True to Jim Crane's declaration that payroll could rise significantly for the 2014 season, the Astros have had a busy few days. In less than a week, Houston has picked up outfielder Dexter Fowler (and a still-unnamed player) from the Rockies, signed veteran starting pitcher Scott Feldman to a substantial three year pact, and bolstered their bullpen with the return of Astros alumnus Chad Qualls on a multi-year deal. In so doing, the payroll has nearly doubled, with Jason Castro's arbitration result, in which he's likely to receive a fairly large raise, yet to come.
While none of these moves could be considered really splashy, they all appear to be very solid upgrades over in-house options, and assuming health and normal performance, Houston has likely added 5-7 wins or so just by the three aforementioned acquisitions. Considering where the team, and payroll, is coming from, Jeff Luhnow could come out right now and say "alright, we think we've made some solid upgrades, we're done" and it would be hard to disagree.
Instead, however, Luhnow told the Chronicle's Evan Drellich recently that they're looking to make more moves. While most fans were probably expecting another reliever to come aboard at some point, Luhnow's comments that they may add another position player and even another starting pitcher were more surprising (and somewhat maddening when you consider that Mike Rizzo recently mugged Dave Dombroski to get Doug Fister for a package the Astros could have easily exceeded without feeling a major sting). Let's take a look at some potential options that just might fit into the Astros' plan for the rest of the off season.
Possible Trade Partners
The proverbial "home run" acquisition would, of course, be former Cy Young Award winner David Price. Well known to be on the market, the Rays are an organization that would certainly be interested in prospects from Houston's system, but can the Astros afford to pay the high price, and would they be willing? Tampa Bay looks to be in need of a Major League-ready outfielder, and you know what that could mean, right? Would the Astros love to have Price? Certainly. But would they be willing to deal George Springer, and no doubt 1-3 other pieces, to the Rays to make that happen? Never say never, but that might just be too rich for their blood.
Jeff Luhnow and Billy Beane swung a sizable deal just before Spring Training began earlier this year, sending Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez to the A's for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi, and perhaps they could hook up again. Speculation has been flying that the A's will deal one of their starting pitchers, and most say it's likely to be left-hander Brett Anderson. Competition appears to be fierce, with the Blue Jays, Indians, Twins and Yankees among the other teams with interest. Add in the fact that Oakland appears to be looking for the thing that Houston severely lacks (establish Major League bullpen arms), and it might be a long shot.
There's also that Daric Barton fellow that the A's considered non-tendering. He doesn't have much power, but he's ultra-disciplined at the plate and has been one of baseball's best defensive first basemen in recent years. He has a 4.8 WAR season under his belt (2010) despite hitting just 10 homers that year, and he was worth 0.7 WAR in just 120 plate appearances last season; if he were to keep up that pace, he'd be worth 3.5 WAR in 600 plate appearances.
Despite injuries, being sent up and down and just generally seeming unappreciated, he's averaged 2.3 WAR per 600 PA in his career. Meanwhile Chris Carter belted 29 bombs last year, but his strikeouts and defensive butchery led to a sterling... 0.4 WAR in 585 PA. Barton could be an interesting option, especially with Singleton's future uncertain right now.
The Red Birds have a lot of talented, young, Major League arms right now, and there's been talk that one of them could be moved, including Houston native and former elite prospect Shelby Miller. In fact, the Orioles are publicly known to have made a strong run at Miller already. The problem is that St. Louis is such a strong, complete team that they really have no glaring needs which necessitate them making a move, and they certainly aren't liable to just give up a talented asset without a good reason to (we're not talking about Colorado, after all).
They could look to bolster their already-strong Minor League system, perhaps by adding a talented third base prospect like Rio Ruiz or something. Miller probably wouldn't be available for a package centered around a prospect of that level, but what about Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly? Ruiz and another mid-level prospect could be enough to land one of them. The Astros rotation would certainly look solid at that point, with multiple pitchers you could expect to give you six innings night in and night out.
The Cardinals also have an interesting situation with both Matt Adams and Allen Craig needing playing time but only one first base spot for the two of them (while Craig has played mostly in the outfield, he's a below-average defender there). Craig is an excellent hitter and signed to a team-friendly long-term deal, but Adams might be available for a reasonable price, and he provides something the Astros have virtually none of; left-handed thunder. While Adams competed well against lefty pitching, he has historically destroyed right-handers.
