The Z REPORT

Lance Zierlein: Here's how Senior Bowl week looks from an insider's perspective

The Senior Bowl is a cool place for football minds to congregate. Insidethepylon.com

Every year scouts, coaches, media members, agents, marketing reps and draft prospects gather in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl for what amounts to a week of All-Star practice where evaluators develop opinions about these players based on how they play in a series of one-on-one battles and team scrimmages. Does the actual game matter? Kinda, but I feel like it matters more to the locals than to any of the NFL teams who usually leave town after Thursday’s final practice.

But what is it like behind the scenes? What does Lance Zierlein do? Thanks for asking, guys. Every year I do my radio show from a “radio row” that features me and a local Alabama show. The topics on that show are... uh.... a little different than what is usually on my show. For example, if you need to know what's going on with Alabama's recruiting you will find out. If you need hypothetical discussions of Nick Saban as President of our country, that's your spot. This year, after my Tuesday show, I was lucky enough to tear tendons in my foot and take a trip to the hospital but whatevs.  I’ve already told that story on The Bench.

What makes the Senior Bowl week so cool is how loose it is. It's an important piece in the puzzle that is player evaluations, but there is also a social component where NFL people relax a little. At any point you can see guys like Dan Marino talking to John Elway on the sideline during a practice. After practice you might see GMs like Chris Ballard, Reggie McKenzie, Brian Gaine or John Dorsey having dinner with their scouts and personnel people at Wintzell’s Oyster House at a table right across from you. And there is a good chance you will see coaches and personnel people you recognize who are unemployed who look at the Senior Bowl week as a job fair and opportunity to interview with a team. Last year, I saw Wes Welker chatting it up with Bill O'Brien in the entryway of the hotel. Little did I know that Welker was actually in Mobile interviewing for a job as receivers coach.

And when it’s time to get loose? The go-to spot.... for as long as I can remember.... has been Veet’s conveniently located across the street from the primary hotel. Now if you think Veet’s is some sort of kick-ass club or hot night spot where the cool kids of Mobile gather, you would be wrong. No, it’s a straight up dude factory just like the entire Senior Bowl week. There is nothing nice about the place. Clearly remodeling or updating is not on their itinerary. They know you will come in and drink their beer or their vodka tonics regardless of if their toilet works. They know you will eat their fried mushrooms or instant pizza regardless of if they ever mop the floor to freshen up the smell. It's a dive bar where EVERYONE either goes or has gone.

Have too much to drink, fall asleep, wake up early for the show, eat lunch, watch back-to-back practices, have a great dinner with football friends at Dumbwaiter and then do it all over again the next day.

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The Astros roster will have a different look next season. Composite image by Jack Brame.

With the division won and a likely top seed clinch in the coming days, the Astros are rightly focused on finishing the regular season strong and heading into the postseason with as much momentum as they can bring with them. Still, that won't stop the Hot Stove chatter that will likely pick up steam quickly as we near the offseason.

In recent years, Houston has done a great job of replacing top-tier talent that many would've deemed irreplaceable at the time. The likes of George Springer and Carlos Correa, dear to the hearts of Astros fans, made bittersweet departures, yet the Astros have found the right combination of players to fill those voids.

How long can that be sustained, though? A recent ranking of farm systems put the Astros 29th, better than only the Angels, in terms of their minor-league talent pool. The draft pick hits handed down due to the sign-stealing scandal have been a part of that. So, if it is indeed the case that the well is running dry in terms of home-grown talent, what if the Astros shifted strategy and started being more aggressive in the free agent market?

Houston has several players hitting free agency themselves

Like in the last few years, the Astros will see some turnover this offseason, though to which degree will be determined by who they choose to pick up options or give offers high enough to get re-signings.

Justin Verlander will likely not execute his half of the mutual option, which would bring him back to Houston for $25 million. The presumptive Cy Young winner will probably get much more, whether with Houston in a new contract or elsewhere.

The Astros are in line to lose one of their catchers, with the rental period for Christian Vázquez ending after this season. Yuli Gurriel will also be hitting the market and potentially playing for a team other than Houston for the first time should someone else give him a contract offer he accepts.

Michael Brantley, absent most of this season with an injury, will also see his time with the Astros coming to an end if a new contract doesn't happen. Pair those players leaving potential holes in the roster, along with a strong free agent class this offseason, and what could the 2023 Houston Astros look like if they make some big moves?

Time for upgrades?

Let's assume for these scenarios that the Astros don't work out deals to re-sign some of the players mentioned earlier. With Vázquez gone, who do the Astros turn to at catcher besides Martin Maldonado? Sure, they have some young talent available, like Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz, but what if they want to go further?

The Astros were already part of the rumor mill for Chicago Cubs' Wilson Contreras at this year's trade deadline. He shapes up to be the top catcher available this offseason, so it could make sense for Houston to finally get him on their team. If Gurriel goes elsewhere, a few potential players could also fill his spot, like 2020 AL MVP José Abreu.

To replace Brantley as an outfielder and decent bat, the Astros could take their pick from a long list of outfielders, such as Andrew Benintendi, Brandon Nimmo, and Mitch Haniger, to name a few. Still, the Astros could really make some waves if they bring in some even bigger names.

The huge splashes that would shake things up

Let's talk about the names that will be the focal point of the Hot Stove, though. Jeremy Peña had big shoes to fill this season, and in his first full year at the shortstop position, he has been more than adequate. But what if Carlos Correa opts out of his contract with the Twins, and a potential reunion is in order? Or, what if Houston goes even further and has a chance to go after some of the league's best, like Trea Turner?

There's no question that Houston's pitching in 2022 has been one of, if not the best, staff in all of baseball. If Verlander opts out to get a bigger payday, could the Astros try to get a new elite-tier ace to lead their rotation? Two names could cause a frenzy; Jacob DeGrom and Carlos Rodón, who both have opt-outs available if they think they could garner more money elsewhere.

Then, there's the ultimate signing that some team will get ahead of 2023, and that's Aaron Judge. The Yankees made a costly mistake by not working out a deal with him before this season, as he has gone on to put together one of the best seasons ever. While there may be some lingering animosity on his end from the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, what if, and it's a big if, he buries that hatchet? What if he wants to really stick it to his former team and join the side of the rivalry that has been a thorn in New York's side in recent postseasons?

These scenarios may be, and in the case of Judge likely is, a pipe dream in some cases, but there's no question that the Astros will need to make some moves this winter if they want to keep their championship window open as wide as it is today.

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