It's not often an 84-win season can be considered a disappointment, especially for a young and upcoming team, but that's exactly what 2016 was for the Houston Astros. One year after winning 86 games and advancing to the ALDS, the 'Stros took a slight step back and missed the postseason by five games.
Given that, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised the Astros have been the busiest team so far this offseason. They've been aggressive with both free agents and trades as they look to take the step forward in 2017 they they were hoping to take in 2016. GM Jeff Luhnow said this was coming too.
"I think we're going to start making some offers right away, both with teams as well as with agents and players," said Luhnow to Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle earlier this month. "I would like to have one or two things done before the winter meetings if possible ... We need to try and get out in front of some things and secure some players to help us win."
So far this offseason, less than three weeks since the end of the 2016 World Series, the Astros have already completed six roster moves. Here's a quick recap of their offseason activity to date:
- Nov. 3: Claimed Norichika Aoki off waivers from the Mariners.
- Nov. 4: Traded Pat Neshek to the Phillies for cash or a player to be named later.
- Nov. 4: Exercised their $5.2 million club option for Evan Gattis.
- Nov. 16: Signed Charlie Morton to a two-year deal worth $14 million.
- Nov. 17: Signed Josh Reddick to a four-year deal worth $52 million.
- Nov. 17: Traded two pitching prospects to the Yankees for Brian McCann.
A new catcher, a new starting pitcher, and two new outfielders. Houston also unloaded a veteran reliever in what sure looks like a cost-cutting move. That qualifies as a busy offseason regardless of whether it's November, December, or a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
Even with all this early offseason activity, the Astros will have several more issues to address over the next few months. There are questions about first base and even still in the outfield, and of course pitching depth is always necessary. You could even throw DH into that mix, though it appears Gattis and McCann are going to share those responsibilities on the days they don't catch.
Here's a breakdown of the 'Stros biggest remain problem areas and how they can address them, both internally and by going outside the organization.
This past season Astros' first basemen hit a combined .232/.299/.381 (73 OPS+) with 19 home runs. Only the Nationals (70 OPS+) and Yankees (71 OPS+) received worse production from the position, a position normally associated with big offense. The league average first baseman hit .259/.338/.453 (114 OPS+) in 2016.
Utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez, he of the 90 OPS+ in 2016, saw the majority of the playing time at first base this year. Youngsters like Tyler White and A.J. Reed didn't do much when given an opportunity. There are several quality free agent first basemen available, many of whom would be an upgrade for the Astros, but right now it seems the team will stick with internal options at first base. This is my gut feeling at the moment:
- Plan A: Yulieski Gurriel
- Plan B: Sign a free agent (Edwin Encarnacion? Mike Napoli? Mitch Moreland?)
- Plan C: White or Reed
Gurriel, a long-time shortstop in Cuba, is the leading candidate for the job for two reasons. One, he's already 32. And two, the Astros signed him to a $47.5 million contract this summer. You don't give a player that old that much money with the intention of stashing him in Triple-A or on the bench, even if he has zero MLB experience.
The Astros signed Gurriel in July and he hit .262/.292/.385 (85 OPS+) with three home runs in 36 big league games while getting his feet wet late in the season. He put up an insane .500/.589/.874 batting line with 38 walks and three strikeouts (!) in his final Cuban league season last year, and while he'll never do that in MLB, Gurriel can really hit, and he's going to play. First base is the obvious spot right now.
We know for certain Reddick and George Springer will play every day and hold down two of the three outfield spots. We just don't know how they'll align since both are natural right fielders. Reddick in right and Springer in center seems most likely, and is probably the team's best defensive alignment. The two could end up playing the corners, however.
The Astros have no shortage of options for the third outfield spot. Jake Marisnick and Tony Kemp are bonafide center fielders. Aoki, Teoscar Hernandez, and Preston Tucker are best limited to left field. A four-man outfield platoon would be interesting.
