The foundation of the Houston Astros remains solid and intact heading into the 2019 offseason with Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Lance McCullers all secured for another season at the “Juice Box.” However, this winter will be a bit different then it was following the franchise’s first ever World Series title. Jeff Lunhow has some key decisions to make and a few holes to fill on this roster before making another run towards October success.
Houston will have seven of its players from last year’s roster testing the free agent market in the upcoming months. Starting pitchers Dallas Kuechel and Charlie Morton, lefty reliever Tony Sipp, catchers Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado, designated hitter Evan Gattis and utility superman Marwin Gonzalez.
In all likelihood, the Astros will let Sipp, McCann, Maldonado and Gattis walk and find employment elsewhere. Over the past few seasons, Sipp’s pitching has been up and down and is an expendable part of what is now a loaded bullpen. Gattis had some key moments, with his “lumberjack” look and power at the plate, but overall underproduced.
Maldonado, whom they acquired late in the season when McCann was going to miss some time, is among the best defensive backstops in the game. With a rough postseason behind the plate and quality catchers available the Astros could be looking for a player with a better bat to insert into the line-up.
Charlie Morton has expressed some interest in a possible return to Houston. However, he also stated that retirement is a legitimate option, as well as wanting to be closer to his family in the Northeast. His tenure as an Astro was successful, but he is now 35 and battled injuries most of his career before coming to the Astros. So if he were to return, it would be on a one year deal at a fair market price.
As for Dallas Kuechel, he looks to draw loads of interest on the market. The former Cy Young winner has struggled since winning the award, but the Southpaw out of the University of Arkansas finished off last season strong and will be seeking a long-term deal at a lofty price. I don’t see owner Jim Crane and Lunhow overpaying or wanting to invest in him long term, so the market for him may squeeze the Astros out of signing him. Not to mention, they gave him a qualifying offer so if he does sign elsewhere they will be compensated.
In my opinion, the toughest decision this offseason is Marwin Gonzalez. I have no doubt the Astros brass would love to have their versatile fielder back, but at what cost? A manager’s dream player, one that can be plugged into pretty much any position on the field (outside of pitcher and catcher) will be highly sought after and most likely overpaid regarding what he brings with his bat. Marwin was a clutch hitter the last two seasons, riding the momentous wave during the teams World Series run produced his best season to date. However, his numbers dwindled last season, and if the Astros enter a bidding war, is what he has done enough to warrant what might have to be paid to keep him?
So where does that leave A.J. Hinch and his roster going into free agency? Their biggest needs include an everyday catcher (assuming they don’t resign McCann or Maldonado), a middle infielder, a corner outfielder, and a starting pitcher. Like most teams, they will look to add depth at all levels of the organization. Here are the main areas they will be looking to lock down.
Big names that will most likely be considered are Johnathan Lucroy, Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal, Matt Wieters and Nick Hundley. The pipeline at catcher is thin within the organization, and surely they will move to bring in an everyday starter, while Max Stassi serves as the primary back up. Lucroy (.241 AVG/4 HR/51 RBI/.617 OPS) has the best major league track record, while Ramos (.297 AVG/ 14 HR/53 RBI/.834 OPS) is considered to have the highest upside. When healthy, Wieters (.238 AVG/8 HR/30 RBI/.704 OBP) is a quality option, but he hasn’t been healthy. Grandal (.241 AVG/24 HR/68 RBI/.815 OPS) has developed into an All-Star caliber player, and Hundley (.241 AVG, 10 HR/31 RBI/.706 OPS) has become a reliable option as well.
If Marwin Gonzalez signs with another team, the Astros are stranded without an experienced backup infielder. The recent injuries experienced by Altuve and Correa make this role more relevant of a need, and the options in free agency to this point are thin regarding quality. The best option available is Freddy Galvis (.248 AVG/13 HR/ 67 RBI/.680 OPS). His age falls in the more appealing side of 30 and has started showing some promise as a hitter. Jordy Mercer (.251 AVG/2 HR/ 6 RBI/.696 OPS) is coming off of a down year but has a track record of being a versatile utility man in the past. The market is then left with journeymen and guys who don’t play more than one side of the bag.
The left field spot will likely be up for grabs heading into Spring Training. The highly revered youngster, Kyle Tucker, is being groomed for the role. However, unfortunately, during his time at the big league level last season, he showed very little. They may decide to keep him in AAA to start the season and refine his game a bit more and gain some confidence before calling him back up. Thus creating a huge need for a veteran, everyday guy to be a stop gap.
They have some options on possible one year guys, in the likes of Nick Markakis (.297 AVG, 14 HR, 93 RBI, .806 OPS), long-time Oriole Adam Jones (.281 AVG, 15 HR, 63 RBI, .732 OPS) and Carlos Gonzalez (.276 AVG, 16 HR, 64 RBI, .796 OPS). They will demand a bit of money but could be had on a one year deal. A cheaper option is out there as well, a guy like Melky Cabrera (.280 AVG, 6 HR, 39 RBI, .755 OPS) could make a great addition to the Astros.
With the likely departures of Kuechel and/or Morton, at least one spot in the rotation will need to be filled. Josh James and his 100+ MPH heat impressed last season enough to at least warrant a spot to start the 2019 season. Framber Valdez will get his chance to compete during spring training. Although Brady Rogers and Forrest Whitley are considered to be the future; they won’t be rushed up to the majors to start next year.
Since the Astros will be a legit contender again next year, they will most likely look for another veteran arm to add to the mix. An impressive showing late last season that continued into the playoffs makes Nate Eovaldi (6-7, 3.81 ERA, 101k, 1.13 WHIP, 111 INN) a standout player to be heavily pursued this offseason. Add the facts that he will only be 29 at the start of next season and hails from Houston, then Eovaldi sounds like a perfect fit.
If it’s a lefty they plan to sign to replace Kuechel, a veteran like Gio Gonzalez (10-11, 4.21 ERA, 148K, 1.44 WHIP, 171 INN) can be had and most likely on a short-term deal. Cole was brought in last year hoping to revive his career, and it’s possible the Astros could look to do the same with a guy like Matt Harvey (7-9, 4.94 ERA, 131K, 1.30 WHIP, 15 INN). Not long ago, Harvey was considered the ace of a young and loaded Mets’ rotation.
Other names to consider are Jeremy Hellickson (5-3, 3.45 ERA, 65K, 1.07 WHIP, 91.1 INN), Drew Pomeranz (2-6, 6.08, 6k, 1.77 WHIP, 74 INN), Garrett Richards (5-4, 3.66 ERA, 87 K, 1.28 WHIP, 76.1 INN) and Brett Anderson (4-5, 4.48 ERA, 47 K, 1.28 WHIP, 80.1 INN, and is also a lefty. .
“Winter is coming.”
As the long winter progresses, more names will become available when teams start shuffling pieces, dumping salaries and making trades. We have only just begun the “hot stove” portion of MLB, but no matter how Lunhow, Crane, and Hinch plug the holes in the roster, fans can be assured that winning is a priority and the Astros are doing it the right way.
*All stats are from MLB.com and are 2018 stats.