- While the Astros committed a guaranteed $14MM to Charlie Morton earlier this offseason, the right-hander isn’t a lock to win a spot in their rotation, general manager Jeff Luhnow suggested to Brian McTaggart of MLB.com (Twitter link). Luhnow does expect Morton to end up in the Astros’ starting five, but he’s only “softly” part of the rotation for now. The Astros have been pushing to add a front-line starter all winter, and picking one up could relegate Morton to a bullpen role. As of now, in addition to established starters Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Morton, the team has intriguing young options – including Joe Musgrove and Francis Martes – knocking on the door.
- Once regarded as key building blocks for the Astros, first baseman A.J. Reed and third baseman Colin Moran are long shots to crack the big league roster this year after rough seasons, writes Jake Kaplan of Baseball America (subscription required/recommended). Reed, whom BA ranked as baseball’s 11th-best prospect a year ago, got his first taste of major league action in 2016 and batted a weak .164/.270/.262 with a 34 percent strikeout rate in 141 plate appearances. The soon-to-be 24-year-old did rake at Triple-A Fresno (.291/.368/.556 in 296 PAs), though he’s now behind $47.5MM man Yulieski Gurriel and Marwin Gonzalez on the Astros’ first base depth chart. With Carlos Beltran and Evan Gattis also on hand, Reed stands even less of a chance to garner at-bats as a DH. Moran, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft, didn’t help his cause in Fresno – .259/.329/.368 in 511 trips to the plate – and the emergence of Alex Bregman in Houston only added to his problems. Bregman looks like the Astros’ long-term solution at third, putting the 24-year-old Moran’s future in question.
- The Astros have signed right-hander Dayan Diaz to a minor league contract with a non-roster invitation to spring training, tweets Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. This will be the second stint with the Houston franchise for the 27-year-old Diaz, who broke in as a member of the organization from 2010-12. Diaz has since pitched for three other clubs, and he made his major league debut last season in a 6 2/3-inning showing with the Reds. That didn’t go well, though, as Diaz yielded seven earned runs on 10 hits and seven walks. He has been far more successful at the Triple-A level, having recorded a 2.47 ERA, 7.6 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 in 113 innings over the past two seasons.
- The Astros are still monitoring the market for left-handed relievers, though GM Jeff Luhnow tells reporters (including Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle) that “at this point I’m not sure that anything’s going to get done there.” Tony Sipp is the only southpaw in Houston’s bullpen right now, while inexperienced options Kevin Chapman, Ashur Tolliver and Reymin Guduan are also on the 40-man roster.
The Astros have avoided arbitration with right-hander Mike Fiers by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $3.45MM, reports Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle (via Twitter). Fiers had filed for a $3.9MM salary, while the team countered at $3MM, as can be seen in MLBTR’s 2017 Arbitration Tracker. His ultimate $3.45MM contract will land directly on the midpoint between those two proposed sums.
As things currently stand in Houston, Fiers figures to head into camp as a member of the team’s rotation, alongside Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh and offseason signee Charlie Morton. Young Joe Musgrove, who was sharp in his 2016 MLB debut, could be in the mix for rotation innings as well. Fiers does have some bullpen experience, though, so it’s at least possible that the team could explore a swingman role for him if Musgrove looks sharp in camp and the other four starters all appear healthy. It’s also worth noting that the Astros have been consistently linked to trade rumors for top-tier starting pitchers, and a deal would obviously make a significant impact on the construction of their rotation.
The 31-year-old Fiers made 30 starts and 31 total appearances for the Astros last season, pitching to a 4.48 earned run average with 7.2 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and a career-best 42.2 percent ground-ball rate in 168 2/3 innings. Since coming to Houston in the 2015 trade that also netted the Astros center fielder Carlos Gomez, Fiers has turned in 231 innings of 4.17 ERA ball.
- The Astros haven’t given up on the notion of acquiring one of Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana or Chris Archer and remain in contact with the Athletics, White Sox and Rays, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweeted recently. The extreme asking prices on each starter makes it seem unlikely that Houston would be able to pry any of that trio loose. They’ve already balked at Chicago’s reported asking price of Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker and Joe Musgrove for Quintana, and MLB Network’s Peter Gammons tweets that he received a flat “No” when he asked one source if Gray could land in Houston. Archer, meanwhile, seems like an even longer shot to contend. The Rays have already moved one of their starters, trading Drew Smyly to the Mariners, and the remainder of their offseason dealings have been largely focused in improving the 2017 club.
