On the Bullpen
Well, it's improved. How much, exactly, remains to be seen. After all, Ken Giles is the only true addition, as Sipp was a re-sign, not a new face.
First, it's clear Giles will at least begin the year as the closer. They didn't give up three of their top 30 prospects (or top 20 even, depending on how much you like Thomas Eshelman) for a setup man. It's not even that Gregerson was bad; Giles is simply better, and will likely be here after Gregerson no longer is. This was a move about now and tomorrow, a move about the entire next half-decade.
Adding in an elite guy like that lets everyone slide down the list, so to speak. Gregerson is good enough to close, so you'll have a closer as your setup man. Neshek now becomes a solid seventh-inning guy. Harris and Fields could both set up for some other teams, but they'll be fifth or sixth-inning guys for Houston. Then there's that Tony Sipp guy, who posted a sub-2.00 ERA and was the best lefty on the market.
So it's deep, despite the loss of Chad Qualls (who actually pitched well, 2.99 xFIP). But the Astros have been building that in the minors, too. Lowrie brought in a good relief prospect in Brendan Mccurry. We all followed James Hoyt's excellent season after picking him up as a throw-in with Evan Gattis. I bet many have already forgotten about Cy Sneed, a third-round pick that we nabbed from the Brewers for Johnathan Villar; his stuff will play up in relief, where many scouts think he'll end up in the future.
The point is, we've seen several notable pickup for relievers recently. Not notable in that the relievers are big names (because, aside from Giles, they aren't), but notable in that it may be a trend. Clearly the front office sees value in relievers that is uncommon among the sabermetrically-oriented guys. But they cost a lot, be it money, or trade credit, or both. Perhaps they've decided to pay up for one guy, Giles, who will last them for a number of years, and buy them time to really start developing some high-leverage relievers internally. If you don't think it's possible, keep in mind that Giles himself was a seventh-round pick with severe command issues who never appeared on national scouts' radars until something clicked and he suddenly became the next-best-thing to Craig Kimbrel.
Signing a Starter
So we're good in the bullpen, but what about the rotation? Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and Lance McCullers are obvious locks. Mike Fiers is also pretty close to a lock, you have to assume. With Scott Feldman still under contract, and a bevy of other options like Brad Peacock, Dan Straily, Asher Wojciechowski, Joe Musgrove, and Michael Feliz who are now or will soon be MLB-ready, you couldn't blame the Astros if they decided the rotation wasn't a priority.
But the rumors are saying otherwise. The Astros have been interested in resigning hometown boy Scott Kazmir, who they traded for mid-season, and have been tied at least loosely to some other options, notably former Brewers anchor Yovani Gallardo.
Gallardo is an interesting name. Most probably know him well, as we saw plenty of him in the NL days from 2007-2012, and then again just this season with the Rangers. Gallardo may not be incredibly exciting, but he's posted an ERA under 4.00 in all but one of his nine seasons. He's also been quite healthy, averaging 191.1 innings pitched in the seven seasons since becoming a full-time starter. He's made at least 30 starts in each of those seasons. From 2009 through 2015, Gallardo is 11th in ERA among starters with at least 1,300 innings pitched; the ten above him are a who's who if the game's elite pitchers during that time (Felix Hernandez, James Shields, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Zack Greinke, David Price, Max Scherzer and Jered Weaver).
He saw some decline in his peripherals this year, but that may have something to do with changes the Rangers had him make. For whatever reason, he threw more sliders this season than any other pitch, dropped his cutter, and heavily reduced his usage of the curveball. Given his large five-pitch mix, it would be interesting to see how Brent Strom might tweak his pitch usage and sequencing.
If there's one big mark against him, it's that pesky qualifying offer the Rangers gave him. Signing him would mean sending Texas our first-round draft pick in 2016, certainly a loathsome thought. But this very thing may serve to drive down his price. Scott Kazmir is reportedly seeking something like $75 million over four years, is two years older than Gallardo, and has a very significant injury history. Meanwhile, the rumors say that Gallardo could get $12 million or more less than Kazmir, and the loss of the pick might drive the final cost down even further.
The question is that draft pick. If the Astros are willing to lose it, they could potentially get a #3 starter to be their #4 starter at a significant discount compared to the market rate.
Or, hey, you know, that Maeda guy was recently posted...
The Other Side of the Ball
There's also been speculation that the Astros could pick up a bat, though that didn't happen this week, and there weren't even rumors of any substation talks to that end taking place. The outfield appears mostly set, thanks to Colby Rasmus accepting his qualifying offer; Carlos Gomez and George Springer will be out there every day, with Rasmus, Jake Marisnick, and Preston Tucker likely to soak up virtually all of the playing time of that third spot. Well, barring another trade that shakes that up, that is.
Jeff Luhnow has stated recently that first base will be Jon Singleton's spot to lose, and with Chris Carter gone, it appears we'll be seeing Singleton getting a real shot, at least to start the season. Evan Gattis figures to be the DH as usual, so third base is really the only spot left. With Lowrie gone, it's a Luis Valbuena/Marwin Gonzalez platoon as things stand, and the market for third basemen, both free agents and potential trade targets, seems light.
This makes Colin Moran a man who deserves a lot of attention and thought. If the Astros really believe in him, and if they think he can be ready mid-season, then it might not make sense to spend money or prospects to acquire a short-term solution. Gonzalez had a career-best year in 2015, and Valbuena is probably due for at least some positive regression, after all. Moran certainly did nothing but help his cause this season, showing spikes in both walk rate and power while not sacrificing contact or average at all.
One last area of concern is the catcher's spot. Hank Conger is a Ray, and Max Stassi currently stands as the heir apparent to the backup job. Maybe they think Stassi is ready to be a Major League receiver and framer, and you have to assume he'll throw better than Conger. But past this year, it's even more uncertain, as 2016 is Jason Castro's final season before free agency, and there aren't any catchers in the minors right now who jump out at you. No one is talking about it as a possibility, but don't be shocked if the Astros pick up a backstop in a trade between now and the beginning of Spring Training.