- vs. RHP: Reddick in right, Springer in center, Aoki in left.
- vs. LHP: Reddick in right, Marisnick in center, Springer in let.
Because Houston currently has seven outfielders on the 40-man roster -- that doesn't include Reddick because his signing is not official yet -- and they've already gone outside the organization to bring in Aoki and Reddick, it stands to reason they won't splurge for a big free agent outfield bat like Yoenis Cespedes or Jose Bautista. Or even Ian Desmond or Carlos Beltran. Possible? Sure. Just unlikely.
Chances are manager A.J. Hinch won't stick with one alignment. Reddick will play right and Springer will play center some days, then Reddick will play right and Springer will play left on others. And then there are days one of the two serves as the DH. That flexibility is a good thing. Hinch and the 'Stros just have to sort through all these options and pick the best outfield.
There is where it gets most interesting. As with first base and the outfield, the Astros have some internal candidates for the rotation and the bullpen, though there's no such thing as too much pitching depth. Especially when you consider the pitchers lined up to be in Houston's rotation next year. Check it out:
- Dallas Keuchel: The 2015 AL Cy Young award winner had a 4.55 ERA (87 ERA+) in 168 innings in 2016. A shoulder injury ended his season in late August.
- Mike Fiers: The finesse righty had a 4.48 ERA (88 ERA+) in 168 2/3 innings in 2016. He completed six full innings of work in fewer than half of his starts (14 of 30, to be exact).
- Collin McHugh: McHugh stayed healthy all season but pitched to a below-average 4.34 ERA (91 ERA+) in 184 2/3 innings.
- Lance McCullers Jr.: A 3.22 ERA (123 ERA+) with 11.8 K/9 is excellent. Unfortunately McCullers was limiting to only 81 innings by elbow and shoulder woes.
- Charlie Morton: Made four starts with the Phillies before blowing out his hamstring and needing season-ending surgery in 2016.
Youngsters like Joe Musgrove, David Paulino, and Brady Rodgers provide some depth, ditto Michael Feliz and Brad Peacock, but geez. Unless Keuchel regains his Cy Young form following his shoulder injury, which is absolutely possible, there's no one in that rotation you can comfortably pencil in for 180-plus league average innings in 2017.
There's depth and then there's quality depth. The Astros have rotation depth in the sense that they have a lot of available starters. They're nine deep even if Feliz returns to the bullpen next season. The lack of quality depth is apparent though. Super early 2017 projections at FanGraphs give the Astros just three +2 WAR pitchers next year (Keuchel, McHugh, McCullers), and that assumes McCullers will throw a career high (by far) 184 innings. Eek.
I would have liked to see the Astros aim a little higher than Morton, whose best season featured a 3.26 ERA (109 ERA+) in a mere 116 innings back in 2013. Aiming higher is basically impossible with this free agent class though. There's Rich Hill, and, uh, Ivan Nova? Jason Hammel? This is a bad offseason to need pitching help.
Given their deep farm system and desire to take a step forward next season, it would behoove the Astros to look for a starting pitcher on the trade market. It doesn't have to be Chris Sale or Justin Verlander, though that would be cool. A pitcher along the lines of, say, Jake Odorizzi or Ervin Santana would provide plenty of help despite not being a huge name.
The Astros have a strong bullpen, strong enough that they were able to salary dump Neshek, which is going to take some pressure off their rotation. Hinch won't need to push his starter for six innings every game. The bullpen can't record 12 outs every night, they'll get burned out in a hurry, but Houston's bullpen is better equipped to handle that workload thanks to quality long men like Feliz and Chris Devenski.
So far this offseason the Astros have been more aggressive than any other team, and understandably so. They want 2016 to be a bump in the road to perennial contention and nothing more. They've already addressed their holes in the outfield and behind the plate. Now they just need to figure out first base and the other outfield spot, and perhaps gear up for a run at a top starter. Luhnow has handled his major business already, but the 'Stros still have more room for improvement.