The Astros have been known to be seeking rotation upgrades for much of the offseason, and while the team’s pursuit of White Sox lefty Jose Quintana hasn’t gained much traction, FOX’s Ken Rosenthal tweets that Houston as also maintained contact with the Athletics regarding right-hander Sonny Gray.
The 27-year-old Gray is a season removed from his status as a burgeoning young ace. The 2013-15 campaigns saw the former Vanderbilt standout and first-round pick pitch to a pristine 2.88 ERA with 7.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 54.2 percent ground-ball rate in 491 innings. Gray topped 200 innings in both 2014 and 2015, his age-24 and age-25 seasons, and finished third in AL Cy Young balloting during that ’15 campaign.
Impressive as that stretch was, a disastrous 2016 campaign has made Gray a tough asset to value. Gray had two separate DL stints — one for a right trapezius strain and one for a strained right forearm — in 2016 and was ultimately limited to 117 innings. The results in that shortened sample were hardly encouraging, either, as Gray’s ERA soared to 5.69 while his strikeout rate dipped slightly, and his BB/9 rate rose to 3.2 (up from 2.6 a year prior). Despite throwing just 56 percent of the innings he totaled in 2015, Gray allowed more home runs in 2016, setting a new career-worst with 18.
Suffice it to say, red flags abound when looking at Gray’s 2016 campaign. Yet, if that season is chalked up largely to injury and a team believes the issues won’t linger into future seasons, then Gray again becomes a wildly appealing asset. He’s controlled via arbitration for the next three seasons, and his 2016 struggles actually suppressed his salary in his first trip through the arbitration process. Gray agreed to terms with the A’s on a one-year deal worth $3.575MM last Friday, so he’d be affordable for any team and bring legitimate front-of-the-rotation upside to his new environs.
The problem, of course, is that it’s doubtful any team will overlook Gray’s calamitous 2016 season and assume he’ll experience a full rebound in 2017 and beyond. Those that have contacted the Athletics about Gray have likely done so in an effort to buy low on the talented righty, but there’s little incentive for Oakland to sell low on him. Were Gray one year away from free agency, perhaps Oakland would feel more compelled to take the best offer it received, but with another three years of club control remaining, the A’s can afford to wait for Gray to restore some value. Even if Gray is ultimately traded before he reaches free agency, the A’s could get plenty of value for him this summer, next offseason or even two offseasons from now, should his performance trend back upward.
That the Astros play in the same division as the A’s only further complicates the matter. Teams are often loath to trade anyone, especially one of the faces of their franchise, to a division rival, and that could come into play here. Oakland and Houston, of course, have matched up on a number of deals in the past. Houston GM Jeff Luhnow and Oakland president of baseball ops Billy Beane have twice lined up on trades sending Jed Lowrie from Houston to Oakland, and the Astros also acquired southpaw Scott Kazmir from the A’s in exchange for prospects Jacob Nottingham and Daniel Mengden back in July 2015 (as can be seen in MLBTR’s Transaction Tracker).
Many teams use the arbitration exchange as a hard deadline for negotiations on one-year deals — a “file and trial” approach which effectively means that once figures are exchanged, the only option they’ll pursue before a hearing is a multi-year deal. (The Mets and Orioles are both adopting that approach this year, and other teams to use that strategy in the past include Astros, Blue Jays, Braves, Marlins, Rays, White Sox, Pirates, Reds and Nationals.)
- George Springer and the Astros avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $3.9MM, reports Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle (Twitter link). Springer has four years left until he can be a free agent and will be arb-eligible three more times due to his status as a Super Two player. That $3.9MM figure checks in a ways south of his $4.7MM projection.
- Center fielder Jake Marisnick and the Astros have agreed to a $1.1MM deal, tweets Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. Marisnick, a defensive wizard, batted just .209/.257/.331 last season but has an inside track at the fourth outfield role in Houston due to his outstanding glovework. His salary lines up exactly with his $1.1MM projection, and he’ll be arbitration-eligible three more times as a Super Two player.
The Astros have avoided arbitration with left-hander Dallas Keuchel by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $9.15MM, reports MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart (via Twitter). The 2015 Cy Young winner is represented by Frontline Athlete Management.
Keuchel earns a raise over the $7.25MM salary he earned last year — a record for a first-time-eligible pitcher in arbitration — and will be arbitration-eligible once more next winter before hitting the open market following the 2018 season. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz had projected a $9.5MM salary for Keuchel.
The 29-year-old Keuchel wasn’t able to replicate his dominant 2015 effort, but he still took the ball for the Astros 26 times and tallied 168 innings of 4.55 ERA ball to go along with 7.7 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 and a robust 56.7 percent ground-ball rate in 2016. Health may have been a factor for the downturn in Keuchel’s performance, as he shoulder troubles limited him to just seven starts after the All-Star break. Keuchel didn’t make an appearance after Aug. 27 this past season, though there’s been no word that the effects of that injury will linger into 2017, and Keuchel never required surgery to correct the issue.
