Sep 20, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (1) throws out Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt (not pictured) during the sixth inning at the Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
The Houston Astros took a step back from their playoff appearance in 2015 to miss making the wild card game for the second straight year by five games. This winter should see a few changes made to the roster.
From a spot to fill in the rotation and potentially some depth there are well, in addition to potentially bringing in a new catcher to handle the pitching staff, the Houston Astros will have some work to do this offseason. But on the bright side, each area that they have a hole is room for drastic improvement that could lead to a big 2017.
As we mentioned earlier today in our Astros season recap, the team has some pending free agents in Colby Rasmus, Doug Fister, Jason Castro and Luis Valbuena. Fister is likely gone after a below average year, with a number of other options available to the team. He is a familiar option, but the Astros will likely either explore other arms available to them, or stand pat and bank on their youth. Rasmus will likely be courted by a number of teams looking to improve their outfield defense (San Francisco?) while hoping for a slice of Colby Jack at the dish. Valbuena could return to the club if they want him to be the team’s starting first baseman, but that isn’t very likely with A.J. Reed, Tyler White and Jon Singleton all in the mix once again to fill that void.
Jason Castro will be an interesting decision for the club. Outside of his big year for the ‘Stros in 2013, he has been well below average at the plate, and a hole in their otherwise formidable lineup. At 29, it’s hard to think that his bat will suddenly reappear with his big year now three seasons in the rearview. That said, Castro has been a part of the team through the bad times and has proven himself to be a solid defensive catcher and has been decent at the plate against right-handers. The Astros could bring him back and platoon him with Gattis, but that could have a trickle down effect on the rest of the roster’s productivity.
Here is our look at what the Houston Astros should do this winter in order to fulfill the prophecy of being the 2017 World Series champions.
Oct 2, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann (34) hits a home run in the bottom of the fourth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. It was the 20th home run of the season for McCann. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
Of all of the potential additions that the Houston Astros make this winter, who they put behind the plate could be the most exciting move they make, solely because there are a couple of intriguing options to consider.
The first of those options is going to likely be the most talked about free agent catcher this offseason in Matt Wieters. Wieters is a year older than Castro, has had Tommy John surgery, and had an identical wRC+ to Castro’s 88 last season. He has more of a track record at the plate, but most of that track record was before his injury and in the middle of a formidable Oriole lineup. There is upside here, but one of Castro’s biggest strengths is his pitch framing, which netted an additional 96 strike calls for Astros pitching in 2016, which ranked fifth in baseball. Gattis earned another 36. Wieters was responsible for 55 calls going the other way, which is a big drop-off from Castro’s 96, a difference of 151 that could have a large negative effect on the team if they went that route.
Another option would be Wilson Ramos, who missed the end of the season and the Nationals brief playoff run due to injury. He should be back early on in 2017, and posted a wRC+ of 124 this season. His 3.4 WAR likely would have made him a rich man this winter, but the injury he suffered will likely knock that price down a bit. His pitch framing is still below average, costing his pitchers 14 calls over the course of the season, but that’s still better than Wieters, along with being one year younger and coming off of a more productive year at the dish.
Then there is an option via trade. The New York Yankees have some young hotshot behind the dish named Gary Sanchez who is supposed to be pretty good (spoiler: he is), which will relegate Brian McCann to backup duties. He is signed for at least two more seasons at $17M per year and has a team option for a third season at $15M that can also vest if he reaches certain benchmarks. He is right up there with Gattis in terms of pitch framing, converting 43 balls into strikes and finished 2016 with a wRC+ of 103. Both parties are also very familiar with Carlos Gomez, and they could perhaps bond over that.
McCann is a bit more costly than the other options, both in financial terms and the cost of acquisition, but his experience could prove valuable to the pitching staff while also providing a different voice. None of the options are slam dunks by any means, but each are certainly worth considering if they are looking to go in a different direction.
Jun 5, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers (43) pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
As everything sits right now, the Houston Astros rotation will consist of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers, Lance McCullers and Joe Musgrove in some order. If McCullers is healthy, he is arguably the ace of the staff, but after missing much of the 2016 season, the team should build up some depth to account for any absence from him, or any other starters in 2017.
McHugh was a three-win player this season, even while his ERA has regressed from 2.73 to 3.89 to 4.34 over the past three seasons. He can be dominant at times, but can also get shelled. His 3.95 FIP indicates that he performed a bit better than his numbers show and that he can still be a big contributor next season.
Dallas Keuchel‘s struggles were well documented this season, and a return to his Cy Young form is no guarantee. Fiers is a solid back-of-the-rotation innings eater. Musgrove just completed his first taste of the big leagues and will be entering his first full season in the big leagues in 2017.
Behind them are another couple of options that could also be used in the bullpen in Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz, who could fill for some spot starts throughout the year, and two top pitching prospects in Francis Martes (#1 overall) and David Paulino (#4) who will need some time in the minors before getting the call, but should be ready to contribute at some point in 2017. Paulino got a cup of coffee with the club in September due to a number of injuries, but will more than likely be in Fresno to start the 2017 campaign.
So why add a starting pitcher with all of these options? Well for starters, none of the five members of the rotation is a guarantee. Devenski posted a 4.01 ERA in 24 1/3 innings as a starter, compared to a 1.61 ERA in 83 2/3 innings of relief work, so while his overall numbers were fantastic, he may not be a long-term solution. Feliz only appeared as a reliever, posting a 4.43 ERA, but has plenty of experience as a starter from the minor leagues. His 13.15 strikeouts per nine rate is also a weapon out of the pen, and wouldn’t likely be nearly as high as a starter.
Aside from Keuchel, the Astros have four right-handers, and that number grows when adding Devenski, Feliz, Martes and Paulino to the mix. Adding a lefty seems like a must.
