Offseason Outlook: Houston Astros

New ownership, a new front office, a new manager, even a new league. In many ways the 51-year-old Astros are the closest thing MLB has to an expansion franchise. 

Guaranteed Contracts 

  • None

Arbitration Eligible Players

Contract Options

Free Agents

  • None

The Astros have more needs than can be addressed in a single offseason. They don’t score runs, they have trouble preventing runs, and the roster lacks players who project as MLB regulars on a contending team.

Jose Altuve - Astros (PW)

While the upcoming offseason offers general manager Jeff Luhnow the chance to make meaningful additions, it seems unlikely that Houston will court top free agents. If last offseason is any indication, the Astros will be among the sport's most restrained teams. A year ago, in his first offseason as Houston's GM, Luhnow signed two players to guaranteed contracts for a total of $1.45MM. It’d be a surprise if this winter unfolds much differently.

The Astros figure to pursue short-term contracts, minor league free agents and non-tendered players while exploring trades. They spent approximately $61MM on payroll in 2012, their first season under Luhnow and owner Jim Crane. Remarkably, they have less than $10MM committed to next year’s team before accounting for arbitration eligible players. Most of that sum goes to Wandy Rodriguez, who will be starting for the Pirates next year. As a result, the Astros should have financial flexibility even if they lower payroll for the 2013 campaign. This is a team with no bad contracts (and no good, team friendly ones, for that matter).

Adding veterans on one-year deals could make sense for the Astros, as long as the established players aren't displacing those in need of development at the MLB level. There’s value in winning as often as possible, even for non-contenders. It was once possible for teams to flip veterans on one-year deals for legitimate prospects, but those trades are becoming less common. Signing players with the intention of trading them for prospects midseason could also dissuade free agents from signing in Houston.

The Astros rank last in MLB in runs scored, which means offense is a clear need this winter. They have some promising middle infielders in Jose Altuve (pictured) and Jed Lowrie. But among the 30 MLB teams Houston ranks in the bottom ten in OPS at catcher, first base, left field, center field and right field. Then there’s the designated hitter role, which the Astros will have to fill for the first time in the 51-season history of the franchise. Jason Castro is in place behind the plate and Justin Maxwell has probably earned another shot in the outfield. Even so, there are plenty of positions at which Houston could potentially upgrade.

The Astros could also use starting pitching depth following a season in which the team's ERA exceeded 4.50. Ed Wade, Luhnow's predecessor, selected Lucas Harrell off of waivers toward the end of his tenure in Houston and this is precisely the sort of move the current Astros front office will look to replicate. Luhnow claimed three players off of waivers last winter, showing interest in allocating roster spots and playing time to players who have fallen out of favor elsewhere. This is advisable for the Astros, who should continue to prioritize upside over certainty. Only a fraction of pitchers who hit the waiver wire become valuable MLB starters, yet it’s still a worthwhile pursuit. Harrell, who posted a 3.88 ERA in 31 starts this year, joins Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles in Houston’s projected rotation. For now we'll assume Roger Clemens' role with the Astros will be limited to coaching.

If teams closer to contention pursue Norris aggressively it would make sense for Houston to listen. The Astros could aim to copy last year’s Gio Gonzalez trade and turn one established pitcher into multiple players close to the MLB level (the asking price for Norris would presumably be lower). Norris is under team control through 2015, and if the Astros don't expect to contend by then, they should consider trades that might bring long-term pieces to Houston.

The Astros don't have any departing free agents this year after parting ways with players like Carlos Lee, Brett Myers and Francisco Cordero midseason. They have one contract option, a $4MM mutual option for Chris Snyder. The catcher hit just .176/.295/.308 in 258 plate appearances this year, so expect the Astros to decline their side of the option and seek a more affordable backup.

