Everything to Gaine

Joel Blank: Texans, new GM will have to make smart decisions in free agency

Joel Blank: Texans, new GM will have to make smart decisions in free agency
The Texans and GM Brian Gaine have an important week ahead. Houstontexans.com

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

For new Texans general manager Brian Gaine, nothing could be more true. The new GM is faced with the task of erasing some of the bad memories left by his one-time boss Rick Smith. In fitting Rick Smith fashion, he left Gaine without a first or second round pick in this year's draft, all in an effort to rid himself of Brock Osweiler and that albatross of a contract. With all that being said, free agency is the first step in trying to improve the roster while overcoming the challenges left by Smith. Making a splash in free agency without overspending is easier said than done, but if he is able to pull it off, it will go a long way with his team and his fan base.

Today is the first official day that teams and free agents can meet and talk to discuss the future. The Texans are in a better position than most as they have found their franchise quarterback, but now the challenge becomes protecting him and avoiding another season-ending injury. Houston currently has around $66 million to spend as they enter free agency and the draft. To put it another way, they have the 6th-highest salary cap space in the league, with the Jets leading the way at around $92 million and the 49ers 5th, with $70 million. In between those two teams are the Browns at $76 million, the Colts at $74 million and the Buccaneers at $73 million. Though there is not a surplus of quality tackles available in free agency this year there is one, Nate Solder, who has protected arguably the greatest quarterback ever in Tom Brady. He would be a serious upgrade for the Texans, who have struggled trying to protect Deshaun Watson. There are a few quality guards on the open market, but it will be a challenge to avoid overpaying when trying to upgrade the line. Since the two biggest needs for this franchise are to improve the offensive line and the secondary, the back end and outside of the defense might be the best way to allocate free agency dollars. Unlike the offensive lineman on the market, there seems to be an abundance of above-average corners and safeties out there. Even with Richard Sherman agreeing to sign in San Francisco, there are still quality players like Malcolm Butler, Kenny Vaccaro, Michael Thomas, Eric Reid, and Tre Boston. Of that class of players, Vacarro attended the University of Texas and Thomas is from Aldine, so both might be open to returning home and helping the Texans. Depending on what they do or do not spend in the early stages of free agency, tight end could also be a position of need. With the status of C.J. Fiedorowicz up in the air for to concussions, and with the tight end such a valuable and necessary position in Bill O'Brien's offense, Gaine could consider several available options. The key to free agency is to spend wisely and intelligently, without overspending and handcuffing your future cap flexibility.

After wrapping up free agency, the draft is the next step towards forming and formulating a quality roster for the upcoming season. With the NFL combine behind us and free agency upon us, the other way that Gaine can fill holes on his roster is to add quality college talent with the draft picks that he has at his disposal. As previously mentioned, Smith traded away the first and second round picks for the team this year. That leaves eight total picks starting in round three and ending in round seven. The first three picks the team has are in the third round and the Texans can make a splash immediately with the players they select on the second day of the draft. Chances are there will still be some quality offensive linemen on the board, as well as some above average defensive backs, linebackers, and possibly even a receiver or tight end. Who the team takes with these three selections in Round 3 could say a lot in terms of what grade Gaine gets when we look back on this draft. Getting a few talented players that step right in and help the team is essential when you are without a selection in either of the first two rounds. The new general manager can make a huge splash by drafting quality players that can contribute both immediately and for years to come, as one of the biggest knocks on Rick Smith was always his inability to draft after the first round and get talented players that could add depth, push starters and contribute on special teams. The mark of Smith's middle round draft picks were that more ended up being released without making an impact on the Texans, and the majority of them didn't impact any other roster once their days in Houston ended.

So the table is set for what should be an exciting few weeks for football fans in Houston. Between free agency and the draft,  the players Brian Gaine brings in will go a long way towards shaping the team's roster next year and for seasons to come. In the process it will also write the first chapter in the career of the team's new GM and allow the fans and critics alike the opportunity to pass or fail the moves made. Regardless of the outcome, as Tupac said, all eyes on you, Brian Gaine.



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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* 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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