The Astros didn’t make many notable outside additions over the winter. They’re relying on an excellent internal core to make another run at a World Series, counting on their top prospect to step into the major leagues to replace one of the game’s best players.
Major League Signings
- RHP Justin Verlander: One year, $25MM (deal also contains $25MM player option for 2023 which vests if Verlander reaches 130 innings this season)
- RHP Héctor Neris: Two years, $17MM (deal also contains $8.5MM team option for 2024, which Neris can vest into a player option based on number of appearances)
- SS Niko Goodrum: One year, $2.1MM
2022 spending: $35.1MM
Total spending: $44.1MM
Trades and claims
- Signed RHP Ryan Pressly to a two-year, $30MM extension (deal also contains vesting option for 2025 based on number of appearances)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Carlos Correa, Kent Emanuel, Yimi García, Marwin González, Kendall Graveman, Zack Greinke, Brooks Raley, Stubbs
The Astros entered the offseason coming off a disappointing finish in the World Series, which they dropped in six games to the Braves. Considering Houston made it back to the Fall Classic — their fifth consecutive season advancing at least as far as the AL Championship Series — it stood to reason they’d try to preserve as much continuity as possible.
Generally speaking, that proved to be the case. The Astros didn’t do much to bring in talent from the outside the organization, although they wound up not bringing everyone who was instrumental to their recent success back. That was most evident in the players they lost to free agency, but the team’s first notable departure was a member of the coaching staff. Longtime pitching coach Brent Strom — generally regarded as one of the game’s best given Houston’s seeming never-ending stable of quality arms — stepped down shortly after the World Series. He’d eventually take the same position with the Diamondbacks.
Houston promoted two of Strom’s lieutenants, Josh Miller and Bill Murphy, to take on co-pitching coach duties. The rest of the staff stayed mostly the same, and for the third consecutive season, they’ll be led by veteran skipper Dusty Baker. Houston signed Baker to a one-year contract extension in November. It was a bit of a surprise to see such a short-term commitment given how adeptly Baker has taken the reigns since replacing A.J. Hinch in the midst of the sign-stealing fallout. In either event, the three-time Manager of the Year winner is back and will soon become the 12th person in MLB history to reach 2,000 career victories.
Extending Baker seemed like a fairly easy call for the front office, but they probably devoted even less time to their next couple decisions. Exercising an $8MM option on Yuli Gurriel was a no-brainer after he won the batting title in 2021. So too was handing Carlos Correa a qualifying offer; there might’ve been a little more debate about whether to QO Justin Verlander, considering he’d missed essentially the entire last two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Ultimately, however, Verlander looked as if he’d receive and reject a QO, particularly after Houston owner Jim Crane remarked in September that Verlander was seeking a multi-year deal. The $18.4MM QO price would still have been a bargain if the eight-time All-Star picked up where he left off upon returning, as he posted a 2.58 ERA in a league-best 223 innings in 2019. The Astros had as good a view as anyone on Verlander’s form throughout his recovery, and they seemed optimistic about his chances of returning to the top of a rotation.
Verlander rejected the QO as expected, but that wasn’t a precursor to a free agent departure. Less than an hour after announcing that decision, he and team agreed to a $25MM deal to keep him in Houston in 2022. That wasn’t technically the multi-year deal Crane indicated Verlander had been seeking, but he can vest a $25MM player option for the following season if he reaches 130 innings this year. If he stays healthy, Verlander should eclipse that mark with ease and lock in some extra financial security while still having the option to explore free agency next winter. The vesting option provides the team cover in the event he has an injury setback. (Through two starts, Verlander has looked like his old self, averaging north of 95 MPH on his fastball with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 13 innings).
With Verlander back, the Astros solidified a starting staff that should again be among the league’s best. Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy each eclipsed 100 innings with an ERA of 3.62 or lower last season. Veteran Jake Odorizzi gives them an experienced back-of-the-rotation option. Lance McCullers Jr. will miss the first couple months of the year after his recovery from last postseason’s flexor tendon strain has dragged longer than anticipated. If he returns for the stretch run and matches last year’s form, though, Houston should have a very strong top six arms.
The Astros did lose Zack Greinke to free agency, subtracting some stability and innings from the group. Grienke is no longer an ace, but he soaked up 171 roughly average frames last season over 30 appearances. That’s valuable, but between Verlander’s return and the presence of Odorizzi and swingman Cristian Javier, the Astros felt equipped to weather it.
For now, Javier is in the bullpen, where he spent the bulk of last season. The right-hander started his first nine outings in 2021 but eventually got squeezed out of the rotation. Javier’s control wavered, but he struck out an excellent 30.7% of opposing hitters en route to a 3.55 ERA in 101 1/3 innings. Whether he eventually moves back to the rotation or settles in as a bulk relief option, he adds another exciting multi-inning arm to the mix.
Keeping Javier in relief strengthens the relative weak point on the roster. The Astros’ bullpen was a middle-of-the-pack group last year. It certainly wasn’t catastrophic, but it’s the least exceptional part of the club. The club picked up Kendall Graveman in a deadline deal with the division-rival Mariners, but he signed a three-year deal with the White Sox this winter. Not coincidentally, the bullpen is the one area where the team made a notable investment to bring in a player from outside.
