- Trade buzz continues to circle Astros right-hander Collin McHugh, as Heyman writes that McHugh “could be had in a trade,” as Houston has a surplus of rotation-worthy arms. The Twins and Orioles were both linked to McHugh in rumors earlier this winter, though those teams are probably no longer in the running due to their subsequent pitching additions. McHugh is owed $5MM this season and is under control through 2019 in his final arbitration-eligible season, making him a nice cost-effective addition for potential suitors.
Diamondbacks outfielder Steven Souza Jr. left the team’s game Wednesday with an apparent right shoulder injury, Richard Morin of the Arizona Republic reports. There’s no word on the severity yet, but the Diamondbacks are left to hope it’s nothing serious after acquiring Souza from the Rays last month. The 28-year-old Souza posted his best season in 2017, hitting .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs in 617 plate appearances en route to 3.7 fWAR. If healthy, he should help make up for the D-backs’ offseason loss of outfielder J.D. Martinez, who signed with the Red Sox.
And now for the latest from the AL West…
- Rangers reliever Tim Lincecum doesn’t expect to be ready for Opening Day, which he revealed Tuesday after throwing two innings of batting practice (via TR Sullivan of MLB.com). “Doesn’t look like it,” he said. “I still have some stuff to refine. I wasn’t extremely happy with the day. I was happy with the level of work. I’ve got a lot of refining to do.” Lincecum is only two weeks removed from signing with the Rangers, and he, of course, didn’t pitch competitively at all in 2017. Tuesday’s BP session was his second since joining the Rangers, and he’ll need at least one more before potentially pitching in a minor league game.
- First baseman Chris Carter is unlikely to make the Angels, Maria Guardado of MLB.com writes. That’s not surprising, given that Carter’s a minor league signee who’s not on the Halos’ 40-man roster. Guardado notes that there’s no obvious path to playing time for Carter at first in Anaheim, which has Albert Pujols and Luis Valbuena. Plus, those two and Shohei Ohtani figure to be among their designated hitter options, taking away another potential route to the majors for Carter. The 31-year-old Carter will be able to refuse a minor league assignment if he doesn’t make the Halos, though he did spend a solid chunk of last season with the A’s Triple-A affiliate. That came just one year after the then-Brewer co-led the National League in home runs (41). Because of his dreadful 2017, which he began with the Yankees, Carter went unsigned until late February.
- Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, on the shelf the past few weeks because of left hand surgery, is progressing in his recovery, Brian McTaggart of MLB.com writes. He’s still likely to begin the season on the disabled list, however, according to McTaggart, and then he’ll have to serve a five-game suspension for an insensitive gesture directed at then-Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish in last year’s World Series. The Astros are likely to use Marwin Gonzalez at first in Gurriel’s absence, and J.D. Davis and Tyler White are currently fighting for a backup role. “It’s 1A and 1B, it’s not like one is separating themselves from the other. Eventually, we’ll have to make a decision,” manager A.J. Hinch said of Davis and White on Wednesday (via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle).
The Astros have officially struck a massive extension with star second baseman Jose Altuve. The deal, which includes a full no-trade clause, reportedly promises Altuve $151MM over five seasons.
Altuve is already under contract through 2019, a season the Astros control through a $6.5MM club option under the incredibly team-friendly deal the sides struck back in 2013. Of course, at the time, the second baseman was nowhere near the top-line performer he is today. Altuve has since changed representation, joining the Boras Corporation.
The new contract will begin at the conclusion of his existing deal, meaning the five-year term will begin with the 2020 campaign. This pact, then, will give Houston control over Altuve through the 2024 season, which will be his age-34 effort.
Altuve receives $21MM in the form of a signing bonus, with $1MM due upon final approval of the contract, $10MM later this season and $10MM in 2019. The contract provides a $26MM annual salary in each of the five seasons. That rate can escalate in the final three years of the contract depending upon his performance in the MVP voting, with a $3MM bump for a first-place finish, a $2MM bump for a second-place showing, and $1MM if he comes in third, allowing for maximum increases of $3MM, $6MM, and then $9MM in the 2022-24 campaigns.
Houston is wrapping up a historic season in which the organization broke through with a World Series title. Altuve was a central component of that undertaking. He qualified for his fourth-straight All-Star game, won his third batting title in four seasons, and capped things off by taking home honors as the Most Valuable Player in the American League.
Despite his diminutive stature, Altuve has developed into an offensive force. He put up high-quality campaigns in 2014 and 2015 before going to another level over the past two seasons. Since the start of 2016, Altuve carries a .341/.403/.539 batting line with 48 home runs. He doesn’t walk all that much and has traded just a bit of his impeccable contact ability for some additional pop, but Altuve still maintained a quality K/BB ratio (12.7% strikeout rate vs. 8.8% walk rate) in 2017.
