- Mariners Prospect Victor Sanchez Dies
- Mets, Lucas Duda Discussing Extension
- Nate Schierholtz Opts Out Of Deal With Rangers
- Cubs Release Felix Doubront
- Rangers Acquire Sam Freeman From Cardinals
- Mike Pelfrey Would Welcome Trade
- Angels Release Matt Lindstrom
- Twins’ Lewis Thorpe To Have Tommy John Surgery
- White Sox Claim Kyle Drabek
- Brady Aiken Undergoes Tommy John Surgery
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- Joe Blanton Has April 1st Opt Out With Royals
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- Yankees To Release Scott Baker
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- Twins Have Inquired On Rafael Soriano
- Mariners Prospect Victor Sanchez Dies
- NL Notes: Ichiro, Melvin, Rollins
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- Minor Moves: Roberts, Baez, D-Backs, Putkonen
- NL Notes: Bryant, Garcia, Villanueva, Nats, Mets
- Rangers Release Juan Carlos Oviedo
- Mets, Lucas Duda Discussing Extension
- Nate Schierholtz Opts Out Of Deal With Rangers
- Rosenthal’s Latest: Rays, Utley, D-Backs, Matusz
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Houston Astros Rumors
Infielder Marcus Semien isn’t surprised the White Sox traded him last winter, and the Bay Area native is happy to be with the Athletics, Dan Hayes of CSNChicago.com writes. “We knew we had a lot of capable guys who could play at the big league level and that the White Sox needed some right-handed arms,” says Semien, who headed west in the Jeff Samardzija trade. “Those two, that went together and it just happened to be me and now I’m just excited to play and have an opportunity to play with anyone, especially being able to come home to Oakland.” Here’s more from around the league.
- The Rangers are seriously considering keeping outfielder and Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News writes. DeShields is fast (like his father was), but the Rangers are convinced he can do more than just run. “The speed is obvious,” says GM Jon Daniels. “But to me there is more to it. I think his arm has played ‘up.’ I think there is strength in his swing, it’s short and through the ball.” With Nate Schierholtz out of the picture, the Rangers now have DeShields, Ryan Rua, Jake Smolinski and Carlos Peguero competing for three open outfield jobs.
- Roberto Hernandez hasn’t outperformed Asher Wojciechowski in the competition to be the Astros‘ fifth starter, but Hernandez should get the job anyway because that’s the easiest way to keep depth in the organization, writes Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle. Wojciechowski can easily just be sent to Triple-A. Hernandez is an Article XX(B) free agent, so the Astros either have to add him to their roster, release him or pay him a $100K retention bonus to keep him in the minors. If the Astros were to send Hernandez to Triple-A, they would also have to give him a June 1 opt-out date. (On Twitter, Drellich also suggests that, as a courtesy, teams generally do not send Article XX(B) players to the minors.) The Astros have plenty of depth at some positions, but not in their rotation, so the easiest path for now would be to place Hernandez in their rotation and make sure that both he and Wojciechowski stay in the organization.
Here are today’s minor moves from around the game.
- The Royals have released 2B/3B Ryan Roberts, Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star tweets. Roberts, 34, played sparingly for the Red Sox last season and has a career .243/.320/.388 line in parts of nine seasons, also playing for the Blue Jays, Rangers, Diamondbacks and Rays.
- The Royals have announced that they’ve traded righty Angel Baez to the Astros for cash considerations. Baez, 24, pitched 62 innings of relief for Double-A Northwest Arkansas last season, posting a 4.65 ERA with 10.3 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9, improving somewhat upon the control problems with which he had struggled in the low minors.
- The Diamondbacks have released a number of players, including righty relievers Jeremy Accardo and Henry Rodriguez, MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert tweets. The 33-year-old Accardo spent 2014 in independent ball and last appeared in the Majors in 2012. He’s played parts of eight big-league seasons and appeared in the Blue Jays’ bullpen in every season from 2006 through 2010. The hard-throwing Rodriguez has appeared in the big leagues in all of the last six seasons (with the Athletics, Nationals, Cubs and Marlins), but has never really established himself, thanks in large part to control problems — he has 6.4 BB/9 for his career. Both pitchers signed minor-league deals with the D-Backs this offseason.
