We continue our series in which we look at how each 2015 playoff team can go about the offseason in order to chase a ring in 2016. For more of an introduction, see the first piece in the series about the Yankees. Here, we will be looking at a team that got bounced in the American League Division Series, the Houston Astros.
Just as a reminder, here are the cutoffs we are looking at:
Last year’s recap:
Lost in American League Division Series in 5 games to the Kansas City Royals.
Total WAR: 46.6
Top 12 WAR: 37.7
Top 16 WAR: 42.4
Part of the benefit of having such a young core is that you don’t actually need to make so many improvements to your roster. You can just watch Carlos Correa develop into a monster and the rest of your team develop the way normal baseball players do. We’ll make some changes here, but the core of this team should, and will, remain intact as it tries to bring the first World Series title to Houston.
1. Make sure Colby Rasmus signs elsewhere.
Oops! A little to late for that one.
2. Start Jake Marisnick in center and move Carlos Gomez to left.
When you have a 24 year-old with the glove that Marisnick has, you don’t keep him on the bench. Sure he has his limitations offensively, but in 238 games in the majors, he has posted a 3.6 DWAR. It’s entirely possible that Marisnick’s defense will be more valuable than Rasmus’ total product next season. The Astros should bat him ninth and watch him track down everything in center field (although it would look cooler if they keep the hill out there). He also shows that he has been willing to run on the base paths, stealing 24 last season, which should also increase his value a bit. If he can get himself into scoring position a few times for Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, then that is all Houston should ask of its number nine hitter. Of course, there is the issue that Carlos Gomez has played all but one of his games since 2011 in center field. Oddly, that one game at another position was second base. In 2013, he posted a 4.6 DWAR but has since returned to posting good numbers between half and a full win above replacement defensively. However, he has been battling a lot of injuries in the past couple of seasons and might be headed toward a move to left field anyway. He only stole 17 bases last year after three straight 30 steal seasons, so between his injuries and attempt to preserve his legs a bit on the base paths, left field might be the preferred position for Gomez at this point. It also shouldn’t be too difficult a decision to make, since Marisnick really is that good defensively. He should compete for a gold glove every year if given the chance, making him clearly the best option for the Astros to man center field.
3. Trade Josh Fields to the Yankees for Mark Teixeira and $12 million
Wait a minute, this looks familiar. Yes, I did propose this trade when I wrote my World Series push article for the Yankees, but it really makes sense for both sides. I’m ignoring Romine in this one because I would go another route for catcher as I had underrated their current backstop, Jason Castro. I said a lot of what I am about to say in that article, but it is worth repeating. Chris Carter played 129 games last season, 121 of which he spent at least some time at first base. He had a -1.3 DWAR on the season, meaning he should really be a designated hitter. Then again, he was still at -.1 WAR on the season, meaning that Houston should probably move on entirely from Carter. Mark Teixeira played 111 games last season, including 108 at first base in which he reached 3.8 wins above replacement and -.1 defensive wins above replacement. There are a few reasons why it is likely that Teixeira will regress a bit next season, but barring a major injury he should be at least 3 wins better than Carter. He would also be a good veteran presence to have around this extremely young team and paying only $11 million of his $23 million owed is not that bad. Fields is a good relief pitcher, but the difference between him and the next best relief pitcher is not 3 wins above replacement. It is also worth noting that the market value for a 3 WAR player is probably closer to $17 or $18 million dollars than it is 11. I realize that there is a good chance that Teixeira gets hurt, but the hope would be that he is there for the playoffs, and even if he misses sixty games he’s still better than Carter plus Fields. The Yankees are only willing to do this because they need to make room for Greg Bird, and getting a relief pitcher for Teixeira would be better than forcing Bird to the bench. However, the Astros would be more concerned with the value of parts being exchanged, and that edge would go to Houston.