As a result of a somewhat disappointing 2016 that began with World Series aspirations and ended with a third-place finish in the AL West, the Astros have been aggressive in upgrading their roster this offseason. Since November, Houston has either traded for or signed Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Nori Aoki and Charlie Morton in an attempt to beef up a roster that won 84 games last season. You’ll notice that only one of those five – Morton – is a starting pitcher, and he’s a back-end type who has dealt with a laundry list of injuries during his career.
The Astros’ inability to acquire a front-line starter this winter to join Morton and others in their rotation hasn’t been for a lack of trying, of course. To this point, the team has pursued trades for ex-White Sox and now-Red Sox ace Chris Sale, current ChiSox No. 1 Jose Quintana, various members of the Rays’ rotation – including Chris Archer – as well as Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura of the Royals. Astros president Reid Ryan has even publicly opined that the club is missing an ace.
“What we lack is that starter who you pencil in at the top of the rotation that is an automatic W,” Ryan told MLB Network Radio in December.
Of the starters the Astros have courted via trade, they’ve been the most aggressive with the 27-year-old Quintana, who has both an outstanding track record and an ultra-affordable contract. Houston and Chicago have been in touch on a daily basis regarding Quintana, though the Astros haven’t been willing to sacrifice possible long-term rotation pieces to land the southpaw. That includes 24-year-old right-hander Joe Musgrove, who had an encouraging major league debut last season, and fellow righty Francis Martes. Unlike Musgrove, Martes hasn’t reached the big league level, but the 21-year-old was terrific with Double-A Corpus Christi in 2016 and now ranks as MLB.com’s 29th-best prospect.
“It would take something significant for us to move him,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said of Martes last month.
While Quintana does qualify as “significant,” it’s debatable whether a No. 1-type starter is more of a need than a luxury for the Astros. Their premier option, lefty Dallas Keuchel, took sizable steps backward last season as he dealt with shoulder troubles, yet he isn’t far removed from a two-year run of brilliance that culminated with the AL Cy Young Award in 2015. Shoulder issues also limited curveball-heavy righty Lance McCullers last season, but the 23-year-old has been highly effective when healthy since debuting in 2015. Across 206 2/3 innings, McCullers has logged a 3.22 ERA, 10.23 K/9, 3.83 BB/9 and 50.5 percent ground-ball rate.
The other members of the Astros’ projected starting five – Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Morton – have decidedly less upside than Keuchel and McCullers, but each are capable major league starters. And, in the event of injuries and/or ineffectiveness, the Astros possess depth with Musgrove, Martes, Brady Rodgers and David Paulino either ready for the majors or close to it. Further, led by Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Luke Gregerson and Michael Feliz, Houston has a deep bullpen that can shorten games and take pressure off its rotation.
In the end, it would certainly be a boon for the Astros to add Quintana (or someone of his ilk) to what looks like a playoff-caliber roster. At least opening the season with their current contingent of rotation options would be far from catastrophic, though, and Luhnow could continue to monitor the trade market during the season if his starters don’t suffice. Of course, judging by his ongoing interest in Quintana, it seems Luhnow wants to bolster his rotation before the 2017 campaign commences. But does he really need to?
(Poll link for Trade Rumors app users)
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Over the next few days, I will be discussing some of the higher profile upcoming arbitration cases. I will rely partly on my arbitration model developed exclusively for MLB Trade Rumors, but will also break out some interesting comparables and determine where the model might be wrong.
As I discussed in my write-up on Jacob deGrom and Carlos Martinez, it has been difficult for starting pitchers to top Dontrelle Willis’ arbitration salary of $4.35MM in his first year of arbitration eligibility back in 2006. Dallas Keuchel finally broke that record last year, but otherwise many pitchers have fallen short. In many cases, pitchers have gotten close only to sign multi-year deals to remove themselves from the list of comparables, and other times they have settled for numbers at or just short of Willis’ old record.
My model has trouble with these symbolic barriers, and I have written many articles about why pitchers projected to earn slightly more than $4.35MM would earn slightly less. Mathematical modeling is a science, but it does not pick up on the psychological nuances of a precedent being broken. It remains to be seen whether Keuchel’s new record makes it easier for pitchers to out-earn Willis—and Carlos Martinez this year could be a great case. However, despite Gerrit Cole of the Pirates, Jake Odorizzi of the Rays, and Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers of the Astros all projecting near the $4.35 mark—Odorizzi and McHugh are projected slightly above it—I suspect all four will earn slightly less than their projections because of this barrier.
