And we’re back. Strap in and prepare yourselves for our answers to your questions in Volume Two of the Offseason Orbit, Astros fans.
This week, Dave Spradley and Clack will be joining me and lending their thoughts as they see fit. I’ll make it clear who’s answering as we go. As always, please know that each writer speaks only for themselves, and not for each other or for TCB in general. Dissent is welcomed - and encouraged - in the comments section.
Remember: the Offseason Orbit Mailbag will only be as good as the questions you submit to it! E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
On to the meat!
“What minor league players do you see making the roster next season and possibly having a big impact? Maybe Martes, Paulino, Derek Fisher, to name a few?”
- Todd B
“Which pitching prospects should be ready next year and what is the consensus or opinion on type of starter they will be (TOR/MOR/BOR)?”
- Hebrew Hammah
“Any chance we see Francis Martes compete for a roster spot this Spring?”
- Gerald L.
Jason: It should probably go without saying that I like all these questions at least well enough to consider them worth answering, since I’m the one choosing them to be answered. That said, I really like the questions we’ve been seeing about the younger prospects; the guys still coming. I appreciate that the many of our readers here realize, by and large, that building long-term, lasting success hinges on our ability to continue to churn out Major League talent from our Minor League System for years - decades, ideally. The simple answer to this question is that I expect to see some names that Astros fans are already familiar with (Alex Bregman, A.J. Reed, Tyler White, perhaps Teoscar Hernandez, David Paulino, Chris Devenski, Michael Feliz...) continue to get better this next season. I think Francis Martes is going to make his Major League debut, acquit himself reasonably well, and hopefully stick for the rest of the 2017 season until he’s shut down due to innings concerns. I think Ramon Laureano has to be considered a viable option as a potential fourth outfielder (at the very least) going into next season, and I think Garrett Stubbs is in Houston by next September if he continues to perform next season. I think that the team will likely struggle (again) to give enough playing time to every guy who really needs it, and a big trade or two simply to cull the field of available players at the major league level and consolidate some quantity into quality wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Dave: Starting pitching and the outfield were the team's biggest problem this season, so any guy who might be able to contribute at all in those areas could get a shot. I think we see Martes called up by mid-season if there's an injury in the rotation.
“How will an expensive free agent signing affect the likelihood of maintaining current Core Players past 2018?”
- Joel S.
Clack: The answer to this will depend on the annual cost and length of free agent contracts. Obviously the larger and lengthier the contract, the more it will constrain future budgetary decisions to offer contract extensions to the existing player core. In addition to free agency, as more young players become arbitration eligible, the budgetary cost of just maintaining the status quo increases. There is a lot we don’t know about the future boundaries, like how large the budget can grow and how many of the existing core will be agreeable to contract extensions. If the Astros could consistently advance deeply into the playoff in the next few years, this would increase the organization’s revenues and make free agents more affordable. For this next off-season, my expectation is that the Astros will not be inclined to offer lengthy (e.g., more than 3 years) contracts.
Jason: Our payroll is obviously not going to keep growing by $15-$20-$30 million each offseason, and it would be unwise and unreasonable to expect it to. We have flexibility right now, but that won't last but another couple of years, and then the decisions get really hard really quickly. I think it's safe to say that we shouldn't get too attached to every one of our young stars...it seems very likely to me that we lose one or two. As one example, without presenting any particular endorsement or condemnation of it, it's part of the argument in favor of trading Jose Altuve some time before the end of the 2019 season.
Dave: I'm not worried about expensive free agent signings hindering the team's ability to keep core guys at all. For one, Jeff Luhnow has been averse to signing big-name guys; the team's biggest free agency signing in the last five years has been what, Scott Feldman? Luhnow's modus operandi is to sign mid-level free agents and guys who might be undervalued. It's a strategy designed to keep the payroll flexible.
That being said, the Astros could easily eat one big contract and still keep the core three of Altuve, Correa, and Springer. I wouldn't mind them chasing a high profile pitcher or a hitter that can bat in the middle of the lineup.
“Everyone has praised Andrew Miller's post season performance, and rightly so. I read recently somewhere that baseball, as a whole, will be looking to hurriedly develop a similar durable middle reliever to be that elite weapon to compete. Is there any chance that the Astros may have cultivated this elite reliever already in Chris Devenski? While I'd love to see him become a starter, is it probable the Astros keep him in that role going forward, given his early success?”
