Hey there! Y'all don't know me, but The Constable gave me the keys to the place some time ago, and I pop up on occasion and write long-winded diatribes about everyone's favorite team from Texas that doesn't play in Jerry Jones' parking lot in North Waxahachie. So here I am again, with a blitzkrieg of words about that. It's a long one and I am not sorry.
The 2018 season ended a little earlier than most expected, with the Astros ending their World Series title defense in the ALCS against an incredible Boston team getting all the necessary breaks along with a clutch assist from Joe West’s apparently failing vision.
Unless you decided to boycott the World Series, and news all together, you also know Boston rode that momentum to their fourth World Series title in 14 years, which was clinched last night in Los Angeles.
SIDENOTE: I feel terrible for the Dodgers. Two years in a row, they’ve watched the enemy celebrate on their turf, with 5-1 final scores befalling them in both clinchers. I feel awful for guys like Kershaw, Puig, Turner, and Bellinger; players I enjoy watching. Then again, it feels like justice for Joc Pederson. You’ve been paid, Joc. Onward...
The Astros were battered and bruised, but they were beaten by a great team worthy of the victory, so bully to them. Now comes the first in a series of incredibly important, potentially franchise-altering off-seasons for the hometown 25.
As the Astros constructed their core over the years, it was always assumed, and stated, that they would retain their core stars while surrounding them with a rotating cast of players who would fortify and shore up those stars during their long reign atop the American League.
“Jim is committed to keeping the best team on the field for as long as possible, giving us a chance to win multiple championships,’’ general manager Jeff Luhnow said at the time of Altuve’s extension, referring to owner Jim Crane. “Part of that is developing our own players and keeping our own players and bringing in the right kinds of players. We’ve done that. We’ll see what the future holds, but we certainly have the desire and intention to keep our core together as long as possible.’’
After winning the 2017 World Series, the Astros locked up AL MVP Jose Altuve to a massive five-year, $151 million deal, which actually kicks in starting with the 2020 season.
While the Astros could continue to wait on extensions for the likes of Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman, they’ll have to make key decisions in the coming 30-60 days about guys like Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, and Charlie Morton, among others.
How the free agent market rebounds from the intensely frugal winter of 2018 will determine how the Astros will respond to competition for their own free agents, not to mention external free agents.
Was last winter an anomaly, or are teams prepared to wait out stars to grab cheaper deals and avoid breaking their individual payrolls for a single star and make that the new normal? Time will tell, but with precedent siding with a vastly longer history of teams salivating over left-handed starters who can pitch 200 (mostly) effective innings and super utility players, I’ll be operating under the assumption that the market will rebound in a big way.
Not to mention, Bryce freaking Harper is a free agent. Come on. Someone is paying that guy double the total GDP of Moldova to play baseball for them.
LHP Dallas Keuchel
RHP Charlie Morton
INF/OF Marwin Gonzalez
C/DH Evan Gattis
C Brian McCann* ($15 million team option for 2019; will not be exercised)
RHP Will Harris ($5.5 million team option for 2019)
LHP Tony Sipp
C Martin Maldonado
Top Prospects tentatively due up in 2019 (organization rankings in parenthesis to the left):
(1) RHP Forrest Whitley
(2) OF Kyle Tucker**
(4) RHP Josh James**
(5) LHP Cionel Perez**
(11) LHP Framber Valdez**
(12) RHP Rogelio Armenteros
(14) OF Myles Straw**
(15) C Garrett Stubbs
(17) RHP Riley Ferrell
(18) RHP Dean Deetz**
(24) RHP Trent Thornton
(26) INF Randy Cesar
(** - made MLB debut in 2018)
It’s no secret that the Astros have little to no interest in bringing back McCann, who after a steady, if not unspectacular, 2017 season, completely fell off the cliff in 2018. The organization has Garrett Stubbs and Max Stassi in case they completely whiff on free agent options and trade avenues, and I wouldn’t be stunned if they brought back Maldonado on the relative cheap given his 2017 Gold Glove season, as well as his nomination for one again this season.
That said, I strongly believe the Astros will find an external option to handle primary catching duties next season. Prominent free agent options would be Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos, and Matt Wieters.
