The Houston Astros have made headlines throughout the 2019-20 offseason and for all the wrong reasons. , and punishment for their sign-stealing scheme is expected within two weeks, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan. They have become a full-fledged baseball villain.
In terms of roster moves, this has been quiet winter the Astros and GM Jeff Luhnow. Their lone trade was a low-level salary dump (Jake Marisnick to the Mets) and they've signed only three free agents to guaranteed major league contracts: righty Joe Smith (two years, $8 million) and catchers Dustin Garneau (one year, $650,000) and Martin Maldonado (two years, $7 million).
The losses outnumber the gains. Most notably, Houston lost Gerrit Cole to the Yankees in free agency, meaning there's a chance they will have to face him in the postseason not just in 2020, but for years to come. Also, Will Harris signed with the Nationals and Wade Miley signed with the Reds. "We've lost a lot of high, high-end innings," manager A.J. Hinch said at the Winter Meetings.
The sign-stealing scandal has sullied Houston's reputation and it could be keeping some free agents away -- "The conversations that we've had, Jeff has had, the recruitment part of it has all been very positive," Hinch said last month, for what it's worth -- but the Astros haven't been connected to many free agents to start with. There was little public effort to retain Cole, for example.
More than anything, money seems to be driving the club's quiet offseason. Soon after the trade deadline Astros owner Jim Crane noted re-signing Cole would put the team "way over the cap," which is an interesting way of phrasing things seeing how MLB does not have a salary cap. More recently, .
Even with several free agent departures and minimal free-agent additions, Houston's luxury tax payroll is currently on track to soar from $200.0 million in 2019 to $228.6 million in 2020, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. The Astros have a big arbitration class, they took on money in the Zack Greinke trade, and Justin Verlander's and Alex Bregman's extensions kick in. It adds up quick.
The 2020 luxury tax threshold is $208 million and, realistically, there is no way the Astros can get under that. The second penalty tier begins at $228 million and avoiding that will be difficult. The Astros are already (slightly) over that threshold and they will undoubtedly have injury call-ups throughout the season. Every call-up adds to the luxury tax payroll.
Reducing or eliminating luxury tax is a common goal among big-market teams these days. The Dodgers and Yankees managed to get under the threshold in recent years to reset their tax rate -- Los Angeles has stayed under the threshold the last two years -- and the Red Sox are trying to do the same this year. The Cubs are crying poor as well. .
The Astros, a team known for ruthless efficiency under Crane and Luhnow, seem to be sticking to the $228 million second luxury tax threshold as a payroll limit. Heck, Crane even let it slip when he referred to the "cap" back in August. There is a limit. We don't know what it is, exactly, but a limit exists. As a first time luxury tax offender in 2020, these would be Houston's tax rates:
- Payroll between $208 million and $228 million: 20 percent on every dollar over $208 million
- Payroll between $228 million and $248 million: $4 million plus 32 percent on every dollar over $228 million
- Payroll over $248 million: $10.4 million plus 62.5 percent on every dollar over $248 million, and top 2021 draft pick moves back 10 spots
Like so many other big-market teams these days, it appears the Astros are treating the luxury tax as a salary cap, and trying to limit their tax burden. Getting under the $208 million threshold won't happen. Getting under the $228 million threshold? That is doable with five weeks to go between now and spring training. Still lots of time to make a move(s).
With that in mind, let's break down where Houston's roster and financials sit at the moment, and what they could do to improve these next few weeks. Perhaps some headlines are coming that do not involve the sign-stealing scandal.
Who can be moved to clear salary?
Might as well start here given the luxury tax payroll situation. Technically, pretty much every player on the roster is a salary dump candidate, but something tells me the Astros won't move Verlander or Bregman or Jose Altuve to free up payroll. As Yankees GM Brian Cashman likes to say, no player is untouchable, but some are more touchable than others.
