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TCB Offseason Orbit (Vol. 1)

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Discussing the infield logjam, Lance McCullers’ health, Jason Castro’s free agency, Orlando Miller, and more!

Yuli Gurriel figures to factor prominently in the picture for playing time in Houston in 2017.
Discussing the Astros’ infield logjam, Edwin Encarnacion, Catcher Value and Jason Castro, Lance McCullers’ health, Orlando Miller, and more!
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first installment of the TCB Offseason Orbit, boys and girls. Thanks to a tremendous outpouring of questions from many different channels since last Friday, we are ready to submit to you, dear readers, the very first installment of TCB Offseason Orbit, where you ask your questions and we answer them to the best of our abilities.

This week, my fellow TCB writers Blake Mueller and Curt Leister will be joining me to weigh in on answers as they see fit. I’ll make it clear who is answering what as we go. Please know that the opinions expressed herein solely represent those of the author who contributed them. None of us speak for TCB, or even each other - we speak for ourselves as fans of Astros baseball. Dissent is welcomed in the comments section.

Let’s dive in...shall we?

“How do you think the Astros address the logjam of talent in the infield and give adequate at bats to guys like Gurriel, Bregman, Valbuena, and Gonzalez? Do you see one of them making a full time move to the outfield or are we looking at another year of platooning players at the corner positions?”

- Chad R.

Jason: Thank you for the question, Chad. First and foremost, I want to start out by saying that I consider it highly unlikely that Luis Valbuena returns to the Astros in 2017. I’m aware that is not a universally shared opinion...that’s just how I see it. He is coming off a career year, albeit one shortened by injury, and he has historically not been a great hitter over his career. His most recent three seasons have been much better than his overall career numbers: 118 wRC+ (in his last season with the Cubs), 107 wRC+ last year, and 123 wRC+ this year, in his age-30 season. That’s not a bad player, by any means - especially because he offers adequate defense at three positions and has solid power from the left side of the plate. It’s just not enough, in my estimation, to lead me to believe that the Astros are going to want to commit a large amount of money (or make a significant multiyear commitment) to him when they have Yulieski Gurriel and Alex Bregman in the fold and when they still haven’t seen enough of a Major League sample from players like AJ Reed and Tyler White to give up on them. The team has a couple of other holes to address, and the money allocated to Valbuena would likely be better spent elsewhere. There’s more to the analysis of his performance, especially offensively, but in the interest of keeping this as short as possible, I just don’t think he’ll be back.

As for the logjam you mentioned, I think it shakes out with Marwin returning to the bench, where he has the most value, and with Bregatron and El Yuli each playing third, left field, and some Designated Hitter as well. Gurriel might also see some time at first base, but I expect White and Reed to get the bulk of the playing time over there.

Blake: I really don't like to use any of Gurriel, Bregman, or Marwin in the outfield. I also think Reed and, to a lesser extent, White/Singleton will get a shot at first base, which probably means that Valbuena is not coming back. He is going to get a big contract anyways and we will likely get a compensation pick from him when he rejects our Qualifying Offer and signs elsewhere. Gurriel/Bregman will man third base and the other should be the Designated Hitter...or first base with Reed at DH. For the outfield, I think the Astros go after a young cost controlled center fielder that is a left-handed lead-off type. Ender Inciarte from the Braves, Adam Eaton from the White Sox, and Kevin Kiermaier from the Rays come to mind for possible trade scenarios.

"Do you think the Astros will make an offer to Edwin Encarnacion?"

- Matthew M.

"Will AJ Reed have another shot at the first base job or will the Astros pursue Encarnacion through free agency?"

- Mike P.

Jason: The number of questions pouring in that pertain to first base are staggering. We’ll address the position overall later in the offseason, but these two questions pertain specifically to whether the Astros will pursue Edwin Encarnacion on the free agent market. The initial assumption from many Astros fans is that the bidding will quickly go beyond the point that the Astros are comfortable with giving a player who will begin his next contract as a thirty-four year old. That may very well prove true, but I don’t think it’s as much a foregone conclusion as some do. Brian Stevenson and I are currently in the process of collaborating on a pro-con piece arguing the merits for and against pursuing Encarnacion, so I’ll save the rest of my commentary for that piece. You’ll just have to read it in the next couple days when it comes out.