The Astros had interest in trading for Ramos prior to the August 1st trade deadline and his eventual trade to Philadelphia, so I wouldn’t rule out a pursuit for Ramos’ services now, especially given his strong finish at the plate for Philly, slashing .337/.396/.483 with 19 strikeouts against 10 walks as well as a 44% caught stealing rate (7/16) and his reputation as a more-than-decent pitch framer, which bodes well for him as a desirable two-way player.
If Ramos goes elsewhere or stays in Philly, it’s my opinion that the team will then revisit their early 2018 trade talks with Miami and their star behind the dish, J.T. Realmuto.
The Astros must find consistency behind the plate; something that eluded them in 2018.
More on him shortly.
Dallas Keuchel is gone, and Houston will be one beard poorer.
Replacing 2018 Keuchel, just from a statistical standpoint, won’t be overly difficult, either with another starter or in the aggregate with a combo of new starters.
But replacing Keuchel, the veteran leader, franchise icon, and fan favorite who has that appreciation for life as an Astro when they were a perennial loser as well as a World Series winner – that guy will be tough to replace.
The 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner, a three-time Gold Glove winner (2014-2016) who is nominated for a fourth this season, and a two-time All-Star (2015, 2017), Keuchel has been a more pedestrian version of the dominant Keuchel who, as recently as early 2017, was looking like he was on his way to another Cy Young Award after a 9-0 start to his season.
While 2017 still ended with him posting his second-best season overall, 2018 saw a reduced Keuchel battling accelerated first inning issues, having to calm himself down and play from behind much of the season. There was a little bit of bad luck mixed in there but, overall, he just wasn’t quite the same pitcher.
Still, Keuchel posted a career-high 34 starts and posted 204.2 innings pitched with an MLB-leading 53.8% groundball rate.
At 31 years-old this coming season, there’s little doubt that Keuchel will be able to procure a slew of tantalizing offers well out of the range the Astros value him at, so unless the market freezes again and Keuchel, a left-handed starter good for 200+ innings annually, is somehow a victim of that, there’s little hope of Keuchel remaining in Houston.
As for Charlie Morton, the veteran righty has made it clear that he feels the end is nigh for his career, but he isn’t done quite yet. If Morton, 35, confirms his intentions of playing in 2019, he’s also made it known that he’d like to play in Houston. It seems pretty obvious that a lucrative one or two-year deal would be of mutual benefit to both the Astros and their 2017 postseason hero. Somewhere in the $10-15 AAV million range.
However, if the Astros decide against a lucrative engagement with Morton, expect the Astros to push rookie Josh James into his role and look into a few veteran free agent (more on who those may be in a moment).
Also of note will be the health of Lance McCullers Jr., who is apparently facing the possibility of Tommy John surgery, which would end his 2019 season before it ever begins.
MARKET TARGETS AND THE ROLE OF SPIN RATE
If the Astros face a 2019 without Keuchel, McCullers, and even Morton, expect the organization to go big-game hunting after premier free agents such as D-Backs LHP Patrick Corbin and Red Sox RHP Nathan Eovaldi.
However, also keep an eye on these names:
RHP Sonny Gray (via trade with Yankees)
RHP Jeremy Hellickson
LHP Trevor Cahill
LHP Jamie Garcia
While that may seem like a random smattering of veteran names, look closer and you’ll see that each pitcher ranks pretty high in one category in particular that tickles Houston’s, and pitching coach Brent Strom’s, fancy – spin rate.
In particular, spin rate on their curveballs. If you stroll through MLB Statcast’s list of pitchers with the league’s highest average spin rate via the curveball or knucklecurve, you will see a not-so-surprising number of current Astros near the top of the list.
RHP Ryan Pressly (2), RHP Charlie Morton (13), RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (14), RHP Justin Verlander (24), RHP Will Harris (39) and RHP Collin McHugh (50).
Remember, when the Astros signed Morton to his now-expired two-year deal before the 2017 season, many an eyebrow were raised due to Morton’s vast injury history, unimpressive results, and the mass assumption that he was pretty much done after one injury-marred season in Philadelphia, which was preceded by a frustrating run in Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
But the Astros saw something in Morton they felt they could exploit if he could stay healthy – his spin rate on his breaking pitch. That, and his blistering fastball.
