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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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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