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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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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