- John G.
Jason: I think that, barring the Astros acquiring another shut down, dominant reliever to shorten the baseball games, it is exceedingly likely that Devenski continues to be deployed as a Fireman next season. His ability to succeed over prolonged outings and against right and left-handed batters is too crucial to waste. Should the Astros acquire another dominant reliever to shorten games even further, then I could see Devo being deployed out of the rotation and just limited to two times, maybe three, through the order.
Dave: While Devenski was great last year, we should appreciate the fact that Andrew Miller is a rare bird. He's a lefty with killer stuff, but beyond that he's also comfortable coming into the game at any inning; he's not hung up on being the closer. I think team culture plays a little bit into this, where guys want to settle into a role and a hierarchy, and the Astros are probably trying to develop that, but judging by last season I don't think they're quite there yet.
Keep in mind that Devenski did pitch over 100 innings this year, something Miller hasn't done since 2008 when he was struggling. Devenski's stuff may not induce as many strikeouts as Miller's, but it might play better two or three times through the lineup. I think if the rotation struggles again next year then we see Devenski in a starting role, and if he can approximate what he did in the bullpen then the Astros will be improved because of it.
Clack: Generally I agree with the premise of this question. People may forget that Andrew Miller was once a highly rated top of the rotation prospect. He was given opportunities to be a starter before he was converted to reliever, and it took him quite a few years to develop into a difference-making relief pitcher. The Astros’ organization is saber oriented—like the Indians—and is likely attracted to the way that Miller has been used as a reliever. We also know that the Astros liked Miller a lot, since they offered him a contract comparable - even higher - to what he eventually signed for with the Yankees.
Chris Devenski may be the best candidate for a similar role out of the Astros’ bullpen, but he isn’t the only candidate; Michael Feliz has the kind of stuff which could eventually translate into that quality of reliever. Depending on starting pitcher acquisitions this off-season, the Astros may be forced to put Devenski and Feliz in the starting pitcher mix during spring training. But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Astros used Devenski or Feliz in the Miller role when the season starts.
“Is 2017 the year to go "all in"? If not, is there ever a scenario where it makes sense to go all-in?”
Jason: I lean far to the conservative (if you will) side when it comes to questions like this. My inclination is to say that, as a general rule, team management is not doing its job well if there is cause to "all in". By and large, I think the model followed in the last twenty to thirty years by teams like the Braves, Astros (1994-2004 or so), Cardinals, Giants, the Yankees (see: Gene Michael), and others are the way to build sustained, lasting dominance. To me, that doesn't necessarily preclude teams from venturing into free agency - but the overwhelming focus should, in my opinion, be devoted to drafting, development, retention, and supplementation via trade, Rule V draft, etc. Especially with a team so freshly into their window as we are. When teams get near the back end of their window, like the Giants and Cardinals have recently, it makes more sense to me to be more aggressive in free agency. Even then, though, I wouldn't go "all in".
Dave: It depends what we mean by "all-in". If it means selling off prospects for older guys who will make the team better now, but worse two years down the road and beyond then the answer is no. I don't think Jeff Luhnow has that mentality. He will look to make smart deals, whether through free agency or trade, that will make incremental improvements to the team without mortgaging its future.
Clack: No. Going “all-in” usually means spending big and sacrificing the future for the current year. The reason for doing so is that a team’s window for winning the World Series is closing. The Astros are nowhere close to that situation. Ideally, you would feel good about a team whose best players are kept together for their peak seasons (usually age 26 – 30). Indeed, the window is just opening. Carlos Correa will only be 25 years old in 2020. Alex Bregman will be 26 years old in 2020. Jose Altuve and George Springer will be 30 years old then. That is a nice long window. Whether the Astros face a closing window in that decade depends on the success of the farm system. Hopefully, the farm system will be productive enough to replenish the team and protracted “rebuilding” phases will be unnecessary.
“Due to the frequency of shifts, is there any way to tell the increased defensive need on traditionally offense first positions? (Example 3rd base shifted to SS spot, or 1B shifted over etc) Secondly – does this change where they play Bregman/Gurriel and others?”