Curt: I imagine the Astros would at least be in the mix for Eddie E. this winter – but I think it’s a huge long shot to sign him. The big rumor is that Boston will offer him whatever he wants to inherit the DH role from David Ortiz. Toronto is also a prime candidate to re-sign him – with Jose Bautista also a free agent, the Jays can only really choose one. It’s obvious Edwin is the more attractive near and long-term option of the two. Baustista is a fan-favorite, but I’d be annoyed at all the mess he talked while getting owned by Cleveland’s pitching the ALCS. He also just turned thirty-six. Expect Boston and Toronto to be the main players for Edwin, and for the Astros to look at free agent bats that won’t cost north of $100 million.

"Why is a catcher who frames pitches more valuable than one with a strong arm and who can produce offensively?"

- Freezen

Jason: I’m not sure it is. I’m not sure of anything with regards to catcher value. My entire life around baseball, I was led to believe that pop times and caught stealing percentages and offense were the key to a great catcher. In the last couple seasons, however, I’ve been exposed to the research by guys like Mike Fast (who, for those unaware, is now employed in Sig Mejdal’s analytics think tank for the Astros) and Dan Turkenkopf and Max Marchi, and it suggests - assuming I’m understanding correctly - that pitch presentation (read: framing) makes up the vast majority of a catcher’s value. The math makes sense, and when you realize that highly analytical teams like the Astros and Rays have hired some of those very same minds providing the groundbreaking research on catcher value to work in their analytics departments, you start to get the picture that perhaps the teams do believe that there’s at least some value to the framing-above-everything-else point of view.

Diving off into this topic is quite an in-depth conversation that I don’t want to commit to in this mailbag, but you can read a piece I wrote about it after last year’s Wild Card game, or feel free to head over to Grantland and read more about it here.

Blake: As a former collegiate pitcher, you really start to see a difference in catching between the levels. I was blessed at my high school and university with players who were pretty highly well rounded. But when I would play in the different summer leagues, people who didn't block well or who were not 'still' behind the plate generally cost me some calls, some not that big a deal but some lead to having to throw multiple pitches to get back to that pitch sequence we wanted. Offense from the catcher is a bonus, a strong arm is also a luxury, it means you can concentrate less on your pitch off with runners on which is one less distraction a runner can help the batter with.

"Regarding Jason Castro: Should we extend him? If so, for how long? Who is in our farm to replace him, and/or who is available on the market?"

- Matt B.

"Who is the opening day catcher?"

- Leonard C.

Jason: I figured the last question was a good segue to this one. Jason Castro has unequivocally been one of the best pitch presenters in the sport the last couple seasons, and if you believe that the Astros espouse Mike Fast’s published thoughts on catcher value stemming largely from pitch presentation, then it begins to make sense that Jeff Luhnow has expressed “strong desire” to re-sign Castro. I definitely consider Castro a near-lock to receive a Qualifying Offer from the team, partially because I think they do want him back, and partially because re-signing him to a one year deal might actually be more desirable with Jake Rogers and Garrett Stubbs nearing Major League-readiness. I sincerely doubt Castro accepts a Qualifying Offer, but I do think he’ll definitely be tendered one. If the Astros are able to re-sign him at three years and $45-50 million, I would be thrilled, personally. If it starts going beyond that price - which is very possible - then I might begin to worry, but I’d likely still want him back. I’m not at all enthused about any of the other available catchers as primary backstops...including Evan Gattis. Wilson Ramos would obviously be a desirable (and expensive) free agency target were it not for his knee injury at the end of the season that now calls into question whether he’ll even be physically capable of catching next season. I don’t consider Matt Wieters an upgrade over Castro at this point - in fact, if you put most of your stock in current pitch presentation ability, Wieters is probably nowhere near as desirable as Castro, as Wieters has received below-average marks for five straight years from StatCorner’s catching report. It has been pointed out that Wieters would probably be able to learn to frame pitches better - after all, Castro did - but I have my doubts, personally...and certainly I doubt it happens during 2017. Max Stassi does not appear to be a starting Major League catcher, Tyler Heineman looks like he might have stalled in Triple-A...unfortunately, I don’t see very many good options as a primary catcher other than Jason Castro, at least for 2017. I’m aware many disagree with me, I just feel like our pitching staff will need any edge it can get with our home field going from a pretty pitcher-friendly park to a more hitter-friendly park next season. And no, I don’t think roughly 22 home runs per season (per an estimate from Daren Willman, creator of BaseballSavant) is going to be a huge difference to our pitching staff, but I do think it will affect it negatively, and I think there are enough question marks in the rotation already to render it foolish to upset the apple cart any further without dire cause.