- Twins utilityman Tyler Grimes has retired, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune tweets. The 24-year-old Grimes played at Class A+ Fort Myers in 2014, hitting .232/.313/.355 in 307 plate appearances while, remarkably, playing catcher, second, third and all three outfield positions. He had been a non-roster invite to Twins big-league camp.
- The Tigers have released righty Luke Putkonen, MLB.com’s Jason Beck tweets. Putkonen, 28, pitched 29 2/3 innings out of the Tigers’ bullpen in 2013 and handled himself well, posting a 3.03 ERA with 8.5 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. He missed most of the 2014 season due to elbow issues, however. The Tigers designated Putkonen for assignment and outrighted him in January.
Here are some notes out of the game’s western divisions:
- Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields Jr. appears to have a place on the Rangers roster, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports. Taken from the Astros this winter, DeShields could be a force on the basepaths and would otherwise represent a backup center field and second base option.
- The Astros-Brady Aiken fallout remains too clouded in uncertainty for final judgment, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle writes. While Aiken’s Tommy John procedure has led some to claim that Houston was justified in seeking to drop the price tag on the first overall pick last year, Drellich explains that it is more complicated than just looking at that result. There’s a lot of ground covered in the article, and it is worth a full read for those interested in understanding this complicated situation.
- New Diamondbacks righty Yoan Lopez has shown steady improvement in spite of an unsightly ERA in his first professional action, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic writes. Rival scouts have raised some questions about his upside, but D’backs pitching coach Mike Harkey says that he fully expects the 22-year-old to become “a really good pitcher.” Lopez has not brought quite the level of velocity that led the team to sign him, but manager Chip Hale explains that velo isn’t everything: “I think the fastball hasn’t been quite the velocity that we thought, but 92 is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you can make it move and control it, spot it,” said Hale. “The electricity has been in the breaking ball, especially, and the change-up. But I think we do expect a little tick up in the velocity eventually.”
The Reds announced that they’ve acquired veteran first baseman Dan Johnson from the Astros in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations. The 35-year-old had been with Houston on a minor league contract.
Johnson hasn’t seen much in the way of regular playing time since his tenure with the Athletics ended in 2008, but he’s appeared in the bigs in each season dating back to 2010. His 2014 work came north of the border, as he picked up 48 plate appearances for the Blue Jays and batted .211/.333/.342. The type of plate discipline and strike zone knowledge displayed by Johnson in that small sample is indicative of his career to date. Johnson has a 13.2 percent walk rate in 1604 Major League plate appearances and, perhaps not surprisingly, has walked six times in 25 plate appearances with Houston this spring. He’s also collected just three hits in 19 at-bats, however.
Johnson will report to minor league camp, the Reds have added, making his acquisition one for depth purposes. He reportedly has an opt-out date in his contract, but it does not come until after the season has started. Additionally, Johnson isn’t an Article XX(B) player, so the Reds wouldn’t need to offer him a $100K retention bonus to option him to Triple-A. Johnson had positive things to say about his brief time with the Astros, per the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich.
The Padres have claimed hard-throwing right-hander Jandel Gustave off waivers from the Royals, reports Josh Vernier of 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City (Twitter link). Gustave had been with the Royals in camp after being selected from the Astros in this year’s Rule 5 Draft, but Kansas City placed him on waivers earlier in the week.
Gustave, 22, is probably a long shot to make the Padres’ roster, considering he’s yet to pitch an inning above Class-A, where he worked to a 5.01 ERA in 79 innings last season. However, he has a fastball that can reach 100 mph and has 199 strikeouts in 196 1/3 Minor League innings, so it isn’t exactly difficult to see why teams are intrigued by his arm. Gustave does also come with command issues; he’s averaged 6.7 walks per nine innings in the Minors.
The Padres have a few options if they wish to retain Gustave. As a Rule 5 pick, he’d have to stick on the team’s 25-man roster all season before he could be optioned to the Minor Leagues. That seems unlikely, so the Padres could simply place him on waivers again and hope that he clears. However, even then, he’d have to be offered back to the Astros, who would likely be happy to reacquire his arm. Perhaps a likelier scenario would be one in which the Padres and Astros discuss a trade that would allow Gustave to remain in the San Diego organization.
San Diego will get a little more than a week to evaluate Gustave before a decision needs to be reached. They’ve placed catcher Tim Federowicz on the 60-day disabled list in order to clear a 40-man spot for Gustave.