More Free Agent Options
Masahiro Tanaka - RHP
This has to be on here, right? Well, it's probably a longshot. Okay, it's definitely a longshot. But you never know, and though it's not perfect for the penny-pinching teams, the new posting system has been finalized and it at least allows the Astros a chance to talk to Tanaka and make their case.
Drawing comparisons to Hiroki Kuroda more than to Yu Darvish, Tanaka isn't going to be an elite ace, but he certainly has the upside of an elite #3 or a very good #2, which would pretty easily make him the best pitcher we've had on the roster since Roy Oswalt was here. The problem is that, while we would get to talk to him, so would anyone else who bids the maximum (which would be, like, everyone), and since the Yankees and Dodgers both seem to be drooling, he's likely to get somewhere in the neighborhood of five billion over the next 100 years or so.
Roy Oswalt - RHP
Hey, speaking of Oswalt, he's a free agent too, ya know. Of course you do, you loyal TCB reader you. No doubt you remember CRPerry's riveting piece about Oswalt's desire to pitch next year and his willingness to do so in a variety of roles. And, boy, talk about a needed PR boost, right? I won't rehash the same things Perry already went over so much more eloquently, but I will point out that it's been three weeks since that story about Oswalt broke and when have you last heard anything about him?
Looks like there's not much interest in him. He could be getting desperate. Desperate enough, even, to want to come back home for three months of the season, get the all-time Astros wins record, rebuild his value, and get dealt to a contender at the deadline.
Bronson Arroyo - RHP
I was going to make a joke about how if Scott Feldman was a safe signing then Arroyo would be a bank vault signing, but I can't figure out a way to not make that just about the most awful pun in history, so I won't. The point is that Arroyo eats innings consistently like few others in the world. In the last nine years, he's failed to rack up 200 or more innings pitched just once, in 2011, when he fell short of the mark by one lousy inning.
Arroyo is an interesting pitcher; his command is excellent, but he doesn't strike hardly anyone out, and he doesn't really get a lot of ground balls either. Despite that, he's survived remarkably well in Cincinnati's hitter-friendly park. "Pitching backwards," as you may remember Jim Deshaies declaring, guts, gile, deception, voodoo ... whatever it is, its worked for a decade, and there's no real reason to think it won't work for another three years.
Yeah, three years; that's probably what he'd require. The good news is that, while other teams have shown interest, it's been little more than tire kicking at this point, so swooping in with a strong offer could entice him to go ahead and sign and begin to settle in to his new digs. But if Feldman got ten million Arroyo would take twelve to fourteen, easily. He might be worth it, but does Luhnow have that much left to spend, with another bullpen arm also in the works?
Scott Baker - RHP
A cheaper but riskier option than Arroyo, Baker has dealt with injuries the last two seasons, and only has fifteen Big League innings under his belt for 2012-2013. When he's right, though, he can be very solid; from 2006 through 2011 with the Twins, he posted roughly a league-average ERA with very nice peripherals (2.1 BB/9 and 7.3 K/9 for a 3.51 K/BB ratio). As a matter of fact, you want to see something fun? Check this out;
Scott Baker (career): 4.14 ERA (102 ERA+), 1.258 WHIP, 1.2 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9, 7.2 K/9
Ricky Nolasco (career): 4.37 ERA (94 ERA+), 1.288 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9, 7.4 K/9
How about that? Nolasco, of course, just got almost fifty million dollars from the Twins. What is Scott Baker going to get? I'd be shocked if anyone offers him more than $2 million for one year. So the point is clearly made; given the current market, if Baker rebounds, he could be one of the bigger steals of this free agent class.
Daniel Hudson - RHP
Hudson was surprisingly non-tendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks, making him a free agent, able to sign anywhere. I say "surprisingly" because he's young, has had some recent, notable success, and was projected by Tim Dierkes to net a mere $1.1 million in arbitration this off season. Hudson does have significant injury concerns, though; while in a rehab start for Tommy John surgery, he actually re-tore the ligament and needed the surgery again. He would, in fact, likely miss at least the first three months of the season, if not more.
