'Tis the season for holiday shopping, festive TCB readers. And what could be better to satisfy the cravings of your loved ones than adding a Free Agent or two to your local nine? This year's Baseball Winter Meetings will take place in sunny San Diego, where all the elves will gather to buy, swap, and steal all of the components they need to build you a merry little baseball club.
To make your shopping job easier, below is a list of relevant free agents that could twirl a stick for your Houston Astros in 2015. Place a checkmark next to the names you desire to cheer for next season, or if you prefer not to draw on your monitor in indeliable india ink, note them in the comments section below. State your reasoning for adding such player in 500 words or less, and you will be entered into a contest to receive a winning team in 2015 (sorry, no refunds, takesies-backsies, rainchecks, IOUs, CODs, or BABIPs available).
The Catcher position
It's hard to fathom why the Astros would sign a free agent catcher this offseason. Jason Castro, despite a down year at the plate, is rife for a bounce back and is still a strong defender. Unless the Astros receive a whopping trade offer for him, there's little reason to move on from their primary backstop. Backup-wise, the Astros have two candidates that play defense well enough to argue for a full-time position in their own rights with Carlos Corporan and Max Stassi. Stassi is a legitimate prospect in the mold of David Ross (lotta defense, good power, iffy bat-to-ball skills), and Corporan is a defensive whiz with enough pop in his bat that he runs into Home Runs by accident. The Astros won't add a catcher. But if they did:
The Head of the Class: Russell Martin
Interesting guys: J.P. Arencibia, Geovany Soto
Russell Martin has re-emerged as one of the top catchers in baseball after an up-and down batting career that was hyped due to an 87-19-87-21 season with the Dodgers in 2007. His career year in 2014 came at the right time with the Pirates, and the 31-year-old catcher seems primed for a strong payday that should net him several years at around $10 million per. Oh, and he still plays top-notch defense.
Remember when Geovany Soto and J.R. Towles were the next big things in offensive catching prospects? They turned out to be offensive all right, but not the way a GM prefers. Still, both Soto and Arencibia are known as plus defenders and both wield enough pop that opposing pitchers will take them seriously. But smart money is on Corp or Stassi sharing backstop duties with Castro.
First baseman batsman
Let's be real for a second. MLB top 1B prospect Jonathan Singleton struggled a lot in 2014 in the majors. But after being gifted a 5-year $10 million contract, and being only 23 years old on opening day 2015, the Astros have no incentive to sign a "name" free agent at 1B. The most likely situation is that they stand pat, with Chris Carter playing emergency backup if Singleton needs to clear his head at AAA for a time. However, if they did invest in a backup type, somebody who could provide worthwhile plate appearances in the event of a Singletonularity, there are a couple names of note.
The suspects: Daric Barton, Mike Carp, Corey Hart, Mike Morse
Barton probably qualifies as a "Luhnow guy", as he holds a career 14% walk rate in the major leagues and doesn't K a whole lot. He plays competent defense, and should come cheap. If the Astros are iffy on Singleton, Barton might be interested in reviving his career in Houston, a career that while missing traditional power numbers, is nonetheless above-average at the plate.
Carp is a guy that some TCB'ers pined for when he became available last season. And then, when he did not sign with the Astros, he was awful. He's not a great defender, but he's not horrible either. He's got good pop. It's an option. The other two guys, Hart and Morse, will definitely come more expensive and have as much or more uncertainty around them as cheaper guys. After returning from an injury that cost him the entire 2013 season, Hart struggled with the Mariners, providing offense that wasn't even rosterable on most teams. Morse probably will price himself out of the Astros' range and would fit better in Left Field anyway.
Seriously, I'm not even going to discuss 2B free agents. Jose Altuve is the next Ty Cobb, minus the drunkenness, murder, racism, and height.