That’s rare air for a middle infielder, making Altuve all the more valuable. While he has generally graded out as an average performer at second, there’s also value in his legs. He has already swipe 231 bags in his career and was credited with creating four runs on the bases in 2017 by Fangraphs’ BsR measure.
The new contract rewards one of the game’s best players with a significant new payday, and does so two full seasons before he’d have reached the open market. As McTaggart notes, this will easily be the largest deal ever struck in team history, handily topping the $100MM Carlos Lee contract.
Though the deal only covers five additional seasons, it does so at a top-level rate of pay. This contract is just the sixth in MLB history that includes an average annual value of over $30MM and is easily the largest extension for a second baseman cataloged in MLBTR’s Extension Tracker.
MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart first reported the agreement. Jon Heyman of Fan Rag tweeted that the agreement was in place and reported the financial details in a series of tweets. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle reported the no-trade clause on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
This is the latest entry in MLBTR’s 2017-18 Offseason In Review series. Click here to read the other completed reviews from around the league.
Fresh off the Astros’ first-ever World Series-winning campaign, general manager Jeff Luhnow spent the winter supplementing an already strong pitching staff.
Major League Signings
Trades And Claims
- Acquired RHP Gerrit Cole from the Pirates for RHP Joe Musgrove, RHP Michael Feliz, 3B Colin Moran and OF Jason Martin
- Acquired RHP Brandon Bailey from the Athletics for OF Ramon Laureano
- Claimed LHP Buddy Boshers off waivers from the Twins
Notable Minor League Signings
- Musgrove, Feliz, Moran, Carlos Beltran, Mike Fiers, Luke Gregerson, Francisco Liriano, Cameron Maybin, Tyler Clippard
The Astros were one of the majors’ elite teams from the start of the regular season until the end in 2017, but they may not have been in position to hoist the trophy in November if not for a late-August trade with Detroit. In that deal, Luhnow shipped out multiple prospects for longtime Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who was utterly dominant in his first action as an Astro, with whom he combined for 36 2/3 innings of nine-run ball in playoff series wins over the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers.
With Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh among Houston’s in-house starting options entering the offseason, Luhnow could have passed on adding any established starters during recent months. Instead, he revisited the trade route to pick up yet another high-profile option, Gerrit Cole, whom he acquired from the Pirates in January.
In order to reel in the 27-year-old Cole and his two remaining seasons of affordable team control, the Astros surrendered a respectable package of young talent headlined by righty Joe Musgrove, who was a promising starter for them back in 2016 and a key part of their bullpen down the stretch in 2017. While it’s possible the Astros will come to miss Musgrove and the other players they parted with (righty Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran and outfielder Jason Martin), they’re well positioned to move on without them.
As mentioned earlier, there were several legitimate starting options on hand even before the Cole trade, so netting him should allow the Astros to maintain a deep staff in the near term even without Musgrove and Feliz. As opposed to earning starting jobs, Peacock (who was outstanding as both a starter and a reliever in 2017) and McHugh will be part of a righty-heavy relief corps that’s also set to include Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, newcomers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon, and Will Harris in prominent roles.
Cole has been somewhat inconsistent since debuting with the Pirates in 2013, but the talent is immense, evidenced by both his draft pedigree (No. 1 in 2011) and overall production to date (3.50 ERA/3.27 FIP across 782 1/3 innings). At his best in Pittsburgh, the 2015 version of Cole pitched to a 2.60 ERA/2.66 FIP with 8.74 K/9 against 1.9 BB/9 over 208 frames. Cole hasn’t been nearly that effective lately, though the flamethrower was still a mid-rotation workhorse in 2017. Cole logged career-worst numbers in the ERA (4.26) and FIP (4.08) departments a year ago, but he also ate 203 innings with strong strikeout (8.69 K/9) and walk (2.44) rates en route to 3.1 fWAR. That’s quality production, clearly.
Now, as former FanGraphs writer Eno Sarris explained in January, Cole could be in the right place to harness his vast potential. Cole leaned too much on his fastball and wasn’t reliant enough on his breaking pitches during his Pirates tenure, Sarris observed. In Houston, though, he’s with a team that recorded the fourth-lowest fastball percentage and the fifth-highest slider/curveball rate in the league last season.
