The future is now for the Astros, as they’ll be looking to continue their winning ways and return to the postseason.
- Jed Lowrie, IF: $15MM through 2017 (includes $1MM buyout of $6MM club option for 2018)
- Luke Gregerson, RP: $12.5MM through 2017
- Carlos Gomez, OF: $9MM through 2016
- Jose Altuve, 2B: $8MM through 2017 (plus club options for 2018-19)
- Scott Feldman, SP: $8MM through 2016
- Pat Neshek, RP: $7MM through 2016 (includes $500K buyout of $6.5MM club option for 2017)
- Jon Singleton, 1B: $6.5MM through 2018 (includes $500K buyout of $2.5MM club option for 2019; club also has options for 2020-21)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Luis Valbuena (5.148) – $5.8MM
- Jason Castro (5.104) – $4.6MM
- Hank Conger (4.051) – $1.8MM
- Chris Carter (3.159) – $5.6MM
- Marwin Gonzalez (3.133) – $1.9MM
- Samuel Deduno (3.096) – $700K
- Dallas Keuchel (3.089) – $6.4MM
- Josh Fields (3.000) – $800K
- Evan Gattis (3.000) – $3.4MM
- Non-tender candidates: Carter, Gattis, Deduno
Jeff Luhnow’s extensive (and sometimes controversial) rebuild of the Astros began to pay dividends a bit earlier than expected, as most pundits figured the young club was still a year or two away when the 2015 season began. For Houston fans suffering through years of losing baseball, however, the successes of 2015 couldn’t have come soon enough. The Astros led the AL West for much of the season, and while a September swoon cost them the division, they still beat the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and took the Royals to the full five games in their ALDS matchup.
The Astros weren’t afraid to spend some money last winter in order to upgrade their bullpen, lineup and rotation, nor did they shy away from dealing notable prospects like Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana in their big midseason deal for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers. Now that they’ve established themselves as a playoff threat, the next step will be to see how much more owner Jim Crane is willing to boost the payroll and whether or not Luhnow will sacrifice any more of his vast prospect capital in order to enhance the Major League roster.
Just under $43MM is committed to seven players on the 2016 Astros, and another $31MM is projected to go to nine arbitration-eligible players (though it’s no guarantee all will be tendered, as I’ll explore later). That adds up to $74MM for 16 players, which is already more than the $72.64MM the Astros spent on their last Opening Day roster. The payroll has gradually risen from a measly $26MM in 2013 to roughly $50.5MM in 2014 to last year’s total, so it seems like a boost into the $95-$100MM range could be coming this winter. Crane has repeatedly stated that Luhnow will have more funding available as the team’s development warrants, so if the team is contending again, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Astros pass the $100MM threshold if it means securing a player to help them make a deeper postseason run.
With so much young talent both on the Major League roster and developing down on the farm, it stands to reason that the Astros won’t be a one-year wonder. For starters, Houston’s lineup will be improved simply by getting an entire year of rookie sensation Carlos Correa and healthy full seasons from Gomez and George Springer. Gomez is entering the last year of his contract, so he’ll be lined up for a major free agent deal next winter if he gets back to his past All-Star form.
Correa, Springer, Gomez and Jose Altuve form the core of Houston’s lineup, though the Astros have several questions to be answered elsewhere around the diamond. For one, those four are all right-handed hitters, so the Astros have a distinct need to add lineup balance in the form of at least one notable left-handed bat. Several regulars are arbitration-eligible, and the team could consider not tendering contracts to some familiar names in order to free some money for bigger upgrades.
Third baseman Luis Valbuena, first baseman Chris Carter and DH Evan Gattis are all cut from the same cloth as low-average, low-OBP sluggers who provided pop in the form of a combined 76 homers. While their overall arbitration price of $14.8MM isn’t exorbitant, three players with the same limited skill set could be seen as a redundancy for a contending team. Valbuena is the most likely to stay, as he’s currently the most notable left-handed bat on the roster and can be platooned with Jed Lowrie. Valbuena is also a free agent after 2016, with prospect Colin Moran on track to get at least a share of the job by 2017.