Looking over the club's roster, three Astros players stand out as potential salary dump candidates:
- SS Carlos Correa: $7.4 million projected salary in 2020 (via MLB Trade Rumors)
- RHP Brad Peacock: $4.6 million projected salary in 2020 (via MLB Trade Rumors)
- OF Josh Reddick: $13 million salary in 2020
I think a Correa trade is very unlikely, but the rumors have popped up, and I would never completely rule out a deal. The Astros can slide Bregman over to shortstop, his natural position, and install Abraham Toro at third base, or perhaps move Yuli Gurriel back to the hot corner and plug Yordan Alvarez in at first base. It could work. I don't expect it to happen, but it could work.
The Astros have Kyle Tucker, a highly regarded young player, available to step into the lineup to replace Reddick. Finding another outfielder is not the obstacle here though. Reddick is owed a good deal of money this coming season and he's mustered only a 93 OPS+ the last two years. Why trade for Reddick when you could sign, say, Yasiel Puig and get similar or better production?
To unload Reddick, the Astros may have to attached a sweetener. The Diamondbacks gave the Braves righty Touki Toussaint to take on Bronson Arroyo's contract a few years ago. The Padres took on Chase Headley's salary to get Bryan Mitchell from the Yankees two years ago. . It's been done before.
Houston is deep in pitching prospects -- "As always, this system is loaded with homegrown pitching, some of which has come out of nowhere during the last 12 months," wrote FanGraphs in their recent farm system analysis -- and parting with an arm(s) to clear Reddick's salary and open a lineup spot for Tucker is something the Astros have reportedly investigated this winter.
The Orioles stand out as a potential trade partner for Reddick. GM Mike Elias worked under Luhnow with the Astros and absorbing the final year of a bad contract to add young pitching to the system seems worthwhile for a rebuilding team. Of course, Baltimore doesn't seem inclined to spend much money this year. Trading Reddick, even with a sweetener, will be easier said than done.
As for Peacock, he's been a solid and versatile depth arm the last few seasons, but committing close to $5 million to a guy who may only be a long or middle reliever could be tough to swallow for a team on a self-imposed budget. Swapping Peacock for a prospect and replacing him internally (Bryan Abreu?) seems like the easiest way to get payroll under the $248 million threshold.
What are their biggest needs?
On the position player side, the Astros are so good and so deep it's almost obnoxious. They will miss Robinson Chirinos behind the plate -- he returned to the AL West rival Rangers earlier this week -- but, overall, Houston's lineup is insanely good. Look at this team:
- CF George Springer
- 2B Jose Altuve
- LF Michael Brantley
- 3B Alex Bregman
- DH Yordan Alvarez
- 1B Yuli Gurriel
- SS Carlos Correa
- RF Josh Reddick
- C Martin Maldonado
That leaves Garneau, Tucker, Aledmys Diaz, on the bench. Toro and infielder Jack Mayfield are notable 40-man roster depth options currently ticketed for Triple-A. FanGraphs has Houston's position players leading baseball in projected WAR in 2020 and it's not close. Look at that lineup and you can understand why. The Astros are stacked.
"We've got a lot of good options," Hinch said at the Winter Meetings. "We've got a great nucleus of a team that has been very successful ... We've got a pretty full position player group outside of the catcher position (before re-signing Maldonado)."
The Astros' rotation has been an overwhelming strength the last few seasons -- Houston is third in starting pitching WAR since 2017 -- but, right now, the rotation is the club's most glaring weakness. Weakness is a relative term here, because you're in good shape when you start a rotation with Verlander and Greinke, but the depth chart thins out quick after those two:
- RHP Justin Verlander
- RHP Zack Greinke
- RHP Lance McCullers Jr.
- RHP Jose Urquidy
- RHP Brad Peacock
- RHP Rogelio Armenteros
- LHP Framber Valdez
- LHP Cionel Perez
Verlander turns 37 next month. Greinke turned 36 in October. As good as they are -- and they are great -- those ages carry risk. McCullers told MLB.com's Brian McTaggart he completed his Tommy John surgery rehab in November and is "ready to roll into Spring Training and ready to carry a big load for the team this year," though Hinch indicated the Astros will be cautious.