No doubt, the Astros are banking on Cole at least delivering similar results as last year. Before they ended up with him, they considered the likes of Yu Darvish, Chris Archer and Shohei Ohtani. Darvish would’ve created a far bigger dent in the Astros’ payroll than Cole, though, having inked a six-year, $126MM deal with the Cubs; Archer remains with the Rays, because they understandably want a major haul for him; and you can’t fault the Astros for losing the Ohtani lottery, given that it featured just about every other major league team at one point. So, in Cole, the Astros have an affordable, arbitration-controlled piece who should help their cause for at least two years. Come 2019, the Astros could be without both Keuchel and Morton, two players who are slated to become free agents next winter. Cole’s presence should help protect against their possible departures.
Joining Cole as new additions to Houston’s staff are Smith and Rondon, who each bring terrific major league track records on reasonable salaries. One could quibble with the fact that neither is a lefty, which the Astros could seemingly use. Houston was devoid of a shutdown southpaw throughout last season (neither holdover Tony Sipp nor the now-gone Francisco Liriano fit the bill), yet that didn’t stop the club from winning 101 games during the regular campaign before charging to a title in the fall. It helps when you’re righty relievers are capable of holding their own against left-handed hitters, as the Astros’ are. Their bullpen pieces held lefty-swingers to a .302 wOBA in 2017, and even though they’re righties, both Smith and Rondon could help in that regard. The 33-year-old Smith has held opposite-handed hitters to a .307 mark during his career, while Rondon, 30, has been even better at .287 (that figure ballooned to .346 last year, however).
Long after he bolstered his team’s pitching staff, Luhnow secured arguably the Astros’ best player, second baseman Jose Altuve, to a franchise-record contract extension. Prior to last Friday, when he agreed to his new pact, Altuve was controllable through next season via the club-friendly extension he signed as a youthful, run-of-the-mill player in 2013. The 27-year-old Altuve has since blossomed into a bona fide superstar, having taken home the AL MVP in 2017 (a 7.5-fWAR showing), and will earn at a rate commensurate to that for the long haul.
Altuve will be due a guaranteed $151MM over a five-year period beginning in 2020. He’s just the sixth player in league history to receive a deal worth $30MM per year, making his meteoric rise since he signed for just $15K in 2007 as a diminutive, anonymous Venezuelan prospect all the more incredible.
The Astros’ offense is the envy of the league, which it led in wRC+ (121) and runs (896) last season. That came without a full season from all-world shortstop Carlos Correa, whom a thumb injury limited to 109 games. He’s back, as are Altuve, Springer and Alex Bregman, to headline a seemingly relentless Houston attack. Still, the Astros at least showed some interest in upgrading their lineup over the winter. They considered making a run at then-Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who’d have given the Astros two reigning MVPs on one team, before the Yankees landed him and the majority of his $295MM contract. Additionally, Houston was in on Carlos Gonzalez, who ultimately re-signed with Colorado for $8MM.
Either Stanton or CarGo would have given the Astros another starting outfielder to join Springer in center and Josh Reddick in right. Instead, once first baseman Yuli Gurriel returns from February hamate surgery, they’ll primarily turn to Marwin Gonzalez, who stunningly broke out with a 144 wRC+ last year. But Gonzalez is no sure thing to continue at anything resembling that pace, judging by both his league-average output (101 wRC+) from 2014-16 and Statcast data from 2017. Although Gonzalez managed a superb .387 wOBA in 2017, his xwOBA (.320) fell way short. Meanwhile, Gurriel wasn’t quite that fortunate, but his xwOBA (.327) still didn’t come close to his solid wOBA (.351).
Both Gonzalez and Gurriel are candidates to take steps back offensively this year, then, while the Astros also seem to lack a high-end hitter at the DH spot. They’re in position to turn to backup catcher Evan Gattis, who was mediocre at the plate (105 wRC+) last year. The good news is that even that type of unspectacular production would easily outpace the now-retired Carlos Beltran’s output from last year. The revered Beltran was an important behind-the-scenes presence in Houston, but at the same time, he was one of the game’s worst DHs from a statistical standpoint.
While Gattis isn’t a terrible choice to DH, there’s a case to be made that the Astros should have non-tendered him (he’s making $6.7MM) and sought an upgrade. A free agent like Logan Morrison may have made sense, for example, especially considering the Twins handed him a $6.5MM guarantee that’s lower than Gattis’ salary. Morrison would have helped balance out the Astros’ lineup a bit more, giving them four lefty-capable regulars instead of the three they’ll run out in 2018. Admittedly, though, the way free agency unfolded over the winter isn’t something anyone saw coming, so it came as a surprise that Morrison (and Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier, among others) signed such an affordable deal. If the Astros need a bat at the trade deadline, there ought to be some quality options at palatable prices.
