The Astros outfield is going to look quite a bit different than it did in 2014. The only Astro outfielder to top 500 plate appearances last year was Dexter Fowler who is now a Cubbie. The only other Astro outfielder to top 400 PA was Robbie Grossman who figures to see significantly less playing time with the Astros acquiring Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis. But any discussion of the Astros outfield has to start with one man, George Springer.
Springer started 2014 in the minors but was in the big leagues by mid-April where he racked up 345 PA before a quadricep injury ended his season in early July. The injury apparently isn’t a lingering concern heading into Spring Training. That’s extremely exciting for fantasy owners given what Springer was able to do in just 345 PA. He hit 20 bombs, stole five and scored and drove in a combined 96. Again, that was in just 345 PA. Over 600 PA that’s 35 home runs, nine steals, and 167 scored and driven in. Steamer has him projected for 609 PA with 28 home runs, 15 steals and 154 scored and driven in. Mike Podhorzer has given us reason to think he won’t stay on his power pace from last season, but that projection still feels a bit conservative. Using the z-score method, Springer barely cracks the top 20 outfielders according to the Steamer projections.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Springer discussion if we didn’t discuss his strikeouts and batting average. He struck out in 33% of his plate appearances last year, which was a big factor in his .231 batting average. Steamer is actually projecting his strikeout rate to drop a bit below 30%, but his batting average is only projected to be .234. That’s partly because Steamer has Springer’s BABIP holding steady at .294. As Scott Standberg noted earlier this offseason, Springer had a .379 BABIP in over 1,200 minor league plate appearances. Not that we should expect that number, but it seems reasonable to expect it to be comfortably above .300. If that’s the case he could easily hit over .250, which is something our fan projections agree with (the fans have him with a .319 BABIP).
Aside from upside in the average department, there is upside in the speed department. Springer swiped 45 bags across two levels in 2013, so no one should be shocked if he cracks 20 this year. Along with higher counting totals in HR, R and RBI despite a potentially slower pace than he was on last year, Springer has crazy upside. And given a conservative projection has him as the 20th best outfielder, you should be considering him as a top 15 outfielder, which is another thing Strandberg noted in the previously linked piece.
The Fans are predicatably optimistic about Springer projecting .253, 30/20 and 188 scored and driven in. That’s a bit optimistic for my liking, but if forced to pick which side of the Fans/Steamer midpoint he’ll fall on, I’d lean towards the fans. Ignoring average, it’s hard to think of another power/speed threat quite like Springer. Mike Trout is obviously an unreasonable comp, but the one guy that comes to mind is Carlos Gomez. Gomez has more speed and less power, but that’s the closest fantasy comp I can think of for Springer. And if Springer is a slightly lesser version of Gomez, he may be a top 10 outfielder.
Moving from right to left, we’ve got the new acquisition, Rasmus. Rasmus actually had the same strikeout rate (33%) and BABIP (.294) that Springer did last year, but this time it’s not a good thing. Rasmus has over 3,000 career plate appearances now and doesn’t get the benefit of the aging curve like Springer does. There’s no real need to get into the minutiae of what went wrong with Rasmus last year. He swung quite a bit more both at pitches in and out of the zone and made significantly less contact with pitches both in and out of the zone. His contact rates had been trending downward for each of the last three years, and the steady decline became a free fall last year. For that reason you might expect those rates to bounce back a bit. He could hit .235-.245 if that happens, and that’s basically the range Steamer and the fan projections have defined.
Rasmus had double digit steals in one season, but he has just eight in his last three years, so the only place Rasmus can help you out is in the power department. As Podhorzer noted, the switch in ballparks shouldn’t help or hurt his power potential. But he is moving to a slightly less offense-friendly environment and to a less productive lineup, which will obviously hurt his counting stats. His only chance of being productive for fantasy owners is staying healthy and maintaining his 17%+ home run per fly ball rate from the last two seasons. If he did that for a full year, he could flirt with 30 home runs. But the odds are much better his homer total sits in the mid-to-low 20’s as Steamer projects, which makes him nothing more than a borderline top-75 outfielder.
Left field is a bit less settled. We have Jake Marisnick pegged for 490 PA in left on our depth chart, but it’s a bit hard to know how much we’ll see of Gattis in left. If Gattis does frequent the outfield, it would obviously cut into Marisnick’s playing time, but it might also cut into Rasmus’ playing time. Marisnick has played some center in the past and makes for a somewhat logical platoon partner with the left-handed Rasmus. Marisnick doesn’t really have any fantasy value outisde of AL-only leagues to begin with, but Gattis in left frequently would hamper even that. And it would also end any chance Rasmus has of seeing 600 PA and hitting 25-30 home runs.
As for Gattis, I almost feel like he should be left to discuss in the Houston infield post because his fantasy value is at catcher. Multi-position eligibility is nice in fantasy unless one of those positions is catcher. Because catcher is such an offense-deprived position, Gattis is going to be in the catcher slot of your fantasy lineup if you own him. Maybe we can discuss his merits as an outfielder next year depending on how things go. But for now he’s still a top option at the catcher position.
Aside from Springer, Rasmus, Marisnick and Gattis, the only other guy projected for more than 35 PA in the outfield is Grossman. Grossman only hit .233 with just six home runs and nine steals in over 400 PA last year, so he’s irrelevant for fantasy owners if reduced to a fifth outfielder role. Any minor league help the Astros have coming in the near future consists of arms and infield bats. Barring injuries and trades, these guys should see the bulk of the work.