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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Houston now focused on postseason

Altuve and Correa homer, Astros drop final regular-season game

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

With no playoff impact at stake if the Astros won or lost the game, Houston took Sunday's final regular-season game as a chance to get their lineup a few more at-bats before shifting focus to Tuesday's first game of the post-season. Here is a quick recap of the game against the Rangers:

Final Score: Rangers 8, Astros 4.

Record: 29-31, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Wes Benjamin (2-1, 4.84 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Chase De Jong (0-1, 14.73 ERA).

Houston's main bats get a final tune-up

Knowing they'd only have a couple of at-bats to work with, some of Houston's big bats took advantage, starting with Jose Altuve. He crushed a pitch in the top of the first, a solo homer to put the Astros in front 1-0. After the Rangers tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the second, Altuve started the third with a walk before moving to third base on a Michael Brantley single, which improved Brantley's season average to .300.

Aledmys Diaz would pick up the RBI on a groundout to score Altuve, putting Houston back in front 2-1. In Correa's last at-bat in the top of the fourth, he extended the lead to 3-1 with a solo home run of his own.

Rangers hand Astros a loss to end the regular season

After getting the early run against Chase De Jong, the Rangers would put together a big inning against him in the fourth. After two one-out singles, Rougned Odor would give Texas their first lead of the day on a three-run homer to make it 4-3.

De Jong would continue to struggle in the inning, getting just one more out while loading the bases, prompting a move to the bullpen to bring in Nivaldo Rodriguez to try and eat up more innings. The Rangers greeted him with a two-RBI single to extend their lead to 6-3 before ending the fourth. Odor would hit his second home run of the game in the bottom of the fifth, a solo shot to make it a four-run lead at 7-3.

Rodriguez allowed another run in the bottom of the seventh, making it 8-3. Diaz, who drove in a run earlier, would account for another RBI in the top of the eighth, getting Houston's third solo homer of the day. That would make it an 8-4 game, which would go final as the Rangers would win the regular season's last game.

Up Next: Houston's first game of the playoffs will be on Tuesday, with the start time and opponent TBD while the rest of today's games wrap up, and the schedule is announced. Regardless, the Astros are expected to begin that best-of-three series with Zack Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA).

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