It’s fair to say that even if Gonzalez, Gurriel and Gattis are far from great this year, Houston will thrive at the plate because of its top-end talent. The Astros’ position players may not offer that type of brilliance defensively, though, as they’re returning largely the same group that ranked toward the bottom of the majors in the advanced metrics a season ago. The Astros are projected to be similarly woeful in the field this year, but they proved they could overcome that last season with a punishing offense and terrific pitching – both of which are again in place.
Houston’s hurlers could have been throwing to a different primary catcher this year had the club signed free agent Jonathan Lucroy, whom it showed interest in over the winter (he went on to join the division-rival Athletics), or made the higher-impact move of acquiring the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto. The Astros and Marlins discussed Realmuto, who’s under control through 2020, and the former reportedly didn’t close the door on giving up premier outfield prospect Kyle Tucker for the backstop. Luhnow doesn’t sound like someone who’s going to trade Tucker, however, instead believing he could be a factor for the Astros as early as this year (and if Gonzalez and Derek Fisher are unsatisfactory in left, that could indeed happen). Regardless, Realmuto’s status will be worth monitoring during the season if the Astros’ combination of Brian McCann, Gattis and Max Stassi doesn’t suffice. McCann and Gattis will be free agents in a year, so acquiring Realmuto during the summer would give the Astros an immediate boost and obviate a need for next offseason in one fell swoop.
As for the Astros’ pitching staff, which we’ve established is a deep and talented group, health is likely the main concern. Keuchel, McCullers and Morton haven’t been all that durable of late, McHugh missed most of last season and Cole is only two years removed from going to the disabled multiple times on account of elbow problems. All of that considered, it’s easy to see why Luhnow kept McHugh around as depth. Just about every team in the league would sign up for having the accomplished McHugh in its rotation, let alone as a sixth or seventh starter, which explains why he drew trade interest during the winter.
Thanks in part to Luhnow’s offseason maneuverings, the Astros will enter the new campaign as baseball’s best team, though that may have been true even if the GM didn’t make any notable winter moves. Talent-rich Houston is poised at least to win its second straight AL West title after lapping the field a year ago, and despite the offseason efforts of the majors’ other super-teams, the Astros should be seen as the favorites to end up again as the last club standing in the fall.
What’s your take on the Astros’ winter? (link for app users)
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- Though Jose Altuve’s five-year, $151MM extension doesn’t begin until the 2020 season, Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards believes the Astros aren’t facing too much risk in locking up the star second baseman. Comparing the Altuve deal to other extensions of five-plus years for players who were at least two seasons away from free agency, Altuve is younger than three of the names cited (Miguel Cabrera, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Howard) and is coming off a much better platform year than Ryan Zimmerman when he inked his six-year, $100MM pact with the Nationals. The best comp might actually be Joey Votto’s ten-year, $225MM extension from the Reds, though Houston’s commitment to Altuve was only half as long. Since Altuve still projects to be an excellent player going forward, the extension also shouldn’t be considered a “gift” — as in, the Astros weren’t simply giving him a make-good deal since his original extension proved to be such an incredible bargain for the team.
- The Astros may head into the season with an all-righty bullpen, thanks to the struggles left-hander Tony Sipp has endured in recent years, Oliver Macklin of MLB.com relays. Sipp, whom the Astros re-signed to a three-year, $18MM deal heading into 2016, posted back-to-back subpar seasons entering this year and hasn’t fared well this spring. Manager A.J. Hinch conceded that going with an all-righty relief corps is “an option,” though he suggested he’d rather see Sipp rebound to his pre-2016 ways. Sipp, who’ll turn 35 in July, is due to earn $6MM in the final year of his contract.
Yesterday, it was reported that the Astros have agreed to a five-year, $151MM extension with Jose Altuve that’ll keep him in Houston through his age-34 season. As MLBTR’s Jeff Todd mentioned yesterday, the deal will be by far the largest extension ever given to a second baseman, handily topping the $110MM given to Dustin Pedroia by the Red Sox in 2013.
It’s also just the sixth deal in MLB history that comes with an average annual value greater than $30MM. A win above replacement is widely believed to be worth around $8MM, so it seems likely that Altuve could still provide the 4-ish WAR per year necessary to provide the Astros with surplus value on this new deal. Indeed, the reigning AL MVP and three-time batting champ has been worth 14.3 fWAR across the past two seasons alone.
