Patrick Creighton

5 moves to get the Astros back to the World Series

Nelson Cruz would be a good fit. Composite image by Brandon Strange

Coming off a season where the Astros set a franchise record with 103 wins, the bitter taste of a failed postseason stings sharply in their mouths.

The team has shown they aren’t afraid to make bold moves in the offseason, and here are 5 moves that will get the team back on top of the American League, and into the World Series:

1. Trade for Corey Kluber

The Indians are looking to unload salary and reportedly everyone not named Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez is available.  The Tribe is already committed to over $94M for 2019 and they are staring down another approximate $33M in arbitration costs (including the already signed contract of Leonys Martin for $3M).  

Kluber will be 34 shortly after Opening Day 2019, but is still a Cy Young caliber pitcher.  Kluber is coming off a 20 win season with a 2.89 ERA, a WHIP under 1.00, and 222K in 215 IP.  He is showing no signs of slowing down.

What is even better is that Kluber has an incredibly team-friendly contract.  He is only due $13M for 2019 (an absolute steal for a pitcher of his caliber) and team options for 2020 and 2021 at $13.5M & $14M.  Plus those team options have buyouts of just $1M, which is an insane bargain.

The Astros had the best rotation in baseball with Verlander, Cole, Keuchel and Morton last season.  Replacing Keuchel with Kluber is a solid upgrade, and gives the Astros three legitimate aces in their rotation.  With the expectation of Collin McHugh returning to the rotation in the No. 4 spot, it would give the team the flexibility to have a young fifth starter like Josh James develop on the job.

2. Trade for J.T. Realmuto

Realmuto is in his prime, as he will be 28 during Spring Training 2019.  He is quite possibly the most complete catcher in the game, a solid defensive receiver with a bat that hits for average and power.

Realmuto is coming off a year where he slashed .277/.340/.484, had 21 HR 74 RBI and a .825 OPS on a brutally bad Marlins team.  Packed into the Astros lineup, expect all those numbers to improve significantly between the better pitches he will see in a much stronger lineup and move to a better hitters’ park.

Realmuto is still arbitration eligible for the next two seasons, which means the Astros are in control and don’t have to shell out a long term deal until 2021.

Realmuto’s agent, Jeff Barry, said earlier this week on MLB Network he expects the catcher to be dealt by the Marlins this winter.

3. Sign Nelson Cruz as DH

This one should be the easiest of all. While Cruz is going to be entering his age-38 season, and is a liability in the field to the point where he is strictly a DH, the power in Cruz’s bat is as strong as ever.

Cruz slugged 37 HR last season in only 519 AB, and has averaged (yes, averaged) over 40HR the past 5 seasons.  Moving from a pitchers’ park (Safeco) to a hitters’ haven (MMP) and staring down that short left field wall should make Cruz an easy threat for 40+ HR.

Cruz can be the big thumper in a lineup filled with hitters who hit for average, get on base, run the bases well, and hit for extra bases.  He would be the biggest power threat on the team. Some of those outs at Safeco will be doubles at Minute Maid too, so an increase in average from Cruz would be likely.  

Cruz made $14M last season, which isn’t a bad price for his power.  A 2-year deal with a club option on the second year and a modest buyout should be feasible.

4. Sign Daniel Murphy

Ever since his breakout in the 2015 postseason, Daniel Murphy has been one of the best hitters in baseball. He is a high average hitter and a doubles machine.  He is left handed, which is important on a team that lacks lefty bats, and he can play 1B, 2B and 3B.

Last season he missed time due to knee surgery, but after a slow start he looked like the same player that tore up the National League the previous two seasons.  He finished at .299/.336/.454 with 12 HR and 15 doubles in 328 AB.

Murphy’s line in 2016: .347/.390/.595 25HR 104 RBI 47 Doubles; his 2017 line: .322/.384/.543 23 HR  93 RBI 43 Doubles.

Murphy may be undervalued after only playing half the season last year but he is exactly the kind of player that fits the Astros.  High average, tons of extra base hits, defensive versatility, gets on base.

If the team intends to turn Yuli Gurriel into their new Marwin Gonzalez super-utility type, then Murphy as the mostly everyday 1B with the chance to move around the infield should injury strike (Altuve/Correa) is a great make-sense move.  A 2-3 (3 with 3rd as a club option) year deal should be feasible to land the soon to be 34 yr old Murphy, who’s career average is just under .300.

5. Sign Craig Kimbrel

The bullpen has been the biggest point of concern on the Astros for the past two seasons, and Kimbrel is still an elite closer.  Signing him instantly gives the team the lockdown 9th inning guy they have been seeking and hurts the defending champion Red Sox at the same time.

Kimbrel will not be cheap (think a deal along the lines of the 3 yr, $52M deal Wade Davis got from Colorado last season) but he turns 31 at the end of May, so he’s still in his prime. There will be competition for him, but the Astros have money, so don’t worry about that.

