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After snapping a nine-year playoff drought a season ago, the Astros entered the 2016 campaign with championship aspirations. A dreadful April ultimately helped doom the Astros to a third-place finish in the American League West, but they still recorded their second straight winning season for the first time in a decade. Given the plethora of talent that’s already in place, a productive offseason from general manager Jeff Luhnow would restart the hype machine for Houston next spring.
- Yulieski Gurriel, IF/OF: $44MM through 2020
- Tony Sipp, RP: $12MM through 2018
- Luke Gregerson, RP: $6.25MM through 2017
- Jose Altuve, 2B: $4.5MM through 2017 (club options for 2018 and 2019)
- Jon Singleton, 1B: $4MM through 2018 (club options from 2019-2021)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Marwin Gonzalez (4.133) – $3.6MM
- Dallas Keuchel (4.089) – $9.5MM
- Will Harris (3.102) – $2.5MM
- Mike Fiers (3.085) – $4.3MM
- Collin McHugh (3.085) – $4.6MM
- George Springer (2.166) – $4.7MM
- Jake Marisnick (2.135) – $1.1MM
- Pat Neshek, RP: $6.5MM club option ($500K buyout)
- Evan Gattis, C/DH: $5.2MM club option ($100K buyout)
At the outset of the season, the Astros had an enviable long-term core of position players consisting of second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and right fielder George Springer. That group welcomed two new members during the summer in Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel. The arrival of the 22-year-old Bregman, whom the Astros chose second overall in the 2015 draft, wasn’t surprising. But the addition of Gurriel, 32, from outside the organization was an eye-opener. Houston won the much-hyped sweepstakes for the the longtime Cuban superstar in July, inking him to a five-year, $47.5MM pact.
Gurriel’s deal is the largest free agent contract the Astros have handed out since Jim Crane purchased the franchise in 2011. The Astros were in a rebuild in the first few years of Crane’s tenure, thus leading to limited payrolls – including a comically low $26MM and change in 2013. While the Astros have spent far more liberally of late, the $96MM-plus payroll with which they opened this year still ranked toward the bottom of the majors. In discussing his offseason plans earlier this month, Luhnow revealed that Houston aims to spend on outside acquisitions, saying, “We’re going to have the resources to go out and sign some players.”
The Luhnow-led Astros took a modest approach to free agency last winter, when the only multiyear deal they doled out went to reliever Tony Sipp (three years, $18MM). They also reeled in starter Doug Fister for $7MM and retained outfielder Colby Rasmus, who eschewed the open market in favor of the Astros’ $15.8MM qualifying offer. Those two are without contracts again, and after their mediocre performances this year, it’s doubtful Houston will re-sign either (Luhnow has all but said Rasmus’ tenure with the Astros is over).
Two other notable Astros, third baseman Luis Valbuena and catcher Jason Castro, are also unsigned. Valbuena has been a solid offensive producer in his two seasons in Houston, but as primarily a third baseman, he might not have a place on the team anymore. Either Bregman or Gurriel will take over at the hot corner (Luhnow called Bregman’s rookie showing there “exceptional”), and with them around, Valbuena’s only hope to stay with the Astros could be as a first baseman. Even that might not be realistic if Gurriel is the Astros’ choice to man first.
In Castro’s case, the Astros have a “strong desire” to keep the backstop around, according to Luhnow. Castro combines roughly league-average offense relative to his position with defensive excellence, so losing him wouldn’t be an ideal outcome for the Astros. However, as one of the majors’ most accomplished soon-to-be free agent catchers (Matt Wieters, Wilson Ramos and Nick Hundley are the others), he’s a candidate to find a raise and full-time work with another team.
Given that the Astros relied so heavily on Fister, Rasmus, Valbuena and Castro this year, their statuses will certainly affect how the club handles the offseason. Fister tossed the Astros’ second-most innings (180 1/3), so venturing outside the organization for a replacement is possible. Rasmus played more than half the season in left field and was actually one of the league’s elite defenders. As mentioned, the Astros have ready-made successors to Valbuena at third, though bringing him back as a first baseman would take away a potential need there.
