The Houston Astros find themselves well on their way to 70 wins this season. If they can eclipse 70, then it will be a 20-game improvement from last year's 51-111 disaster. The next 20-win jump becomes much more difficult.
It's unlikely that the Astros will go 51-to-71-to-91 in three years time, but Houston could challenge for a wild card spot if the stars align correctly. Part of aligning those stars includes some upgrades. The Astros are still currently in rebuilding mode, but are certainly now in the range where they can begin to buy as we saw last offseason with the acquisitions of Dexter Fowler, Scott Feldman and a bevy of relief pitching.
As we head into the 2014-2015 winter, Houston still has it's holes. But how do they do it? Acquire major league talent? Or do they remain patient and let prospects mature? Yes, there are three questions there already, but we put it all together for today's Starting Nine question:
If the Astros would like to make another big improvement to the win-loss column next season, what is the most important position that needs to be addressed in the winter? And how would you go about addressing it?
In general, this team needs offense; the question is where best to add it. Clearly second base (Altuve), first base (Singleton), DH (Carter), and two outfield spots (Fowler and Springer) are filled with people you don't want to remove from the lineup. That leaves catcher, third base, shortstop and outfield as the options. Castro has declined, sadly, but it's a defense-first position and shouldn't be messed with too much. There are also a number of MLB-ready or near-MLB-ready prospects (Santana, DeShields, Tucker, Aplin etc.) to consider for that last outfield spot. I would focus on the left side of the infield. With Moran and Correa in the system, whoever you get will just be a 1-2 year placeholder. With that in mind, and knowing that this question only asked for one position, I'd like to propose J.J. Hardy for shortstop and Chase Headley for third base.
Both are coming off down years by their standards (Hardy much less so than Headly) but both are still superior defenders who have a chance to hit 20 homers. Projections at this point have Hardy as being a 100 wRC+ bat and Headley a 110 wRC+ in the future; if Marwin Gonzalez continues as-is, Hardy would likely only provide a significant defensive upgrade. Headley, on the other hand, would be a heck of a lot better than Matt Dominguez, who currently owns an utterly-pathetic 67 wRC+. For this reason, Headly would be my #1 target of the off-season, with Hardy a fairly close second.
The obvious answer to me is, "Every infield position except second base and catcher." How to fix them isn't so clear. The Astros are going to give Jon Singleton every opportunity to succeed or fail next year - he's only 22 years old, and theoretically he can become a star three years from now and still be considered young for it. At first base, they'll probably try to bring in another veteran a-la Jesus Guzman and Carlos Pena, though hopefully with a bit more success than those guys brought. Singleton needs a long leash, but he does need to have a leash of some kind.
The shortstop position is tricky because of the ever-present Carlos Correa. With his injury, it seems unlikely we'll see him before September 2015 at the earliest, or even late April 2016. However, no significant free agent, even one of the oeuvre of Stephen Drew or J.J. Hardy, is going to sign with Houston for just one year unless the other option is to not play at all. So the Astros won't block Correa, but an upgrade over the Marwin Gonzalez / Jonathan Villar / Gregorio Petit trifecta isn't readily apparent. One option would be to give an extended tryout to the Joe Sclafani / Nolan Fontana duo, but that seems unlikely to fix the offensive doldrums the position currently finds itself in.
And then there's third base. Matt Dominguez hits homers. Plays good defense. Is younger than George Springer. He's also been in the major leagues three years, doesn't seem to be improving, doesn't seem to have a hit tool or plate discipline, and is a baserunning liability. I'm honestly not sure what the Astros should do with Dominguez. Acknowledge his youth and ride him for another year and hope that Collin Moran forces his way into the majors with a breakout? I don't see many other options. Just as with shortstop, there aren't any free agents that would be a definite positional upgrade that would consider coming to the Astros on a 1- or 2- year deal.
For better or worse, I think the Astros are stuck with the status quo at their weakest offensive positions. They have struggling young talent at 1B and 3B, and there are no ready replacements at any position. Quality free agents seem to be unrealistic options considering how clubs are all locking up players these days and because the Astros don't want to block top prospects. A vampiric Luhnow trade isn't out of the question, but I can't call that likely either.
It's the same as it ever was: the bullpen.
The problem is there's no sure-fire way to fix it. How many relievers signed with teams last winter? How many of those signings worked out? How many will work out in two or three years? Heath Bell was one of the most high-profile relievers to move last winter. He's currently out of baseball. Boone Logan, one of my favorite relief targets last winter, has an ERA over 6.00 for Colorado. He signed a three-year deal. Matt Thornton, one of the few relievers to sign a multi-year deal last winter, has already been traded. In all, 31 different relievers signed contracts with teams last winter. Of those, 15 signed multi-year deals. The Angels have gotten value out of Joe Smith, despite a three-year deal, as have the Giants with Javier Lopez. But, will they still get the same value in 2016?
I guess my point is the same as it always is. Relievers are volatile. It's hard to predict which ones will maintain their performance and which ones will get overpaid. That isn't to say free agent relievers are all destined to fail. Predicting which is which is the hard part.
All that said, it's the area of the team whose fix could provide the quickest swing in quality. Whether it's signing a veteran and plopping a starter or two in the bullpen, signing a guy like Ronald Belisario or trading for a Jonathan Papelbon (and Papelbon's contract), the bullpen can be fixed. If it is, Houston can turn its 17-24 record in one-run games around. What if they went 24-17 instead with a capable bullpen? That's a seven-game swing and would have made the Astros a 73-76 team right now, with a chance to finish over .500.
