Last season, the Houston Astros’ outfield proved absolutely inept offensively. They compiled a league-worst .287 wOBA and combined for a paltry .221/.296/.351 slash line. That led to the departure of Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic this winter. It has also set the stage for a crowded outfield competition this spring in Kissimmee, Florida.
No outfield position has been carved into stone. J.D. Martinez reportedly has the inside track in left field, despite struggling with a -0.2 WAR and .303 wOBA in 439 plate appearances last year. GM Jeff Luhnow, however, recently said that Chris Carter and Rule-5 draftee Nate Freiman could also see some time in left field to provide more thump to an offense that projects to lack significant home run power.
Carter will be a particularly interesting left field candidate. He won’t add value defensively — though neither will Martinez, to be fair — but Minute Maid Park could enhance his already above-average power to left field. The 26-year-old hit .443 with 11 home runs to left field last year with Oakland and the cavernous O.co Coliseum. Fantasy owners can reasonably expect Carter’s home run totals to increase, as Minute Maid Park features the Crawford Boxes at only 315-feet from home plate.
In center field, Justin Maxwell has his foot in the door. The organization reportedly favors his plus-defense and power potential, but he’s not a lock. His 16.6% swinging-strike rate was the third-highest in all of Major League Baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances last year, as was his 32.4% strikeout rate.
The Astros brought in Rick Ankiel on a minor-league deal to compete for an outfield spot, as was Trevor Crowe, who spent time in the majors with the Cleveland Indians in each year between 2009 and 2011. Brandon Barnes could also threaten for playing time in center field. The 26-year-old hit .321/.381/.514 between Double-A and Triple-A last season and is considered a plus defender. He did struggle once promoted to the big leagues, though, limping to a .232 wOBA and swinging at absolutely everything.
Considering Maxwell’s .330 wOBA and his 20+ home run potential with plus-defense in center field, he should get every opportunity to start in center field. The Astros have ample insurance policies, however, should they be deemed necessary.
In right field, Fernando Martinez appears to have the upper hand — since he opted to not participate in the World Baseball Classic, at least — and is still only 24 years old. He still far too aggressive at the plate and strikes out too much, but he did show some power last year. Of course, with Martinez, fantasy owners will always have to deal with his significant injury troubles that have dogged him throughout his career.
If Martinez gets injured or cannot make consistent-enough contact to be serviceable at the plate, the Astros could turn to 24-year-old Jimmy Paredes. He made his major-league debut with Houston in 2011 and hit .286/.320/.393 (with a .383 BABIP) and also carried a .318/.348/.477 slash line in 124 Triple-A game last year. It should also be noted that Paredes has stolen at least 30 bases in each of the last three seasons, for those fantasy owners who are forced to take risks for stolen bases and don’t play in an OBP league.
Granted, the Houston Astros could also skip over Paredes and slide in Rick Ankiel or Brandon Barnes. That’s what makes the Astros’ outfield situation so difficult to predict for fantasy purposes. The organization has amassed nine or ten outfielders who could legitimately see at-bats this season. While that’s a boon for the real-life Astros organization, it’s maddening for fantasy owners.
Potential Prospect Impact
The Astros have dramatically improved their farm system in the last couple years, so plenty of prospects could reach the majors before the end of the season. Two outfield prospects deserve specific mention, though.
George Springer tore up High-A last year with a .409 wOBA and a .316/.398/.557 slash line. He hit 22 home runs and stole 28 bases. He struggled in his brief promotion to Double-A to end the season, but the excitement remains. Baseball America rated him as the best defensive outfielder in the Astros’ system coming into the 2012 season. He’s expected to push for the everyday role in center field in a couple years, but the organization could push him hard if he enjoys a productive spring and torches Double-A to begin the season.
Robbie Grossman came to Houston from Pittsburgh in 2012 via the Wandy Rodriguez trade. He’s best known for his prodigious walk rate, which has never dipped below 11.3% since turning pro in 2008. Our own Marc Hulet ranked him as the 11th-best prospect in the Astros’ farm system, though he does note he’s a bit of a tweener in terms of projection. The power remains too fringy for an everyday right fielder, and scouts question whether he can handle center field defensively. Fantasy owners who play in OBP leagues, though, should absolutely pay attention to Grossman if he comes out of the gates strong at Triple-A and Fernando Martinez or Justin Maxwell struggles early.
Early Depth Chart
Left Field: J.D. Martinez / Chris Carter / Brandon Barnes / Nate Freiman
Center Field: Justin Maxwell / Rick Ankiel / Brandon Barnes / Trevor Crowe
Right Field: Fernando Martinez / Jimmy Paredes / Brandon Barnes