All four of Cole, Odorizzi, McHugh, and Fiers have at least 30 career wins, 500 career innings, 400 career strikeouts, and 100 platform year innings. All of them also have relatively average ERAs in the 3’s or 4’s. None won the Cy Young Award last year. There are only four such pitchers who met these criteria to receive one-year arbitration deals as first-year starting pitchers in the last three years, and all four earned in a tight range of $3.63MM to $4.35MM. These include Shelby Miller, Chris Tillman, Mike Minor, and Jake Arrieta. It is difficult to see any of these four pitchers falling out of that range.
Gerrit Cole is projected to earn $4.2MM, but his case is somewhat unique in that he had a relatively weak platform year despite a strong career. He went 7-10 last year, but his 47-30 in his career. His 3.88 last year is worse than his 3.23 career mark. He only threw 116 innings with 98 strikeouts last year, but he has thrown 579.1 innings with 538 strikeouts in his career. Good comparables will include players with high career wins but low platform year wins. Ivan Nova is a reasonable comparable, although he earned just $3.3MM three years ago. He had a 9-6 record with a 3.10 ERA in 139.1 innings, but was 38-20 in his career with 4.04 ERA in 517 innings. Cole’s career numbers are definitely much better than Nova’s, but Nova makes sense as a floor. I suspect Cole will get a raise over Nova’s salary plus some extra money for inflation and will end up in the $3.5MM to $4MM range, probably right in the middle—well short of his arbitration projection of $4.2MM.
Jake Odorizzi went 10-6 last season with a 3.69 ERA in 187.2 innings along with 166 strikeouts. He only has 30 career wins, fewer than the other three guys on this list, but he does have 562 career innings and a 3.75 career ERA, along with 516 strikeouts. His best comparable is probably Doug Fister four years ago, who also won ten games and had a similar ERA at 3.45. Fister also had 30 career wins and a 3.48 ERA in 610 career innings. Fister struck out over a hundred fewer batters in his career at the time he earned $4MM exactly, so adding in some salary inflation should be Odorizzi comfortably in the low 4’s. However, it is hard to find a reason why Odorizzi would top Matt Harvey, David Price, Shelby Miller, or Chris Tillman, all of whom earned between $4.32 and $4.35MM. My model projects Odorizzi at $4.6MM but my gut says $4.2MM.
Collin McHugh had a 4.34 ERA last year and has a 4.13 career ERA, so his run prevention resume is unimpressive compared to the other pitchers in this group and many other potential comparables. However, McHugh won 13 games last year and has won 43 in his career, which is a rare feat. There are only two pitchers in the last six years who have won at least 12 games in their platform years and 40 in their careers while having ERAs above 4.00. These include Ian Kennedy, who earned $4.26MM in 2013, and Tommy Hanson, who earned $3.72MM in the same year. Kennedy’s numbers are largely similar to McHugh’s, but slightly better in many aspects. Hanson was slightly behind McHugh in most categories. Given how stale these comps are, I think McHugh should pass the midpoint of around $4MM, but I also see him struggling to make a case for besting $4.35MM. I think something like $4.1MM or $4.2MM is likely, which is also below his $4.6MM projection.
Michael Fiers 4.48 platform year ERA will definitely dent his case, although his 3.87 career ERA is more impressive. He also has 11 platform year wins and 34 career wins, along with a platform year of 168.2 innings with 134 strikeouts. Jeremy Hellickson’s 2014 case is a great match. He had only one fewer loss, although Hellickson’s 5.17 ERA is definitely much worse than Fiers’ 4.48. His 39 career wins to that point best Fiers, but his 409 career strikeouts fall far below Fiers’ 542. Hellickson earned $3.63MM back in 2014, so with a more impressive platform year ERA plus three years of salary inflation, we would expect Fiers to easily top Hellickson’s salary. It is difficult to find much evidence that Fiers will hit his $4.3MM projection, though, since many of the pitchers in that range have much better cases than he does. I suspect he may be able to get close to $4MM, but probably not top it.
All four of these pitchers are likely to earn a few hundred thousand dollars less than they are projected to earn. My arbitration model tends to miss these sorts of subtleties, and a longstanding symbolic barrier at $4.35MM definitely has skewed salaries in this range down a few hundred thousand dollars. Keuchel’s new record is much higher than Willis’ old record, but several other pitchers will probably need to top $4.35MM before the model results are smooth enough that we can stop shaving money off these projections.