"We'll probably have to rein him in a little bit in the spring, but I love where he's at mentally and physically," Hinch said last month. "We will obviously have a plan for him given that he's coming off of a major surgery. That will be discussed as we get closer to spring with him, and then we see his physical readiness, getting ready for a normal camp."
Urquidy had a breakout performance in the postseason (one run in 10 innings) but he has only 51 career big-league innings under his belt, October included. Peacock has been in and out of the rotation the last few years and Armenteros, Perez, and Valdez have gone up and down a bunch without establishing themselves as steady MLB contributors. They largely remain unknowns.
There is boom or bust potential with the Astros' rotation. Verlander and Greinke can continue to pitch at a Cy Young level, McCullers can return with his new elbow ligament and dominate, and someone (or someones) from the Armenteros, Perez, Urquidy, and Valdez group can settle in as average to above-average contributors. Houston has earned the benefit of the doubt.
At the same time, risk exists. Verlander and Greinke are at an age where decline can happen quickly. McCullers' return from Tommy John surgery can be bumpy as we've seen with talented pitchers like Matt Harvey, Drew Smyly, and Trevor Rosenthal the last few years. The kids? Who knows. That first full MLB season can be a challenge. Boom or bust is a good way to describe this group.
If nothing else, the Astros could use another reliable innings eater to plug into the fifth starter's spot. Houston signed Miley on Jan. 31 last offseason, which is a reminder there is still plenty of time to get help before spring training, but free agency has mostly been picked clean. Here are the top available free agent starters per FanGraphs projected WAR:
- LHP Alex Wood: 1.6 WAR
- RHP Ivan Nova: 1.3 WAR
- RHP Jhoulys Chacin: 1.2 WAR
- RHP Felix Hernandez: 0.8 WAR
- RHP Taijuan Walker: 0.8 WAR
The Astros signing King Felix to a cheap one-year deal and reviving his career would be an extremely Astros thing, no? Walker returned from Tommy John surgery in September and carries the same risks as McCullers. Back trouble limited Wood to 35 2/3 innings last year. His season ended in August. Free agency moved quick this winter. There's no Miley available now.
Any team looking to improve its rotation at this point will likely to turn to the trade market.. . . Part of me wonders whether there's a salary shuffling move involving Reddick to be made. A bad contract for bad contract swap. Those happen occasionally.
Reddick is owed $13 million in 2020, the final year on his contract. Looking around the league at starting pitchers making similar money, do either of these deals work?
- Reddick for Tyler Chatwood ($13 million in 2020).
- Reddick and prospects for Boyd ($6.4 million projected in 2020).
Feel free to tell me my trade proposals suck. The Cubs need pitching -- they need an outfielder too, but they need pitching more -- so a straight Reddick for Chatwood swap doesn't make much sense for them unless they get another piece. The Tigers should be all about accumulating prospects. Taking on Reddick to get as much young talent for Boyd as possible should be on the table.
The wild card here is Correa. As noted earlier, the Astros have the infield depth to replace him. Could they use Correa as a trade chip to add an impact starting pitcher? Say, Correa for Noah Syndergaard? That would be fun. Like I said, I think a Correa trade is very unlikely. It's not impossible though. As a fan of baseball chaos, I'm rooting for one to go down.
Money will be a factor in Houston's starting pitching pursuit. It always is. They'll need to clear payroll before they can take on salary if they plan on staying under the $228 million luxury tax tier, and that will limit their options. So will the thinned out free-agent market and the limited trade market. Pitchers are available, for sure. At a reasonable price though? That's more difficult to say.
The rotation stands out as the most obvious place the Astros can upgrade this winter. The lineup is loaded and the bullpen, even with Harris departing as a free agent, is quite strong. Check out the relief crew Hinch has to work with:
- Closer: RHP Roberto Osuna
- Setup: RHP Ryan Pressly, RHP Joe Smith
- Middle: RHP Joe Biagini, RHP Chris Devenski, RHP Josh James
- Long: TBD (Abreu, Armenteros, Peacock, Perez, Valdez, Cy Sneed, and Francis Martes among the candidates)
The position player group is excellent and the bullpen is solid. And, frankly, the rotation is in pretty good shape too. Verlander and Greinke are up there in age, and McCullers is coming back from Tommy John surgery and Urquidy is not established, but that's a talented foursome. You can do a lot worse than starting your rotation with those four.