The Astros have a relatively manageable arbitration class led by Norris, the first time eligible starter, and Lowrie, the second time eligible shortstop. Norris should do well after completing lots of innings early in his career and Lowrie's due for a raise after hitting 16 home runs. This isn't a particularly intimidating class from a team standpoint, however.

The Astros could explore an extension for Altuve this winter. The pre-arbitration eligible second baseman hit .274/.331/.351 in the second half after playing at an All-Star level for the first three months of the season, so Luhnow must determine what to expect from the 22-year-old going forward. It'll never be more affordable to lock Altuve up, but the team could easily wait another season before making a substantial commitment. They don't have as much time to decide on Lowrie, who's on track for free agency following the 2014 season. If the Astros aren't interested in extending their shortstop, this winter would be a good time to explore trades.

The Astros may have already made their most significant offseason addition, hiring Bo Porter as the team's new manager. Now that Porter's been hired, Luhnow and other Astros officials can focus on the team's roster instead of prolonging the managerial search unnecessarily.

The Astros will select first overall again next summer, when they'll have the opportunity to add another impact amateur player. Until then, Houston can take steps toward becoming a winning team. Just don't expect this organization to hasten the process in search of a quick fix.

Photo courtesy of US Presswire.


34 Responses to Offseason Outlook: Houston Astros Leave a Reply

  1. BWillie 3 years ago

    A very fair and thorough evaluation. One other Astro sure to get a long look in the infield is Matt Dominguez, who has shown some pop and a steady glove at 3rd base. Definitely outfield help is needed, and who doesn’t need pitching (not named Clemens)?

    • johnsmith4 3 years ago

      In 2012, Astros had an excellent draft. The core of this team is in the farm system waiting to be developed. As a result, I wouldn’t rush one player onto the 40-man roster. Anyone on the 40-man under the age of 25 with options should be assigned to the minors to preserve their major league service time.

      Houston should simply continue the practice of filling out the roster with out of option players placed on waivers. Some of them will become successful reclamation projects who can be turned into trade candidates.

      • LazerTown 3 years ago

        Agreed. There is no need to rush someone to the majors on this team. For Harper and the Nats it made sense because they are now a competing team, but Astros won’t be.

    • And Altuve is a very nice player, hopefully they can build around him

  2. mlbscout6 3 years ago

    This is going to be a fun offseason for the Astros. Even as a fan of another team, I will be following the astros rebuild very closely. It’s going to be interesting to see what diamonds in the rough Lunhow can find among the non tenders and overlooked minor leaguers. I also think this offseason is an opportunity for them to bring in 1 or 2 veterans who are trying to establish value on 1-year contracts, while also providing leadership for the younger guys on the team. They could look to leverage the opportunity to close if they are not convinced Lopez is there guy. It seems every year there are more pitchers who want to close then there are closing opportunities. Can’t wait to see what they do.

    • LazerTown 3 years ago

      I think it might be good for the veterans even if they know they will be traded. They get an opportunity to rebuild some of their value, AND they also know that they will be traded to a contender in July. This is better than them signing with a team that will just keep these veterans.

  3. Wade 3 years ago

    I feel bad for the Astros franchise. NL Central to the AL West. How did a guy who can’t make an obvious decision (such as keeping the Astros in the NL and moving the Brewers to the AL) ever get to be commissioner? Maybe in two years someone who think with his brain can reverse that bad decision and also make one in regards to the A’s stadium.

    • LazerTown 3 years ago

      Brewers were coming off of a 96 win season when this was passed. It is easier to move a team that is so terribly bad then it is the division champion. Neither city is really a western city, although I guess Houston I would consider to be more part of the “west” than Wisconsin.

      • Not to mention, Milwaukee was an NL town (Braves) before the Astros joined the NL.

        • johnsilver 3 years ago

          A “NL West” town as was the Atlanta Braves after the move.No reason to not stick either (Houston, Atlanta) in the western division.. Just eliminate the circus atmosphere of playoffs some (most) low-mid market teams want and many of which shouldn’t even exist, then eliminate both central divisions, go back to East/West with just 4 PO teams..

