It was a tumultuous season for the Astros, to say the least. A security breach led to a large number of trade notes being leaked to the public, the team failed to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken and manager Bo Porter was dismissed in September after apparent communications problems with the front office and possibly some players. GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff will need to work to move past that bad press and focus on furthering the rebuilding efforts.
- Scott Feldman, RHP: $18MM through 2016
- Jose Altuve, 2B: $10.5MM through 2017
- Jon Singleton, 1B: $8.5MM through 2018
- Chad Qualls, RHP: $3.25MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (Service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Dexter Fowler, CF (5.168): $9MM projected salary
- Jason Castro, C (4.104): $3.9MM
- Chris Carter, 1B/DH (2.159): $3.5MM
- Tony Sipp, LHP (5.100): $1.5MM
- Alex Presley, OF (2.162): $1.2MM
- Carlos Corporan, C (3.019): $1MM
- Marwin Gonzalez, SS (2.133): $1MM
- Anthony Bass, RHP (2.148): $600K
- Non-tender candidates: Bass, Presley
- Matt Albers, RHP: $3MM club option with a $200K buyout
Houston’s offseason began while the season was still underway, to some degree, as the team fired Porter and began the search for a new manager. A.J. Hinch — a statistically inclined 40-year-old with previous experience as a big league skipper and front office exec — was selected for the job and seems to be a good fit with the team’s unorthodox philosophies. As for the payroll, that figure almost doubled from 2013 to 2014, though it still sat at just $50MM to open the year. Nonetheless, owner Jim Crane told the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich that payroll could go up by another $20MM and noted that Luhnow could look to “add some cornerstones” as long as it makes baseball sense. That’ll be addressed in more depth later, but first, a quick look back at the season that was.
Lost in many of the negative narratives surrounding the 2014 Astros was the fact that the team took a large step in the right direction in terms of results. The team made a 19-game improvement over its 2013 performance, and the much-hyped future began to emerge on the field. George Springer debuted and hit .231/.336/.468 with 20 homers in just 345 plate appearances, although his season was cut short by an injured quadriceps muscle. Unheralded hurlers Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh stepped out of obscurity and into the spotlight not only as reliable arms, but as potential front-line options. Each was worth more than three wins above replacement, per Fangraphs, and more than four WAR according to Baseball-Reference. The only player in baseball who hit more home runs than Carter was Nelson Cruz. Mike Foltynewicz and his 100 mph fastball made a bullpen cameo at season’s end, though the team hopes that his future is alongside Keuchel and McHugh in the rotation. And of course, Altuve hit .341/.377/.453 and captured his first batting title. The second baseman led all of Major League Baseball with 225 hits and swiped 56 bases — tops in the AL — in addition to his excellent work at the plate.
One much-ballyhooed name that didn’t contribute this season, however, was Singleton. His contract extension was widely considered a loss for the player and a steal for the Astros seemingly before the ink dried, but five months later, it’s hard to blame him for taking his first fortune. Singleton batted just .168/.285/.335 with a 37 percent strikeout rate, and while he may be Houston’s first baseman of the future, I’d imagine he’ll have to earn a roster spot next year. Carter can assume the first base duties if Singleton is ticketed for Triple-A to open the year.
Houston may feel set at catcher with Castro, even if he didn’t live up to the high standard he set with an elite 2013 campaign. The Stanford product hit .222/.286/.366 with 14 homers — numbers that, while unspectacular, aren’t vastly inferior to the .244/.309/.376 that MLB catchers averaged in 2014. The outfield, too, figures to be more or less locked in with Springer in right, Fowler in center and a combination of Jake Marisnick (acquired in July’s Jarred Cosart trade) and Robbie Grossman. Top prospect Domingo Santana is another option.
One player they could make an exception for would be Yasmany Tomas. Last offseason, Houston made serious runs at both Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka, falling a few million shy with their bid for Abreu and reportedly bidding over $100MM for Tanaka. Both were seen as more certain investments than Tomas, so it’s possible that Houston won’t be as interested this time around. However, one can also envision a scenario in which the team steadfastly refuses to miss out on a third international superstar and goes the extra mile for Tomas, especially if they’re convinced of his star potential. He could certainly qualify as one of the aforementioned “cornerstones,” and it does seem likely that the Astros will be involved. Were they to sign Tomas, Santana and Grossman could become trade chips, while Marisnick and Springer rounded out the long-term outfield mix. Of course, that’s all highly speculative.
