After turning in three consecutive 100-loss seasons, the Astros will look to take a few steps forward this winter.
- Jose Altuve, 2B: $1.25MM
Arbitration Eligible Players
The Astros haven't been to the postseason in eight years and, barring something unforeseen, that streak won't be snapped in 2014. However, one has to imagine the Astros will feel compelled to field a team that is markedly more competitive than this year's lineup. To call the 2013 roster bare bones would be an understatement. The Astros opened the season with a payroll of $26.1MM, and after Bud Norris was traded in July, Erik Bedard stood as their highest paid player with a salary of $1.15MM. Insert your own fun numbers crunch here, but here's the one we'll go with: Alex Rodriguez individually outearned the entire Astros roster in 2013 and Bedard's salary would make him the 23rd highest-paid player on the Yankees.
That should change a bit in 2014 as owner Jim Crane, who watched his club drop their final 15 games of the season, says he's impressed by the progress made by some of the club's top prospects and ready to spend to address some of the team's needs. One area that needs attention is power, as Houston finished near the bottom of the league in slugging percentage at .375. They could look to plug someone with pop in right field alongside Robbie Grossman in left field and George Springer in center field. Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, had an outstanding year in the minors with a .303/.411/.600 slash line and 37 homers in 135 combined Double-A and Triple-A games. Scouts have always spoken highly of his defensive play, so he shouldn't have too much trouble in the field. They'll have a number of young outfielders jostling for big league roster spots in camp, including L.J. Hoes, but a proven commodity is badly needed.
Houston may also go for an upgrade at designated hitter or first base. Chris Carter and Brett Wallace project to fill those roles again but it wouldn't hurt to add someone else to the mix who can help with the Astros' power outage. On the opposite side of the diamond, they're comfortable with Matt Dominguez and his defense, but they'll keep their fingers crossed for an uptick in offensive production. That's not to say that he didn't deliver at the plate, however – his 21 homers were a welcome surprise in Houston.
Even though the purse strings should be loosened somewhat, the Astros still aren't expected to make a serious play for any of the winter's top free agents. A big bat like Shin-Soo Choo (.285/.423/.462 slash line in 2013) would be a major boost, but with a price tag that could exceed $100MM, there is virtually no chance of Houston biting. While the Astros have promising young players in the mix, they're nowhere near ready to contend, which means big checks won't be written this year.
The Astros have several areas to address, but last month General Manager Jeff Luhnow said the bullpen will be a top priority. Houston's young relievers posted a combined 4.92 ERA in 2013, beating out the Mariners for the worst in the majors by a good margin. The Astros will comb the open market for stronger eighth and ninth inning options while looking for improved performances from rookies Chia-Jen Lo, Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, and Rule 5 pickup Josh Fields. University of Houston product Jesse Crain would be one interesting option who could be a valuable trade chip over the summer. Ryan Madson and Joel Hanrahan will also be available and, if healthy, they could be convinced to take a relatiely low-base, incentive-laden deal with Houston if given the opportunity to show their stuff in the final inning.
Bedard had a decent year for the Astros (4.59 ERA, 8.2 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9) and even picked up trade interest over the summer, but he may wind up signing elsewhere this winter. With an extremely young group of starting pitchers, Houston will probably look to find a veteran pitcher who can offer the same kind of savvy, leadership, and stability as Bedard did in 2013 if they don't re-sign him. Chad Gaudin and Tim Stauffer will be out there if Houston feels compelled to bring in a new elder statesman for the starting five. Beyond that, they'll bank on a much better season from Lucas Harrell and an added boost from right-hander Asher Wojciechowski, who turned in a 3.32 ERA with 7.4 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City this season.
Internally, the Astros could look to care of in-house talent Jason Castro. The catcher enjoyed a breakout season in 2013, slashlng .276/.350/.485 and cementing himself as one of the more promising young backstops in the game. This week, Tim Dierkes suggested that the Astros could look into a team-friendly extension for the 26-year-old and noted that three catchers in his service class signed three-year deals in the $8-9MM range. Two of those deals, however, were signed in 2010.
Ultimately, success for the 2014 Astros won't be measured entirely by wins and losses, but another 100-loss season won't be acceptable by any measure. If the Astros can pull themselves out of the cellar and see even more progress from guys like Castro, they'll be in a stronger position next fall and one year closer to making some noise.