Feb. 11, 2014
Spending spree raises outlook in Houston for 2014 season
HOUSTON - An infusion of cash have infused the Astros with new hope this season.
The Houston Astros went on a spending spree last winter, making five significant moves and increasing the payroll by $50 million. In a series of moves, the Astros have revamped their outfield and strengthened a pitching staff that was one of the worst in the American League last year.
Shin-Soo Choo may be the biggest difference-maker for the Astros, though. The 31-year old outfielder will be Houston's starting right fielder this year, patrolling MMP alongside highly touted prospect George Springer, who will open the season in center field.
Choo brings his potent mix of on-base percentage, power, speed and defense to a Houston lineup in need of a steadying force. Though his contract was unpopular with most of the Astros blogosphere, Choo represents a substantial upgrade for the team and his addition could be worth as much as seven wins in 2014.
"To make a move like this, it had to make sense," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "Shin-Soo not only gives us a foundational player we can build around in the coming years, he also gives us a consistent offensive force in the lineup. We're hoping he's the first wave in our team taking a step forward this year."
To recap, the Astros made the following moves last offseason:
- Houston signed Shin-Soo Choo to a four-year deal worth $72 million. The outfielder will be paid $18 million per year.
- Houston signed Dan Haren to a three-year, $26 million deal.
- Houston signed three bullpen pieces, including Jesse Crain (1 year, $8 million) and Manny Parra (2 years, $12.5 million).
- Houston traded catcher Carlos Perez and Jake Buchanan to the Minnesota Twins for Glen Perkins.
With these moves, the Astros shore up their problematic outfield, added plenty of depth to the bullpen and locked in a veteran starter at a reasonable salary.
"These moves help us move forward without limiting the team in the future," Luhnow said. "None of those signings will block any of our minor leaguers. In fact, we're expecting these additions will help us from putting too much pressure on players as they develop."
At the time, Luhnow shocked the establishment by making a move for Minnesota's Perkins. However, the Astros GM put a priority on fixing the bullpen and did so with whatever means he had available.
"We were fortunate to have some depth at catcher in the minors," Luhnow said. "We really like what Carlos did for us, but we felt that deal gave us the best chance to win at the major league level."
Houston will also deploy a different strategy with its bullpen, as manager Bo Porter will not elect to use a closer. Instead, each of the three free agent additions will be used in the highest leverage situations in the game, no matter if that happens in the seventh or ninth innings.
Crain, in particular, will be used differently this season. In an effort to minimize his injury risk, the Astros plan on keeping Crane around 50 innings this season and will avoid having him pitch in back-to-back games.
"We're doing some different things with our bullpen," Porter said. "But, all of those guys have bought into what we're building here. We're all in this together. Jesse, Manny and Glen will give us some great voices in the clubhouse for our younger players."
Haren may be the riskiest signing of the bunch, as the former Cy Young contender suffered through an extended period of injuries in both Arizona and last year in Washington. Still, Haren flashed the dominant stuff in some starts last season when he was healthy. If he can remain durable, Houston could have gotten a presence for the middle of its rotation that also allows them to wait on development.
With Haren's addition, Houston's rotation only has one open spot heading into spring training. Haren joins Jared Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Jordan Lyles in a revamped rotation. Dallas Keuchel will join Brad Peacock, Asher Wojciechowski, John Ely and Mike Foltynewicz in fighting for a rotation spot this spring.
"All of those guys have a chance at being with us on Opening Day," Porter said. "They have to prove themselves. We're not giving anyone a spot down here (in spring training). If they pitch well and do the little things, they'll be with us in Houston."
After a third straight 100-loss season, most prognosticators are picking Houston to be vastly improved over last season. The average number of victories in most projection systems for Houston is 73, which is a vast improvement over the 51 wins Houston had in 2013.
Even though the Astros are still picked to finish with a losing record, their $50 million investment last winter appears to be paying off.