Houston signed former Phillies closer Héctor Neris to a two-year, $17MM guarantee. The right-hander had a bit of an inconsistent tenure in Philadelphia, but he was effective on the whole and is coming off a nice season. He fanned 31.6% of opposing hitters and induced ground-balls at a solid 47.1% clip last year. He also doesn’t have particularly marked platoon splits throughout his career. Neris has been better against same-handed opponents (.208/.272/.373), but he’s also managed solid production against southpaws (.231/.324/.387).
That’s of particular importance for a Houston team that lost lefty Brooks Raley to free agency. Blake Taylor and rookie Parker Mushinski are the only left-handers in the late innings mix for Baker. Houston signed veterans Zac Rosscup and Adam Morgan to minor league deals as insurance, but it’s not a great group of southpaws overall. With righties like Neris, Ryne Stanek and Phil Maton having had success against lefties in the past, general manager James Click and his staff elected not to invest in another lefty arm.
Those players will all bridge the gap to All-Star closer Ryan Pressly, who has been one of the sport’s top late-inning weapons over the past four years. The Astros rewarded him for that run of success with a Spring Training extension that guarantees $30MM through 2024 and stops him from hitting the open market at the end of this season, when his contract had originally been set to expire. The deal, which also contains a 2025 vesting option, keeps a key bullpen piece around for the next few years, during which the team should remain a contender.
That’s a testament to the strength of both Houston’s young starting pitching and their across-the-board excellence in the lineup. Click and his staff didn’t have to make many changes to the position player group. Martín Maldonado and Jason Castro are back as the catching tandem, freeing Houston up to deal third catcher Garrett Stubbs to the Phillies in a minor trade. That’s not a great offensive duo, but both veteran backstops are highly-regarded defenders.
The Astros can afford to live with lackluster hitting behind the dish because of the strength of the lineup elsewhere. Gurriel is back at first base, José Altuve is at the keystone, and Alex Bregman is at third base. Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker make for one of the top corner outfield pairings in the game. Yordan Álvarez can rotate into the corner outfield while continuing to mash as the designated hitter. The Astros don’t have household names in center field, but even there, they’re well-positioned.
Chas McCormick, José Siri and Jake Meyers all had strong rookie showings last year, performing well enough that Houston felt comfortable dealing Myles Straw to Cleveland at the deadline to bring in Maton. None of McCormick, Siri or Meyers (the latter of whom is currently on the injured list after undergoing shoulder surgery) would rule the Astros out from landing a star. Houston has inquired about Bryan Reynolds and reportedly touched base with Starling Marte’s camp in free agency. Center field isn’t a dire need, though, and the Astros felt comfortable rolling into the season with their internal options after not landing a marquee name.
That, of course, brings us to the one spot on the diamond where the Astros were faced with their biggest decision: whether to bring back Correa on a free agent megadeal. At the outset of the offseason, Houston presented the star shortstop with a five-year, $160MM offer. That never seemed likely to get Correa’s attention, and it looked as if he’d wind up departing. Yet Correa’s stay on the open market lingered unexpectedly, with a mid-lockout agency switch to the Boras Corporation perhaps contributing to the signing delay for free agency’s top player.
Once the lockout was lifted and Spring Training got underway, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported the Astros were set to make Correa a new offer. That generated some speculation the two-time All-Star could return to Houston after all, but that proved not to be. Correa eventually signed an opt-out laden three-year, $105.3MM deal with the Twins. That wasn’t the long-term commitment most had expected for the 27-year-old, but he received the second-largest average annual salary for a position player in MLB history and an opportunity to test the market again next winter.
Precisely what the Astros put on the table at the end is unclear, although Scott Boras told Joel Sherman of the New York Post that Houston wouldn’t go beyond five years. By the time Correa agreed to terms with Minnesota, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Javier Báez had all long since signed elsewhere. That left Trevor Story as the lone top free agent shortstop remaining.
The Astros were tied to Story throughout the winter, and they reengaged with his camp late in the process. Sherman tweeted that Houston and the Giants were among the three finalists for the former Rockies star, but he ultimately landed in Boston on a six-year deal. Once Story inked his $140MM pact with the Red Sox, it became clear top prospect Jeremy Peña was going to take the reins in Houston.
Peña has started 11 of the team’s first 12 games at the position. A gifted defender, he entered the season with just 30 games above A-ball after missing most of last year on the injured list. Peña has been fantastic in his first couple weeks in the majors, and the Astros would obviously love if he takes the job and runs with it. Houston has bat-first veteran Aledmys Díaz on hand, and they also inked former Tigers utilityman Niko Goodrum to a one-year deal to add depth at multiple spots around the diamond. Detroit non-tendered Goodrum after a second consecutive poor offensive season, but he was a capable player on both sides of the ball in 2018-19 and makes for a fine add to the bench.
Losing Correa is unquestionably a blow, and the Astros could face stiffer competition from the Mariners and Angels this year than they have in recent seasons. Yet the departure of their star shortstop alone won’t be enough to knock Houston from the ranks of the AL favorites, particularly if Peña can step right in as an above-average player in his own right. The Astros didn’t make many big additions last offseason, but they didn’t need to. The bulk of the group that has led five straight playoff runs is still around, and the window remains wide open for Houston to make another run at a World Series.