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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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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