Between now and Opening Day, I would expect the Astros to scour the market -- both free agency and trades -- for a low cost back-end starter to provide depth and innings. Adding starter and staying under the $228 million second luxury tax threshold will take some creativity, but it is doable, and I believe the Astros will get it done between now and the start of the regular season.
"We do have a few holes to fill. We've lost a lot of high, high-end innings ... in the rotation we've got some young kids that we're excited about," Hinch said at the Winter Meetings.
Who are their top internal options?
The Astros are a player development machine and every year they seem to bring up a new young player who makes an immediate impact. Alvarez, the unanimous Rookie of the Year, was that guy in 2019. Gurriel got Rookie of the Year votes in 2017. Devenski did in 2016. Correa won the award in 2015. Seemingly every season the Astros have new prized young player.
Trades, graduations, and late first-round draft picks have thinned Houston's farm system. Baseball America ranked it the 15th best system in the game in August, so it is solid more than elite these days, yet the Astros still have MLB-ready players available. Tucker is the most notable. The No. 5 pick in 2015 draft had a 30/30 season in Triple-A last year and is ready to step into the lineup.
despite a down season that included a bout with shoulder fatigue and a 7.99 ERA in 59 2/3 innings at four minor-league levels. He looked much more like himself in the Arizona Fall League -- Whitley posted a 2.88 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 25 innings in the notoriously hitter-friendly circuit -- an encouraging sign after a difficult regular season.
Whomever the Astros entrust with the fifth starter's spot, be it Armenteros or Peacock or a free agent or a trade addition, will only be keeping the seat warm for Whitley. He will need some Triple-A time after throwing only 24 1/3 innings at the level in 2019, but the expectation is he won't need much. Whitley could rejoin the rotation at midseason and make an immediate impact.
Abreu has a "ceiling as a frontline starter," according to MLB.com, whereas Armenteros is billed as a "back-of-the-rotation starter" and 40-man roster righty Cristian Javier has the stuff to be an "asset as a multi-inning reliever." Abreu and Javier spent 2019 in Double-A and are ticketed for Triple-A in 2020. Armenteros has pitched in Triple-A since 2017 and is as ready as he's going to get.
Two pitching prospects to watch in 2020: Brandon Bielak and Blake Taylor. Bielak split last season between Double-A and Triple-A and posted a 4.22 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 121 2/3 innings. The numbers are not eye-popping, but Bielak is pretty close to MLB ready, and he has the four-pitch arsenal and control to hold down a rotation spot soon, should the Astros need him.
Taylor came over in the Marisnick trade and he lit up the minors last season, his first as a full-time reliever. He managed a 2.16 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings split between High Class-A and Double-A. Taylor sports the high spin rates the Astros love with his fastball and curveball, and he's on the 40-man roster, so he's a candidate to be called up at any moment.
Tucker has exceeded the rookie limit by one stinkin' at-bat, so he is technically no longer a prospect, but he's not an established big leaguer. He's poised to assume an important role in 2020. Armenteros is an Opening Day rotation candidate whereas Abreu, Bielak, Javier, Taylor, and of course Whitley figure to arrive later in the summer. The farm system still has a lot to offer.
Although the Angels, Athletics, and Rangers loom as threats, the Astros are talented enough to stand pat and go into 2020 as AL West favorites. Their rotation situation makes them more vulnerable than they have been at any point in the last three or four years, but they have help on the way, and you can never rule out this club turning an under-the-radar pickup into a big contributor.
"We have a really good team. We have a lot of good things going. We're trying to build the 2020 team. Our energy's been spent on that," Hinch said last month. "Obviously, it's been a different offseason for us. Moving forward, I hope there's going to be a day when we get past (the sign-stealing scandal) and we can move forward."