First a word of warning: Some of these options will not be pretty, but neither is this year’s free agent class. Ok, now you’re ready (hopefully).
C.J. Wilson is set to hit free agency and will not be one of the first players targeted by any team this winter. He will likely sign for a relatively small to modest contract, perhaps a one-year deal to build up his value, that is laden with incentives to increase his earning power.
Brett Anderson is a left-hander that has been prone to injuries throughout his career, but when he’s healthy, he’s filthy. If the Astros could keep him on a regular rotation for the first half of the season or so, they could attempt to flip him at the trade deadline once they have a feel for how their rotation is shaping up while clearing room for Martes and/or Paulino.
Jorge De La Rosa had been a solid under-the-radar contributor to the Colorado Rockies for nearly a decade, but is set to hit free agency. His 5.51 ERA this past year isn’t going to create a lot of confidence, but he has posted better-than-league-average ERAs while pitching in Coors in three of the last four seasons, which included a 3.49 mark in 2013. It’s hard to bank on 2013 numbers for sure, but for a depth piece, there are worse options out there.
Those are the big three lefties on the market outside of Rich Hill, but the likelihood of Hill coming to Houston is not very high.
The other options would have to come via trade, and it’s possible that Chris Sale‘s name will come up in trade talks during the winter meetings, but after giving up so much to acquire Giles, Gomez, Kazmir and Fiers, it could be a gross overpay of talent.
Jul 31, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Tony Sipp (29) pitches in the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
We’ve seen this postseason how a solid bullpen can carry a team in the playoffs, and luckily the Houston Astros pen is one of their strengths. They ranked at the top, or near the top of the statistical category of your choosing. Luke Gregerson, Ken Giles, Pat Neshek (if his option gets picked up, which it should be), Tony Sipp, Will Harris, Feliz and Devenski provide a pretty solid relief corps.
That said, relievers are volatile from year to year. After Sipp’s tremendous 2015 season the Astros re-signed him for another three years at a relatively low cost. He is really the only question mark in the pen, but he’s also the only left-hander, which means that a backup plan could be in order.
Again we’re looking at lefties, and again I’m going to bring up a former Rockie that’s on the market. This time, it’s Boone Logan, who pitched to the tune of a 3.69 ERA while striking out 11.09 per nine. Left-handed batters only hit .139 against him and he held a .215 wOBA against them. He can be used as a situational lefty, or in full innings.
While adding a bullpen arm would be a luxury, it could be a difference maker if the Astros reach the postseason, while allowing Feliz to stretch out for a larger innings workload in the minors to develop as another long-term option for the rotation, if the club decides to revisit that route.
Aug 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Houston Astros first baseman A.J. Reed (23) at the batting cage before playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
First base was a headache in 2016, as it has been for a number of years now, outside of Chris Carter‘s big 2014 season. 2016 saw another “next big first base prospect” come up, struggle, and ride the pine.
Without completely overpaying for an aging slugger like Edwin Encarnacion, the Astros should just let it ride in 2017 as the free agent market is barren and there is some talent in the likes of A.J. Reed, Tyler White and potentially Jon Singleton. One of the three could likely be traded in the next month or so in order to clear some space on the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft, and Singleton would make the most sense as he still has another four years (two years with a team option) at low cost before a potentially big payday in 2021 when he would cost a relatively reasonable $13M, which is a steal in today’s market if you’re producing. Reed still has the most upside and should be held onto, while White is likely suited for a bench role and some spot starts. Singleton would bring the most value in a trade due to his team friendly contract.
The only player that the team could target that would be a clear upgrade would be Jose Abreu of the White Sox, who could be interested in acquiring Singleton if they were to move Abreu. For this to happen, the Sox would have to change direction and start building for the future, so if Chris Sale gets moved, the likelihood that they would listen on Abreu is relatively high, as would the price tag.
If the Sox intend to continue down whatever path that they’re on, it’s time for the Astros to coach up one of their first basemen. Pick one and stick with them. Shuttling them in and out of the lineup isn’t doing them any favors if they’re expected to adapt to big league pitching. They’re going to struggle, and the Astros have to be ok with that. Either that or sign James Loney.
September 30, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Houston Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick (6) catches a fly ball in the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
With the departure of Gomez, the Houston Astros outfield is instantly better. The potential loss of Rasmus will sting on the defensive end of things for sure, but the team has the ability to field one of the better defensive outfields in baseball if Jake Marisnick is getting regular playing time.
With George Springer, Marisnick, and either Alex Bregman or Yulieski Gurriel in left, the outfield is likely set. Marisnick hasn’t quite put it together with the bat, but he showed in 2015 that he can be a spark plug for the offense. His playing time diminished in 2016 and he wasn’t able to have the same effect.
With Teoscar Hernandez as another viable option at any of the three outfield spots and Marwin Gonzalez potentially freed up to roam around numerous positions, there are some options for the Astros to consider internally.
Without a major upgrade to the outfield, the Houston Astros would be sporting a lineup like this:
Springer, Altuve, Correa, Bregman, Gattis, Gurriel, Reed, (catcher, but for fun let’s say McCann) and Marisnick. There is a solid mix of veteran presence and room for development throughout the order, and let’s face it–the Astros offense is going to depend on their veterans being reliable and their younger players developing as they’re expected to. Marisnick may not be a great bat to have in the lineup, but the outfield defense he provides is Gold Glove caliber.
Going .500 against the Texas Rangers or avoiding their rotten start in April would have been enough to clinch a wild card berth for the Astros this season. Chalk it up to some bad luck, and keep rolling with a large portion of the team that has proven they can contend. Add some depth to account for injuries, and all of a sudden the Astros could be the team that everyone was expecting them to be this season, just in time for their World Series parade.