          Then the league needs an Iron Fisted commissioner, like Bowie Kuhn who realizes what is best for the game and doesn’t allow people of the likes of Frank McCourt, Tom Hicks and the Wilpon’s anywhere close to owning a franchise either.

    • That guy was supposed to be out of there years ago. Maybe they think that no one else will coddled the owners like an owner/commissioner. Remember when the commissioner was allowed to act ‘in the best interest of baseball’. The car dealer’s whole mindset was to get his team in the NL the whole time. I don’t know why the Astros were so intent on joining the AL, and the main reason that Milwaukee moved was he promised Colangelo that Arizona would be an NL team.

    • Flharfh 3 years ago

      The AL West is the division that needed another team, not the central, so moving the Brewers back would mean that a current AL central team would need to move to the West (Royals? no really good fit), or the Brewers would be in the AL west, which makes no sense historically or geographically. Furthermore, Astros were being sold, so Selig could put the league change in as a condition of the sale. What’s he going to do to the Brewers, ask nicely?

      The Astros in the AL west at least makes some sense. It creates a new interstate rivalry and Houston is actually kind of in the West.

      • Kevin Swords 3 years ago

        I understand why they were the team to move but I will never buy the “Natural Rivalry” argument. I would think that it would be in baseball’s best interest to have the two Texas teams split (one in each league). That way it would create fan interest throughout the state, even when both teams are performing well (otherwise it makes you pick one or the other). Hasn’t that been the idea when splitting up teams that share the same city? All the other states are pretty evenly split as well.

      • BWillie 3 years ago

        On my map, Houston is about 3/8 of an inch further west than Milwaukee. Good reason to move them.

        • Flharfh 3 years ago

          Do MLB teams travel by ruler now?
          Straight line travel distances:
          Mil-Sea 1689 mi. Mil-LA 1743
          Mil-Dallas 856 Mil – Oak 1832

          Hou – Sea 1891 Hou – LA 1372
          Hou – Dallas 241 Hou – Oak 1636

          All of the Brewers trips would be longer except a slightly shorter trip to Seattle, and the Astros get a puddle jumper trip down to DFW to soften the blow of longer West Coast road trips. This also indirectly helps the rest of the division, as they can go to Tex and Hou in one road trip and cut down on miles traveled.

          Madman: The Mil. Braves history as an NL team doesn’t count? Says who, you? And if past franchise history doesn’t count, why are you putting the Brewers in the AL West from two years as the Seattle Pilots? Ridiculous. As to your regional rivalry point, The Brewers swapped one Chicago rivalry for another, still have an interleague rivalry with the twins, and never really had much of a rivalry with the Tigers. I’ll take the STL – MIL rivalry any day.

          It makes some sense to move the Brewers back to the AL central, but that’s not the division that’s short a team.

      • MadmanTX 3 years ago

        No, it makes no sense. First, Milwaukee used to be the Seattle Pilots and WERE in the AL West. It’d make more sense to put them back in the AL, where they were until realignment in 1997. The Astros have been a NL team since 1962. You can’t count the Braves–they took their history with them to Atlanta. Second, what’s bigger than a state rivalry? A regional rivalry: Miwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota! Third, Texas would be without NL baseball. Who wants to drive to St Louis or Colorado to catch NL games from Texas.?

      • PWNdroia 3 years ago

        Why not just move Rockies to AL West and Astros to NL West? That makes more sense to me. Rockies even had a DH in Giambi.

      • The Rockies really should have moved to AL West and Astros to nl west because Arizona and Texas have more rivalry than Arizona and California teams

  4. LazerTown 3 years ago

    This is going to be a terribly bad team next year. Less time playing the Cubs and Pirates, and more vs A’s, angels, and rangers.

