Winter Report Card: Astros improve but need more to stay contenders
With less than three weeks left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Houston Astros. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
86–76 (.531), second place in American League West (Hot Stove Preview)
RHP Mark Appel, 1B Chris Carter, C Hank Conger, OF Robbie Grossman, OF L.J. Hoes, LHP Oliver Perez, LHP Scott Kazmir, IF Jed Lowrie, LHP Brett Oberholtzer, RHP Chad Qualls, LHP Joe Thatcher, RHP Vince Velasquez, UT Jonathan Villar
Off-season In Review
After six straight years of sub-.500 play, the Astros finally turned the corner in 2015: They reached the postseason for the first time in a decade, won the AL wild-card game in Yankee Stadium and then threw a scare into the eventual world champion Royals before falling in a thrilling five-game Division Series. That two of Houston's three losses came at the hands of its own bullpen resonated loudly enough that the team's biggest move of the winter—one of just two moves that added to the likely 25-man roster from outside the organization—was a jaw-dropping five-for-two deal for Phillies closer Ken Giles.
Indeed, the Astros paid a steep cost for the 25-year-old Giles, who posted a 1.80 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per nine in 70 innings for Philadelphia and notched 15 saves after Jonathan Papelbon was banished to the Nationals. Giles does have five remaining years of club control remaining, but for an upgrade that pushes Luke Gregerson (who saved 31 games and posted a 5.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 innings) back into a setup role, the team surrendered three near-ready starters in Mark Appel, Vince Velasquez and Brett Oberholtzer, as well as lower-level pitching prospects Thomas Eshelman and Harold Arauz. The Astros also received 17-year-old infielder/lottery ticket Jonathan Arauz (no relation) in return.
For the 24-year-old Appel, who was 2013's No. 1 pick, his time in the Astros' organization was a rollercoaster. He split last year between Double and Triple A, and his star has dimmed to the point that he looks more like a fourth starter than an ace, but at least he's still a top-100 prospect in the eyes of some. The 23-year-old Velasquez, a 2010 second-rounder, made seven starts and 12 relief appearances for the Astros in '15, posting a 4.37 ERA and 3.46 FIP in 55 2/3 innings. He figured to have a strong chance of starting 2016 in Houston's rotation, though he likely wouldn't have been able to carry a full starter's workload due to his limited use over the last two years. The 26-year-old Oberholtzer made eight starts for the Astros last year and owns a 394 career ERA and 3.72 FIP in 253 2/3 innings; he figured to compete for a rotation spot as well.
As for the minor leaguers: The 21-year-old Eshelman, a 2015 second-rounder who's just four starts into his pro career, is a back-end type known for outstanding control but questionable stuff. The 20-year-old Harold Arauz, a non-drafted free agent from Panama, spent last year getting knocked around at Class A. His namesake Jonathan, who's also from Panama, is a switch-hitter described by MLB.com as "a Freddy Galvis-esque defender with a more potent bat … strong arm and quality actions … [and] intriguing offensive upside." Given that report and his age, any opportunity to help the Astros would likely come after Giles is gone. In all, that's a lot to give up for a closer, even an elite one.
Elsewhere in the bullpen, general manager Jeff Luhnow retained lefty Tony Sipp (1.99 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine in 54 2/3 innings) via a three-year, $18 million deal that for the moment marks the Astros’ largest future commitment of cash. They bid adieu to fellow lefties Oliver Perez, who was cuffed for a 6.75 ERA in 22 appearances totaling 12 innings after being acquired from Arizona, and Joe Thatcher, who posted a 3.18 ERA in 22 2/3 innings. The former signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the Nationals, and the latter signed a minor-league deal with the Indians. Also on the outbound was Chad Qualls, who posted a 4.38 ERA in 49 1/3 innings; he signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Rockies, who clearly needed cost certainty over a 38-year-old reliever who's been worth 0.6 Wins Above Replacement over the past two seasons.
In terms of adding talent to the big league roster, the ink is barely dry on the Astros' other big move: the signing of Doug Fister to a one-year, $7 million deal that includes another $5 million worth of innings-based incentives. The 31-year-old Fister pitched to a career-worst 4.19 ERA with a 4.55 FIP in 103 innings last year, missing time due to a forearm strain and spending most of August and all of September in the bullpen. His falling velocity and ground-ball rates offer additional yellow (if not red) flags, but the cost is low, and if he comes anywhere close to the 3.11 ERA/3.37 FIP/4.3 WAR he averaged from 2011 to '14, he'll be a steal.
In an even lower-stakes gamble, the Astros re-signed former rotation staple Wandy Rodriguez to a minor-league deal on the heels of a 4.90 ERA and 4.33 FIP in 86 1/3 innings for the Rangers. Both Rodriguez and Fister could fit in the rotation behind Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers Jr., with Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman around as options as well. Missing from the picture is July acquisition Scott Kazmir, who struggled to a 4.17 ERA and 5.19 FIP in 13 starts for his hometown team; he signed a three-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers.