Where else can Houston look to upgrade? The left side of the infield is a prime spot for Luhnow to target. Opening Day starters Matt Dominguez and Jonathan Villar flopped, as the former hit just .215/.256/.330 and the latter was every bit as feeble before eventually being demoted to the minors. Houston might not have to wait long until the future at each position arrives, however, as a pair of Top 6 draft picks from 2012-13 are looming. The Astros selected Carlos Correa — ranked as the game’s No. 3 prospect midseason by Baseball America and ESPN, and ranked second by MLB.com — with the first overall pick in 2012, and he dominated Class-A Advanced before a fractured fibula ended his season. Colin Moran, the UNC third baseman selected sixth overall by Miami in 2013, was acquired alongside Marisnick and hit .304/.350/.411 with Houston’s Double-A affiliate in 29 games at a young age for that level (21).
With Moran and Correa not terribly far off, stopgaps are an attractive and logical concept for the Astros. Houston could be a nice low-pressure environment for someone like Stephen Drew to attempt to rebuild his value on a one-year deal. He’d provide sound defense even if his bat didn’t fully recover despite a full Spring Training, and if he performed well, he would of course be a logical trade chip. The same could be said of Alberto Callaspo, who entered 2014 as a lifetime .273/.335/.381 hitter with a solid defensive reputation but batted just .223/.290/.290 this year. Neither option is elite, but both are bounceback candidates that could be had at relatively inexpensive levels. If Houston wants to look more long-term at third base for a potential mainstay, they could try to make the highest bid on a multi-year deal for Chase Headley, whom Tim Dierkes profiled earlier today.
As far as the rotation is concerned, Houston has a pair of potential stalwarts, as previously noted, in addition to the veteran Feldman as a solid rotation cog. Mark Appel’s Class-A struggles were highly publicized, but rumors of his demise as a prospect looked to have been greatly exaggerated as soon as he reached Double-A. In 39 frames at that level, he posted a solid 3.69 ERA with a strong 38-to-13 K/BB ratio. He may not be a factor next year, but he’s firmly in the organization’s plans, along with Foltynewicz, Keuchel and McHugh. One-year, upside plays such as Brett Anderson, Brandon Morrow, Justin Masterson and Gavin Floyd all make some degree of sense. If the team wants to expand its search to include multi-year candidates, it may have to go the route it did with Feldman in 2013-14 — offer an extra year at a solid annual rate in order to secure the deal. (I speculated in my recent free agent profile on Brandon McCarthy that some clubs may go that route with him, for example.)
The bullpen presents perhaps the most glaring weakness on the team, and Luhnow has indicated that it will be a priority. Rolling the dice on Albers would be a $2.8MM gamble coming off some serious health issues, so I’d expect him to be bought out for $200K. After that decision, the remaining options aren’t inspiring. Beyond Qualls, Sipp and perhaps Josh Fields, there was little continuity and little reason to expect significantly better performance from the arms that were present. The team did claim Sam Deduno from the Twins in late August, so perhaps the plan is for him to serve as a swingman. Still there appears to be room for at least two veteran upgrades.
Throwing a lot of money at David Robertson doesn’t seem like something the club is likely to do, but there’s some upside to rolling the dice on a former closer who struggled a bit in 2014, such as Sergio Romo. Another avenue perhaps worth exploring would be to sign a setup man with a strong track record such as Luke Gregerson and promise him the ninth inning as a means of enticement. Some buy-low, late-inning options could include Andrew Bailey, Jason Motte and Luke Hochevar, though Houston may want more certainty after being burned by Crain in 2014. I like Jason Grilli, Casey Janssen and Burke Badenhop as fits for the Astros as well.
We’ve learned in past years that it’s tough to rule out the Astros trading anyone — just ask Cosart — and they do have some players that seem like candidates this coming winter. Fowler has just one year remaining before free agency and is projected to earn a fairly hefty $9MM. Castro could be an attractive trade chip for rival clubs given the paper-thin free agent market for catchers. Houston does have an in-house alternative at catcher in the form of the cost-controlled Max Stassi, who a year ago was their No. 12 prospect (per Baseball America) and ranked 19th among Astros farmhands on MLB.com’s midseason Top 20 list. The team reportedly shopped Carter this past July, although that was before he batted .253/.336/.526 with 16 homers in his final 52 contests. That impressive showing, especially given the difficulty of finding offense in today’s game, may have swayed their thinking. Then again, they may think that success unrepeatable and look to sell at peak value.
The Astros are staunchly unafraid of being nontraditional, and right or wrong, that often renders them as little more than a punchline in many circles. However, the team has an impressive farm system that is slowly crossing the threshold to the Major League roster, and it’s easy to envision a group that resembles a contender in the not-too-distant future. That time almost certainly won’t be 2015, however, unless the ’Stros catch a large number of breaks. A few well-calculated stopgaps could help bridge the gap to the next wave of talent — Correa, Moran, Appel, Foltynewicz, Santana, Josh Hader and others — and potentially lead to a further influx of talent into the Houston pipeline. A veteran “cornerstone,” as Crane alluded to, isn’t out of the question, but aside from a run at a young talent like Tomas, it’s difficult to envision the Astros playing at the top of the free agent market.