The Astros finalized their big move of the offseason yesterday, announcing a five-year deal for star reliever Josh Hader. Between the Hader signing and the addition of Víctor Caratini on a two-year pact to serve as backup catcher, they’ve addressed their two biggest questions of the winter.
General manager Dana Brown pointed to another area they’re exploring as Spring Training draws nearer. “If we could somehow get a left-handed bat, preferably an outfielder with some speed, that type of package we’ll pounce on it,” he told reporters (including Brian McTaggart of MLB.com). That’s not to say that player type is an imperative, as Brown added the team is “really good” already.
Houston lost a left-handed hitting outfielder when Michael Brantley reached free agency (and subsequently retired). They project for a starting group of Kyle Tucker, Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick. Star DH Yordan Alvarez could see some action in left field. Righty-hitting Corey Julks is on hand as a depth option, while Mauricio Dubón can bounce from the infield to the outfield in a utility capacity.
Tucker clearly isn’t in jeopardy of losing any time in right field. McCormick is coming off a very productive season. He hit .273/.353/.489 with 22 homers and 19 stolen bases over a personal-high 457 plate appearances. Even with a slightly elevated strikeout total, he looks like an above-average regular.
It’s a little less clear in center field. Brown declared at the Winter Meetings that the team was planning to use Meyers as their primary center fielder. Those comments were partially designed to cut off speculation that Houston could trade the 27-year-old. Even if the Astros are legitimately interested in giving Meyers first crack at the center field job, they could look for a potential platoon partner or contingency plan.
A right-handed hitter, Meyers is coming off a .227/.295/.382 showing in 342 trips to the plate. That’s not far off the .243/.296/.375 career batting line that he carried into last season. Meyers has had particular issues against righty pitching. He’s a career .220/.288/.351 hitter against same-handed arms. His production against southpaws (.270/.316/.440) is solid on the surface, although that’s inflated by a .365 average on balls in play that masks a 30% strikeout rate.
Overall, Meyers has been a below-average offensive player. To his credit, he’s an asset on the other side of the ball. Defensive Runs Saved and Statcast have each graded him as an easy plus defender in nearly 1500 career innings in center field. Giving Meyers the bulk of the center field at-bats wouldn’t be a disaster, but he’s probably the weakest hitter in an otherwise loaded Houston lineup.
With the Astros firmly in a win-now mindset as they battle the defending champion Rangers in the AL West, it’s sensible to look for alternatives. There aren’t a ton of available options in free agency. While Cody Bellinger fits the description of an athletic, lefty-swinging outfielder, it’d be shocking to see Houston meet his asking price — particularly after signing Hader.
Travis Jankowski is a fourth/fifth outfield type who should be available on a cheap one-year deal. He doesn’t hit for any power, but he’s an excellent runner who gets on base and can play all three outfield spots. While Eddie Rosario remains unsigned, he’s essentially limited to left field at this point. That’s not a great fit unless the Astros are willing to play McCormick in center regularly.
On the trade front, Max Kepler and MJ Melendez have been loosely floated in rumors this winter. Players like Akil Baddoo and switch-hitting Dylan Carlson could theoretically be available. None of that group seems all that likely to change teams at this stage of the offseason, but they’re among various players about whose availability Houston could inquire.
How much spending room is at the front office’s disposal is difficult to gauge. Houston’s surprising strike for Hader pushed the franchise into uncharted waters. Roster Resource projects their Opening Day payroll around $239MM, their first time north of $200MM in season-opening spending. Houston will exceed the luxury tax threshold for the first time since 2020. They’re at nearly $255MM in CBT commitments, well clear of the $237MM threshold and on the verge of the $257MM second penalization marker. Owner Jim Crane demonstrated a willingness to stretch the budget to build an elite back of the bullpen, perhaps in response to losing Kendall Graveman to shoulder surgery. It’s not clear how much farther he’ll go for what could be seen as a luxury addition in the outfield.