Behind the plate, it’s likely Castro’s exit would at least mean adding a backup to slugger Evan Gattis, whose $5.2MM club option the Astros will exercise. Houston has other backstops under control in Max Stassi and Tyler Heineman, but opting for a free agent like Kurt Suzuki, Geovany Soto or Alex Avila instead isn’t out of the question. While Gattis earned mostly positive defensive marks from Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner in his 52 games at catcher this year, the Astros could be more comfortable with him as mainly a designated hitter. If so, the urgency to lock up Castro, obtain Wieters or Hundley, or pursue a trade for a veteran (the Yankees’ Brian McCann or the Padres’ Derek Norris, to name a couple) would seemingly increase. While Ramos could draw the Astros’ interest, too, it’s difficult to speculate on a player who had major knee surgery earlier this month.
Along with catcher, Luhnow has publicly identified first base and the outfield as areas worth addressing. The Astros entered the season hoping then-highly touted prospect A.J. Reed would force his way into the everyday first base role, but he didn’t resemble a major league-caliber option in his 45-game, 141-plate appearance introduction (.164/.270/.262). Tyler White was also subpar in 276 PAs (.217/.286/.378), utilityman Marwin Gonzalez doesn’t have the bat to handle the position, and Jon Singleton might be a lost cause. If Luhnow doesn’t want to hand the reins at first to those four or Gurriel, who could head to the outfield if Bregman stays at third, there will be potential solutions on the open market.
The Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion is the premier soon-to-be available choice at first – and the right-handed hitter would donate plenty of souvenirs to the fans sitting in Minute Maid Park’s Crawford Boxes in left field – but the 33-year-old (34 in January) is a good bet to garner $20MM-plus per annum on a multiyear deal.While the Orioles’ Mark Trumbo and the Indians’ Mike Napoli should cost significantly less than Encarnacion, they might be too similar to former Astro Chris Carter for Luhnow’s taste. Two more Orioles, Steve Pearce and Pedro Alvarez, and the Cardinals’ Brandon Moss are also worth monitoring. Alvarez or Moss would provide a much-needed left-handed bat to a lineup whose best returning hitters (Altuve, Correa, Springer, Bregman, Gattis and Gurriel) are all righties. However, those two are also Carter-esque.
Shifting to the outfield, Houston could add two new starters to join Springer, though it’ll be just one if Bregman or Gurriel takes a spot. Aside from failed Astros experiment Carlos Gomez, some of the most established center field choices on the market will include another ex-Astro, switch-hitting Cub Dexter Fowler, as well as the Rangers’ Ian Desmond and the Padres’ Jon Jay. Both Fowler and Desmond will net sizable contracts. That won’t be the case with the lefty-swinging Jay, whom the Cardinals drafted when Luhnow was in their front office in 2006.
The Astros also have center field possibilities within their ranks in Springer, Jake Marisnick, Teoscar Hernandez and Derek Fisher. Although defensively gifted, Marisnick has not established himself as an everyday player because of his negative offensive value. Hernandez, meanwhile, fared respectably at the plate in his first taste of the majors (.230/.304/.420) after several solid years in the minors. Fisher, whom Baseball America ranked as the sport’s 94th-best prospect in July, has done nothing but rake since the Astros chose him in the first round of the 2014 draft (Fisher could also succeed Rasmus in left).
In the corners, free agents like Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista and the lefty-swinging Josh Reddick could pique the Astros’ interest. Cespedes is likely to sign the richest deal in free agency this winter, of course, so landing him might be a pipe dream for Houston. Bautista’s also going to command a high annual salary despite the fact that he’s 36 and seemingly on the decline.
The Astros had seven of Baseball America’s 100 best prospects at midseason (including Bregman but excluding Reed), so Luhnow could conceivably use his farm system and some of the youth on the Astros’ roster to acquire proven talent from other clubs. In the outfield, ex-Astro J.D. Martinez (Tigers), Andrew McCutchen (Pirates), Charlie Blackmon (Rockies), Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies), Yasiel Puig (Dodgers), Lorenzo Cain (Royals), Jorge Soler (Cubs), Ryan Braun (Brewers) and Jay Bruce (Mets) have all gone through the rumor mill in recent months.
