- The Astros released left-hander C.J. Riefenhauser, as per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle (Twitter link). Riefenhauser signed a minor league deal with the Astros in December. The southpaw has been part of two rather notable trades in his career, going from the Rays to the Mariners as part of the five-player deal that saw Brad Miller and Nate Karns switch teams, and then joining Mark Trumbo in a trade to the Orioles for Steve Clevenger. Riefenhauser has a 6.30 ERA over 20 career MLB innings (with Tampa in 2014-15) and he spent 2016 in the Cubs’ farm system.
- Thanks to the “dead arm” that slowed Astros righty Collin McHugh earlier this spring, he likely won’t be ready for the beginning of the season, manager A.J. Hinch informed Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle (Twitter link). McHugh’s absence will deprive the Astros of a quality starter, though they do have a promising No. 6 on hand in Joe Musgrove, who looked like a major league-caliber rotation piece in his 62-inning debut last season (4.06 ERA, 7.98 K/9, 2.32 BB/9).
Pittsburgh has pursued a trade for White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana over the past several months, but Pirates general manager Neal Huntington found the asking price to be “well above where it made sense for us” (via ESPN’s Jim Bowden). With the Bucs seemingly out of the picture for Quintana, the Astros and Braves are the “best possibilities,” per Bowden, who notes that the White Sox “continue to work hard” to trade the 28-year-old. No deal is imminent, though, according to Bowden, who adds that the Astros would have to part with both right-hander Francis Martes and outfielder Kyle Tucker, two of Baseball America’s top 20 prospects, to acquire Quintana (all Twitter links). Houston balked at giving up a package of Martes, Tucker and righty Joe Musgrove for Quintana during the Winter Meetings.
The Pirates, Astros and Braves are among multiple teams still showing interest in White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan reports. Pittsburgh and Houston have been widely linked to Quintana on the rumor mill all winter long, while connections between Quintana and the Braves have been largely quiet since December, when Atlanta reportedly balked at Chicago’s very high asking price for the southpaw. Several evaluators tell Passan that the Braves aren’t a great trade fit for the Sox, as while Atlanta’s farm system is very deep, its top prospects (Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies and Kevin Maitan) are all middle infielders, and Chicago already has Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada slated as their up-the-middle combo of the future. In short, not much has really changed on the Quintana front, as the Sox are in no rush to make a deal unless someone meets their price. “The White Sox have dispatched more scouts than usual” to minor league camps, Passan writes, in a sign of due diligence should a good trade offer suddenly emerge.
Stassi, who just turned 26, had seemed destined to play a significant role for Houston last year before an injury delayed his start to the year. He ended up seeing just nine games of MLB action, representing his fourth-straight season of minimal major league time.
At Triple-A, Stassi again struggled to boost his offensive performance. All said, he has produced at just a .231/.290/.379 clip with 29 long balls in 1,019 plate appearances at the highest level of the minors.
- The Astros have made an unorthodox coaching appointment, reports Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. Sig Mejdal, who was hired by the Astros in 2012 and given the title of “director of decision sciences” and more recently named a special assistant to GM Jeff Luhnow, will continue to fulfill those duties while also serving as a coach with the team’s short-season Class-A affiliate in 2017. Mejdal will be a “development coach” and be on the road with the team full-time when their season begins in June. He’ll help both the players and his fellow coaches to utilize the increasing amount of technology that is becoming available to them (in addition to more traditional coaching duties). Luhnow tells Kaplan that Mejdal, a former NASA researcher, will still be involved in all front office processes even when he relocates to upstate New York for the new position this summer.
This is the latest entry in MLBTR’s Offseason In Review series.
Even though the Astros underwhelmed en route to 84 wins and a third-place finish in the American League West in 2016, they still entered the offseason in enviable shape. When previewing their winter in October, I wrote, “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.” Luhnow followed through, leading PECOTA to project an AL-high 93 wins for his club this year.