Royals Rule 5 selection Jandel Gustave has been placed on waivers by the team, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reports on Twitter. The then-Astros farmhand was chosen sixth overall in this year’s draft by the Red Sox, who dealt his rights to Kansas City.
Gustave, a 22-year-old righty, was said at one point in the spring to have a decent chance at breaking camp with the Royals, who would have needed to keep him on the active roster all year to gain control over him in the future. Now, any team can claim him and step into his Rule 5 rights. If he goes unclaimed, Gustave will be offered back to Houston.
Like many Rule 5 selections, Gustave’s experience is entirely at the lower levels of the minors. He pitched last year at the low-A level, throwing 79 innings — including 14 starts — and posting a 5.01 ERA with 9.3 K/9 against 3.3 BB/9. He checked in at 30th on K.C.’s top thirty prospects this year, per Baseball America, which noted that the young righty delivers a fastball that touches 100 mph and profiles as a reliever. He is still working to harness that heater, however, and has yet to develop any consistent offspeed pitches.
Hall of Fame baseball writer Nick Peters, who covered the Giants for 47 years, has died, Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee writes. Peters was 75. He worked for the Bee, the Oakland Tribune, the Berkeley Gazette and the San Francisco Chronicle, covering a total of nearly 5,000 games. The BBWAA honored him with a Spink Award in 2009. Breton writes that Peters had an especially good relationship with Barry Bonds, who Peters had known from being around the Giants since Bonds was child following his father Bobby and godfather Willie Mays. “Nick was known not only for his writing talent and encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, but also for his mentorship of many young reporters who rose through the ranks of sports journalism,” write the Giants in a statement. “He will be deeply missed by the entire Giants organization and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Lise and the entire Peters family.” Here are more notes from the West divisions.
- Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins‘ new interview with FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal offers an unusually candid look at what it’s like to change teams. Rollins spent 19 seasons in the Phillies organization before heading to Los Angeles. That involved quite a mental adjustment, as Rollins explains. “It was real tough in the beginning to give in to the LA thing, the Dodger thing, the wearing of blue, being the best organization in pro sports. That’s their belief,” he says. “Now I’m part of that product. But it was tough – 14 years on the other side, learning to . . . I can’t say hate, that’s a strong word . . . but learning to want to beat the brakes off anything with L.A. and Dodger blue in it.”
- Sam Deduno, who’s out of options, appears to have a good shot at making the Astros‘ roster because he can relieve, MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart writes. Deduno is competing with Roberto Hernandez and Asher Wojciechowski for the fifth spot in the Astros’ rotation, but he has a better chance than either of the other two of making the roster because he can head to the bullpen if he doesn’t get the rotation job. The Astros have two bullpen openings. One will likely go to a lefty (perhaps Joe Thatcher), but Deduno could win the other spot.
The Astros have listened to trade ideas regarding their surplus of position players, but are not actively looking to deal, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reports. There’s currently no way to get Jason Castro, Evan Gattis, Jon Singleton, George Springer, Colby Rasmus, Jake Marisnick and Chris Carter in the lineup all at the same time, Drellich points out. But their depth gives them options in case players get hurt or struggle. In particular, Gattis and Rasmus have significant injury histories, while Singleton and Marisnick are unproven. The team could also platoon Gattis and Rasmus in left field. Here’s more from Drellich on the Astros.
- If the Astros were to make a trade this Spring, it might involve a depth player like Alex Presley rather than one of the more regular players mentioned above. Robbie Grossman could beat out Presley for the last outfield spot. Presley is out of options, and there’s at least some possibility the Astros could lose him if they expose him to waivers. From this vantage point, the risk seems minimal, given that Presley didn’t hit well last year and is making above the league minimum (at $1MM). But given the depth he represents, that possibility is at least worth considering.
- Hank Conger has struggled this spring, but he’s still penciled in as Castro’s backup at catcher.
- Three players whose situations are unresolved are minor-league free agent pitchers Joe Thatcher, Roberto Hernandez and first baseman Dan Johnson, Drellich says. Thatcher and Hernandez are Article XX(B) free agents, so before Opening Day, the Astros must decide whether to add them to the active roster, release them, or pay them $100K retention bonuses (and give them June 1 opt-out date). Thatcher is likely to make the team as the Astros’ second bullpen lefty. Johnson, who is not an Article XX(B) free agent, also has an opt-out date, although not until after the start of the regular season.