4. Trade Chris Carter to the Colorado Rockies for Justin Miller
The only issue with the Teixeira trade is that the Astros would have two DH’s in Carter and Evan Gattis to fill one spot. They say that they would prefer to move Gattis, but Gattis was much more productive offensively last season. Also, the Rockies have an opening at first base, not left field. This trade might seem like both parties are just trying to get rid of someone they don’t like, but I think both teams can use the pieces that they would be receiving. The Astros could use some upgrades to their bullpen and although Justin Miller is a 28 year-old pitcher with all of 45 major league innings under hit belt, and an ERA above 4, there are indications that he may be in for a good season. His strikeout rate is close to a batter per inning and he cut down on his walk rate in the high minors while giving up few home runs. His ERA went up and down, so that is a bit difficult to gauge, but it sure seems like this guy was just frowned upon a bit because he doesn’t throw 96 miles per hour. His velocity jumped last year, but before then he was hovering around 92 for his fastball. Whatever the reason is, it seems unlikely that the Rockies value this guy highly and would be willing to part with him if it meant anything in their rebuilding process.
The logical question to ask now is: why would the Rockies want Chris Carter? There are a limited number of commodities that you can count on having value at the trade deadline: starting pitchers, great relief pitchers (not good ones), and power. That’s about it. Everything will depend on what teams are looking for, but there is always the guarantee that these three categories will be sought after at the deadline. There is a reason that Jonny Gomes gets traded every season. The Rockies are not ready to compete and won’t be for some time. Carter won’t represent a sizeable step in any direction, but he has power. His home runs per fly ball rate went down last year, so that should increase and he will be in Colorado. It is not unreasonable to think he would be a 40 home run threat there. He had 37 home runs in 2014 and only hit 24 in 2015 with 116 less at bats. Granted, 37 home runs was up from 29 the year before, so let’s assume that he is naturally a 33 home run hitter. Colorado probably wouldn’t give him seven home runs, but he would have a decent chance of getting over 35 with that baseline. They shouldn’t expect too much, but they would get a solid piece in return if they announced that they had a player with over 20 home runs for sale before July 31. Miller is not going to become a lights out relief pitcher, so he will have very little, if any, trade value while Carter is worth a gamble for that reason.
5. Trade Mark Appel to the San Diego Padres for Tyson Ross
Three-time draft pick and two-time first round draft pick Mark Appel has failed to live up to expectations so far but he has a fastball that reaches 98 miles per hour. He walked too many batters in Triple-A but he has a fastball that reaches 98 miles per hour. He gives up way too many home runs for a minor league but he has a fastball that reaches 98 miles per hour. Scouts will talk about his above average offspeed pitches and above average control, which he displayed until AAA, but he was drafted so highly because of his fastball. Lucky for the Astros, that fastball hasn’t changed. They need to trade him now before they show off the fact that he might not have much more than that. He could very well develop into a good starting pitcher as his strikeouts are there and his walk rate might go back down after last season, but the home runs in the minors are very alarming. Tyson Ross, on the other hand, does not know how to give up home runs. Throughout his career, he has given up only 42 home runs in 665 innings. For most pitchers that might be considered unsustainable, but his home runs per fly balls rate is about where it should be as he generates close to 1.5 ground balls per fly ball. That is one of the best rates in the majors and allows him to keep the ball in the park so well. Blame it on the San Diego ballpark if you want, but he has only given up four more home runs on the road than at home in the past three seasons. Appel comes with enough hype that this deal could get done, although Houston may have to part with another minor league player in this. This deal would give Houston an established number two starter behind Dallas Keuchel and would make their rotation one of the best in the game with Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh, and Mike Fiers to follow. There are many teams that would be happy with Fiers as their third starter, but I think that he might be more effective out of the bullpen in the postseason. He can go long distances and strikes out a ridiculous amount of batters with his sup-90 mph fastball. That is usually the type of stuff that is hard to keep up three times through the order, but let him take batters down two or three innings at a time and he could be a force out of the ‘pen in October. The real takeaway should be about Ross and how good he would be for this team, but it also sets up a nice element for a World Series run if the Astros make it back to the playoffs.
