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The Astros fell just shy of their second straight World Series berth in 2018. Now, with the offseason underway, they’re facing multiple key departures in free agency.
- Jose Altuve, 2B: $136.5MM through 2024
- Justin Verlander, RHP: $28MM through 2019
- Josh Reddick, OF: $26MM through 2020
- Yuli Gurriel, INF: $18MM through 2020
- George Springer, OF: $12MM through 2019
- Joe Smith, RP: $8MM through 2019
- Hector Rondon, RP: $4.5MM through 2019
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Gerrit Cole – $13.1MM
- Roberto Osuna – $6.5MM
- Collin McHugh – $5.4MM
- Carlos Correa – $5.1MM
- Lance McCullers – $4.6MM
- Will Harris – $3.6MM
- Ryan Pressly – $3.1MM
- Brad Peacock – $2.9MM
- Jake Marisnick – $2.4MM
- Chris Herrmann – $1.5MM
- Chris Devenski – $1.4MM
- Non-tender candidates: Marisnick, Herrmann
- Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Marwin Gonzalez, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, Tony Sipp, Martin Maldonado
Elite starting pitching was a hallmark of the Astros from 2017-18, but at the outset of the offseason, their rotation has lost quite a bit of luster. The terrific tandem of Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton may exit in free agency, while Lance McCullers Jr. will miss all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier this month. Fortunately for Houston, it still boasts a tremendous one-two punch in ace right-handers Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. The team’s starting mix is murkier thereafter, though president and general manager Jeff Luhnow suggested when McCullers went under the knife that the Astros would turn back to Collin McHugh as a starter after he worked exclusively out of their bullpen in 2018.
The 31-year-old McHugh was quietly one of the majors’ most effective relievers last season, so deploying him as a starter would obviously weaken Houston’s bullpen. At the same time, it would give the Astros another viable starter, something McHugh served as from 2014-17. He relieved last season because Houston had incredible starting depth, which isn’t quite the case right now. That’s not to say the cupboard is empty after McHugh, though, as the Astros still possess arguably the game’s No. 1 pitching prospect – towering righty Forrest Whitley, 21 – not to mention fellow top-100 prospect Josh James and swingman Brad Peacock. But Whitley seems likely to open 2019 at Triple-A, a level he hasn’t yet reached, and Peacock could stay in a relief role after totaling just one start in 61 appearances last season. James may have the most realistic chance of the three to begin 2019 in the Astros’ rotation, and the 25-year-old flamethrower did stand out late last season in the majors – albeit over just 23 1/3 innings divided between the rotation and bullpen.
Beyond Whitley, James and Peacock, there are a slew of starting options in the minors who either carry limited track records in the majors or no experience at the game’s highest level, as Jake Kaplan of The Athletic recently detailed (subscription required). With that in mind, it seems clear that restocking their rotation will be a priority for the Astros this winter.
There hasn’t been any word on whether the Astros will make an earnest attempt to re-sign Keuchel, a Scott Boras client who’s on a collision course with a substantial payday. On the other hand, Morton has made it known he’d welcome a return to Houston in 2019. Morton’s on the market unfettered after the Astros surprisingly decided against issuing him a one-year, $17.9MM qualifying offer at the beginning of the offseason. It’s fair to surmise Morton’s age (35 next week) and lengthy injury history played a role in that call, and those factors will also tamp down his earning power on the open market. Regardless, Morton was stellar as an Astro over the past two years – including during a 167-inning, 3.13 ERA showing in 2018 – and would be difficult to replace.
With the futures of Keuchel and Morton in question, the Astros figure to be in on some of the top available starting pitchers in the coming weeks – especially considering Verlander, Cole and McHugh are each signed for just one more season. Luhnow swung blockbuster trades in the past to acquire Verlander and Cole, and he may again go that route to bolster his rotation. It helps that the Astros happen to have one of the game’s most impressive farm systems, which could give them a legitimate chance to win a bidding war for the Indians’ Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco or Trevor Bauer (though the latter has had it out with Houston in the past), three front-line starters who each come with two or more years of control. The Indians will at least consider offers on that trio, while another high-caliber arm – James Paxton of the Mariners – may also find himself on the move.
Whether the Mariners would send Paxton to Houston, one of their AL West rivals, is anyone’s guess. The same concerns wouldn’t exist with Zack Greinke, whom the Diamondbacks could part with in a payroll-cutting measure. Even though he’s 35, Greinke remains an outstanding starter. However, he’s owed another $95.5MM through 2021, which not only limits his trade value but could scare off potential suitors (including Houston, though the club could likely afford to take on his contract). More reasonably priced targets may include hard-throwing lefty Robbie Ray, one of Greinke’s Arizona teammates, as well as the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman, the Orioles’ Dylan Bundy and the Yankees’ Sonny Gray. Aside from Gray, who’s slated to become a free agent in a year, all of those hurlers come with at least two controllable seasons. And while Stroman, Bundy and Gray struggled in 2018, it’s worth noting each were above average in terms of spin rate, in which the Astros are big believers.