Most elbow issues that lead to Tommy John surgery appear to crop up in March, according to a review conducted by Ben Lindbergh of Grantland. That is the time that pitchers ramp up each spring, of course, and Lindbergh finds that other pitching injuries also trend northwards toward the end of the year’s third month. You’ll want to read the entire piece for details and thoughts on why this seems to be the case.
Here are some more stray notes from around the game:
- Ace righty Corey Kluber and the Indians will continue talking about a new contract after recent in-person negotiations failed to result in a deal, Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer reports. Those talks ended Thursday, says Hoynes, but it appears that there is enough mutual interest to keep a dialogue open.
- The first outing for former Astros number one overall draft pick Brady Aiken at IMG Academy ended with concern, as John Manuel and Josh Norris of Baseball America report. Aiken had worked in the low-90s with his fastball, but left in the middle of the first inning after throwing a curveball. That pitch was clocked at about 7 mph lower than a prior hook thrown by the young lefty. One of the umpires tells BA that he overheard mention that the well-regarded amateur felt “a little bit of tightness.” Needless to say, it is still far too early to speculate on Aiken’s status, though it is worth noting that there has been chatter that he has not been fully healthy this winter. Per BA, scouts from every team but Houston were on hand to see watch Aiken, who figures to be one of the best prospects available again in this year’s draft.
- MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said today that the subject of player rights being dealt for executives could be an issue to be addressed in the next CBA, as Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reports. It is not clear what kinds of issues might be contemplated, but Clark said that the seemingly increasing prevalence of that sort of transaction — highlighted, most recently, by the apparent negotiations between the Orioles and Blue Jays regarding Dan Duquette — make it something that the league and union will “talk through … and see what may make some sense here going forward.”
The Astros escaped the cellar in the AL West last season, though they did so due largely to a barrage of injuries on what was expected to be a contending Rangers team. Nevertheless, Houston was a much-improved club in 2014, and they’ll likely be even better in 2015 following an active offseason.
Major League Signings
- Jed Lowrie, SS: Three years, $23MM
- Luke Gregerson, RHP: Three years, $18.5MM
- Pat Neshek, RHP: Two years, $12.5MM
- Colby Rasmus, OF: One year, $8MM
- Total spend: $62MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired 3B Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily from the Cubs in exchange for OF Dexter Fowler
- Acquired C/OF Evan Gattis and RHP James Hoyt from the Braves in exchange for RHP Michael Foltynewicz, 3B Rio Ruiz and RHP Andrew Thurman
- Acquired C Hank Conger from the Angels in exchange for RHP Nick Tropeano and C Carlos Perez
- Acquired RHP Akeem Bostick from the Rangers in exchange for C Carlos Corporan
- Claimed RHP Will Harris off waivers from the Diamondbacks
Notable Minor League Signings
- Dexter Fowler, Jose Veras, Matt Albers, Mike Foltynewicz, Nick Tropeano, Carlos Corporan, Josh Zeid, Jesse Crain
No bullpen in baseball recorded a higher ERA than Houston’s alarming 4.80 mark last season, so it’s hardly a surprise that GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff went hard after relief pitching this winter. The Astros added a pair of right-handed arms in Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Together, the duo consists of one of the game’s most consistent setup men over the past four years (Gregerson) and an upside play based on a somewhat surprising 2014 breakout (Neshek). Gregerson has made at least 61 appearances and logged an ERA of 2.75 or better in each of the past four seasons, and Neshek improved on solid numbers from 2012-13 to record a 1.87 ERA and a brilliant 7.56 K/BB ratio. The Astros were also reportedly the highest bidder for Andrew Miller at $40MM over four years, but the left-hander took $4MM less to join the Yankees’ bullpen. Instead, the ‘Stros eventually landed Joe Thatcher on a minor league deal to give them a potential bargain from the left side. Waiver claim Will Harris and his strong peripherals give them a promising candidate from the right side.
Though there are quite a few names in that last paragraph, that’s only a fraction of the pitchers that were contacted by the Astros this offseason. Houston was said to have at least some dialogue with nearly every notable relief arm on the market at some point, even entering the mix for David Robertson before he landed with the White Sox.