Morton had been nothing more than a busted prospect-turned-middling journeyman when Houston plucked him off the market for what turned out to be a bargain. Look for the Astros to eyeball that same maneuver this season if the rotation sees an exodus of two or more.
The team is not without internal candidates, so the Astros could attempt to ride with those in lieu of a pricey free agent addition. If Forrest Whitley continues to impress in the Arizona Fall League, and guys who acquired major league experience in 2018, such as James, Framber Valdez, and Cionel Perez, can effectively stretch themselves back out, the Astros may feel less of a pull to invest in external candidates. But I would bet on market solutions and the cautious approach when it comes to their young arms.
So important, he gets his own category.
Marwin Gonzalez is going to make a lot of money this off-season. The Astros will face no shortage of competition for A.J. Hinch’s Swiss Army knife, but I believe the Astros will pony up the dough necessary to keep Marwin in the Bayou City for years to come.
My belief in that is rooted in the parallel belief that the Astros consider him part of the aforementioned core of this team. Players like Marwin are not ripe for the picking, and if the past few postseasons have taught us anything, it's that guys like Marwin are necessary.
That said, the Astros will not grossly overspend for anyone, and if the market rebounds from its frosty 2017 pace, it could mean Marwin playing elsewhere. So I suppose I should amend my previous statement to “I believe the Astros will pony up the dough necessary to keep Marwin… if the price is sensible. Maybe slightly outlandish, but sensible still.”
Expect teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Atlanta to be hot on his heels, as well as possibly the Dodgers and, perhaps the team that let him get away, the Red Sox.
Evan Gattis hit 25 home runs in 2018 while driving in 78 runs. He also reached base at a pathetic .284 clip (a career-worst, but not terribly far from his career mark of .300). Gattis has always been good for some awesome streaks of terrorizing opposing pitchers, but he’s not getting steady playing time, which is affecting his rhythm at the plate and rendering his bat almost moot, which is literally his only job.
While I don’t rule out the Astros bringing back El Oso Blanco on the cheap, I don’t believe the Astros will make it a priority.
Look for Houston to explore conventional candidates, like Seattle's Nelson Cruz, or even more defensively-flexible players with a penchant for contact, like Jon Jay, or even our old friend and frequent, not to mention only, passenger of the Houston-to-Oakland Express, Jed Lowrie.
Tony Sipp was a dumpster fire in 2016 and a dumpster fire on wheels in 2017. Then he turned in a masterful season as Houston’s primary LOOGIE in 2018.
At 3-1 with a 1.86 ERA, Sipp made 54 appearances while recording only 38.2 innings. He surrendered a career-low eight earned runs, with only one home run served up.
Sipp’s 2.41 FIP and ERA+ of 218 indicate a wild change in fortunes; one that no one should anticipate being replicated. That said, if the price is right, the Astros will have interest in retaining Sipp’s services.
The Astros could also see value in bringing in free agent options such as Jake Diekman, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Justin Wilson, Jonny Venters, or even Sean Doolittle, assuming his $6 million club option isn’t picked up by the Nationals.
FAR-TOO-PREMATURE-PREDICTIONS FOR 2019’S OPENING DAY ROSTER
1B – Yuli Gurriel
2B – Jose Altuve
SS – Carlos Correa
3B – Alex Bregman
C –J.T. Realmuto
Let’s talk Realmuto here for a moment because, by now, you’ve probably heard his name in conjunction with the Astros a lot recently.
Major league trades are hard to predict, especially in this data-driven age where decision-makers weigh every risk against every potential reward, often opting against risky moves because of the long-term damage it can do to a team’s future viability.
I’m of the mind that the Astros will make a major trade for Realmuto, parting with considerable minor-league depth as well as major league pieces to acquire the 27-year-old star backstop. I am of that mind because the Astros and Marlins are, seemingly, in a stars-aligned situation.
The Astros have a young core that they won’t be forced to make vital decisions on for at least a couple more seasons. Add to that a payroll that is not tied down by long-term contracts, but rather slightly inflated due to existing deals set to expire in the next year or two.
The Marlins, entering year two of their Derek Jeter-led rebuild, aren’t interested in an elongated process. They want to tear it down and, if their trades of Ozuna and Yelich last winter are any indication, build it back up quickly with young, nearly-ready prospect talent they could see in Miami in 2019. The Astros are rich in young, talented players blocked at the big league level.
