The Houston Astros may need a new leadoff hitter in 2021. Here are three possible candidates.
During the Houston Astros’ run of success over the past few seasons, George Springer typically occupied the leadoff spot in the batting order. He’s done that extremely well, providing some punch at the top of the lineup. But he’s also likely to depart this winter, leaving manager Dusty Baker to find someone else to jump start things offensively.
It is still possible that Springer returns, of course, which would render this whole discussion moot. It’s also possible GM James Click will bring in a new leadoff hitter from outside the organization. But it looks like the team’s ideal scenario right now is to re-sign Michael Brantley and add Jackie Bradley Jr. to play center field, so for the time being I will assume that’s what eventually happens.
Bradley is a good player and a great fit, but he’s not a leadoff guy. Myles Straw certainly has the speed for it, but he hasn’t shown enough with the bat to be given a starting job. So, based on what looks to be the most likely starting lineup for the Astros in 2021, here are three possible candidates to move to the leadoff spot.
Hitting leadoff isn’t for everyone, so Altuve is a candidate simply because he has plenty of experience there. Before Springer’s ascension, Altuve hit leadoff regularly and has a total of 380 starts in that spot over the course of his career. When leading off the game, he has a career line of .330/.374/.527 with 14 home runs.
He’s nowhere near the base stealing threat he used to be, but you expect him to hit for a solid average, draw a few walks and hit some home runs. His 2020 season was undoubtedly an aberration, as we saw how he hit in the playoffs. At this point, Altuve is the most conventional — and most likely — choice for this role.
If the Astros want a legitimate stolen base threat at the top of the order, there’s no one better in this lineup than Tucker. He’s 14-for-16 in stolen base attempts in his major league career and had two seasons of 30 or more steals in the minors. If he gets on base, the pitcher and catcher will have to pay attention to him, possibly giving the next hitter an advantage.
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The downside is that Tucker is going to have his share of strikeouts, and he hasn’t shown the ability to hit for a particularly high average or draw a bunch of walks. Even in his breakout 2020 season, his .325 on-base percentage needs some improvement. That’s not ideal for your leadoff hitter. I like him better hitting behind some of the big boppers.
This one seems a little off the wall at first, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. The primary goal of a leadoff hitter is to get on base, and no one in this lineup does that better than Bregman. His career on-base percentage is .381, and his marks in 2018 and 2019 were .394 and .423, respectively. He also led the majors in walks in 2019.
Having a player with an OBP around .400 at the top of the order is a great way to kick things off. I also believe that his 41-homer season a year ago was partially inflated by the juiced ball, so I don’t think we’ll see him hit that many homers again. But if he settles in as a guy who hits 25-30 bombs with a high on-base percentage, that’s a dangerous hitter for opposing pitchers to face right out of the gate.
Still, in the end, I think Altuve is the most likely candidate. If he’s back to his old self, it’ll work out wonderfully. If the Astros can bring back Brantley and add Bradley, a lineup of Altuve, Brantley, Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa, Tucker, Yuli Gurriel, Bradley and Martin Maldonado looks pretty potent.