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 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.

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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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