  5. Chuck Norris 3 years ago

    How about trading for some high ceiling players like Tyler Moore and Bryan Lahair and signing a good DH?
    They can get those players for not a lot. The lineup could look something like this:

    2B Altuve
    SS Jed Lowrie
    1B Singleton
    DH (F/A)
    Lf. Tyler Moore
    RF Lahair
    CF. Maxwell
    3B. Dominguez

    C Jason Castro

    • rikersbeard 3 years ago

      but why trade away young value when the rebuild is so far away from complete.

    • crashcameron 3 years ago

      possibly the worst defensive outfield in baseball

    • snake 3 years ago

      The AL West licks its collective chops when they see this.

    • sourbob 3 years ago

      I am a Cub fan and I like Bryan LaHair well enough. But he’s hardly a high ceiling guy. The way he played this year? Probably pretty close to as good as he is going to get.

    • BustaPozee 3 years ago

      Wow bryan lahair is a high ceiling player? Wow…..

  6. NOT KIDDING 3 years ago

    At least they’ve got Kevin Goldstein!

  7. JacobyWanKenobi 3 years ago

    Must be nice not having any contract obligations. If the front office is smart with their contracts they do give out, things can go well. They have the novelty of being the team to swap leagues as well. Tabula Rasa baby!
    Speaking of contract obligations:

    LAD 2013-2017
    $193.764
    $133.664
    $89.964
    $88.714
    $89.964

    Yuck.

    • Why “yuck”? Sure it’s a lot of money, but is it going to prevent the Dodgers from filling holes?

  8. Since_77 3 years ago

    Jed Lowrie would be a nice pick up for the Yanks. A switch hitting back up middle infielder with pop. He could also DH.

  9. stroh 3 years ago

    Of the position players on the current roster, my prediction is that only 3 – Brett Wallace, Matt Dominguez and Jason Castro will be with the Astros by 2014. Jose Altuve will be traded – he’s a singles hitter, does not walk much, and has limited range. Delino Deshields, Jr. is their second baseman of the future — stole over 100 bases in the minors this year.

    I think 2013 will be a year of continued flux, but 2014 lineup may look like this:

    CF – George Springer (1st round pick who will play in AA in 2013, and top 100 prospect per MLB.com) — hit .300/25HR/90 RBIs and 30 steals in minors this year.

    RF – Domingo Santana (obtained in trade from Phillies, will also play in AA in 2013) — .300/25HR/100 RBIs in minors, has a bit more raw power than Springer, not as speedy.

    LF – possibly Robbie Grossman (obtained in trade from Pirates, who will play in AAA in 2013) or a free agent

    1B – Jonathan Singleton (obtained from Phillies, top 100 prospect per MLB.com) — hit .285, 20 HR, 85 RBIs in minors and will play in AAA in 2013

    2B – Delino DeShields, Jr. (1st round pick, top 100 prospect per MLB.com, hit .280, 12 HRs, 60 RBIs, and stole 131 bases in the minors this year !!)

    3B – Matt Dominguez (former Marlins 1st round pick obtained in trade, top 100 prospect per MLB.com, has hit .290 with 5 HRs in 100 ABs in the majors this year and played stellar defense)

    SS – Jonathan Villar (obtained from Phillies, power hitting shortstop with great range, strikes out a bit too much, will play in AAA this year). Carlos Correa, this year’s 1st round draft pick, may be a 2015 callup.

    C – Jason Castro (former 1st round pick, hitting .260 with 6 HR and 30 RBIs in 250 ABs this year in majors)

    DH – Brett Wallace (former Cardinals 1st round pick, hitting .255 with 9 HRs and 25 RBIs in about 230 ABs in majors this year).

    • BustaPozee 3 years ago

      Deshields “only” stole 101

      • stroh 3 years ago

        Yes, you are correct….somehow I added up the totals between A and AA incorrectly….not 131 steals, “only” 101. Maybe the 131 includes his A ball total from last year. But this year was a breakout year.

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