However, considering his age and upside, it might be worth shooting him a decent contract, stashing him on the 60-day DL, and reaping the benefit later. Couldn't the Astros give him $1.5 million in guaranteed money and lure him here? That's a pretty nice deal for a guy coming off double Tommy John surgery who's likely to pitch half the season at very best. High risk, but a pitcher of Hudson's age and caliber simply doesn't come on the market like this hardly ever.
Sam Fuld - OF
Yeah, I know; not exactly a sexy pick, right? Hear me out though. Fuld will get a job with someone, and the Astros might be a nice landing spot. He won't cost hardly anything, but he can bring some good versatility to the team. He's a good defender in the corner outfield spots, and can hold his own in center as well if needed. He's also a pretty good base runner, and has shown easy 25+ stolen base ability in the past.
Add in a disciplined bat and he could be a nice option on the bench. He has no power, and he also hit terribly last year (.199/.270/.267 in 200 PA), but he's better than that and could end up being a bargain. A minor league contract with a Spring Training invite might even be enough to lure him to the Bayou City.
Grady Sizemore - OF
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Yes, it's time for the annual "hey, let's sign Grady Sizemore, if he's healthy and rebounds, huge steal!" suggestion. There's a good reason it keeps coming up each year; it's hard to forget a 30-30 talent with elite center field defensive ability. To put it in (somewhat odd) terms that the readers of this site are more likely to latch onto; a healthy Sizemore at his best is like George Springer without the strikeouts.
The "healthy and at his best" part is the rub; Sizemore hasn't been anything close to either of those in the last four seasons. He managed to play 71 games in 2011, but they were less than encouraging, aside from hitting ten bombs in them. The elite foot speed and defensive range has been obliterated by knee injuries at this point though, so if we sign him, he's probably a left fielder at this point. Still, if healthy, there's a chance for a decent average, 20-25 homers and a ton of walks. Considering how cheaply he'll likely come, it could be an interesting gamble, with nothing but a little money to lose.
John Axford - RHP
MST (Man Seeking Team) - Tall athletic male with blue/green eyes and a love for film and mustaches seeking loving team for employment!— John Axford (@JohnAxford) December 3, 2013
Poor guy, he just wants a loving home! We can give him that. We can give him something else that few others are likely to offer him; a guaranteed closers role to start the year and try to rebuild his value. Throw him a one year deal worth five million and a guaranteed, a second year club option and a closers role and see if he can turn that down.
His peripherals suggest that things will turn around for Axford at some point, and if there's one thing our front office is good at doing, its identifying that type of player, right? Think about a bullpen with Axford, Qualls, Zack Thornton (foreshadowing!) and some of our improving young guys like Josh Fields and Chia-Jen Lo. Not bad, right?
Mitchell Boggs - RHP
Bet you hadn't thought about him yet, right? You probably should have! Let's go down the list; history of success in his role? Check. Solid peripherals? Check. Good ground ball rate? Check. Keeps the ball in the park? Check. Former Cardinal drafted by Luhnow? Check. Cheap after coming off a down year and a good candidate for rebound? Check.
I mean, come to think of it, isn't it a little surprising he's not an Astro already? We can't guarantee that he will sign, but if you hadn't just read this and he signed with Houston, you'd go and look all this up and probably say something like "well, should have seen that one coming." Boggs never got a chance to close in St. Louis, but he pitched well enough for a few years to be a decent second-tier closer, and there's statistical reason to think he could do so again.
Man, thinking of how cheap he could be, what if they signed Axford and Boggs? To go along with Qualls? The bullpen wouldn't go from worst to first, but it could easily be a strength. When you consider all those late leads that were blown, for a small price, we could see a large turnaround in the win/loss record.
A few more free agent relievers that I didn't write up for the sake of not making the article gargantuan; Ryan Madson, Matt Thornton, Chris Perez and Andrew Bailey.
Luhnow has said that the team isn't done yet, and so far, the Astros have been true to their word in making smart signings that raise the payroll, provide some stability but don't hamper the rebuild, either by blocking prospects or losing draft picks. It seems likely that there will be a signing, likely a reliever, within the next week, and maybe more. That's to say nothing of the Rule 5 draft. By Christmas, this team will look drastically different and improved than it did just a week ago. Better times appear to be on the way.