As for the position players, the Astros spent the winter subtracting talent to clear the way for in-house opportunities. Hank Conger, who hit .229/.311/.448 with 11 homers in 229 plate appearances but threw out just one out of 43 base stealers, was traded to the Rays for cash considerations. That made room for prospect Max Stassi to join Jason Castro as part of the catching tandem, though the going-on-25-year-old's work at Triple A (.232/.289/.380 in 753 PA) hardly suggests star potential. Chris Carter, who provided some tape-measure shots among his 24 home runs but hit just .199/.307/.427 for a 100 OPS+, was non-tendered and signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Brewers. That means another shot at first base for 24-year-old Jon Singleton, more on which below.
Utility men Jed Lowrie (.222/.312/.400 in 263 plate appearances) and Jonathan Villar (.284/339/.414 in 128 PA) were dealt to Oakland and Milwaukee, respectively. The Lowrie trade fetched 24-year-old reliever Brendan McCurry, who's generously listed at just 5'10", 165 pounds, and is coming off a season in which he whiffed 82 in 63 innings, posting a 1.86 ERA split between Class A and Double A; Baseball Prospectus' Wilson Karaman lauded his command, movement and deception, but his upside appears to be in middle relief. The Villar deal netted Cy Sneed, a 23-year-old righty who was Milwaukee's third-round pick in 2014; he spent last year in Class A, can touch 94 mph with his fastball and has a big-league future somewhere between back-end starter and bullpen. Barring further moves, the departed infielders' footprints will be filled by a full season from shortstop phenom Carlos Correa and more playing time for The Other Matt Duffy, a 27-year-old corner infielder who hit .294/.366/.484 with 20 homers at Triple A Fresno and played eight games for Houston.
In the outfield, Colby Rasmus made history by becoming the first free agent ever to accept a qualifying offer. The 29-year-old is coming off a career-high 25 homers to go with a .238/.314/.475 (113 OPS+) line—numbers that don't include his postseason power binge. He'll be the primary option in leftfield, with deadline acquisition Carlos Gomez holding down centerfield. While Preston Tucker and Jake Marisnick remain in the mix, Robbie Grossman (24 games and 54 plate appearances) was released and is now with Cleveland, and L.J. Hoes (eight games and 16 PA) is of indeterminate area code, having been traded to the Orioles for cash in November but getting designated for assignment last week.
Unfinished Business: First base
Though the Astros once thought highly enough of the lefty-swinging Singleton—who made the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus Top 100 Prospects lists every year from 2011 to '14—to sign him to a five-year, $10 million deal just as he arrived in the majors in '14, he's far more suspect than prospect these days. Over 420 major league plate appearances, Singleton has hit just .171/.290/.331 with 14 homers and 151 strikeouts; there's hardly a guarantee that he can stick in the majors, let alone offer an upgrade. Pairing Singleton with some combination of the right-swinging Duffy, the switch-hitting Marwin Gonzalez and lefty-swinging Luis Valbuena (all of whom made starts there and can play both infield corner positions) might improve upon the combined -1.4 WAR that same group (including Carter) netted at the position last year, but a team with aspirations of contention should do better.
With bounce-back candidates such as Mike Napoli and Steve Pearce off the board, the free-agent pickings at first base are slim. Pedro Alvarez's transition to the position went so badly that the Pirates non-tendered him, and the likes of Justin Morneau and Corey Hart, neither of whom has been able to stay on the field with any consistency over the past few years, offer more name recognition than hope. The same can be said with regards to Ike Davis, who doesn’t appear likely to pull out of his career free fall.
Within the organization, 2014 second-round pick A.J. Reed—who hit a combined .340/.432/.612 with 34 homers at hitter-friendly Class A and Double A stops—looks like the first baseman of the future, but it's not reasonable to ask him to step into the job without more time in the upper minors first. That leaves the trade market. The Yankees aren't likely to deal Greg Bird unless McCullers—whom they inquired about in the context of a potential Andrew Miller trade—is on the other end of the deal, and Mark Teixeira has a no-trade clause, so that’s out. Could Luhnow pry someone like Travis Shaw or even Brock Holt—both of whom are insurance policies in case Hanley Ramirez fails to take to first base—from the Red Sox? Returning Rasmus to a centerfield share with Marisnick and dangling Gomez for a first baseman might also be an option.
One free agent who's still out there is Korean slugger Dae-ho Lee, a 33-year-old righty-swinging behemoth (listed at 6'4", 286 pounds) who hit .282/.368/.524 with 31 homers for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League last year. Granted, his age and size create a risk, but he doesn't require a posting fee and has been seeking a job for nearly three months without finding one at the right price.
Preliminary Grade: C+
The Astros certainly upgraded their closer, but they did so at a cost of considerable rotation depth both in 2016 and beyond, even with the addition of Fister. The team does have an enviable base of young talent, but it still feels as though a contender ought to do more instead of resting on last year’s laurels. At the very least, Luhnow needs to improve the first base situation before the season for this to be a truly successful winter.