6. Sign Geovany Soto to be the backup catcher
If you only know the offensive story of Geovany Soto, it may surprise you to find out that he is a really good defensive catcher. He is among the league leaders in pitch framing and supplements it with solid defense when the ball is in play. He will never perform offensively the way that he did with the Cubs during that four year stretch but as a backup catcher, most teams do a lot worse. It also makes for an odd pairing with he and Jason Castro since both were once thought of as good offensive catchers but now rely solely on their defensive value. As fans, we often fall into the trap that good-hitting catchers are often not as good defensively because there have only been so many catchers who could sustain good production both ways. Both of these guys, though, would have been exceptions had they kept their offensive output. Castro won’t hit .276 again like in 2013, and he may never hit .250 again, but StatCorner had him as the seventh best catcher in pitch framing last season, and he added 1.2 DWAR to that last season, which doesn’t account for framing. The DWAR is not a fluke either, as that is his third straight season at .9 or above. In other words, who cares if neither of these guys will hit. The tandem of Castro and Soto will allow this already great pitching staff to look even better and make it extremely difficult for opposing teams to score a lot of runs. Good luck to the Blue Jays trying to beat these guys 9-7 every time they face each other. That’s very unlikely to happen. Bat these guys ahead of Marisnick and let them take care of the pitching staff as they have been doing their entire careers.
7. Promote Tony Kemp to the major league roster.
These are both minor moves that are more meant to say that they shouldn’t stick with veterans on the roster just because they have them when Houston could bring up these two prospects. Tony Kemp, who is not Jose Altuve and should not be mistaken for him, is a second baseman and outfielder who brings speed, a high average, and plate discipline to the table. I mention Altuve in there because everyone wants to compare the two since they are short second basemen from the same organization. If anyone tells you that these two players are similar, please smack said person. Altuve and Kemp don’t even bat from the same side of the plate. Not only that, but Altuve hit more home runs in 2015 than Kemp has in his entire minor league career. On the flip side, Kemp drew 23 more walks in 33 less games than Altuve last season. They are not the same player and Kemp should not be asked to do what Altuve does now or a few years down the road. Kemp will be a solid backup both at second base and potentially in the outfield as a guy who can get on base often and wreak havoc on the basepaths.
8. Sign Jerry Blevins and re-sign Tony Sipp
Here the Astros would add two relief pitchers that would work great in tandem, as Sipp has much better numbers against right handed batters, while Blevins has done better against left handed batters. The back of this bullpen is strong but these guys would make it much easier to get to the back end, which is where Houston struggled a bit last season. They do have more arms in Triple-A that could help out this year, but given that Sipp has had a few bad years and Blevins is coming off of injuries, these two might be a couple of cheap options to make the team much better while giving some of those young arms more time. Just to give you the numbers on those splits, lefties have slashed .194/.236/.304 off of Blevins and righties have managed just .190/.265/.346 against Sipp with a lot more strikeouts over the past three years. The best part about this is that both are still good facing batters from the other side of the plate, so calling on these guys for an inning regardless of who is batting will not burn the Astros. It might just be a little more effective if these guys were used to get four outs together when needed to get the ball to Will Harris and Luke Gregerson.
9. Get rid of Jed Lowrie and Scott Feldman
Neither one of these players is awful in his own right, it’s just that Houston can use these roster spots more wisely. Feldman’s spot goes to Ross and Lowrie’s spot goes to Kemp, as Marwin Gonzalez is a better backup who can cover all of the infield positions anyway, and Kemp is a better hitter. Feldman has one year left and someone will take a chance on him for nothing in return but they may have to eat Lowrie’s contract or absorb most of it in a trade. He’s owed $14 million over the next two seasons and he has a $1 million buyout for 2018, which is probably a bit more money than his production has warranted so far. The alternative, though, is that Houston uses a roster spot on a player that has become a spare part when they have young players that need breaks or more ways to get into the action. Give Kemp more at bats when regulars need a rest and let him develop in the major leagues.