Shortstop is an interesting Free Agent class. The Astros have a decision to make that is based on several factors: 1) Will Carlos Correa be ready for the major leagues early in the 2016 season? 2) Was Marwin Gonzalez' excellent 2014 season for-realzies? 3) Will 23-year-old former Top-100 prospect Jonathan Villar live up to the promise of his athleticism and be above-average at anything? If you want to gamble, odds are that the Astros proceed with some sort of Villar/Marwin combo, unless they are able to spin one or the other off in trade. If that happens though, there is some serious money that could be spent on Free Agents. The really interesting thing about this free agent class is that there aren't any potential bargains to be had. If the Astros want an upgrade at shorstop, or even the hope for one, it will cost a pretty penny.
Break-yo-bank candidate: Hanley Ramirez
Expensive Veterans: Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie, Stephen Drew
If the Astros wanted to make a splash, they could pay out for soon-to-be 31-year-old Ramirez. Ramirez still has the bat to play any position on the field, and once Carlos Correa reaches the major leagues, Ramirez could be moved to third, though it remains to be seem if he would agree to do that again. As one of the top offensive producers of the past decade, expect Ramirez to command a price in the neighborhood of 5Y, $110 million. Or more.
Of the other FA options, Drew is the only one who can be said to be even average at defending the position, but he's probably an offensive downgrade from Marwin. Cabrera and Lowrie are both decent hitters (but not as good as you think, not either of them), but are pretty bad on defense. Considering each of those three fellows should top at around $10 million per year, none of them seem to be good additions for the Astros. At the shortstop position, if they don't want to go all-in for Ramirez, they're probably best off standing pat and being patient.
Astros Third Baseman Matt Dominguez could not hit worse than he did in 2014. And so replacing him might seem like a "sell-low" idea, especially considering his age of just-barely 25. That said, Dominguez' offensive ceiling is limited, so if the Astros decide to upgrade at the position in advance of Top 100 prospect Colin Moran's arrival, the decision would be justifiable.
Kung Fu Panda: Pablo Sandoval
Mystery Men: Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Reynolds, Alberto Callaspo, Kelly Johnson
What a choice. Sandoval is clearly the best available player. He's only 28 years old, he's a strong and dependable offensive performer, and he's surprisingly good at defense considering his physique. On the flip-side, he'll be hellaciously expensive, he doesn't have the type of figure one expects to age well, and he's not so good at the plate that you want to block top prospects like Moran or Rio Ruiz. I'd be shocked if Sandoval didn't receive a 7 or 8 year contract from somebody in the ballpark of $120 million. Doesn't seem like an Astros-type signing. And no, his splits aren't any better away from the pitcher haven of AT&T park.
As for those other guys, they all have warts. While Headley is an excellent defender, his offensive season wasn't so far-and-away better than Dominguez that he'd be a clear game-changer for the Astros. It's been two seasons now since his monster 31-home-run breakout in 2012, and easy to forget that in the four season prior to that, he was merely an average hitter. In other words, somebody's going to overpay in hopes that he returns to 2012, and they're going to be disappointed. 5Y $60M or more seems possible, and that's not a contract that should entice the Astros.
Ramirez is going to be 37 years old and is coming off one of his worst offensive seasons. He's not a good defender anymore (if he ever was), but if he signs anywhere, it will be with a possible playoff contender. Mark Reynolds...please...just, no, okay? Just no. It seems like it's been a while since Johnson has been a 'thing', and on the Astros he shouldn't be taking any playing time away from a post-hype prospect like Dominguez. Ditto Callaspo. As much as fans don't want to hear it, perhaps riding another season of Dominguez is the best plan while Moran percolates at Triple-A.
Several of the guys mentioned above would fit a utility role, and throw a few others into the mix like Rafael Furcal, Emilio Bonifacio, and Clint Barmes into the mix. But are those guys clearly superior to the likes of Joe Sclafani, Marwin, Gregorio Petit, and Ronald Torreyes? Probably not. And no, Ben Zobrist is not going to sign with the Astros to play a utility role.
It seems pretty clear that the Astros' options for upgrading the offense at any of the infield positions are limited. Outside of a big-money contract to HanRam or Sandoval, none of the other options are clearly better than what the Astros currently have - and they definitely aren't better enough that it's worth blocking a top prospect on the left side of the infield. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Given the Astros positioning in the standings, prospect status, and current major leaguers on the roster, is there a player here that seems like a smart signing to you?