The trade route’s also a possibility if the Astros try to upgrade their rotation in the offseason, as free agency won’t feature any front-end starters other than the Dodgers’ Rich Hill. Assuming their GMs would want Bregman in return, it’s probably fair to immediately rule out acquiring either of the White Sox’s aces – Chris Sale and Jose Quintana – and the Rays’ Chris Archer. Swinging a deal for Ervin Santana (Twins), Jake Odorizzi or Drew Smyly (Rays), Gio Gonzalez (Nationals), Jaime Garcia (Cardinals), Jason Hammel (Cubs) or Clay Buchholz (Red Sox) would be a more achievable goal, though it’s obviously not a lock any will move. Odorizzi and Smyly seldom generate ground balls, which would make them questionable fits for Minute Maid Park – especially with the removal of Tal’s Hill causing the center field fence to come in 27 feet (436 to 409). Garcia, on the other hand, is adept at inducing grounders and would benefit from exchanging the Cardinals’ infielders for the Astros’. Further, Luhnow was with the Cardinals when they drafted Garcia in 2005.
Although Houston’s rotation was a letdown in 2016, not picking up a starter from outside the organization over the next few months wouldn’t necessarily be catastrophic. The Astros currently have a full rotation on paper with 2015 AL Cy Young winner/2016 disappointment Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh, Joe Musgrove and Mike Fiers. Prospects Francis Martes, David Paulino and Brady Rodgers are in the mix, too, and Luhnow has expressed a desire to transition quietly superb reliever Chris Devenski to a starting role. Grabbing a veteran free agent at least deserves consideration, though, particularly with both Keuchel (shoulder) and McCullers (shoulder and elbow) having gone through injury-shortened seasons.
Sticking with the ground-ball theme, Ivan Nova, native Texan Andrew Cashner, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, Jhoulys Chacin and Brett Anderson could each hit the market, but whether anyone from that group will be worth pursuing is debatable. The inconsistent, homer-prone Nova is going to sign a relatively substantial deal on account of two terrific months in Pittsburgh. Morton and Anderson just finished injury-plagued seasons (nothing new for either), and it’s no guarantee that healthy versions would be any better in 2017 than Fister was this year. The same goes for Cashner, Volquez and Chacin.
Fortunately for Houston, it has a bullpen capable of taking some of the burden off the starters. If Devenski remains a reliever after an outstanding rookie year, he’ll once again join Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, Michael Feliz and the aforementioned Sipp to comprise most of the Astros’ bullpen. Jandel Gustave, who held his own after a late-season promotion, could also be a factor. Pat Neshek’s status is up in the air, meanwhile, as the team must decide whether to exercise the 36-year-old’s $6.5MM option or buy him out for $500K. Of those eight relievers, the only southpaw is Sipp, on whom left-handed hitters teed off on this year (.281/.360/.534). Luhnow is cognizant of that, having referred to the need to find another lefty as “glaring.” Signing the Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman in free agency would make the Astros’ bullpen downright frightening, but it’s tough to imagine them committing anywhere from $80MM to $100MM to a closer. Fellow impending free agents like Jerry Blevins, Brett Cecil, Mike Dunn, J.P. Howell, Boone Logan, Javier Lopez and Marc Rzepczynski are likelier targets.
Whether positively or negatively, every free agent covered thus far will contribute in 2017. But one infielder/outfielder on the market who already has Houston’s attention – Lourdes Gurriel – isn’t a shoo-in to play in the majors next season. The Astros have shown interest in the brother of Yulieski Gurriel, whose presence could tip the scale in their favor if they make a serious attempt to woo Lourdes. The younger Gurriel became a free agent in August, but he has held off on signing because of the majors’ international bonus restrictions. Those are no longer relevant to Lourdes Gurriel, who turned 23 last week. A signing could come any day now, and until the Astros are out of the picture, they’ll be regarded as one of the favorites for Lourdes’ services because of his brother’s place in their organization.
Looking ahead to next season, whether Luhnow meaningfully upgrades the Astros’ roster in the coming months will determine if they’ll once again be on the short list of realistic World Series contenders in April. Houston didn’t follow up its 2015 coming-out party the way it wanted to, but some of the star-caliber talent already present at least gives the team a high floor. If Crane opens the purse strings and enables Luhnow to make a splash or two during the winter, the Astros could have a championship-level ceiling as early as next year.