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Analysis of new Astros McCann, Reddick, Morton, and Aoki

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The Astros had a busy week, acquiring four major league veterans to complement an already strong core.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

That just happened.

After years of hand-wringing by fans about whether or not this Astros front office could push a sizeable pile of chips into the center of the table, the club acquired four major league veterans this November.

Typically, the Hot Stove season doesn’t light much more than a sullen pilot light before the Winter Meetings each December. But the Astros pulled out their Coleman grill and served up some hors d’oeuvres before the other guests even arrived.

Nori Aoki

The Astros claimed outfielder Nori Aoki off Waivers from the Mariners on November 3rd, and by a quirk of contract, own the rights to his final two arbitration seasons.

Aoki will be 35 years old in 2017, hits left-handed, and doesn’t embarrass himself in Left or Center Field.

His power and stolen base numbers will not pop any eyes, but his contact-oriented approach at the plate will drive a strong batting average and on-base percentage.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

What could go right

Aoki is a pesky hitter who could fill the role of quasi-regular left fielder that Colby Rasmus owned in 2016. With 400 or so Plate Appearances, Aoki would be a solid bottom-of-the-order table setter for George Springer at the top.

At worst, Aoki will provide an excellent bat off the bench if the Astros continue to fiddle with their outfield, or if evolutionary leaps are taken by Preston Tucker, Jake Marisnick, Derek Fisher, or A.J. Reed (which could force Yulieski Gurriel into left field).

That is Aoki’s greatest value for the 2017 Astros - the multitude of options he provides to A.J. Hinch. Aoki can respectably be played every day, but will not block any up-and-comer either.

What could go wrong

Early 2017 Steamer projections peg Aoki for a line of .270/.334/.376. If those projections are accurate, that would represent the worst season of his major league career.

Unfortunately, at age 35, such a decline is all too possible.

However, Aoki’s contact-first approach is one that should age better than a hitter who relies mostly on the long ball. His own countryman Ichiro Suzuki is an example of how a similarly profiled (if unquestionably better credentialed) player can continue providing value late in his career.

But in Aoki, the Astros did not grab a player on the upswing of his career.

Why the Astros did it

The Astros had major outfield needs. Outside of Springer, the outfield offense was a big fat zero.

To put that in less exaggerated terms, despite Springer’s All-Star-quality season in which he posted a 124 wRC+ while bashing 29 home runs, the Astros’ outfield bats produced a piddling 86 wRC+, meaning it was 14% worse than an outfield that contained only league-average batters. (also: no, Springer won’t be moved to the bench.)

That collective outfield offense was ‘good’ for second-worst in all of baseball, better only than Philadelphia, a club that trotted out a bunch of guys you probably have never heard of.

Why did the Astros claim an aging outfielder who played average defense and was only slightly better than that at the plate?

Because he was cheap. And because he represents a significant improvement over what they had.

Charlie Morton

In the first of the Astros’ injury-risk acquisitions of the off-season, the Astros signed right-hander Charlie Morton to soak up some rotation innings.

Morton missed most of 2016 with a hamstring injury, but the Astros nonetheless inked one of the weak Free Agent pool’s most attractive starters to a two-year, $14 million contract, plus incentives.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

What could go right

Before heading down to St. James Infirmary, Morton showed some tantalizing signs that the Phillies had discovered a tweak to pull out hidden potential that the PIrates had never known was there.

Even before that though, Morton had turned his career around (when healthy) by posting a 3.89 ERA from 2013 onward.

When healthy, during that three-season period, Morton posted a nearly 60% ground ball rate, a figure that would have been 2nd in the major leagues in 2016. If he had stayed healthy.

If healthy, Morton should benefit greatly by the Major League’s most shift-happy infield defense, maximizing the value of his tendency to burn the worm. You know. Healthy.

What could go wrong

Well, Morton might not stay healthy, in case you haven’t picked up on that yet.

The last time he pitched more than 172 innings in a season was...

Why the Astros did it

A couple of reasons. Arguably, Morton was one of the top two or three pitchers in this Free Agency class. There were no Jon Lesters or David Prices or Cy Youngs in this group. The catalog of palatable hurlers began with 37-year-old Rich Hill, who somehow manages to make Morton’s medical records resemble Apollo, the Roman god of health’s.

The Astros needed a starter. Morton’s contract, while not without risk, is tiny by the standards of Free Agent starting pitchers. In 2013, the Astros handed out more cash per annum to Scott Feldman, a pitcher similarly well-versed with the workings of Hippocrates and who had previously pitched not quite as well as Morton has over the past few seasons.

This is a low-risk decent-reward signing for the Astros, recalling the well-known axiom that, “Three good injury risk pitchers is better than two.”

Brian McCann

Thursday evening, it was announced that the Astros acquired Yankees catcher Brian McCann and $10 million in exchange for minor league pitchers Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What could go right

Very simply, McCann could be one of the best catchers in the majors.

McCann is signed through 2018, and his contract contains a $15M club option.

Last season, the 32-year-old biffed twenty home runs in 130 games following a season in which he bopped another 26. The seven-time All Star and six-time Silver Slugger has been one of the biggest offensive threats at the position of the last decade.

But that’s not all! During 2016, McCann was the sixth-most valuable defensive catcher in the majors, using Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average. His FRAA of 10.0 was only a hair behind outgoing Astros Catcher Jason Castro.

The Astros added one of the best-hitting catchers and one of the best-defending catchers for the cost of TCB’s 16th-ranked system prospect and a raw pitcher who profiles as a reliever.

If somebody had proposed this trade as a hypothetical on TCB’s message boards a week ago, they would have been soundly ridiculed for the Yankees’ low return.