Though Carter and Gattis are hard to replace from a power standpoint, it wouldn’t be too hard for Houston to find players to top their combined 0.3 fWAR in 2015. The Astros will pursue trades for both before the tendering deadline, and my guess is that if it came down to a non-tender decision, they’d keep the longer-tenured Carter and let Gattis go. Even if Houston tenders one or both, however, I’d suspect both would still be shopped during the rest of the offseason. You could even make a case that the ’Stros could non-tender both sluggers in order to really shake things up, but that’s an unlikely move given how Carter boosted his trade value with a late surge in September and through the playoffs.
If Carter, Gattis or both are gone, who takes over at first or DH? Prospect A.J. Reed dominated high-A and Double-A pitching last season and will compete for a roster spot in Spring Training, though it might be too early to count on him since he’s yet to play a game at the Triple-A level. You’ll likely see him hit the bigs sometime in 2016, however. The Astros won’t yet give up on former top prospect Jon Singleton due to his young age (24) and long-term contract, though Singleton has done little in 420 career PA to prove that he’s even worthy of a roster spot on a contending team, let alone regular playing time. Former 33rd-rounder Tyler White is another option after his monster season split between Double-A and Triple-A.
The non-tender question can also be asked about the catcher’s job, though my guess is that the Astros stick with the Jason Castro/Hank Conger tandem. The team loves Castro’s defense, relationship with the pitching staff and clubhouse leadership role, while Conger also had good pitch-framing numbers and hit .229/.311/.448 with 11 homers over 229 PA. Houston has been cited as a possible destination for Matt Wieters, who is an upgrade on paper. Given the question marks about his injury history and the lack of any other distinct better options on the open market, the Astros might feel more comfortable to keep their familiar catching platoon and spend elsewhere.
Left field is the only clear hole in the lineup as Colby Rasmus will hit free agency after nicely rebuilding his value with a solid regular season and a Ruthian postseason. The Astros have young options to play left field next season, as a Preston Tucker/Jake Marisnick platoon is probably the top alternative if Rasmus or another everyday regular can’t be obtained. This said, it wouldn’t be a shock if Rasmus re-signed since he enjoyed his time with the club and at least sounds open to returning. (Not to mention that Rasmus is a left-handed hitter.)
If he still intends to retire within a few seasons, Rasmus has a case for becoming the first player to accept a qualifying offer. Rasmus could take the one-year, $15.8MM deal to remain in a familiar spot for another season, as while he’d obviously make far more money in a multi-year contract, he might not want to risk being in another uncomfortable clubhouse situation for what could be the final few years of his career. (Jeff Todd and Steve Adams recently raised this point on the MLBTR Podcast.) Houston seems comfortable with the idea of Rasmus accepting. Retaining a short-term established player, after all, fits with the Astros’ long-term outfield plans with prospects Daz Cameron, Kyle Tucker and Derek Fisher all on the horizon, as well as Tucker and Marisnick in the fold right now. It’s probably still likely that Rasmus rejects the QO, but he at least has a few more layers to his decision than most.
Luhnow faces an interesting juggling act in adding players to help his team win now, yet also still maintaining and relying on the youth movement that the Astros worked so hard to build. Top-tier free agents like Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon would more than fill the club’s need in left field, though that would represent one less spot for Cameron and company in a few years’ time. (Center field could well be open if Gomez leaves, though Springer is surely ticketed as a long-term piece.) Of the top names, Gordon may be the best fit for Houston given that he’s a left-handed hitter, and also because the analytically-minded Astros are the sort of team that would particularly appreciate how Gordon can contribute in all facets of the game.
The same “now vs. the future” debate could be had about first base. With Reed’s big bat looming, do the Astros need a big upgrade like Chris Davis or could they acquire a short-term veteran bat like Justin Morneau to platoon with Carter/Gattis until Reed arrives? Davis checks a lot of boxes as an ideal signing for the Astros — he’s a Texas native, a left-handed hitter and brings even more power than Carter or Gattis while providing a much better all-around game. Davis can contribute from day one while Reed may need some time to acclimate to Major League pitching. That said, signing Davis would block Reed for the first few years of his career, and making Reed a full-time DH so early in his career probably isn’t something the Astros want.
