The annual Winter Meetings begin today, December 7th, and run through Friday, December 11th, in Nashville, Tennessee. The Astros might be the most active team on the trade and/or free agent market, or they might not end up making significant deals. But one thing is for sure: whether deals happen or not, Jeff Luhnow and his team will be among the busiest team in Nashville this week.
Astros Holes To Address
The Astros have a couple of holes - be they real or perceived places where an upgrade is desirable - and will look to address them this week. One clear place in need of additions is the bullpen - with the free agency filing of Tony Sipp (who may still return - there is mutual interest currently stalled by the asking price, according to MLBTR) and the departures of Chad Qualls, Joe Thatcher, and Oliver Perez, there is now a sizable (and markedly left-handed) hole in the Astros bullpen. There are multiple options available, through free agency or trade, which we will look at below.
Another perceived point of possible upgrade for the Astros - especially among the fans - are the corner infield positions. Luis Valbuena, Marwin Gonzalez, and Jon Singleton all currently figure to prominently feature in the team's plans for Opening Day in 2016, with A.J. Reed, Tyler White, and Colin Moran all nearing readiness in the minor leagues and Alex Bregman not terribly far behind them. There is possibility here for upgrade at the major league level, but the deal is going to have to make a lot of sense. More on this option below.
The starting rotation figures to be strong once again in 2016, but the Astros have been said to be in the market for a middle of the rotation type starter to bolster the staff.
Finally, there is a possibility - though very, very slight - that the Astros might seek an external upgrade at catcher via trade. With the departure of Hank Conger to Tampa Bay, Max Stassi appears to be in line to back up Jason Castro - but it is certainly possible that an upgrade (either at back up or even possibly at starter) could happen, in the right deal. Jason Castro is nearing free agency, and the Astros system isn't apparently rife with talent at the position who can step in imminently to replace him if he should elect to leave. Alfredo Gonzalez stands out, having just completed a very solid 2015 season, but it remains to be seen if he can sustain his success to Triple-A and beyond. Max Stassi has performed well in very limited Major League time, but struggled recently in Triple-A. Tyler Heineman - if he doesn't leave via the Rule 5 draft - has shown flashes of ability - particularly an allergy to striking out - that leads one to suspect he could conceivably become at least a solid back up at the highest level. Various other catching prospects - including two of the Astros' draft picks in the 2015 draft - are coming up through the system, but it's a position on the whole that's not as deep as others the Astros have. Major League options are limited, but Jonathan Lucroy has been rumored to be available from Milwaukee and it must be considered a possibility - if very, very remote - that the Astros might attempt to make a move at the position...even though Jason Castro is very, very good.
Houston Astros Possible Targets
The bullpen market is insane this year. Trading Craig Kimbrel to the Red Sox netted the Padres quite a haul, and Aroldis Chapman was just traded from the Reds to the Dodgers this morning for two (as yet unnamed, at the time of this writing) prospects - at least one of whom is believed to be a top 100 prospect. Those are steep, steep prices to pay on the trade market for players who, however good, will affect maybe 70 or so innings per season. The Astros are rumored to be heavily invested in bullpen upgrades this offseason. In addition to Chapman, the Astros have been rumored to be targeting Ken Giles from Philadelphia, Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee from Tampa Bay, Drew Storen from the Nationals, Andrew Miller from the Yankes, former Astro Mark Melancon from Pittsburgh, and others. Perhaps the names that seem most likely there are Melancon, McGee, and Drew Storen. Despite a flurry of activity on the free agent front in recent days which has seen the signing of such notable relievers as Ryan Madson, Joakim Soria, and (yet to be finalized) Darren O'Day, several key names remain. Most notable among these are Tony Sipp, Antonio Bastardo, and Seung-hwan "The Final Boss" Oh, a pitcher from Korea who is leaving the NPB in Japan to come to America and the MLB. Expecting the Astros to make a trade for one of the aforementioned relievers and/or perhaps sign one or maybe two of the free agent relief options seems a reasonable expectation for Astros fans.
When it comes to the corner infield, things are less clear. Chris Davis stands out as probably the only premium bat among free agents, but the Astros have not concretely been linked to him, and in this writer's estimation the likelihood of the Astros signing him appears very, very low. With A.J. Reed nearing, it's hard to imagine the Astros making the long term, expensive commitment likely required to Davis to retain his services. That mostly leaves the trade market, where several notable possibilities exist - Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, Todd Frazier among them - but the cost to acquire such players leaves this writer to expect that the Astros will likely stick with the crowded field they already have for the two positions and allow Spring Training performance to dictate who the Opening Day starters are.
Several free agent starting pitching options exist, including Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen, and Kenta Maeda. Trade options like Tyson Ross exist as well, and it's hard to pinpoint the Astros real interest in a starting pitching upgrade. It seems likely that the Astros are receiving and listening to offers involving starting pitching, and they're probably making pro-forma inquiries to various free agents and their agents. Beyond that, many things could happen but it seems the bullpen is of greater priority to the Astros.
When it comes to catching, it should be noted that Jason Castro hits at or near the level of average catchers, but he's also one of the better defensive catchers in baseball. It's unlikely that the Astros make a move to displace the longest tenured Astro. However, the possibility - however remote - that Jonathan Lucroy could be available (and the familiarity of new Brewers GM David Stearns with the Astris organization) makes it at least a possibility worth discussing. Outside of Lucroy, few attractive options exist at the position.
In summation, it is this writer's opinion that the Astros are likely to make bullpen additions - Seung-hwan Oh and Tony Sipp remain preferred choices in this writer's opinion - and probably not much else. But the possibility of a major blockbuster is always present - make sure to stay tuned to TCB, and we'll keep you up to date all throughout the Winter Meetings and beyond.