Turning to the infield, there was a clear need on the left side. Jonathan Villar broke camp as the team’s shortstop in 2014, but his .209/.267/.354 batting line led him back to Triple-A and resulted in Marwin Gonzalez and Gregorio Petit receiving playing time at shortstop as well. Whether the Astros were underwhelmed by the play of that trio or simply considered Jed Lowrie too good a value to pass up, the team struck a three-year deal to bring Lowrie back to Houston after a pair of seasons in Oakland. Lowrie will now join a lineup that features Chris Carter — one of the very men for whom he was traded in that Houston/Oakland swap (Brad Peacock and Max Stassi were also in the deal). Lowrie’s defense isn’t great, and he struggled with the bat in 2014, but he’s typically been an above-average hitter when healthy. At just over $7MM annually, the price seems plenty reasonable, even if he’ll eventually have to shift positions if and when Carlos Correa is ready for the Majors (perhaps as soon as 2016).
Third base was a black hole for the 2014 Astros, as Matt Dominguez and Petit saw all of the time at the position and combined to hit a miserable .212/.255/.321. The Astros were clearly aware of this fact and not necessarily keen on giving Dominguez another crack, as the team acquired Luis Valbuena in the Dexter Fowler trade with the Cubs. Valbuena can play second or third, but with Jose Altuve entrenched at the keystone, Valbuena seems destined for third base duty, pushing Dominguez to a bench role or possibly making him trade bait (he’s still just 25).
The Fowler trade filled one hole but potentially created another, thinning out the club’s outfield depth. However, the Astros likely viewed that move as an opportunity to acquire a commodity where the demand outweighed the supply — the free agent third base market offered little — in exchange for a commodity whose supply outweighed their own demand. Houston signed Colby Rasmus just days after trading Valbuena, likely indicating that they feel Rasmus can provide similar value to Fowler at a cheaper price ($8MM), whereas there were no suitable free agent options to fill their void at the hot corner.
Valbuena wasn’t the only piece they added in that deal, though. Dan Straily’s inclusion in the trade gives the Astros some rotation depth and a relatively young arm with huge minor league strikeout numbers that could push for a rotation spot as early as this season. The team added further depth in the rotation when it signed Roberto Hernandez to a minor league deal with a semi-steep base salary (at least for a minor league deal) of $2.65MM.
Some additional rotation depth was necessary, as the team had flipped Nick Tropeano for the defensively gifted Hank Conger. They’d also eventually deal well-regarded pitching prospect Mike Foltynewicz and righty Andrew Thurman in a trade to land Evan Gattis from Atlanta. Conger gives the Astros an upgrade from a defensive standpoint, while Gattis provides an emergency option at catcher plus depth in left field, at first base and at DH. In Gattis, Springer and Chris Carter, the Astros have a trio of right-handed sluggers that could mash 30 homers apiece in the middle of their lineup. That power is especially dangerous in Houston, given the 315-foot short porch down the left field line at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros enjoyed two of baseball’s most unexpected breakouts in their rotation last season, as both Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh pitched at All-Star caliber levels and now look like vital (and controllable) rotation cogs going forward. They’ll be joined by veteran Scott Feldman, who can soak up some solid innings in the middle of the rotation. Beyond that, however, the picture is muddled. Peacock won’t be ready to start the season (not that he’d have been guaranteed a spot anyhow), leaving the remaining two spots to be divided between Brett Oberholtzer, Sam Deduno, Hernandez and Straily.
It’s understandable, then, that the team tried to bring Ryan Vogelsong in for some stabilization, but the deal between the two sides fell through after Vogelsong took a physical. Vogelsong expressed some distaste for the Astros organization after the fact, and reports since then have indicated that the team lowered their offer after seeing red flags in his exam. Vogelsong would ultimately return to the Giants to serve as a long reliever, perhaps indicating that his medicals did indeed pose some cause for concern.
The remade bullpen now looks stronger with Gregerson and Neshek joining Chad Qualls atop the depth chart, but there’s still a good deal of uncertainty beyond that grouping and lefty Tony Sipp. In particular, the team lacks a solidified second left-handed option, although a return to form for Thatcher would put that concern to rest and make his signing look like a shrewd move. Hernandez or Deduno could serve as a long man if they don’t make the rotation, but the Astros seem likely to have two right-handed slots filled by a combination of unproven arms such as Josh Fields, Jake Buchanan, Will Harris and perhaps non-roster invitee James Hoyt. It should be noted that both Harris and Fields possess highly favorable peripheral stats, so a breakout for either wouldn’t come as a significant surprise. Nonetheless, neither has established himself as a reliable bullpen arm in the Majors to this point.