Major League Signings
- Josh Reddick, OF: Four years, $52MM
- Carlos Beltran, DH: One year, $16MM
- Charlie Morton, RHP: Two years, $14MM
- Total spend: $82MM
Trades And Claims
- Acquired C Brian McCann and cash considerations from Yankees for RHPs Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman
- Acquired cash or a player to be named later from Phillies for RHP Pat Neshek
- Claimed OF Nori Aoki off waivers from Mariners
- Claimed LHP Ashur Tolliver off waivers from Angels
Notable Minor League Signings
The 2016 Astros featured one of the majors’ least valuable outfields, a seven-man group which compiled a woeful .224/.302/.380 batting line (good for an AL-worst 86 wRC+) in 2,187 plate appearances. Carlos Gomez, whom Houston released in August, was one of the primary reasons for the unit’s bottom-of-the-barrel output. But nearly everyone else in the septet also failed to impress (only George Springer pulled his weight), so Luhnow elected to make over the outfield during the offseason. As a result of his moves, Springer will shift from right to center after logging just 17 appearances at the latter spot over his first three seasons.
The changes started with an early November waiver claim, Nori Aoki, whom the Astros picked up from the AL West rival Mariners. At $5.5MM, Aoki should give the Astros an acceptable left field regular at a reasonable price, though the 35-year-old’s upside is limited. The Japan native has been a competent hitter since debuting stateside in 2012, having slashed .286/.353/.387 while registering a minimal strikeout rate (8 percent) in 2,670 trips to the plate. However, there’s little power to speak of – as his career ISO (.100) shows – and he’s no longer a stolen base threat. After swiping anywhere from 14 to 30 bags in each of his first four seasons, Aoki was successful on only seven of his 16 attempts a year ago. He also had an ugly season versus same-sided pitchers (.227/.299/.258), albeit only over 108 PAs. Historically, Aoki has held his own against both left- and right-handed hurlers. He has also typically been a decent defender (6.6 Ultimate Zone Rating, one Defensive Run Saved), but his minus-four DRS and minus-5.5 UZR from 2016 pale in comparison to both his career numbers and the brilliant work of predecessor Colby Rasmus (20 DRS, 14.9 UZR last season). The Astros understandably said goodbye to Rasmus, however, on the heels of an injury-plagued season in which he hit a meager .206/.286/.355 in 417 tries.
Aoki figures to serve as a stopgap as the Astros await the arrivals of both Kyle Tucker, who tops out at No. 19 in Baseball America’s prospect rankings, and Derek Fisher (83rd on MLB Pipeline’s list), whereas Josh Reddick will occupy a spot in the team’s outfield for the long haul. At $52MM, the right fielder is in possession of the largest contract the Astros have awarded since Jim Crane bought the franchise in 2011. Reddick debuted in earnest that year with the Red Sox and has since slashed a respectable .259/.321/.435 in 2,809 PAs while thriving in the field (54 DRS, 41.2 UZR). The lefty-swinging 30-year-old does come with troubling platoon issues, though, having batted .218/.280/.360 line in 800 PAs against same-handed pitchers. He hit a nadir in that department last year with a hideous .155/.212/.155 line over 104 trips to the plate as an Athletic and Dodger. Should that carry into this season, the Astros do have righty-hitting outfield reserves he could platoon with in Jake Marisnick and Teoscar Hernandez, though utilizing a fairly expensive player in a timeshare wouldn’t be ideal.
In addition to securing Aoki and Reddick, the Astros acquired two more prominent players for their lineup in catcher Brian McCann and designated hitter Carlos Beltran. All of Aoki, Reddick, McCann and Beltran bat from the left side (Beltran’s a switch-hitter; more on him later), meaning an Astros team that went into the offseason with mostly right-handers came out with a balanced lineup. The four newcomers will complement righties in Springer, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yulieski Gurriel and Evan Gattis.
While the power-hitting Gattis ostensibly could have taken the reins at catcher (he earned mostly positive defensive marks from Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner in 52 games there last year), Houston instead swung a trade for the more established McCann. In doing so, the Astros lost a couple promising arms, per FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, and subsequently saw previous starting backstop Jason Castro and his excellent pitch-framing skills head to the Twins in free agency. Nevertheless, the 33-year-old McCann isn’t exactly a slouch behind the plate, and he’s a much better offensive player than Castro. Although McCann is no longer the force he was in Atlanta, where he slashed .277/.350/.473 from 2005-13, he is coming off a three-year stretch in which he hit an above-average .232/.320/.456 with the Yankees.
