The Houston Astros should sign this hated rival in free agency

Could Houston look to a former foe in order to upgrade its outfield?

Photo of Michael Shapiro
Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run during the fifth inning against the Houston Astros in game five of the 2017 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run during the fifth inning against the Houston Astros in game five of the 2017 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane has a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure situation on his hands at the outset of free agency. 

The team's new de-facto decision maker following James Click's departure now faces the challenge of maintaining a championship roster, and while the Astros will likely remain the American League favorite entering 2023, this is not a group without its question marks. Unanimous Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander could depart if Crane is outbid by Steve Cohen in Queens or Hal Steinbrenner in the Bronx. The Astros are looking for a new first baseman unless they opt for a Yuli Gurriel reunion. And while Chas McCormick shined in the World Series, a centerfield upgrade could be in order. 

We've detailed the Verlander situation and Houston's options at first base in recent weeks. As for centerfield, landing the right piece may take a dose of creativity. And there is one divisive option the Astros should consider. Five years after becoming a noted enemy in Houston for interviews he gave in the wake of the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, perhaps Minute Maid Park is exactly where Cody Bellinger should call home in 2023. 

So is the former MVP and recent Dodgers castoff a sensible match for Houston? Let's outline the potential fit below: 

Contractual harmony

Crane and the Astros have signaled they are willing to spend a hefty sum on Verlander and then continue to build the current roster, though there are still payroll constraints for a team more in the upper tier than the absolute top of the spending pool. Even if Verlander walks, it's difficult to see Houston committing major money—and more importantly numerous years—to an outfielder. Yordan Alvarez has already been extended on a six-year, $115 million deal, and another $100-plus million commitment could arrive for Kyle Tucker sooner than later. Shelling out another multi-year deal for a top-of-the-market outfielder like Brandon Nimmo seems to be more of a fantasy than a reality at this point. 

Which brings us to Bellinger. The former Dodgers' star is likely the second-best true centerfielder in the this winter's class of free agents, and perhaps more importantly for Houston, he reportedly won't require a multi-year commitment. Bellinger is looking to rebuild his market value on a one-year deal after a dismal 2022 season, and while his 2023 contract won't exactly be cheap, the years on any free-agent deal is more important to Crane and Co. than the actual dollar value. For Bellinger, going to Houston's loaded lineup and friendly park could spur a return to form at the plate. Even if he delivers just one year of value, the Astros would be happy to reap the rewards in 2023 before Bellinger returns to free agency. 

Defensive excellence

Bellinger would be eyeing a top-of-the-market deal if he was anything close to his 2019 self at the plate in recent years. But even as the lefty continues to search for success at the plate, he remains a strong defensive outfielder, one who should have little problem patrolling the cavernous (and complicated) outfield confines of Minute Maid Park. Bellinger ranked No. 13 among outfielders in Fangraphs Outs Above Average leaderboard last season, and he remains in the top 15 percent among outfielders in arm strength, per Statcast tracking data. Both Bellinger and McCormick are plus defensive outfielders with serious questions at the plate over an extended sample. Seems like a pretty solid platoon option to me, even if McCormick is relegated to the short side of said platoon. 

In-house development

Let's not sugarcoat the offensive struggles we've seen from Bellinger over the last three seasons. It's frankly hard to find an analogous career in recent memory, one in which Bellinger went from a 1.035 OPS and the National League MVP in 2019 to a 2022 season that featured an OPS+ 22 percent below league average. Bellinger struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances last season. He's combined to post a meager .355 slugging across the last two years, a mark that sits No. 257(!) out of the 298 players to register at least 500 plate appearances. Few starting position players have produced such little value at the plate in recent years.

And yet, despite the growing mountain of evidence, it's hard to believe there isn't still some semblance of production left in Bellinger's bat. His barrel rate from 2022 is in line with his 2018 metrics, a solid-if-unspectacular campaign in which Bellinger swatted 25 home runs en route to an .814 OPS. You don't have to squint too hard to see a future where Bellinger can come close to replicating that level of performance in 2022. Bellinger would slot into the bottom third of one of the most potent lineups in baseball, and, maybe more importantly, one that posted the American League's second-lowest strikeout rate in 2022.

Houston excels at working quality at-bats and improving pitch recognition. Its player development machine is renowned across the league. Add in the benefits of a short-porch in right field paired with the Crawford Boxes, and perhaps joining the Astros is the perfect way for Bellinger to ressurect his career in 2023. 

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