While the Astros are rife with raw power up and down their lineup, they’ll likely fall victim to strikeouts at one of the highest rates in baseball. Only the Cubs’ 24.2 percent team strikeout rate was worse than Houston’s 23.8 percent mark last season, and they’ve compounded the problem by trading for Gattis and swapping Fowler (21.4 percent strikeout rate in 2014) for Rasmus (33 percent). Valbuena and Dominguez, for those wondering, struck out at nearly identical respective clips of 20.7 and 20.6 percent last year.
So, while Houston will have its share of high-scoring games due to its powerful lineup, the combination of Rasmus, Carter, Springer, Gattis, Jason Castro and possibly Jon Singleton could lead to quite a few unsightly days at the plate — particularly against elite strikeout pitchers.
The defense, to some extent, could also be an issue. Lowrie isn’t a gifted defender at shortstop, and while Rasmus has had defensive value in the past, he was well below-average in 2014. Perhaps better health will remedy that, but until it’s demonstrated on the field, one can’t help but wonder. The main reason that Atlanta was so willing to part with Gattis was that they feel he’ll eventually be unable to continue catching due to his size and is also a terrible outfield defender. In Houston, the catching will be handled by Castro and Conger, leaving Gattis without much of a position and leaving the team with a potential dilemma at first base/DH if Singleton, Gattis and Carter are all healthy and productive by the end of Spring Training. Gattis could play left field, but that would negate a good deal of his offensive value. Playing Rasmus and Marisnick in left and center would be a significant defensive upgrade.
Still, that would create a logjam at first base/DH, which is likely the reason that ESPN’s Jayson Stark hears that teams in need of offense are monitoring the Astros; Stark reported this week that Carter could become available should Singleton win the job at first and Gattis remains healthy.
Deal of Note
Neshek’s contract with the Astros would’ve seemed borderline unthinkable a year ago at this time, as the submariner was in Spring Training on a minor league deal with the Cardinals. His incredible 1.87 ERA and 7.56 K/BB ratio in last year’s All-Star campaign was an excellent story and led to the first multi-year deal of his career.
While we don’t know exactly what Rafael Soriano will sign for this offseason, he seems extremely likely to fall shy of Neshek’s deal. Meanwhile, an established closer like Francisco Rodriguez barely topped Neshek’s guarantee despite having an extra year on his contract and being two years younger. Neshek also topped Jason Grilli and stacked up favorably with fellow Meister Sports Management client Sergio Romo, despite Romo’s stronger track record.
The Neshek contract this offseason serves as a reminder to fans who may have rolled their eyes at minor league deals for unheralded players this past offseason; these deals rarely turn out like Neshek’s, but a select few seem to go this way each offseason, and the success experienced can lead to tremendous rewards for the team in 2015 and the player the following winter.
The Astros come away from the 2014-15 offseason with a remade bullpen and an improved left side of the infield, both of which should help to repair two of the team’s biggest flaws from the 2014 season. While the rotation looks to be a question mark still, it’s not out of the question that top prospect and former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel could surface in the Majors and help solidify that group. Appel looked lost for much of 2014, but rumors of his demise were tremendously overstated, as he left a dismal Class-A stint behind him to post a 3.69 ERA with 8.8 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in 39 Double-A innings. Appel ranks 35th or better on the Top 100 prospect lists of Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, MLB.com and Fangraphs, where he peaked at No. 18.
Owner Jim Crane has expressed the ambitious goal of reaching the playoffs this season, and while many skeptics will scoff at the notion, the Astros have a wealth of interesting young players in addition to several offseason pickups that could help them remain competitive in the AL West. While they’re certainly not a favorite to do so, some combination of sustained success from Keuchel and McHugh plus steps forward from Springer and Singleton, along with rebounds from Castro, Lowrie and Rasmus, could make the club more dangerous than most are willing to expect.
The Astros made a 19-game improvement from 2013 to 2014, and they could take a step forward toward the .500 mark in 2015 if everyone stays healthy. By 2016, enough members of the team’s vaunted farm system — including Correa, Appel, Springer and Singleton — may have graduated to the Major League level that the Astros could make a push toward a playoff spot.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.