Among the pitchers who will throw to McCann is Charlie Morton, who will slot into the Astros’ rotation after totaling only 17 1/3 innings last season. Then with the Phillies, Morton suffered a torn hamstring in late April and didn’t pitch again. Morton did show encouraging signs during a tiny sample of work, though, as he ran his average fastball velocity up to a personal-best 93.3 (well above his 91.5 lifetime mark) and posted a 12.3 percent swinging-strike rate (far better than his 7.8 percent career figure). The 33-year-old has since thrown even harder this spring, and if those velocity gains stick, he could be a lot more interesting than the pitcher he was with Atlanta and Pittsburgh from 2008-15. To his credit, Morton did have some strong seasons with the Pirates, and his career 55.4 percent ground-ball rate makes him a good fit for a Houston team which plays in a homer-friendly ballpark and has a quality defensive infield. The biggest concern with Morton arguably centers on health, as he wasn’t able to avoid the disabled list in any of the previous five seasons. On the other hand, the still-unsigned Doug Fister – whom Morton is replacing – was one of just two Astros who threw at least 180 innings last year.
Click “Read More” to continue…
The Braves announced on Monday that they’ve claimed left-handed reliever Kevin Chapman off waivers from the Astros. Houston reportedly placed the 29-year-old Chapman on waivers over the weekend. Atlanta had an open spot on its 40-man roster, so no corresponding move is necessary.
Chapman is out of minor league options, so the Braves will need to either carry him on their roster to start the season or once again expose him to waivers if they hope to send him to the minor leagues. The former fourth-round pick has a career 4.09 ERA with 7.9 K/9, 5.1 BB/9 and a 43.1 percent ground-ball rate in 55 big league innings.
While Chapman saw quite a bit of time in the Majors in 2013-14, he’s logged just 13 1/3 combined innings with the Astros over the past two seasons as they’ve relied heavily on Tony Sipp as the primary (and in many cases only) left-handed option in manager A.J. Hinch’s bullpen.
Chapman struggled in Triple-A this past season (4.87 ERA in 61 innings) but does have a strong track record at that level, where he’s worked to a collective 3.67 ERA and racked up 262 strikeouts in 208 2/3 innings (11.3 K/9). He’s also struggled with his control throughout his minor league tenure, however, as evidenced by a career 4.7 BB/9 rate in the minors (4.9 in Triple-A). Chapman doesn’t dominate opposing lefties and permits them to reach too often via walk, but he’s also prevented them from hitting for any sort of power against him. In total, same-handed opponents have batted .263/.354/.325 against Chapman in the Majors. He’ll give the Braves an additional lefty option for the bullpen and compete with the likes of Ian Krol, Paco Rodriguez and non-roster invitee Eric O’Flaherty for a spot at the end of camp.
- Houston’s acquisition of catcher Brian McCann from the Yankees in November played a key role in their December signing of designated hitter Carlos Beltran, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow informed Mark Feinsand of MLB.com. “As we recruited Beltran, bringing McCann over was a big part of getting Beltran to accept coming over here,” said Luhnow. Teammates in New York from 2014-16, McCann and Beltran have already been quite valuable behind the scenes for the Astros, per Luhnow. “These two guys have been a tremendous boost to the environment in our clubhouse,” he stated. “I’m so glad they’re here.”
The Astros have placed left-hander Kevin Chapman on waivers, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Jake Kaplan, who doesn’t expect anyone to claim the reliever. Thus, the Astros will likely end up outrighting him to Triple-A Fresno.
The out-of-options Chapman, 29, has been with the Astros since 2012, when they acquired him in a trade with the Royals. Chapman made his major league debut the next season and logged a stellar 1.77 ERA over 20 1/3 innings, though that came with unimpressive strikeout and walk rates of 6.64 and 5.75, respectively, per nine frames. He has since tossed 13 1/3 more major league innings, including eight last season.
All told, Chapman owns a 4.09 ERA, 7.85 K/9, 5.07 BB/9 and 43.1 percent ground-ball rate in 55 innings at baseball’s highest level. He has been more successful in 208 2/3 Triple-A innings, having registered a 3.67 ERA, 11.3 K/9 and 4.9 BB/9.