Last season he was still blowing hitters away at a ridiculous rate (96K in 62.1IP) while going 5-1 with 42 saves.  He’s still in the discussion as “the Best in the Business” in the ninth.  He would instantly be a huge difference maker in the pen.

Five moves to get back to the World Series, although honestly I think these are 5 moves that make them a significant favorite to win it all should they avoid major injury (which goes for any team).

Estimating costs:

Kluber $15M

Realmuto $6M (arb)

Cruz $14M

Murphy $15M

Kimbrel $17M

That is adding approximately $67M to the payroll. Add in the approximate $50M in arbitration costs the team already has, and it’s current salary obligations of 78M, and you are talking about a payroll of approximately $196M(below the all-important luxury tax threshold of $206M) before they make any additional moves (such as finding a taker for Roberto Osuna and his projected $6.5M arbitration number).

It costs a lot to maintain a winner, but the Astros window is now.  Considering none of the players being discussed is looking at long term money (all 3 yrs or less), these deals still maintain the flexibility the Astros will want to have going forward.

While the Astros no longer claim the top minor league system (some have been promoted to the big league level, others have been dealt), the Astros farm system is still very deep and loaded with very talented players.  Since they are in “win now” mode, dealing from that deep pool will not be a problem for GM Jeff Luhnow, who has already shown he isn’t afraid to pull the trigger.

Patrick Creighton is the host of “Late Hits” on ESPN 97.5FM, and “Straight Heat” on SB Nation Radio.  Follow him on Twitter: @PCreighton1

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The Rockets got a steal at No. 3 overall. Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images.

With the Astros absorbing their worst loss of the season Thursday night at the Yankees, here's to the Rockets! Wait, what? It's only educated guess work, but in landing Jabari Smith out of Auburn the Rockets had a spectacular night. Heaven knows they have had very few of those the last two years. After having to settle for the third pick in the NBA Draft despite being the worst team in the league again, in Smith the Rockets got the best player in the Draft. Of course Smith could be an epic flop, it’s very inexact science. But Orlando taking Paolo Banchero from Duke first then Oklahoma City selecting Gonzaga beanpole Chet Holmgren second left the "surest thing" two-way player on the board. Through most of the run-up to the draft the six-foot-10 inch Banchero was most commonly projected to the Rockets. It's not as if he would have been a bad choice as a player. Banchero certainly could turn out to be the best player in this draft class. But his game is skewed toward his offensive skills, his fit in Houston would have been quite questionable. The also 6-10 Smith has shown the vastly better outside shooting ability, and is indisputably more athletic and better equipped to defend at a higher level and with more versatility. Jabari Smith is not going to be Kevin Durant or Kevin Garnett. Let's at least call it extreeeeemely unlikely given very few in the history of the planet come close to those guys, still, envisioning Smith providing some KD and KG level moments on both ends of the floor is pretty, pretty, pretty good.

The Rockets' defense was an absolute joke last season. Little to no improvement was shown as the death march of 2021-22 dragged on and on and on to its 20-62 finish. Frankly if Head Coach Stephen Silas can't demand/develop vastly improved D this coming season he'll deserve and need to be fired. The Rockets love Alperen Sengun, and his rookie season offense showed both flair and promise. Defensively he was one of many parts of the joke. Just 20 years old late next month so some improvement should come, but Sengun is slow. Quick twitch muscles, slow. Lateral movement, slow. He’s not long, not a leaper, not thick. Sengun will be hard-pressed to become an average defender. In today's game he's the kind of big who quality small-ball opponents play off the court. Banchero would have been a lousy defensive pairing with Sengun. Smith-Sengun has a chance. Smith as a small-ball center has potential. Christian Wood was a dog, not in a good way. Smith’s character grades are very high.

The seven-foot 194 pound Holmgren has a fascinating array of skills. He could be Rudy Gobert defensively with way better offense, or a skinny guy who can’t hack it physically. Had the Thunder taken Smith at two, Holmgren to the Rockets would have been interesting. Getting Smith to pair with Jalen Green as the tent poles of the Rockets’ still long way to go reconstruction is more encouraging. With due respect to all the other first round picks added in 2021 and 2022, what Green and Smith become individually and as a tandem is what will foremost determine how long the Rockets remain horrible. It could go pretty well for the duo and the Rockets could still be awful for multiple more years. A third consecutive losing season is virtual certainty. By the end of it though at least a few meaningful rays of light at the end of the tunnel need to be peeking through.

As for the other two first rounders added Thursday night, both are interesting darts at the board. Tari Eason out of LSU brings defensive chops and size (six-foot-eight) for his position, a combo that exactly zero returning Rockets have. Jae’Sean Tate plays really hard, but he’s a six-four forward. All their Josh Christophers, Garrison Matthewses, Kenyon Martin Jrs., and David Nwabas add up to very little.

No one smart really believes in Kevin Porter Jr. as a long term winning point guard growth stock. TyTy Washington should get some rookie run at the point. He’s the only non-worthless to the team ex-Kentucky point guard on the Rockets’ roster. Yes, John Wall and his 47.3 million dollar salary are still on the roster.

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