
-- @CesarSPR

Those are all questions we’ll try to get answered in the coming days. As of Thursday afternoon, the Astros hadn’t made official the signing of Brantley, so we haven’t been able to ask him or the team about the nature of the negotiations. We do know several reports out of Toronto early Wednesday had Brantley following Springer north of the border, and those were confirmed by some respected national reporters. What happened between the time it was reported he was going to Toronto and it was reported he signed with Houston isn’t yet clear.

Current thoughts on fans in the stands this year? I’m sure it’s “wait and see” with the vaccine rollout, but if we play ball in April, are there any plans in place now that would allow for it?
-- @StroNationFrust

From what I've been told, the Astros hope to have limited fans in the stands for the start of the season at Minute Maid Park. That, of course, will depend on how the COVID-19 virus is being handled and if local regulations will allow it. Both the NBA’s Houston Rockets and NFL’s Houston Texans had fans in the stands at games this season in a limited capacity, so it only stands to reason the Astros would do the same. Stay tuned.

How realistic is it that the Astros will give Correa a long-term extension?
-- @jackstros2

That’s a loaded question, but a good one. I think it’s certainly something the Astros will pursue, but you must remember it takes two sides to get a deal done. will be a free agent at the end of this season at 27 years old, joining a star-studded group of shortstops in free agency that includes Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, Trevor Story and Corey Seager. That could help the Astros re-sign him considering the market will be saturated with elite shortstops.

Ultimately, it will come down to money (a lot of it) and whether Correa wants to play most or all of his career in Houston. The Astros couldn’t keep Springer and have already signed Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman to long-term extensions. A lot of money comes off the books in 2022 with the contracts of Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke ($32 million in 2021) expiring, so the Astros should be able to make a competitive offer. I’m curious to see how a healthy Correa performs in a contract year.

Will you also cover the Skeeters for us this year?
-- @Dome651

Now that the Astros will have their Triple-A affiliate in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land (home of the Skeeters), fans will get the chance to see the club’s prospects before they hit Minute Maid Park. So will reporters, but there’s so much unknown about this season. Will there be a Minor League season? Will there be media access? Under normal circumstances, yes, I would plan on making several trips to Sugar Land each season to catch some of the prospects or a Major Leaguer on rehab assignment. There won’t be daily coverage, but having the Triple-A team about 25 miles from Minute Maid Park certainly beats having it in Fresno, Calif., and lends itself to more coverage.