Another concern is Davis’ price tag, which could be in the six-year/$144MM range and thus would easily surpass Carlos Lee’s six-year, $100MM deal from 2006 as the biggest contract in Astros history. Payroll boost notwithstanding, I don’t see Houston splurging on two nine-figure contracts this offseason, so they’d have to choose whether they want to make a big impact (if any) on the pitching or offense front.
Speaking of pitching, the rotation projects as Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Feldman, Lance McCullers and Fiers, with young arms like Vincent Velasquez, Dan Straily, Michael Feliz and Brett Oberholtzer available as depth (not to mention Mark Appel down in Triple-A). Keuchel stepped forward as an ace and Cy Young Award contender in 2015, and his contract extension talks will be one of the club’s underlying subplots. Expect to hear more about this topic in February and March when teams generally turn from offseason additions to extension business. McHugh has now delivered consecutive seasons of 3+fWAR pitching, Feldman is a reliable veteran innings-eater when healthy and McCullers and Fiers have already showed the ability to dominate MLB hitters in their brief careers.
Plenty of teams would be satisfied with this pitching situation as it stands, though the Astros are thought to be in the market for a front-of-the-rotation arm to pair with Keuchel. Remember, Houston pursued James Shields last winter even before their breakthrough season, and pursued the likes of Cole Hamels and Tyson Ross at the trade deadline. While the Astros ended up with a controllable arm in Fiers and a bigger name hurler in Scott Kazmir, their next step is to land a pitcher who is both an ace and will be in Houston for several years.
Kazmir himself has stated he’d like to be that ace, though his middling results as an Astro both diminished his market value and perhaps hurt his chances of a return. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Astros check in on any of the top free agent pitchers, with David Price and Johnny Cueto perhaps getting the most focus since Houston already expressed in both starters last summer. Also, neither pitcher has a qualifying offer draft pick attached to their services, though the Astros might not mind surrendering a first-rounder for the right signing given how many good prospects are already on board. Price’s $200MM+ price tag may be too much to afford, though I could definitely see Houston getting involved with Cueto in the $115MM-$120MM range.
If a major arm is added to the rotation, Feldman stands out as a possible trade chip. The right-hander was shut down with a strained throwing shoulder in September, so obviously he’d have to prove he’s back to normal in Spring Training. Feldman brings a decent track record on a one-year, $8MM deal and could be very attractive to teams looking for a last-minute rotation boost.
This leaves the bullpen, which will be another major target area for the second straight offseason. The Astros relief corps had the sixth-lowest bullpen ERA in the game last season, though it faded badly down the stretch with a league-worst 5.63 ERA in September and October (and that doesn’t count the infamous meltdown in Game 4 of the ALDS). Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Will Harris and Josh Fields will return, while Houston has already declined their $3.5MM option on veteran righty Chad Qualls, whose peripherals suggest he pitched much better than his 4.38 ERA would indicate.
Southpaws Tony Sipp, Oliver Perez and Joe Thatcher are all free agents, so the Astros will certainly have to address a dearth of lefty relief. Signing one of the winter’s top left-handed bullpen arms (Antonio Bastardo or Sipp himself) would add another significant contract to the Houston bullpen that already has over $12MM invested in 2016 salaries for Gregerson and Neshek.
The biggest relief investment could come in the form of a major closer like Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel, both of whom were heavily targeted by Houston at the deadline. The Reds and Padres are known to be asking for a large return for either closer, yet Houston is one of the few teams with the prospect depth to afford surrendering a notable minor leaguer or two for a reliever. A star closer would make the Astros’ already solid bullpen even deeper, and with the rotation ideally providing more stable innings, the relievers are more likely to be sharp late in the season.
As noted earlier, Luhnow was aggressively seeking out top talent last winter before the Astros had proven they could put a winner on the field. With a postseason berth now giving the franchise extra credibility with free agents, Luhnow could be one of the offseason’s busiest general managers given the plethora of options he has to improve the team.