ASIDE FROM COLE AND STRASBURG, THERE ARE OTHERS HOUSTON COULD ADD FOR IMMEDIATE HELP

3 free agents and why the Astros should pursue them

Composite photo by Jack Brame

Obviously the talk of free agency this offseason for the Astros is centered around Gerrit Cole. Will he come back? Will he get bigger money elsewhere? All of that remains to be seen, but in the meantime, there are other players out there that can help this team get better immediately. When you look at the roster as it currently stands the obvious position group that needs to be addressed is catcher.

Both catchers from last season are free agents, with Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldanado hit the open market with Houston probably hoping to keep at least one, if not both of them. If they do dabble in the available backstops out there this winter, there is one that could provide an instant upgrade both offensively and defensively. On the pitching front, there are a few starters out there that have the skillset and characteristics that the Astros look for when adding talent to the organization. With that being said, here are three possibilities that Houston should consider adding this off-season.

The bottom of the order was a bit of an issue for the Astros late last season, especially in the playoffs. Even with a big World Series from Robinson Chirinos, they didn't get much offense out of their catchers. Both Chirinos and Maldanado were not only good defensive receivers but great teammates and clubhouse guys. They were beloved by their squad and that goes a long way in a 162 game season, but both were lacking in the box with a bat in hand. Chirinos got off to a hot start but overall it was a hit or miss proposition with the latter the more frequent result.

Jeff Luhnow could bring one or both of them back, but if he wants to upgrade the position there is a player out there that could add immediate offensive punch to an already potent lineup. Yasmani Grandal is one of the most productive offensive catchers in the game. He just put up another stellar season for the Brewers that had him hitting 28 home runs while knocking in 77 RBI. Although he has never hit for average, a career .241 hitter, he did draw 109 walks and has something that the Astros and all playoff teams covet, solid defense, quality fielding and a knack for keeping runners off the bases. He also has postseason experience after several years with the Dodgers, which is an added bonus. He is expected to fetch a salary in the 42 million dollar range for a 3-year deal, so he won't come cheap, but he could pay some serious dividends.

If the Astros lose the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes and don't choose to get involved in the pursuit of Steven Strasburg, Zack Wheeler might be a potential replacement for the Houston rotation with his big arm and 3.77 career ERA. Wheeler and the 'Stros have long been linked to potential trade scenarios as rumors had the Mets and Jeff Luhnow discussing a possible deal for months leading up to last season's trade deadline.

He seems to bring to the table the kind of career and skill set that the Astros covet, a strong-armed, hard-throwing right-hander that needs to be schooled on the fine art of pitching. By that I mean, honing his skills including the 2 seam and 4 seam fastballs, improving his spin rate and implementing analytics and advanced scouting methods. The same way the Houston organization was able to have a positive impact on Charlie Morton and Cole, the potential is there with Wheeler to be the next veteran pitcher to experience immediate success with the Astros.

One other name to keep an eye on this offseason if you are an Astros fan is Michael Pineda. Another right-hander with an above-average fastball that needs to become more of a pitcher and less of a "thrower." He was 11-5 last season with a 4.01 ERA for the Twins before being suspended for PEDs. That suspension will roll into the early part of the 2020 season and thus make him an affordable addition to the rotation if Luhnow and his staff deem him worthy.

He could be next season's Wade Miley, an affordable, innings-eater that could benefit from a change of scenery and the opportunity to learn and work with an organization that has a pension for improving pitchers with their scientific formula of stats, scouting, and advanced teaching techniques. Pineda made 8 million dollars last season and with the suspension preventing teams from offering up a long-term, lucrative deal, you could probably get him for a one-year, "make good" contract in the neighborhood of 5 million a year. That would be a bargain for a veteran starter with potential, like Pineda even if he was your fifth starter next year.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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