Of course, it’s not a given that Houston’s star second baseman can maintain that level of production through the age of 34. Although his strongest and most notable skill is his penchant for making good contact (with an astonishingly low swinging strike rate) and racking up hits, a large part of his value is tied up in his baserunning. Though last season Altuve stole 32 bases and managed a .339 BABIP on grounders, history says that his speed isn’t likely to stick around past age 30, at least not to that level.
Even as his speed starts to go, however, contact ability and plate discipline (Altuve carries an incredible 10.7% career strikeout rate) are skills that typically tend to age well. And there’s something to be said for the Astros keeping the face of their franchise around through 2024.
It’s not unreasonable to think that Altuve could have earned a larger guarantee if he’d waited to hit the free agent market following the 2019 season. But as with his first extension with the Astros, he’ll essentially sacrifice earnings upside for added financial security… and a whole lot of it, too. The contract ranks as the 31st-largest guarantee in MLB history. He’s now guaranteed life-changing money, with a chance to earn even more when he hits the free agent market again six and a half years from now.
At this point, we want to know your opinion. What do you think of the second Altuve deal from the Astros’ perspective? (Poll link for app users)
What about from Altuve’s perspective? (Poll link for app users)
- Brad Peacock may also be ticketed for a multi-inning relief role, as The Athletic’s Jake Kaplan writes that the Astros have used Peacock in two-inning stints in each of his three Spring Training appearances. Houston places a high value on multi-inning relievers and could theoretically deploy several of their bullpen arms in that fashion, though Kaplan feels Chris Devenski could be in line for more one-inning outings after appearing to tire in the second half of the 2017 season. Peacock has extra durability as a former starting pitcher and his stuff lends itself well to such a relief role. He held hitters to just a .420 OPS during his first time through the lineup last season, easily the lowest OPS of any pitcher who made at least 20 starts.
The Rangers announced today that they received Rule 5 pick Anthony Gose back from the Astros and assigned him to Triple-A Round Rock. He’ll join the Rangers in big league camp as a non-roster player. The Astros reportedly placed the left-hander/outfielder on outright waivers earlier this week.
Gose, a former big league outfielder, had been hoping to make a stacked Astros roster as a reliever. The former top outfield prospect converted to the mound last season after several years of difficulties at plate. Gose was a two-way star as an amateur but was drafted and developed solely as an outfielder. His arm strength from the outfield and his former pitching prowess have translated to the mound to an extent, as he’s reportedly been able to touch triple digits with his fastball.
Gose pitched 10 2/3 innings in Class-A Advanced in the Rangers organization last season and posted a 14-to-6 K/BB ratio in that time. It’s possible that the Rangers will continue to give him a look on the mound, though the team’s exact plans for him remain unclear. Rangers EVP of communications John Blake referenced Gose as an outfielder/left-handed pitcher in announcing the move, so perhaps he’ll continue to work on both elements of his game.
The Astros have renewed the contract of star shortstop Carlos Correa at $1MM, reports FanRag’s Jon Heyman (Twitter link). That comes in just shy of the record for a pre-arbitration player, set by Kris Bryant last offseason when the Cubs agreed to a $1.05MM salary. Correa’s $1MM mark ties the previous record holder, Mike Trout, who earned $1MM in 2014 as a pre-arb player before agreeing to his $144MM contract extension the following offseason.
It’s worth noting, though, that the Astros renewed Correa’s contract. That indicates that, in spite of the near-record-setting nature of Correa’s pre-arbitration salary, the two sides did not see eye to eye on his 2018 earnings. Teams can negotiate with their pre-arb players, and the two sides will often agree to terms on a salary — typically within the vicinity of the league minimum for most players but sometimes a few hundred thousand or so greater for higher-profile players that have not yet reached salary arbitration.
However, if the two sides cannot agree to a negotiated salary, then the team can renew the player’s contract at any amount at or above the league minimum. In this instance, the fact that Correa’s contract was renewed could mean that he and his representatives at the Legacy Agency were hoping to set a new record and simply elected to let the team renew the contract.
Certainly, though, it’s nothing new for this player and team. A renewal also occurred in each of the past two seasons. Most notably, the ’Stros gave Correa only the league-minimum salary for the 2017 campaign. Of course, there’s still no real indication whether the failure to agree could hint at underlying discord that might impact future contractual matters.
The deal isn’t a straight MLB contract, it’s also worth noting, per a tweet from Bob Nightengale of USA Today (Twitter link). Houston elected instead to make it a split deal, providing a $267,500 rate of pay in the exceedingly unlikely event that Correa is optioned down. Clearly, as with Correa’s own decision not to agree to the offered amount, the sides have elected to stand on their rights — even if there’s no reasonably anticipated practical difference.