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For the Astros, George Springer is the One that Got Away

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Out of all the players that have departed the Houston Astros in recent years, George Springer’s absence is still the most noticeable.

The trade deadline is getting closer, and the Houston Astros are looking to acquire a bat. Along with first base and catcher, center field is a position where they haven’t gotten as much production as a contending team would want. It’s important to note, as they continue their quest to find sustainable answers at the position, that the last great center fielder they had, George Springer, was able to walk away from the team at his own discretion.

Throughout their Golden Era, which still appears to be far from over, the Astros have lost many players to free agency. Gerrit Cole predictably set out to live his childhood dream following the 2019 season and pitch for the Yankees. Fresh off a Platinum Glove award, Carlos Correa signed a short-term but lucrative contract with the Twins just 4 months ago. Michael Brantley is still an Astro, but he was very close to signing elsewhere a couple of winters ago, just a few days after Springer left.

Even so, Houston is far from being a small market, and between that and the team’s unparalleled organizational development, they’ve been able to convince players such as Brantley to stay, as well as fill any void with players that came from within the system. Any void, that is, except for one. Springer signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in January of 2021 for 6 years and $150M. While he set an incredibly high standard that’s hard to reach, things have not been quite the same for the Astros in center field since then.

Sure, Gerrit Cole left, but Justin Verlander stayed. In fact, Verlander has been better than Cole in 2022 despite being much older and coming off of Tommy John surgery. As well, the emergence of Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia has left the starting rotation in great hands. Carlos Correa took his talents elsewhere too, and Jeremy Pena has come in and provided virtually identical production for a fraction of the price at shortstop. If it weren’t for the magnificent season that Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez is having, Pena would be the clear Rookie of the Year favorite. While both Cole and Correa make more money per season than Springer, it is Springer that the Astros have had the hardest time replacing.

Since the start of the 2021 season, Astros center fielders have slashed .242/.310/.384, for a wRC+ of 96. While they’ve continued to have some great defensive assets, Houston has failed to come close to replicating Springer’s offensive ability. Springer himself in that time frame has a batting line of .259/.342/.514 for a 132 wRC+ in 164 games – just over a full season’s worth. He has also hit 40 home runs by himself. Astros center fielders have hit 41 in comparison, and there have been five of them.

Again, it’s tough to ask anybody to fill the shoes of Springer, who was named the MVP of the 2017 World Series. The Astros outfielder who has come the closest to that level of play since then is Chas McCormick, who has a 110 wRC+ and 3.2 fWAR since the start of 2021. That’s certainly respectable, and in fact, he’s a downright elite hitter in certain situations: he has a 188 wRC+ in 67 at-bats against left-handed pitching in 2022.

The Astros tried Myles Straw at the position to start 2021. Highly touted as a prospect, Straw was amazing in the field but his shortcomings at the plate forced the team to ship him off to Cleveland in exchange for reliever Phil Maton and prospect Yanier Diaz. Since that trade, it has been a revolving door of McCormick, Jake Meyers, Jose Siri, and most recently, 2022 trade acquisition Mauricio Dubon. The only reason McCormick hasn’t gotten a lengthy run at the position is because he is seen as just as valuable in the corner outfield positions. He has seen quite a bit of left field since Michael Brantley’s injury.

The Astros have also enjoyed having Yordan Alvarez for the majority of the past two seasons; he only arrived onto the scene partway through 2019, which was Springer’s final 162-game campaign in Houston. Being one of the best hitters in baseball, Alvarez has helped mask the loss of Springer as a part-time outfielder. Without Springer, the Astros have won a pennant and are in a prime position to win another, so maybe this is just much ado about nothing.

On the other hand, Springer hit an electrifying grand slam a few nights ago to help extend the Blue Jays’ winning streak to 7 games. It’s hard not to imagine, in an alternate universe, Springer bringing that same magic to Houston, especially at a time when center fielders like Bryan Reynolds are being put on the trade block. The Astros could have addressed that need they have in center field a year and a half ago by re-signing the guy that played an instrumental role in winning them that World Series ring.

It’s unclear as to what the team’s exact financial situation was at the time; it was undoubtedly affected in the midst of the pandemic. It was also rumored that Springer wanted to distance himself from the environment that the team’s sign-stealing scandal created. However, their continued search for a bat to acquire has been a reminder that the trade deadline is about gaining a competitive advantage by addressing needs, and on that topic, Springer’s absence unavoidably comes to mind.

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