Curt: This is tough. First, consider the amount of a qualifying offer to Castro: $17.2 million for a season. A $12 million increase from his 2015 salary, which would cut into financial flexibility that could be used on other players. The rest of the catching market isn’t attractive, unless you somehow like Matt Wieters, who may have some nice raw offensive stats until you realize he’s posted a lower WAR than Castro over the last three seasons and is a dreadful pitch-framer. Look, Castro’s shortcomings are obvious - not a current regime guy, doesn’t hit, seems to struggle with catching mechanics at the worst possible times, maddeningly complains when he’s rung up on a called third strikes. But who do you replace him with for next season? Jettisoning him just because he’s Jason Castro doesn’t make you a better team – replacing him with a better option does, and those probably don’t exist. I’m not sold on Evan Gattis catching 130 games defensively (even though he graded out well on framing and throwing runners out, and improved pitch blocking). Max Stassi is solid defensively, but is a worse hitter than Castro. Tyler Heineman is an unknown. Garrett Stubbs is the best catching prospect in the system; he’s current in the AFL, hit really well across two levels in 2016 and has shown the ability to throw out runners at solid rates. But he’s still probably a full year away from the majors. It wouldn’t be a super popular move, but the Astros could do worse than making Castro a Qualifying Offer. They score a draft pick if the Red Sox or Braves (two teams down to spend money on serviceable catchers) decide to pay him $40 million, and remove a lot of uncertainty if he accepts.

"Can Lance McCullers ever be counted on to pitch a full season as a starter, or (like fellow curve ball specialist Rich Hill) will he more likely experience a career of arm trouble? If the answer to that question is, "He's likely to experience arm trouble most of his career," would he be better used as a 1- or 2-inning at a time reliever, to reduce stress on his body?"

- maris61

"Why do people seem to be so optimistic about McCullers actually pitching a full season next year? He has yet to do so and even when he is healthy, there is a pretty clear pitch count problem."

- Freezen

Jason: Have you seen the movie “Armageddon”, with Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck? There’s a line in it when they’re drilling into the asteroid where Bruce Willis says something to the effect of “I can guarantee you this is going to work.” When questioned as to how he knows that, his answer is “Because if it doesn’t, we’re screwed.”

That. That’s my answer.

(Hopefully Dr. Brooks will have a few minutes to provide us all with an illuminating, real answer in the comments section)

Blake: Can you ever count on anybody to pitch the full year? Probably not. I am willing to accept some downtime every now and then, that is where the “You can never have enough pitching” saying comes in. You need guys like Feldman/Fiers to take those roles from long relief to spot starting. My prediction? I think he we will start to see him last longer in the year with smaller injuries here and there.

Curt: Sure he can pitch a full season. Does his history as a major leaguer support that? Maybe not – but I think it’s unwise to label a guy who’s been in the majors for just two season as “injury prone”. The comparison to Rich Hill is interesting, in that both are notorious for Curveballs from Hell – in other words, they’re able to change the shape and trajectory of that breaking pitch to make it more like a slider, and the a few pitches later completely change to an over the top 12-6. It’s a valuable weapon that confounded Astros hitters when they faced Hill in July, and also made McCullers the Astros’ best pitcher for a two-month stretch this summer before he got hurt.

www.brooksbaseball.net

See how Lance’s pitch usage has changed? He pitched mostly off of his fastball last season, but that gap closed and even switched in last year. Maybe this is confirmation of Lance’s really impressive stint in 2016, as he upped his K rate from 24% in ’15 to over 30% in ’16. On the other end, did it cause his arm issue? Did he throw more breaking pitches this past season than in any year before? We definitely can’t imply correlation of his breaking pitches to a somewhat serious arm injury there. I’m not an arm injury expert (where you at, Brooks?) but it’s worth considering.

Yes, Lance could be an absolutely dominant late-inning reliever. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Astros brass had at least considered that possibility, with all the Royals bullpen/Andrew Miller rage the last two Octobers. Lance got into a Twitter spat with the notorious Keith Law over this issue in June – the guy obviously wants to be a starter, if you can’t tell.

However, even if the Astros’ underlying plan if to move McCullers to the bullpen, I wouldn’t expect them to consider it unless the rotation magically adds a few top of the rotation guys, or Lance continues to have injury issues that make it a necessity.

"What is the new market inefficiency that we expect stat-nerds like Luhnow to attempt to exploit? How might the team approach these areas with current/future personnel?"

- Mike S.

Jason: I love this question so hard. There are probably a lot of legitimate answers, and how will any of us really know? If the team started talking about their strategies publicly, it would hardly remain a market inefficiency, would it? Nonetheless, I’ll take a stab at it.