A deal consisting of OFs Derek Fisher and Yordan Alvarez, INF AJ Reed, and righties Brad Peacock and J.B. Bukauskas would hurt, but it would do wonders for the Marlins’ talent depth, bringing their rebuild closer to fruition in terms of talent reaching Miami in the near-term. Also wouldn’t stun me if the Marlins tossed in INF Starlin Castro for good measure.
It’s no lock, but when it comes to predicting trades, it’s a good bet these two teams will be speaking again in the near future.
Miami’s previous proposals reportedly centered on Kyle Tucker, so we’ll see where they’re at now.
CF – George Springer
RF- Josh Reddick
LF – Kyle Tucker
The Astros love moving their outfielders around and steady positions are becoming rarer as we go, but this is a pretty accurate portrayal of how I envision opening day starting. I believe in Kyle Tucker, though my optimism is cautious. He’ll be given every opportunity to secure the left field job in the spring, and an organization this rich in talent stands as good a chance as any of seeing their top position player prospect figure it all out and become the player they’ve envisioned.
SP 1 - RHP Justin Verlander
SP 2 – RHP Gerrit Cole
SP 3 – RHP Charlie Morton
SP 4 – RHP Lance McCullers Jr. ***
SP 5 – RHP Josh James
*** - may miss part or all of 2019 season
Hard to make a prediction with so much in play here, but I’ve given it a conservative go.
I believe Morton’s desire to play, and to do so in Houston, will bring these two back together for at least one more season. I believe Keuchel departs via free agency and is replaced by Josh James, who impressed the organization and fans alike with his electric fastball and effective secondary stuff.
However, a cloud hangs over the health of Lance McCullers. If the young righty requires surgery, perhaps even Tommy John as has been rumored, expect the Astros to look outside the organization for a southpaw to offset their right-handed heavy rotation. Again, I think they’ll be in on Patrick Corbin if they don’t feel comfortable riding with Valdez. I also think guys like the aforementioned Garcia, Hellickson, or even a deal with the Yankees for Sonny Gray, something they’re actively trying to do, would work well too.
RHP Roberto Osuna
RHP Ryan Pressly
RHP Chris Devenski
RHP Will Harris
RHP Collin McHugh
RHP Joe Smith
LHP Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller would be a big get for the Astros, but coming off of a down season in Cleveland, it’s not inconceivable that the Astros can nab Miller for cheaper than it would have cost, say, a year ago.
OF/INF Tony Kemp
OF/INF Marwin Gonzalez
C Martin Maldonado
INF Starlin Castro
OF Jake Marisnick
Not a lot of changes here – I believe the Astros will re-sign Marwin and Maldonado, and I believe they’ll acquire Castro in a theoretical Realmuto deal, which satisfies the team’s desire for a flexible player, position-wise, who can also serve at DH and bring some thunder with the stick.
Departures: LHP Dallas Keuchel, C Brian McCann, C/DH Evan Gattis, LHP Tony Sipp, RHP Brad Peacock, RHP J.B. Bukauskas, INF AJ Reed, OF Derek Fisher, OF Yordan Alvarez,
Arrivals: C J.T. Realmuto, LHP Andrew Miller, INF Starlin Castro
Sticking Around: INF/OF Marwin Gonzalez, C Martin Maldonado, RHP Charlie Morton
I don’t have the Astros changing too much, but the names departing will surely change the look and feel of the team we’ve known and loved for the past two years. Seven years if you’re most affected by Keuchel’s departure.
In return, I have the Astros swinging a major trade for a star catcher in Realmuto, adding left-handed firepower in Miller, and supplementing an already-flexible bench with even more flexibility and power.
Obviously, this is all way too early given the timing, the many moving parts, internal discussions that may be to the contrary, and all the moving machinations that could make this seem more like my Christmas Wish List than a reasonable prediction for what we’ll see when the Astros return to action in April.
Then again, Jeff Luhnow is not one to sit on his hands when a glaring hole appears on his roster (like at catcher), and I am confident that the Astros will make headlines this winter.
Agree? Disagree? Got other ideas? Hit me with em!