Astros Offseason Preview

What’s next for the Astros? A look at the offseason

Carlos Correa needs to get healthy. Houston Astros/Facebook

The Houston Astros came up short in their pursuit of a second straight World Series title, losing to the Red Sox in the ALCS in five games. The series was plagued with poor baseball. Pitchers couldn’t put hitters away with two strikes or two outs, passed balls routinely led to runs, and the offense just couldn’t keep up with Boston.

Confucius once said “study the past if you would define the future,” so in this piece we’ll look at the past with an eye to next year and beyond.

Just because the Astros didn’t repeat doesn’t mean that the window is closed. The San Francisco Giants won in 2010, 2012, and 2014, and there’s no reason the Astros can’t win in 2017 and 2019.

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES:

Priority No. 1 this offseason is getting everyone healthy. Don’t be surprised if Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton all have offseason surgery.  If those stars aren’t right, the Astros will struggle to win. Take a look at 2017. While the Astros dealt with injuries to McCullers and Keuchel and role players like McCann, Reddick, and more, all of those guys were healthy for the World Series run. That wasn’t the case this year. Houston will also need to take a look at their own pending free agents, and needs like catcher, designated hitter, left field, and possibly even the starting rotation. Rumors are McCullers may need Tommy John surgery.

PENDING FREE AGENTS:

Pitchers: Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Tony Sipp, Will Harris (team option)

Hitters: Evan Gattis, Marwin Gonzalez, Martin Maldonado, Brian McCann

OFFSEASON PREDICTIONS:

Now I’ll take a shot at playing armchair GM and predicting how the offseason will go. First, here’s the roster assuming the Astros sign NONE of the impending free agents.

LINEUP:

CF - George Springer

3B - Alex Bregman

2B - Jose Altuve

SS - Carlos Correa

1B - Yuli Gurriel

RF - Josh Reddick

DH - Tyler White

LF - Kyle Tucker

C - Max Stassi

ROTATION:

Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers (if healthy), Collin McHugh, Josh James

BULLPEN:

Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith, Framber Valdez, Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, Cionel Perez

BENCH:

Tony Kemp, Jake Marisnick

That roster doesn’t look nearly as scary as the 2017 or 2018 versions does it?

I think the first move is to bring back one of Keuchel or Morton. Morton is more likely. If Keuchel would sign a deal in the Jake Arrieta range (three-years, $75M) then I’m all for it, but I think Keuchel will search for a longer term deal, even if it means a lower AAV. Since Morton is older and doesn’t have as long of a track record of success, I think the Astros can bring him back at an affordable price. I predict the Astros re-sign him for two-years with a third year option that is either a vesting option or a club option at $15M per year.

Lets shift our focus from the pitching staff to the lineup momentarily. The Astros need to make a trade that I’ve been calling for a long time.

Trade for J.T. Realmuto. It just makes too much sense. Realmuto has a team friendly contract playing for the rebuilding Marlins. He’s arguably the best catcher in all of baseball. Realmuto slashed .277/.340/.484 with 21 homers playing in spacious Marlins Park. He’s also a superb baserunner, something this team needs dearly, and an above average defensive catcher. Essentially, the Astros would go from having a black hole behind the dish to being better than any other team in the MLB at that position. Sign me up.

Astros Receive: Realmuto, Starlin Castro

Marlins Receive: Yordan Alvarez, J.B. Bukauskas, A.J. Reed, Derek Fisher

The Marlins will receive quite the haul for Realmuto. Miami receives the Astros’ #3 and #8 ranked prospects in Alvarez and Bukauskas, and two former top prospects in Reed and Fisher.  Reed keeps raking in AAA and could finally get the opportunity to be an every day player in Miami. Fisher looks like he’s an odd man out in Houston, but similar to Reed, could thrive in Miami once he gets every day at-bats in the majors.  Trading Reed and Fisher also opens up space on the Astros 40-Man roster, which is always needed to protect prospects.