- Hebrew Hammah
Dave: Remember that the idea behind the shift is that based on trends and the data you have that you have a pretty good idea of where the hitter is going to hit the ball in the first place. The goal of the shift is is to make what would have to be a spectacular or impossible play much easier to make because you know where the hitter usually hits the ball. Granted some hitters beat the shift, but generally speaking the shift compensates for your defense, not the other way around.
Clack: Yes. Defensive range probably becomes more important for the third base and first base positions. Before Bregman was called up, Luhnow said that he was well suited for third base as a natural shortstop, because the Astros play the third baseman in the shortstop zone so much. Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena both played considerable time at first base, even though they are not prototypical first basemen—which should tell you something about how much the Astros value defense from the first base position. If Gurriel plays first base, this would continue the defensive emphasis for first base, since Gurriel is a natural second or third baseman. In my view, the extensive use of shifts will increase the value of player versatility.
“Should we be worried about A.J. Reed's complete lack of success in the majors at this point? And will the Astros attempt to upgrade first base through free agency?”
- Anonymous TCB User
“Can AJ Reed and Tyler White be called busts, or do they need more Major League at-bats?”
- Allison L.
“What are the Astros plans with first base?”
- Gerald L.
“Is first base where we find our wins offensively? Does a combination of Gurriel, Reed, White, and Margo provide enough there assuming the rest of the order produces at normal levels or are we obliged to find an upgrade there elsewhere?”
“Who will be the first baseman?”
- Jonathan S.
“What are we going to do with 1st base, platoon or a FA signing? “
- Waylon P.
Jason: This is just a small sampling of all the questions we received about either first base, A.J. Reed, or both. I feel like we cannot possibly stress enough that it’s been about 140 plate appearances for him thus far in his MLB career. It’s much, much too soon to attempt to label him a bust, like some of these questions either explicitly said or tacitly implied.
@TheArmoryBand it's a sliding scale but generally yeah you want about that much before you say whether you have a bust— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) October 23, 2016
That doesn’t mean that the Astros are going to have a ton of leash with Reed, but that’s not the same thing as assuming that the team will move on from him full time. I think he will be given every chance, especially early in the season, to seize the job full-time...a quick glance at the lineup shows just how right-handed heavy the Astros are in 2017, and while handedness isn’t the end all, be all, it seems likely that the Astros will want to give every opportunity that they can afford to give to the young left-handed slugger.
So I'm not worried about Reed, at this point. Again, it's been 140 or so plate appearances. There are adjustments to make, both to his swing path and to his approach against pitchers that are pitching him much more carefully than he's probably ever been pitched before, but I'm confident that the Astros coaching and development staffs are going to help him get to where he needs to be. I still see a 30 home run, 120 or so wRC+ player when I look at him and his tools, 30 extra pounds or not. I never considered him a guy who was likely to hit .300 in the MLB, but I don't think he has to to be a very, very valuable hitter for us. There are several examples of other notable sluggers struggling initially out of the gate and going on to be excellent Major League players - see Clack’s comment below.
Dave: Unless Reed comes out of the gate mashing I don't think that the Astros are going to give him enough playing time to let him develop, especially when they're shooting for a playoff spot. If this continues to happen then he will be snapped up by another team who thinks they know how to fix him, will give him the playing time, and then he'll become a monster like J.D. Martinez. Call me pessimistic, but it seems like we've seen this a half-a dozen times already.
Clack: It’s way too early to be concerned. Think about Anthony Rizzo’s first season in the majors: .141, .281, .242. The Padres traded him, and he became a MVP quality first baseman with the Cubs. Or think about Adrian Gonzalez’s first two years in the majors: .229, .272, .401. The Rangers traded him, and he subsequently carved out a Hall of Fame career trajectory. I don’t think the Astros will make first base a priority this off-season. Besides Reed, they have a number of candidates for first base. But, if an unlikely scenario unfolds and someone like Edwin Encarnacion becomes a realistic possibility for the Astros, I don’t think Reed will prevent the Astros from signing a first baseman. Fortunately for Reed, the Designated Hitter position is also available if the Astros were to sign a first baseman.
Jason: I just want to add a graphic really quickly showing just how similar Anthony Rizzo’s first season was to A.J. Reed’s, to build on Clack’s point. We’ll close out this week with this little nugget for you...without me actually saying that Reed will absolutely succeed on a level that is on par with Anthony Rizzo, just compare their first two seasons:
Thanks for your questions, please keep them coming!