FREE AGENT FRENZY

Fred Faour: Texans trying to sign Solder comes with questions, but do they really have a choice?

Fred Faour: Texans trying to sign Solder comes with questions, but do they really have a choice?
Nate Solder is a big free agent target. Bob Levey/Getty Images

It is a big day in the NFL, where teams can officially begin pursuing free agents. The Texans will be in the market at several key positions, and as Joel Blank wrote today, it will be a big test for new Texans GM Brian Gaine.

The Texans enter free agency with plenty of cap space (overthecap.com has a nice breakdown here) and the potential for more if they rid themselves of guard Jeff Allen, who has been a free agent bust.

And that is the biggest concern heading into free agency. You have to overspend and pay somebody big money for something they did for some other team. It’s worked out for the Texans in the past with Jonathan Joseph, Danieal Manning and more recently Lamar Miller.

It has also failed miserably. Ahman Green, Ed Reed, Allen...And the late, not so great Ostrich, Brock Osweiler -- the gold standard for free agent failure. And while this will be Gaine’s first rodeo with the Texans as the main guy, those past failures and successes should be learning experiences.

Teams that “win” free agency rarely win on the field. Remember the Giants spending money like crazy a couple years ago? The Dolphins? The Jaguars did it last season, and it finally paid off. But they drafted well, then added key pieces over a two-year span. The Texans should be in a similar situation, so adding the right pieces could pay off for them, too, if those pieces come at the right price. You can overpay for one or even two free agents if you add some quality players at more affordable deals as well. The Texans most glaring needs are on the offensive line and in the secondary. There are many viable bargains to be had in the secondary, but the offensive line group is much thinner, which is why Allen is probably still on the roster as an expensive and ineffective insurance policy.

Which brings us to the player everyone keeps linking to the Texans: Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, the sexiest name among available tackles.

Would it be the right move to sign him? Let's assume the Texans actually have a chance to lure him, which is a strong presumption, as he could easily wind up back in New England or elsewhere. But if they do have a shot, there are reasons for pause. He is about to turn 30 years old and will command top-five-at-the-position kind of money. This despite the fact that he has never even made the Pro Bowl. That and the rarity of players leaving New England and actually improving on their production makes signing Solder a serious question mark.

However, he would be a significant upgrade over the revolving door of garbage the Texans trotted out last year. They were reluctant to spend money at the position in free agency in 2017, because the available tackles were all overpriced. Guess what? New year, same issue.

Realistically, the Texans need a minimum of three new offensive linemen -- two new starting tackles and at least one new guard, preferably two. If they can get three quality players and have to overspend to do it, so be it. They can find bargains in the secondary, and the second-tier signings can often turn out to be just as critical as the flashy ones.

But with all that to do, does paying Solder top five money make sense? If you can get fellow Patriot free agent Cameron Fleming at a more viable price, would it make more sense to go that direction? Fleming is only 26 and has upside. But he is also probably the No. 2 tackle available, which means that “more viable price” is not very likely. And it is doubtful New England would let both walk.

Once you get past the two Patriots and Chris Hubbard of the Steelers, the drop-off is precipitous. The reality is you just will not find star tackles in free agency. You can find pretty good/above average that you have to pay like stars. The Texans find themselves in that position. Again. And while Solder might not be the answer, the Texans are pretty much committed to trying.

It might not be a smart move, but it is undeniably necessary to make the effort.

On to the dance

The Houston Cougars gave Cincinnati all it wanted in the finals of the AAC Tournament, ultimately losing 56-55. But the Cougars are still in the NCAAs. We wrote about Kelvin Sampson and this group last week, and nothing has really changed since then with the exception of adding a second win against Wichita State in a run to the conference title game.

Their bracket is interesting. They are a No. 6 seed and face San Diego State in Round 1, which is a sneaky tough matchup. If they get past that, it would most likely be against a beatable Michigan in Round 2. So the stage is set for UH to make some noise and at least win a tournament game for the first time since 1984.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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