Houston evaluating trio of left-handed outfielders
According to Ken Rosenthal, the Houston Astros are continuing to look at left-handed hitting outfielders Andrew Benintendi, Michael Brantley and Michael Conforto. Rosenthal reported they may even sign two of the three after missing out on Willson Contreras.
Having landed Jose Abreu to begin free agency, Houston shored up one of their biggest positions of need at first base. They still have some decisions to make at catcher, be it a trade or a prospect promotion, but the only area they absolutely need to address is LF/DH.
Yordan Alvarez can only fill one of those two slots, and it's likely he will split his time in left at home and playing DH on the road in more cavernous left fields. Houston has long been linked to another left-handed hitter to bring balance to a lineup that currently holds only two lefties.
In Benintendi, Brantley and Conforto, all three candidates bring with them both a great deal of promise and a great deal of questions.
For Benintendi, can the power stroke be rediscovered? When he was fresh on the scene in Boston, Benintendi screamed future superstar. In his first three seasons, Benintendi hit .276 with a .794 OPS, hitting 49 big flies and 107 doubles. In the three seasons since, his average has actually climbed ever so slightly to .282, but his OPS has dropped to .757 with only 22 home runs and 51 doubles.
Though a .304 hitter in 2022, Benintendi only went deep five times across 126 games before injury ended his season. Power stroke or not, he's a clear upgrade over what the Astros got out of Jake Meyers in his return from injury last season, and the platoon of designated hitters trotted out in October.
But if he can find his pop again, Benintendi can again make this one of the most feared lineups across the game.
Both Brantley and Conforto would do likewise, but each bring health issues to the table.
With Brantley, the Astros would have familiarity. The sweet-swinging veteran brings poise to the lineup and his high-contact, low-strikeout approach is tailor-made for the way Houston operates.
In four seasons in Houston, Brantley has hit .306 with an .832 OPS. In 64 games last season, Brantley hit .288 with a .785 OPS, and even those numbers were lower than expected. According to Statcast, he had a .310 xBA and a .467 xSLG, both the second highest of his Astros' tenure.
Even in winning 106 games and the World Series, the Astros lineup desperately missed "the profession hitter" last season. If Brantley is right, he is the perfect piece. That said, questions still linger about his health.
Brantley's season was cut short after undergoing shoulder surgery. He previously suffered the same injury in Cleveland. Now at 35-years-old, can he be expected to make a full recovery? As it stands, it sounds like this may not be known until March.
Brantley is a world-class hitter, but the Astros can't afford to wait on him only to find out his shoulder is still giving him fits. They would need to make another move.
This is where Conforto enters the conversation. Conforto is a career .255 hitter with an .824 OPS. His Statcast percentile rankings show an All-Star level hitter. His health, however, is the biggest question of all of the candidates.
Conforto sat out all of the 2022 season after undergoing shoulder surgery last April. Houston was apparently in conversation with Conforto at the end of the season about joining the team for the playoff push, but no deal was reached and he remained unsigned for the season.
Of the three outfielders, he alters the dynamic of the offense most assuming health. Players capable of posting an OPS in the .900s don't hit free agency often. When they do, they often command long-term deals with crazy high AAVs.
Conforto is expected to sign a two-year deal with an opt-out--a prove it deal of sorts. If he is healthy and performs, he would likely test the waters again next season. A successful flier on Conforto would transform this lineup from very good to world class. In fact, it would eerily resemble the 2019 lineup.
But if he isn't healthy, Houston would again be left with the plug-and-play approach they navigated all last season in their hunt for a third outfielder.
I would love to see Houston land two of the three players. Andrew Benintendi could be signed to a four-year deal similar to the one Josh Reddick signed. While he may very well have the lowest ceiling, he has the highest floor and is a sure thing. The Astros should try to lock him up as quickly as possible.
From there, Houston should land one of either Conforto or Brantley. Both would be short-term commitments and would bring a level of depth this team hasn't had since 2019.
They already have a world class pitching staff. If their lineup can match it, the rest of the AL and the rest of baseball would be in serious danger, left continuing to play catch-up to Houston.