What could go wrong

McCann will be 33 years old next season, but utilizing the DH position wisely should allow the Astros to stave off the effects of the wear and tear on a catcher’s body.

There is little downside to this acquisition beyond what could be said about any Free Agent in his 30’s: performance decline, injury, AARP meetings, and so forth.

Unless you think Jason Castro is the second coming, there’s little to dislike about this acquisition.

Why the Astros did it

For one, the Astros needed a catcher and appeared disinclined to re-engage Castro despite lip-service quotes from the front office. Castro reportedly has multiple suitors, is probably hoping to land a market similar to the one McCann received from the Yankees in the first place.

McCann is cheaper and more well-rounded than Houston’s dearly departed. Pouncing on McCann gives them a proven catcher with a sterling reputation on both offense and defense, and control over his contract for three full seasons.

The cost was the Astros’ 4th or 5th-best starting pitching prospect (arguably) and a young wild card. To add hilarity to fortune, the Astros will not even be responsible for McCann’s full contract, owing him effectively $12 million guaranteed for each of the next two seasons.

Compare these two situations:

  1. Brian McCann for $24 million over two years, with a third year option, all for the cost of Abreu and Guzman.
  2. Jonathan Lucroy for 1-1/2 seasons in exchange $5.25 million, the MLB #14 prospect, the MLB #51 prospect, and a player to be named later. Oh, and they get to put up with the headeache of Jeremy Jeffress also.

For those of you scoring at home: Astros 1, Rangers 0.

Josh Reddick

Although the Astros actually hit better against right-handed pitchers than lefties last season, they apparently decided that McCann and Aoki were not lefty enough to straighten out an overly-northpaw’d lineup.

Thursday evening it was reported that Houston signed Right Fielder Josh Reddick to a four-year, $52 million contract.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

What could go right

Reddick, 29, has been a consistently above-average batter for his career. He is not a stand-out in any category, but in a full season is capable of reaching over twenty home runs and ten stolen bases, coupled with a low strikeout rate and a good eye.

That low strikeout helps balance the lineup, and Reddick could respectably hit second, fifth, sixth, or seventh in the lineup.

Last season with the A’s, Reddick had the most successful stretch of his career, batting .296/.368/.449 (122 wRC+) with a fairly reasonable .317 BABIP. That and his 32-home run campaign in 2012 hints at Reddick’s ceiling in a more friendly ball park than the Coliseum.

On Defense, Reddick has a good reputation as a Right-Fielder, grading above average in most metrics over the course of his career.

What could go wrong

Plenty. Reddick is a good outfielder when healthy, but that’s a pretty big “when”. He has only played a full season once in his career due to a myriad of injuries.

The Astros are taking a big gamble on Reddick, because if he goes down due to injury, they will have to cobble together an outfield from spare parts. He figures to be a strong addition to the lineup, but if he can’t stay on the field, the Astros’ depth thins out pretty quick.

Reddick hits poorly against left-handed pitchers. Look for the Astros to continue their lineup-wrangling ways to optimize their chances against tough lefties.

Why did the Astros did it

Last season, the Cubs shelled out eight years and $184 million to Jason Heyward, who has been only slightly better at the plate than Reddick.

The best outfielder on this year’s market, Yoenis Cespedes, will be seeking well over $100 million as well, and will cost his signing team their first unprotected draft pick in penalty.

Reddick was one of the top available bats in this year’s market, fills a glaring void in the Astros’ outfield, and did not cost the Astros the number sixteen overall draft pick next season.

Additionally, largely because of his injury history, his contract of $13 million per season looks downright reasonable compared to Heyward’s and eventually Cespedes’ deals. Even former Astro Dexter Fowler is likely to top Reddick’s contract in terms of dollars.

Not to be overlooked is that Reddick will only be 33 years old at the end of this deal. The Astros are paying for seasons during which a natural performance decline due to aging should have very little effect. More importantly, \tThe short nature of the deal will not prohibit the club from handing out extensions to home-grown stars Springer, Carlos Correa, and Lance McCullers, who will reach expensivehood around the same time as Reddick’s final contract season.

Conclusion

The fact that the Astros’ November additions contain a certain amount of injury risk should not be overlooked at all.

These moves fill all of the Astros most gaping holes, though GM Jeff Luhnow insists that they are still hunting a top of rotation starting pitcher (yay!), and it does so without locking the club into budget-crippling contracts or giving up high draft picks.

Because of these moves, pundits are already lauding the Astros as pushing themselves into the small and elite cadre of “best clubs in baseball.”

Current Projected Lineup:

CF: George Springer (R)
3B: Alex Bregman (R)
2B: Jose Altuve (R)
SS: Carlos Correa (R)
RF: Josh Reddick (L)
1B: Yuli Gurriel
DH: Evan Gattis (R)
C: Brian McCann (L)
LF: Nori Aoki (L)

No doubt, this isn’t an “everyday” lineup. The Astros will shuffle around like mad, and like always. A.J. Reed will see plenty of playing time at 1B and DH, which will move Yuli into the outfield. The Astros will often be loath to have both McCann and Gattis in the lineup together frequently, unless they plan to carry Max Stassi as a backup catcher on their bench (a possibility).

Current Projected Rotation:

SP: Dallas Keuchel
SP: Collin McHugh
SP: Lance McCullers
SP: Joe Musgrove
SP: Charlie Morton

Swing: Mike Fiers

Again, this seems likely to be in flux all season. These days, most clubs need at least ten viable starting pitchers to make it through the season. Barring trades, Morton and Fiers will both see plenty of starts. David Paulino certainly heads back to AAA in this case, where he only pitched fourteen innings last season. The Astros hope that his continued development will put them in the position of making hard decisions later in the season.