If I had to be pinned down to one area I think the Astros appear to be targeting as a market inefficiency of sorts, it’s the Cuban market. As tensions between the United States and Cuba officially thaw (finally), it seems more and more Cuban players are finding their way to the United States than ever before - and it seems like they’re coming younger and younger. That’s a big deal, it seems to me, for a couple of reasons - not the least of which being the access these younger players have to better diets, trainers, training programs, and facilities in the Minor Leagues in America that might greatly improve their development and efficacy.

The fact that the Astros have, for years now, been heavily involved in scouting and signing (or attempting to sign) players from Cuban baseball (there was this notable miss on a very, very strong offer that the Astros made to Jose Abreu before he chose the then-record $70 million offer that the White Sox made back in 2013, for one example) speaks quite clearly to a heavy level of targeting in the island nation to our south. One might surmise that the analytics department for the Astros has finely-tuned their data analysis systems and identified particularly useful trends in forecasting Cuban players in the Major Leagues in recent years.

Beyond pursuing Abreu in 2013 and signing Yulieski Gurriel this season - and ignoring the Astros presence as one of the front-runners for Lourdes Gurriel, Jr.’s services - the Astros have signed a number of notable Cuban prospects in recent years under Jeff Luhnow’s watch, including highly touted left-handed pitching prospect Cionel Perez this year, quick-rising right-handed pitcher Rogelio Armenteros, who was signed in September of 2014 and is currently in the Arizona Fall League, pitcher Yoanys Quiala (2015), and several others. In fact, after not signing notable Cuban players during Luhnow’s first two or three seasons at the helm - despite the effort to land Abreu - the number of players the Astros have committed to from the island has jumped quite substantially in recent years.

Blake: An all contact hitter team. Guys who only hit singles but are tough to strikeout and aren't afraid of a walk. That might be harder to acquire, maybe instead guys who see the most pitches per at bat. That way you tire out a team’s starting pitcher in the first four to five innings, opening up that team’s bullpen multiple days in a row.

"JD Martinez is in his last year at Detroit and will not be extended. I think they may move him this winter as they need to reduce payroll and get younger. Are Reed and Cameron enough for 1 year of JD?"

- Mike H.

Jason: Interesting question, and it seems to be a rather hot-button question at the moment in the Astros’ fandom. And, as you can probably imagine, even more so in the Tigers’ fandom. I was asked not twenty minutes before this e-mail came in by an online radio station where I occasionally co-host a baseball show a similar question on Twitter. Their question (it’s a Detroit-based site called Sports Radio Detroit) was:

My response to that question was to point out that Jeff Sullivan said just a day or two before that in one of his FanGraphs Chats that, considering JD’s lack of value outside the batter’s box and the fact that he will be a free agent at the conclusion of the 2017 season, that he (Sullivan) could see a good Triple-A prospect getting the job done. With that mindset in mind, and assuming it’s fairly close to accurate, I posited that it might perhaps make sense for the Astros to trade Derek Fisher and Rogelio Armenteros to the Tigers for JD Martinez. I see quite a trend towards run prevention happening in baseball, and I really like it, so I don’t think I’d be as high on a trade for JD Martinez as other Astros fans might be. I may be way off base, but just based on the information at hand, that’s where I’m leaning in that scenario.

So, no, I don’t think Reed and Cameron would do the job right now. Reed probably will go on to be a pretty good Major League player still, but his current trade value is sure to be very low, and Cameron’s is currently far lower still. I think it would take more than that, from the Tigers’ perspective.

"Orlando Miller. Great Astros SS or greatest Astros SS?"

- Joel S.

Jason: If by “SS” you mean “soul suck”, then yes. Sure.

Everyone, please excuse me a minute. I definitely won’t be huddled on the floor in a corner holding my 1994 Bowman #358 Foil Orlando Miller baseball card and sobbing inconsolably.

Blake: Who? Oh, the guy from the Lord Of The Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movies...yeah, he is cool. His last name is pretty awesome too, except they spelled it a little off.

________________________________________

Well, 3,800 or so words later, we’re finally done. If you made it all the way through, congratulations! You did better than I did. We will be posting a new mailbag every week for the rest of the offseason, though we will probably only cover four or five topics each week going forward in the interest of better attempting to achieve brevity.

The Offseason Orbit Mailbag will only be as good as the questions you submit to it! E-mail us at tcboffseasonorbit@gmail.com to submit your question(s) today, or feel free to leave them in the comments section on this piece...I will be checking in, and I will find them if you leave them here.