10. Never play Evan Gattis in the field
This is not a move to make, but just a warning. In 71 innings in the field, Gattis posted a -1.8 DWAR, all of which came in left field. If he had played only DH last season, his WAR would have been 2.3. Instead, it was .5, which is pretty bad for an everyday player. He has power, as evidenced by his 27 home runs, but playing him 11 games in the field last season nearly took all of that away. Unless they trade him, which isn’t a bad idea, Gattis needs to be filling the designated hitter slot until rested.
The Final Team and Projections
Jason Castro (1.8 WAR) – Stellar defense will help this young pitching staff a lot.
Geovany Soto (.6) – Really useful backup catcher.
Mark Teixeira (2.6) – There will be some regression here, but he will be good overall.
Jose Altuve (4.8) – Expect his runs to go up with Carlos Correa hitting behind him.
Tony Kemp (1.1) – He’s got speed, won’t strikeout, and will walk.
Luis Valbuena (2.1) – He’s actually been a really consistent performer the last few years.
Carlos Correa (Either 5.5 or 25) – His WAR was 4.1 in 99 games last year and he is only getting better.
Marwin Gonzalez (1.4) – Versatile backup who can play multiple positions well.
Carlos Gomez (3.4) – He was injured and still got to 2.3 last season.
Jake Marisnick (2.4) – Hit him ninth and watch him field.
George Springer (4.6) – His WAR was 3.8 in 102 games last season.
Preston Tucker (.5) – Worth keeping but his defense must improve.
Evan Gattis (1.5) – No fielding allowed.
Dallas Keuchel (6.1) – From 2014 to 2015 Keuchel pitched 32 more innings, struck out 70 more batters, walked only 3 more batters, and gave up 2 less hits. Some of that will come back down, but he’s still a stud.
Lance McCullers (3.1) – He had really good strikeout, walk, and home run rates as a rookie last season.
Collin McHugh (3.5) – His hits should decrease, but the strikeouts are there to stay.
Mike Fiers (2.5) – His home run per fly ball rate should decrease back to its normal rate, making him a little bit better next season.
Tyson Ross (3.0) – The guy does not give up home runs.
Luke Gregerson (1.3) – He gave up 21 earned runs on 48 hits, a ratio that should decrease.
Will Harris (1.7) – His hits will increase, but the rest of the numbers are still good.
Jerry Blevins (1.0) – He can dominate lefties.
Pat Neshek (.6) – He’s also very good against righties.
Justin Miller (1.4) – His FIP was only 2.62 last season, and that was playing in the home run happy Coors Field.
Vincent Velasquez (1.1) – He has shown good command so far, which will serve him well throughout his career.
Tony Sipp (.9) – Really good pitcher, but home runs are a concern.
Here are the numbers for the Astros.
To be honest, I went into this expecting that the Astros would need one more year before really being ready to compete. Admittedly, I went for it a little more with this team bringing in Tyson Ross for prospects or trading for Mark Teixeira without giving up nearly as much value in return. However, this is a team that can improve its current team now without really altering its long term plan too much by making those moves. If the Yankees or Pirates traded for Ross, then they would have to give up prospects that they are counting on to be key players soon. If the Astros are waiting for Appel to be in the rotation, they might want to rethink that strategy and just go with the proven Tyson Ross instead. Besides, if you want to give Houston that edge without using trades just sign Johnny Cueto or David Price and you’ll get there much easier than the way I did it. I think trade is a more realistic option given that they will have to pay Keuchel soon and won’t want $50 million to be tied to two pitchers, but it is easy to imagine a way in which this team is suddenly one ready to bring a World Series back to Houston. The scary part is thinking about how good Correa can be. I jokingly wrote that he might reach 25 WAR, but he will win an MVP award at some point, and that point may be rather soon. The annual battle between he and Mike Trout for the league’s most valuable player will be fun to watch, the only difference is that Correa has a team to support him while Trout’s Angels made progress in acquiring Andrelton Simmons, but isn’t close enough yet. Between Correa, Altuve, Keuchel, and Springer, the Astros may be able to bank on 16-20 WAR from these four annually, which is as good as it gets at the top. Other parts will change around these guys, but that nucleus is ready now and will be dominant for at least the next five years, provided that nobody leaves in free agency.