Adding offense would be great. Adding another starting pitcher would be fantastic. But, fixing the bullpen could provide the most immediate impact.
This is a tough one. On the surface, there seem to be 3 or 4 primary candidates: Starting pitcher, high-leverage reliever, SS, or 3B.
I reluctantly choose starting pitcher, by process of elimination, after taking in a lot of the arguments I've read on the site from knowledgeable posters and in the writer's thread.
A) Relievers are too risky from season to season.
B) It'll be tough to identify a cost-effective 'place holder' at either 3B or SS, given the assumed arrivals not too far in the future of Moran and Correa, respectively. I'd rather grab or develop a super-utility guy who could be expected to step in at either position and not totally flail. I don't know who that would be or how we would get him but I wouldn't qualify that necessarily as a huge change, as much as I'd support the move.
So that leaves the starting pitcher and here, really, I'm talking about identifying and acquiring a ToR, 1 or 2. We have a bevy of MoR and BoR candidates. We do not need another. But a ToR guy would be a great add (as it would for basically pretty much any team ever through time and space). Our rotation is not really the problem but think how good this rotation would be with another guy near, at or above Keuchel's level. The main question, obviously, is how do you get that guy. Scherzer, Leister, Shields and Maeda are the top names in terms of free agents. Some will likely be prohibitively expensive, grabbed up by the perennial spenders like LA and NYY. Others will likely underperform their big paychecks. Will our FO be willing to spend more than the spreadsheet says is warranted? Are there enough big FAs to go around? Or might the Astros trade for a starter? What would it take to get a guy like Alex Cobb from the Rays?
The biggest places for improvement in my opinion are the corner infield positions. If there is one thing this team needs to make another leap forward, it is hitting. We have a couple of young players currently manning those spots, but neither one is contributing on offense as much as you would like.
Singleton has all the talent and potential in the world. In no way do I think we should give up on him. Maybe it will take nothing more than an off season to get everything straight. Whether or not, Luhnow has already said on a local radio show that he is looking for an insurance policy for Singleton. The track record for getting a first baseman has obviously not been good (see: Pena, Carlos and Guzman, Jesus), so I am not sure who would be best suited to use as that insurance policy. Looking at possible free agents doesn't really make me more confident that the answer is there. Mike Morse is a free agent this off season. He has never played a full season any year, so may be a good candidate for a platoon/backup/insurance policy slot on the roster, if he is not too expensive. (He can also play in the outfield if needed). Personally, since Singleton is still so young, I hope we see a resurgence this next spring, and not have to worry about it for the 2015 season (and beyond).
Third base is another story. Sigh...Matt Dominguez.
"Look at that defense!"
"But that bat..."
"Yeah but he is still young"
"Yeah, but look at that defense...young defense!"
I really am torn about what to do at third base. After a pretty good first full season in 2013, all of his batting stats are way down. His defense is really good, but is it enough to justify the cold bat. Once again, looking at the free agent market, there are players who may be better, but will be expensive. The best bet may be to just ride him through this next season until one of our prospects are ready to take the position away from him. I know that Gregorio Petit is probably not in the team's long term plans, but it may be a good idea to keep him around as a short-term alternative if Dominguez is not getting it done.
All in all, this is obviously still a young team, and most of the players will be prone to ups and downs as they settle in to their major league careers. It isn't like we have a team of 10 year vets who "are what they are". This is part of the fun (if you call pulling your hair out at another runner left at third with less than 2 ours fun).
Maybe I should have just said "bullpen"...
It may be obvious after Dave's post yesterday, but Colby Rasmus makes so much sense for Luhnow and the Astros that I'm 99% sure it won't happen. I know, people may be thinking "Not another reclamation position player project," or "not another failed top 100 prospect," but let's remember that Rasmus is only a year removed from a 4.8 fWAR season, and even in a terrible down year is still putting up a 103 wRC+ with 18 bombs while playing reasonable defense.
With Springer and Fowler, you've got two outfield spots locked in, so you have to look at Rasmus as a left fielder, which would move Grossman to the bench, which isn't a terrible idea. Guys like Tucker, Santana, et al could rotate in and out, DHing, maybe even playing some first base if Singleton continues to struggle. But I think you find room in your lineup for a guy like Rasmus. As for his offensive struggles, David nailed it. Rasmus is swinging at nearly 33% of the balls he sees out of the strike zone, so pitchers have responded by giving him fewer offerings inside the strike zone. You sprinkle him with a little "selective aggression" and hope he flourishes. The tools are still solid, he's only a month past his 28th birthday, and he'll be available.
He's not the quintessential Luhnow hitter - he'll strike out more than you'd like, he'll walk less than you'll like - but he and Luhnow have a ton of history, at his worst he's a parallel move in the outfield, and at his best he's an older George Springer in the corner outfield, with a .250/.350/.500 line and good defense.
It comes down to third base and the bullpen for me. The thing about Matty D that he has going in his favor is his age. By being young, it makes the Astros try to be patient with him. He has taken nearly all the reps at that position compared to a position when plenty of people have gotten a shot. Dominguez hasn't been too bad against left-handers and I think he deserves one last chance, but possibly someone could be brought in to create a platoon with him.
As for the bullpen, I think the Astros did a great job of solidifying the pen last offseason and into this season, they just ran into bad luck with Crain and Albers. The pickup of Sipp has clearly been outstanding and Veras has been quietly good as well. I'd be pretty confident in a bullpen that consists of a hopefully healthy Crain and Albers plus the improved Fields and Chapman plus Sipp, Qualls and possibly Foltynewicz.