Free Agent season is going to kick into high gear soon, and the Astros have their fair share of needs to fill and money to burn. Who's the team's best bet to provide value? I'm going to break the list down into tiers, from no doubt guys who the Astros could use to fill big holes on down to contracts the team should avoid. Note that this is not a list of the best free agents available, only of the free agents that make the most sense given the current stage of the Astros' rebuilding process.
Tier 1: The Must-Haves
Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson, and Grant Balfour.
What, you were expecting Shin-Soo Choo? We'll get to Choo later but for now the absolute biggest hole the Astros have is the bullpen. When people throw around terms like "historically bad" and "worst ever" you know you have a problem. In 2013 the Astros bullpen went 14-40 with a 4.92 ERA and logged a -5.4 WAR. My eyes are bleeding just from looking at that stat line. This team has a lot of needs but none bigger than shoring up one of the great modern terrible bullpens. Any of the above three guys on a short term contract would be a great addition to close for the team next year. Sign someone to close for a one or two-year deal, then trade them at the deadline to a playoff team needing bullpen depth for a B-level prospect a la Jose Veras. The team gets a reliable arm for most of the season while adding prospect depth at the end. It's a win-win. Jeff Luhnow has this kind of deal mastered so he's probably thinking the same thing.
Adding an experienced closer would be a big first step, but Luhnow shouldn't stop there. He should also look for a setup guy in the Jesse Crain, Joaquin Benoit, Edward Mujica group of relievers which he can also flip at the end of the season. Heck, if he just spent $60 million signing all six guys and cornered the market on bullpen help at the trade deadline he'd probably be considered a genius. Either way, bullpen help is the number one priority.
Tier 2: The Would Be Nice To Haves
Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Dan Haren, Ricky Nolasco
These are guys who are looking to reestablish their value after injury or ineffectiveness and would be nice to have, but aren't totally necessary given the intriguing young arms the Astros have on the ML level and in the farm. The team could sign any of the above three (likely to a one-year deal, it's doubtful they'd want to stick around) to solidify the rotation, mentor the young pitching and (most importantly) move Dallas Keuchel to a long-relief role. They could be kept around to make games watchable and to have a veteran presence on the team or they could be dealt for prospects if they're having a successful bounce-back season. Either scenario is a win for the Astros. Word of warning to any free agent ground-ball pitcher looking to sign with the Astros: Try to avoid inducing contact in the direction of Jonathan Villar. You'll be much happier trying to get the ball to Dominguez.
Tier 3: The Would Be Nice To Have For The Right Price, or Shin-Soo Choo Tier
Yes, Choo gets his own Tier. For a guy who has only casually been linked to the Astros, there has been a lot of talk about Choo on TCB. CRPerry had a great post on the possible perils of a Choo signing, while others have whole-hardheartedly endorsed Choo patrolling right field for the Astros for many years to come. Let's break down the pros and cons of a Choo signing.
Pros: The Astros would get one of the top-5 best hitters in the league in terms of on-base percentage and he would immediately become the teams best player. He would take pressure off of the team's young hitters and create a ton of run-scoring opportunities for them.
If the team's young core is in fact ready to compete by 2015, then Choo will complement the young players nicely and help the team compete for a playoff spot.
Astros games would also become more watchable. Given how bad they have been the last two years this is probably the most underrated point. Even fans who endorse "The Plan" need something to root for other than draft spots, and seeing Choo grind down opposing pitchers every night would be fun.
Cons: Choo would cost a lot of money. More than $126 million if Scott Boras gets what he wants. If the Choo bidding goes this high and the Astros pay it, it could potentially cripple the team down the road when it wants to make other signings.
Choo wants a long-term deal, well past his peak. Choo will probably be good for the next four-five years, but seven? That's putting the team at risk to have a well payed liability for a few years.
Choo will immediately block L.J. Hoes in right-field and will block Domingo Santana and Preston Tucker further down the road. This is a big concern for a team that believes in its prospects. It's possible that none of these guys ever end up being more than major league backups, but what if they get traded and turn into the Astros' next Ben Zobrist? A guy that was never given a chance at the ML level and was traded away for a complementary part and eventually led the league in WAR one year?
A Choo signing has its risks, but at the end of the day? He'd probably be worth it for five years and anything under $100 million. Give L.J. Hoes playing time at DH and as a backup and make him prove he's worth it to the ML team. In a few years if Santana and Tucker are looking like the bee's knees then deal Choo for high-level prospects (before he hits 5 years service time with the team) and consider the signing a success. The Astros don't absolutely need Choo, but he would be nice to have for the right price. Whoever gets Choo should also immediately be calling the people at Big League Chew for an endorsement deal. Big League Choo? Shin-Soo's Chew? There's money to be made here somewhere.
Tier 4: These Guys Would Kind've Fit But Come With Some Risk
Nelson Cruz, Curtis Granderson, Kendrys Morales, Colby Lewis, Ubaldo Jimenez
These are guys who make some sense for the team, provide a veteran presence and will probably perform better than internal options next year, but either carry risk with injury, performance, or contract demands. They also probably wouldn't be huge trade targets for other teams in the future and would bring back limited returns.
If the Astros are going to get outfield help then they should go for Choo. Otherwise let L.J. Hoes play and see what he can do. Colby Lewis and Ubaldo Jimenez are interesting but there is probably a 0% chance the Astros are the most attractive option for them.
Tier 5: Let's Blow Up The Plan And Go Big!
Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury,
Okay, there's no way the Astros are signing either of these guys, because neither of them would want to play for Houston, so it's not really worth thinking about. It's not because of money however. If any team can afford to add big payroll it's the Astros. Let's say Crane decides the team has enough prospects and wants a new face of the franchise to show the fans he's serious about competing. Would Carlos Correa and Robinson Cano patrolling the middle of the field in 2015 and beyond be tantalizing? If There's a player who's likely to return big value for a big contract it's probably Cano. It's never going to happen, but it's nice thinking about isn't it?
Tier 6: The Potential Josh Hamilton's
McCann is a good hitter but most of his value comes from being a good hitting catcher. If he moves out of that position or his offensive production drops, his contract could look pretty bad pretty fast. A surprise McCann signing would offset a surprise Castro trade, but there's almost no way this happens.
Tier 7: The Re-Treads
Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez
Don't go there, please Luhnow. Let's keep our nostalgia positive.