Despite finishing under .500 during the regular season, the Astros made their fourth straight trip to the American League Championship Series in 2020. The Rays denied them a World Series berth, though, and the Astros have since lost one of their longtime stars to free agency.
Major League Signings
- Michael Brantley, OF: Two years, $32MM
- Jake Odorizzi, RHP: Three years, $23.5MM (third year is a player option)
- Pedro Baez, RHP: Two years, $12.5MM
- Jason Castro, C: Two years, $7MM
- Ryne Stanek, RHP: One year, $1.1MM
- Total spend: $76.1MM
Trades And Claims
- Acquired C Luke Berryhill from the Reds for LHP Cionel Perez
- Acquired cash from the Reds for RHP Brandon Bailey
- Claimed INF Robel Garcia from the Angels
Notable Minor League Signings
- George Springer, Josh Reddick, Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski, Dustin Garneau, Chase De Jong, Jack Mayfield, Humberto Castellanos, Cy Sneed, Rogelio Armenteros, Carlos Sanabria
The biggest question the Astros faced entering the offseason was whether they would be able to re-sign outfielder George Springer, a three-time All-Star who was hugely instrumental in the team’s recent success. The Astros made Springer an $18.9MM qualifying offer, which he summarily rejected, and it doesn’t seem they put forth much of an effort to retain him after that. In the end, Springer exited Houston for another AL team – Toronto – for a six-year, $150MM payday.
Springer wasn’t the only noteworthy Astros outfielder who hit the market, as Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick joined him in seeking new contracts. Reddick remains a free agent, but the Astros did keep Brantley on a two-year, $32MM pact after deciding against issuing him a qualifying offer. It’s a reasonable deal when considering what Brantley brings to the table at the plate, though it’s not unwarranted to be concerned about his age (34 in May) and ability to play left field on an everyday basis. Brantley spent a large portion of last season as the Astros’ designated hitter as Yordan Alvarez battled knee problems, but that role won’t be available much this year if Alvarez’s health holds up. Assuming Alvarez is the regular DH, that would leave Brantley and Kyle Tucker as Houston’s corner outfielders.
With Springer out the door, the Astros did show offseason interest in other outfielders – Andrew Benintendi via trade, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Yasiel Puig in free agency – but didn’t come away with any outside additions on guaranteed contracts. As a result, they’re primed to start the season with the mostly unproven duo of Myles Straw and Chas McCormick as their top two center fielders. Straw’s a speedster and an adept defender, though he has almost no power and is coming off a brutal 2020 as a hitter. McCormick, meanwhile, has never played in the majors, but he does rank as Baseball America’s No. 12 Astros prospect.
One of the reasons the Astros are in position to gamble on untested center fielders is the overall strength of their offense. Brantley, Alvarez and Tucker can flat-out hit. The same has typically been true of second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Carlos Correa, even though both players endured down years in 2020. Third baseman Alex Bregman also wasn’t quite himself last season, but he remains one of the premier players in the game at his position.
That group should lead an above-average attack this year, but the rest of Houston’s offense isn’t quite as imposing. The team brought back a former longtime Astro in Jason Castro to team with Martin Maldonado at catcher. While those two probably aren’t going to combine for great offensive production, they’re well-regarded defenders who should make life easier on the Astros’ pitching staff.
First baseman Yuli Gurriel had a career year in 2019 before his output plummeted a season ago, yet the Astros still gave him a new one-year, $7MM contract in September. Such contract extensions so close to a player’s free agency are surprising, and from Houston’s perspective, the Gurriel deal continues to look like somewhat of a curious move. However, in fairness to the Astros, this past winter’s crop of free-agent first basemen was rather weak, leading them to keep around a familiar face on an affordable contract.
On the pitching front, the Astros will have to go a second consecutive season without ace Justin Verlander, who underwent Tommy John surgery in the fall. But even without Verlander last year, the Astros’ rotation – which consisted primarily of Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy – still held up well. Most of that group is back this year, but unfortunately, Houston may have to go without Valdez for most or all of the season. Valdez enjoyed a breakout 2020, though he’s now dealing with a broken ring finger that will shelve him for the foreseeable future.
The Astros’ starting depth took yet another hit with the loss of high-end prospect Forrest Whitley, who will undergo TJ surgery and won’t pitch this year. The club did, however, help cover its bases earlier this month when it signed accomplished right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who will slot in along with Greinke, McCullers, Javier and Urquidy to open the season. Odorizzi’s two-year, $23MM pact includes a $6.5MM player option for 2023, which the Astros included in an effort to lower their luxury-tax commitment this season.
In light of the Odorizzi acquisition, there’s little wiggle room under the $210MM threshold for the Astros, who Jason Martinez of Roster Resource projects are between $208MM and $209MM right now. Because of that, veteran minor league pickups Steve Cishek and Steven Souza Jr. – whose contracts include $2.25MM and $1.15MM MLB salaries, respectively – are less likely to earn roster spots with the club.
Cishek was one of a few relievers the Astros brought in after their bullpen notched mediocre numbers last season. They showed interest in some big fish in free agency (e.g., Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Alex Colome and Joakim Soria), ultimately coming away with former Dodger Pedro Baez and ex-Ray Ryne Stanek. Baez has always prevented runs at a good clip, though he was more expensive than expected (two years, $12.5MM) after an injury-shortened year in which his average fastball velocity and strikeouts dropped to career-low levels. The 33-year-old is currently on the COVID-19 list, so it’s unclear whether he will be ready for the start of the season.
General manager James Click took a low-risk chance on Stanek, whom he’s familiar with from their time with the Rays. Click was part of the front office that used a first-round pick on Stanek in 2013, and the flamethrowing righty had a solid two-year stretch with the Rays from 2018-19 before Tampa traded him to the Marlins in the latter of those years. Unfortunately for Stanek, the 2020 season couldn’t have gone much worse, as he yielded eight runs and walked eight batters in just 10 innings.
Stanek is one of several Astros who could reach free agency next offseason, but he’s at the lower end of the totem pole in comparison to Correa, Verlander, Greinke and McCullers. Verlander is hardly in prime position for an extension, and there hasn’t been much buzz about Greinke, but Correa and McCullers have made it known they’d prefer to stay in Houston. Click has interest in keeping the pair, but if no extensions are in place by Opening Day, negotiations (if any are taking place) could cease until the end of the season. Correa’s on track to be part of the elite class of free agents who could approach a $300MM-plus guarantee, so the Astros will have their hands full in trying to keep him from hitting the market. McCullers won’t be nearly that expensive, but he’s just 27 years old at the moment and could command a lucrative multiyear payday.
Regardless of whether the Astros reach extensions with any in-house talent before the season, and even in spite of Springer’s exit, their roster once again looks strong enough to contend in the AL West this year. The Athletics won the division last year, but their roster doesn’t appear to be as strong as it was then. The Angels have made some improvements, but their offseason didn’t feature any enormous splashes, and it’s easy to be skeptical of a franchise mired in a six-year playoff drought. The other teams in the West – the Mariners and Rangers – will have difficulty getting to the .500 mark.
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