The Astros get started with the Rays

Cy Young hopefuls, question on Correa highlight opening series

Justin Verlander pitches Game 1. Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros finished their exhibition season Tuesday at Minute Maid Park and now turn their sights to Tampa Bay and the Rays for baseball's opening day on Thursday.

Probable Pitching Matchup

Thursday, March 28

Justin Verlander vs Blake Snell

The top two finishers for last year's Cy Young oppose each other for the season's first game. Snell allowed seven hits and two runs in two different outings against the Astros last year. Verlander faced the Rays twice with one start being one of his rare poor outings. He allowed five runs on nine hits in five innings of work. The other was just a one run outing.

Friday, March 29

Gerrit Cole vs Charlie Morton

The contract year begins for Gerrit Cole who is set to be a free agent at the end of the season. Cole finished fifth in Cy Young voting last year. Morton begins a two-year deal with the Rays after finishing up his two years with the Astros where he was 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA.

Saturday, March 30

Collin McHugh vs Tyler Glasnow

The Astros have shifted McHugh back to the rotation after a season in the bullpen. He has started 102 games for the Astros in his career producing a 48-28 record with a 3.70 ERA as a starter. Last year as a relief pitcher he had a career low ERA of 1.99.

Sunday, March 31

Wade Miley vs TBA (The Opener)

The Rays will utilize The Opener instead of a traditional starter in this spot. Tampa posted the league's best ERA last season when they added The Opener to their rotation. Wade Miley is the lone left-handed pitcher in the starting rotation taking over the role filled by Dallas Keuchel. Miley was 5-2 with a 2.57 ERA last year in 16 starts for the Brewers.

Offensive Opponent to Watch: CF Tommy Pham

The former Cardinals outfielder disappointed for the Redbirds but for the Rays he's been awesome. His average and on-base percentage went up almost 100 points each when he moved to the American League. His slugging went up almost 200 points. He's the best hitter for the Rays by a wide margin. He has a lifetime .583 batting average against Gerrit Cole.

Notes from Tuesday's Exhibition

Alex Bregman played shortstop as Carlos Correa was a late scratch with neck stiffness. Manager A.J. Hinch was non-committal on Correa's status for Thursday's season opener. Hinch said he didn't think Correa's injury was a long-term issue but is not thrilled he hasn't played the few days leading up to the season starting. If Correa misses time it will be interesting to see how Hinch manages third base and shortstop. His best offensive lineup would likely be Tyler White at third with Bregman sliding over to short.

J.B. Bukauskas was the Astros first round selection in 2017 and he took the mound for the start in the exhibition finale. He had a much better Minute Maid Park debut than Forrest Whitley did. He scattered three hits over his four innings of work allowing two runs on a fourth-inning home run. He struck out three Pirates two with a fastball and one with his breaking pitch. One gripe with the outing would be he wasn't exactly economical with his pitched throwing 63 but just 30 for strikes.

Corbin Martin was a second round selection for the Astros in 2017. He relieved Bukauskas and tossed four innings of scoreless relief. His fastball sat in the high 90's for a good portion of his outing producing two strikeouts while his slider added two more strikeouts. He would add a fifth punch out with a change-up. The former Texas A&M pitcher was the most impressive of the highly touted Astros prospect arms.

George Springer annihilated a baseball into left-center field for the Astros lone run of the day.

Aledmys Díaz is thought to be the new Marwin Gonzalez with his versatility but he struggled to hit this spring. He had the most at-bats on the team in the springs and slashed (AVG/OBP/SLG) .154/.241/.212.

Tony Kemp posted the highest on-base percentage of regularly playing Astros players this spring with a .490 on-base percentage. Alex Bregman was close with .488 himself.

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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