Inbox: What's in store for Astros after 2021?

Beat writer Brian McTaggart fields questions from fans

December 11th, 2020

HOUSTON -- The virtual Winter Meetings were uneventful for the Astros, who are still waiting to make their first significant move of the offseason. That may not happen until free agent center fielder George Springer re-signs with the Astros ... or, more likely, signs with someone else.

So let’s open the Inbox for the final time in 2020 and take a look at what’s on your mind:

After 2021, do you see the Astros going into rebuild mode, or will they continue to try to reload and compete?
-- @49ersCamelot on Twitter

While I think the 2021 season represents perhaps the last best shot to make it back to the World Series for the Astros, I don’t see owner Jim Crane doing any sort of rebuilding any time soon. They have a young pitching nucleus, star infielders and are signed to long-term deals, and outfielder and designated hitter are stars in the making. There’s enough talent there to keep pushing. A lot will depend on where Springer lands in '21. If it’s not in Houston, what do the Astros do with the money it would have taken to re-sign him? Do they give Carlos Correa an extension? Do they sign a closer? In short, this team is nowhere near the rebuild mode of a decade ago, which led to three consecutive 100-loss seasons and paltry payroll.

Will the Astros give a chance to start in the outfield?
-- @ArmchairRoto on Twitter

That will depend on what happens with the two open outfield spots that are in limbo due to Springer and Michael Brantley being free agents. Tucker likely starts in left field, so the Astros need to fill two outfield spots. General manager James Click on Thursday mentioned the speedy Straw as an option to play center field in 2021, but he had a poor season at the plate in limited action in ’20 (.500 OPS, 37 OPS+) and is likely viewed as a fourth or fifth outfielder by the club at this point. Still, if the Astros lose Springer and can’t fill the hole in center field, Straw will get a chance and will have to produce on a club with high expectations once again.

Tucker is definitely a left fielder, but most projections are placing him in right field. Would it be better for us to look at one corner outfield market over the other? Is it more likely we trade for a center fielder (Kevin Kiermaier, for example) rather than sign someone like Jackie Bradley Jr.?
-- @chocoemo on Twitter

Tucker was a surprising finalist for the American League Gold Glove Award in left field last season. He didn’t win it, and he still has some improvements to make before he can be thought of as an elite outfielder, despite what some of the metrics might have shown. He played mostly left field in 2020, starting there 41 times and in right field seven times. Ideally, Tucker plays left field for the Astros going forward, but a strong defensive center fielder -- Bradley, perhaps -- might make them feel better about playing him in right. There’s little doubt the Astros need a center fielder if Springer leaves, and I think the free-agent market (signing Bradley?) is more likely than a trade.

Brian, how will the Astros address the lack of catcher depth moving forward?
-- @astrofizzik on Twitter

The Astros have only two catchers on their 40-man roster -- , who will be in the last year of his contract, and , who served as a third catcher last season. The loss of backup Dustin Garneau means the Astros will likely look to replace him with a veteran, and there are tons of names on the market. No matter who they sign, if they do sign another catcher, that would only help fill the void until No. 5 prospect Korey Lee shows he’s ready.

The Astros spent a first-round pick on Lee out of the University of California in the 2019 MLB Draft with eyes on him being the starter of the future. They liked his above-average power and arm strength. The loss of the '20 Minor League season really hurt the development of Lee, who had just 224 at-bats in '19 at Class A Short-Season Tri-City. The Astros added him to their 60-man player pool in September so that he could get some extra tutelage, but he still might be two years away from reaching the big leagues. How the Astros fill that void in the meantime remains to be seen.

Hi Brian, long time listener, first time caller. My question is, how do you see the Astros' bullpen shaping up? I'm just curious if help will come from the Minors or from free agency. Also, how is Forrest Whitley coming along? Any more arm issues? I'll hang up and listen. Thanks.
--@AstroholicAnon on Twitter

Thanks for joining the fun. The Astros are in the market for bullpen help this winter, but they’re in a lot better shape in the bullpen now than I thought they’d be in July. That’s because the trade for lefty wound up being a good one, and youngsters and made the most of their opportunities on the heels of injuries to veterans Roberto Osuna and Chris Devenski, both of whom are free agents. Plus, will return next year and will play again in 2021 after sitting out last season. Those are two key veterans. Still, the Astros could use another veteran arm (or two) and may want to land someone with experience as a closer, which will most likely be accomplished via free agency.

As far as Whitley, not much to report. He would have made his Major League debut in 2020 if he was healthy, but he was shut down with an arm issue and we haven’t heard much since. He’s now on the 40-man roster, and '21 will be a big season for him to finally get some traction.

Do you expect any reunions in 2021? Any possibility of former Astros returning home to us?
-- @whirlwindjenn on Twitter

Well, Charlie Morton has signed with the Braves, and the Yankees aren’t going to trade Gerrit Cole back to the Astros. I’d say the most likely former Astros player who could return in 2021 is Jason Castro, who’s a free agent once again this winter and would fit in nicely as the backup catcher behind Maldonado. Castro, who recently surpassed 10 years of service time, had a nice season with the Twins in '19 (.767 OPS, 13 homers) and posted a .668 OPS with two homers in a combined 92 plate appearances with the Angels and Padres in '20.