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The Astros won't sign an ace pitcher next winter

But, they could add a guy who makes a big impact on the staff

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Are you ready for next winter's free agent bonanza? Have you already spent the Astros theoretical budget? Before you do, let's talk about those ace starters and the Astros interest in them.

On Monday, I posited that the Astros may never be big spenders in the free agent market. Grant Brisbee seems to disagree, pointing to the Astros lack of long-term commitments as a reason they could move all-in with that fun free agent class next winter.

Except, I'm still not convinced.

There are plenty of free agent pitchers on the potential market next winter. But, free agent pitchers still don't make the best investment. Beside the problems with injuries inherent to their profession, buying a "No. 1 starter" at the height of his market powers isn't a great idea.

C.C. Sabathia pitched well for the Yankees for four years, but had two lost seasons at a high salary number. He's one of the best cases of large pitching contracts, too.

Not every pitcher next summer will sign for big dollars, though.

One may end up like Jon Lester, agreeing to a blockbuster deal. Bet on Jordan Zimmerman being that guy, if he gets to free agency. Another will sign a good deal a little later in the winter, like Rick Porcello. David Price will probably get paid, but could fall into Shields-land.

Even if all those guys break the bank, there will still be good pitchers left on the market and not enough teams with the budget to sign them all. That means there will be bargains to be had.

That's where the Astros will swoop in. Their target could be Doug Fister.

Yes, he's old. Yes, he's only started 32 games twice in his MLB career. But, what Doug Fister does exceptionally well is get called strikes above average.

We know the Astros value pitch framing and the value it provides. Why else would they trade for Framin' Hank Conger? What we can't be sure about (because it's so new) is whether they buy into the concept of pitchers affecting framing on their end.

Ben Lindberg talks about this in a great companion piece to the Baseball Prospectus article on CSAA (called strikes above average), which Chris profiled here. Read all three things, then come back and let's talk about it.

Lindberg's points are great, especially his conversations with Ausmus. It takes a point we can discover via statistics and puts a real-world spin on it. How do catchers do this? How do you teach that? Well, Ausmus provides an answer.

But, Lindberg doesn't stop with the catching end. He also talks to Dennis Eckersley about why he was so successful at getting extra strikes. They talk about expanding the strike zone, but really, they're talking about control. Eck just didn't walk anyone. He hit his spots and got lots of called strikes because of it.

We don't have a sortable leaderboard for pitching CSAA yet. I'd be fascinated to see how the Astros pitchers last season fared. I suspect most of them rated pretty well.

The Astros have now paired an elite framing catcher (Conger) with a pitching staff that has near-universal good control. All four of Houston's top starters last year had walk rates under the league average of 7.6 percent.  Most were among the top 50 starters in all of baseball in walk rate (McHugh being the exception).

You know who led the list? Brett Oberholtzer. Only 11 pitchers who threw 140 or more innings last season had a walk rate lower than Oberholtzer. Of course, three of those were Zimmerman, Price and Fister.

Given Fister's status among the pitching free agents, he probably won't get paid as handsomely and probably won't command a fifth or sixth year. That, plus his excellent ability to get extra strikes, suggests he's the Astros most likely free agent add next winter.

It also suggest that Brett Oberholtzer is due for a breakout season, but that's another article.