A quiet offseason for the Astros wasn’t exactly difficult to foresee, given their already sizable luxury-tax considerations, but it’s nevertheless a bit surprising that the team’s most notable expenditures have been two-year deals to re-sign Joe Smith ($8MM total) and Martin Maldonado ($7MM total). Last night’s acquisition of spin-rate savant Austin Pruitt added another arm to the rotation mix, but Houston fans surely are hoping for additional moves. President of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow, however, downplayed the likelihood of a splashier move (Twitter link via FOX 26’s Mark Berman).
“A couple of non-roster invitees, and we’re still going to look at Major League players that are out there in case there’s someone that’s a clear upgrade for us,” Luhnow said when asked about what’s next for his club. “For the Major League catching, we might sign another minor league catcher with Major League experience.”
For a team that has lost Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, Will Harris, Robinson Chirinos, Hector Rondon and perhaps Collin McHugh (he remains unsigned) without adding any real certainty to the roster, that comment portends a rather measured approach. Luhnow, of course, didn’t expressly rule out a notable signing or trade, but with the Astros already sitting on a $216MM projected payroll with $233.5MM in luxury considerations (both numbers via Jason Martinez of Roster Resource), adding notable salary doesn’t seem particularly likely. Perhaps the ’Stros can still find a taker for some of Josh Reddick’s salary, but even ditching his full $13MM (unlikely) wouldn’t put Houston below the luxury barrier.
With regard to the lineup, Houston still looks utterly dominant. Maldonado doesn’t give much reason for optimism with the bat as the likely everyday catcher, but beyond him, Houston possesses a veritable murderer’s row. The Astros boast plus bats at every other lineup spot — particularly if ballyhooed prospect Kyle Tucker can build on his strong 2019 showing in an expanded role.
It’s the pitching staff that’s likely to be the source of the most scrutiny among fans and pundits alike. Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke comprise a formidable one-two punch atop the staff, and a healthy Lance McCullers Jr. makes a fine mid-rotation piece. It’s anyone’s guess as to how he’ll bounce back from 2018 Tommy John surgery, though, and we don’t yet know if there’ll be a workload restriction in place.
Looking past that trio, Luhnow said late in the season that right-hander Jose Urquidy will “likely” be in the 2020 rotation, and competitors for the final spot include Brad Peacock, Framber Valdez, Rogelio Armenteros and the newly acquired Pruitt. Top prospect Forrest Whitley could position himself for a look later this season, but he needs to bounce back from a disastrous 2019 season before that happens. Perhaps Houston can take a low-cost flier on an Alex Wood or Taijuan Walker reclamation, adding an affordable but high-upside arm to the mix — but that’s solely my own speculation.
A bullpen consisting of some combination of Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, Smith, Josh James, Chris Devenski, Joe Biagini and Bryan Abreu could certainly emerge as a strength, although the ’Stros haven’t really addressed the lack of left-handed options. (Valdez would be one if he doesn’t land in the rotation.)
None of this is to say that the Astros are no longer the favorites in the AL West. Rotation questions aside, Houston won more games than any club in baseball in 2019, has two high-end starters atop its rotation, owns a solid mix of relievers and a possesses a deadly lineup. And any payroll crunch that exists could be alleviated next winter when Michael Brantley, Reddick, Yuli Gurriel, George Springer and Peacock (a combined $60MM+ in salary) are all free agents.
That said, unless the Astros can pull off a deal for a controllable rotation piece who’s not yet arbitration-eligible (or perhaps in his first year of arb), it’s hard to see a sizable upgrade being added to the 2019 mix in light of Luhnow’s comments and their current payroll/luxury tax status.