Why Castro? I think he can replace Marwin as an infield utility guy.  I love Marwin, and I thank him for his time in an Astros uniform, but if the Astros can make a deal like this it makes sense.  Marwin is probably worth no more than $12M AAV, and if he came back to Houston on something close to a three-year, $36M deal, I’m all for it, but he will likely make more on the open market.  Castro will make $12M in 2019, the same as I think Marwin should make. He also has a $16M team option in 2020 which will likely be declined. The two are extremely similar in offensive value.  For instance, Marwin had a 103 wRC+ and Castro had a 101 wRC+ in 2018. Castro could back up Altuve and Correa in the middle infield while also picking up plenty of at bats at DH. The Marlins win because they’re trying to shed payroll at all costs, so they clear roughly $18M and pickup a haul of prospects.

As guys like Correa, Cole, and Springer approach free agency, the Astros need to be smart about who they give long term deals to.  The fact of the matter is that guys like Marwin are a luxury, not a need, and that money can be allocated towards other guys long term.  While Castro won’t play the outfield, guys like Kemp, Marisnick, and Myles Straw are more than capable of being backup utility outfielders.  

Now, what about the designated hitter need? I don’t think Gattis, McCann, or Maldonado will be back, so there’s certainly room to add a bat via free agency.  Many will clamor for Paul Goldschmidt, but he’ll require a huge prospect haul as well and catcher is a much bigger need. The Astros should look at Nelson Cruz.  Signing Cruz would be similar to the acquisition of Carlos Beltran in 2017.  Cruz will be 40 years old next season and would be expected to provide veteran leadership and a steady bat the DH spot.  While Cruz isn’t as respected as Beltran, his bat looks a lot less likely to fall off a cliff, as he hit .256/.342/.509 with 37 homers this year in Seattle.  If he could hit .250 with 30 homers in Houston, I’m more than happy. Look for him to sign a one-year deal in the $15M range, whether that be with Houston or somewhere else.

OPENING DAY LINEUP AND ROSTER PREDICTION:

CF - George Springer ($12M)

3B - Alex Bregman ($600K)

2B - Jose Altuve ($9.5M)

SS - Carlos Correa ($5.1M)

C - J.T. Realmuto ($6M)

DH - Nelson Cruz ($15M)

1B - Yuli Gurriel ($10.4M)

RF - Josh Reddick ($13M)

LF - Kyle Tucker ($600K)

ROTATION:

Justin Verlander ($28M), Gerrit Cole ($13M), Charlie Morton ($15M), Lance McCullers ($4.6M), Collin McHugh ($5.4M)

BULLPEN:

Roberto Osuna ($6.5M), Ryan Pressly ($3.1M), Josh James ($600K), Hector Rondon ($4.5M), Joe Smith ($8M), Chris Devenski ($1.4M), Framber Valdez ($600K)

BENCH:

Max Stassi ($600K), Starlin Castro ($12M), Tony Kemp ($600K), Jake Marisnick ($2.4M)

Possible back end of the bullpen guys like Peacock and end of the bench guys like White, J.D. Davis, Kemp, and Marisnick are facing important springs.  Whoever doesn’t win jobs will be subject to waivers, and my guess is teams around baseball will be very happy to claim them. Peacock could be saved if McCullers is out for an extended period of time with an arm injury, but the path to playing time on the offensive side in a lot murkier.

PROJECTED OPENING DAY PAYROLL: $178.5M

$178.5M is about $15M higher than the 2018 payroll, and would likely place them between 5-7 in all of baseball for the 2019 season.  That number shouldn’t scare fans about the future. Hypotheticals like Cruz and Castro account for $27M of that $178.5M, and they would come off the books after next season, giving Houston the money to re-sign Cole and Verlander if they repeat their spectacular performance.  Gurriel’s contract was front loaded, so he will make less in 2020 than he will in 2019, opening up more money. Relievers Smith and Rondon also come off the books after next season, another $12M in available money. Put simply, the moves above both improve the Astros immensely next season, but also don’t tie up the books long term, allowing flexibility to lock up the superstars Houston fans have come to love.

 

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The Astros will have some new rules to adjust to in 2023. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.

The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.

There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.

The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.

Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.

With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,

The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.

Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.

Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?

Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.

Can I interest you in an Astros podcast?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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