Houston would likely be buying at least somewhat low on Stroman, Bundy or Gray, given the down years they had. Free agent Garrett Richards, another spin rate darling, also stands out as an intriguing buy-low candidate. Having undergone Tommy John surgery last July, Richards probably wouldn’t contribute in 2019. Although, if he inks a two-year deal, he’d be able to help Houston come 2020, when some or all of Verlander, Cole and McHugh could be off the team.
As far as healthy free-agent starters go, perhaps the Astros will explore the top of the market, where Patrick Corbin, Keuchel and Nathan Eovaldi are the headliners. The next tier includes J.A. Happ, Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi (if his team posts him), Morton and Hyun-Jin Ryu. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Astros come away with any of those starters, barring a trade(s).
A trade may be the Astros’ preferred way to upgrade behind the plate, which seems inevitable. With Brian McCann, Martin Maldonado and DH/onetime catcher Evan Gattis now unsigned, Houston’s down to Max Stassi and recent waiver claim Chris Herrmann as its backstops. Stassi was effective in 2018, especially as a defender, but his offensive production cratered after May. That could help point the Astros back to the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, the sport’s premier catcher in 2018. The Astros were in on Realmuto last winter, when they reportedly considered offering coveted young outfielder Kyle Tucker for him, but Miami ultimately retained its franchise player. However, now that Realmuto’s a year closer to free agency and still refuses to sign an extension with the Marlins, a trade’s probably coming sometime soon.
Houston’s certainly a logical fit for Realmuto, though it’ll have some alternatives in free agency if it’s unable to swing a deal with Miami. The leading member of the free-agent group, Yasmani Grandal, has already landed on the Astros’ radar. The 30-year-old Grandal’s the only catcher in the game who was a better pitch framer than Stassi in 2018, and he also brings a track record of quality hitting to the table.
While catcher looks like the Astros’ focus with respect to their position player cast, there are other concerns, including at DH. As excellent as the Astros were from 2017-18, their primary DHs – Carlos Beltran two years ago, Gattis last season – underwhelmed during that span. Sure, Gattis smacked 25 home runs in 2018, but he was a mediocre hitter overall (101 OPS+, 99 wRC+). Meanwhile, even though he was playing his age-38 season, the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz continued to serve as an offensive force. Cruz is now one of the foremost hitters available in free agency, and has drawn the Astros’ interest since the market opened.
Speculatively, the Astros may have other sluggers on their radar, including Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals first baseman/outfielder Jose Martinez, Rays first baseman C.J. Cron and Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak. It’s true that Houston already has a starting first baseman in Yuli Gurriel, but he was mediocre in 2018 and may be better served as a utility player. Taking on such a role would enable Gurriel to at least partially replace free-agent Swiss Army knife Marwin Gonzalez, who appears to be on his way to landing a raise outside of Houston.
Gonzalez saw more left field action in 2018 than any other Astro, which could put them in the market for help there if the 21-year-old Tucker’s not ready to assume the reins. If next season began today, Houston would possibly be looking at a Tony Kemp/Jake Marisnick platoon in left. Needless to say, that’s not the most confidence-inspiring duo. If the Astros really want to swing for the fences (no pun intended), they could go after free agent Bryce Harper, whom they nearly acquired from Washington at last summer’s non-waiver trade deadline. On paper, Harper’s projected annual salary ($30MM-plus) would push the Astros’ 2019 payroll to around $165MM – roughly a $5MM boost over last year’s franchise-record Opening Day outlay, and that’s without any improvements at other positions. However, the Astros only have $50MM-plus tied up in their 2020 roster and just $29MM locked in from 2020-24. A Harper pursuit may not be wholly out of the question, then, though the Astros could deem it infeasible with no proven starting pitchers under control past next season and three core players (Bregman, Correa and Springer) possibly due for massive extensions in the coming years.
Should a Harper-Astros union prove to be a flight of fancy, the club could still better its outfield mix in free agency with someone like center fielder A.J. Pollock, who’d enable Springer to move back to a corner on a full-time basis, or a high-profile corner bat such as Michael Brantley or Andrew McCutchen. For the most part, corner outfield trade possibilities don’t look as enticing.
As is the case with every team, the Astros figure to dedicate at least some offseason attention to their bullpen. The unit may lose McHugh to the rotation and lefty Tony Sipp to free agency, after all. Still, with Peacock, Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, Hector Rondon, Will Harris, Chris Devenski and Joe Smith slated to return, the Astros’ relief corps is in enviable shape. If Houston’s bullpen needs anything, it’s a southpaw to complement its septet of accomplished righties. It’s unclear whether the Astros are interested in re-signing Sipp, who bounced back in 2018 after two dreadful seasons. In the event Sipp’s on his way out, Houston may consider fellow free agents Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Justin Wilson, Oliver Perez and Jerry Blevins to replace him. It’s worth noting the Astros already have connections to four of those players. They unsuccessfully chased Britton and Wilson on the trade market in recent years, traded for Perez in 2015 (it didn’t go well), and made a generous offer to Miller during his previous trip to free agency in 2014.
It’s evident the Astros have an array of plausible paths they could take this winter in order to up their chances of winning a third straight AL West title in 2019 and recapturing World Series glory. Luhnow believes the Astros “have a championship-caliber roster already in place,” but don’t expect him to rest on his laurels in the coming months. With Keuchel, Morton and Gonzalez potentially leaving Houston, inactivity isn’t an option.