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Astros pitching plan for the 2016-2017 off-season

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The Astros have a winning record but are a long shot to reach the 2016 playoffs. How soon is too soon to look ahead to the off-season? NEVER. Because it’s fun.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

To: Idrees Tily

From: CRPerry13

Hi buddy,

You asked me an intriguing question on Google Chat. "When is it too soon to talk about what the Astros should do during the off-season?"

Answer: NEVER!

The Astros are still in contention for a playoff spot, but regardless if they reach nirvana this year, it is clear that they have some holes to fill and/or developing to do.

Let's start with pitching first.

I like Michael Feliz and Chris Devenski in the bullpen. Of the two, if somebody gets a shot to crack the rotation, I'd rather see Devenski.

Devenski’s fastball is a couple of ticks faster out of the 'pen, and I think that helps his disgustingly filthy changeup become nigh unhittable due to the break and 13-mph velocity differences. Devo is better in the pen, but I feel a little bad about it because he'd be a decent back-of-rotation starter as well.

Feliz' 95 mph fastball / slider combo is more classic for an elite reliever. I love him in the role of multi-inning fireman and want to see him stay there.

Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and Lance McCullers remain locks for the rotation, and deservedly so.

Is it too soon to worry about McCullers' long-term health? I'd definitely handcuff him with a couple veterans in AAA or a long-relief swing man. Maybe Brad Peacock stays in an insurance role, or Brady Rodgers is elevated.

I'm not ready to pencil Frances Martes or David Paulino into the rotation in April. They can play the “Joe Musgrove” role and come-up mid-season in 2017 to give the rotation a big shot of upside, and we'll finally see what arms the #Process has given us.

ACTIVATE: FANBOY GLASSES!

Musgrove could be the best pitcher on the Astros' staff for the next several years. His elite K-BB% ratios during his career and the fact that he's clearly not over-matched in the majors lands him in the rotation for me, and possibly established as the staff ace by the end of the year. I'm going to predict a significant number of Cy Young votes for him during his MLB career.

I'm actually okay with Mike Fiers as the #5 starter. He's due a bounce back (4.26 xFIP this season, way lower than ERA), and he'll still be cheap.

So if I'm the Astros, I worry about McCullers' health, but am satisfied with the long- and short-term pitching staff.

What are your thoughts on the pitchers?

To: CRPerry13

From: Idrees Tily

So you wanted to start with pitching, somehow subconsciously knowing that all of my genius ideas for the off-season revolve around the offense. But we all know how important pitching is.

So diving into the future of our pitching staff should be a fun exercise. I'll preface this by saying that my end goal after this upcoming off-season is to have a legitimate, trim-the-fat 25 man roster. Some improvements might be big ones, while others are incremental, yet important nonetheless.

Let's start with the starting rotation. I think we'll have some healthy back and forth here. At this point, and maybe this is overly doom and gloom, but do we really have a "lock for the rotation" at all? I don't ask that facetiously, but it does point out that our best performing pitcher this year, is 22-year-old McCullers, who has been battling injuries for the majority of the year.

When healthy, McCullers has been absolutely great. I just hope that he can have sustained health, which seems optimistic for any pitcher, let alone one struggling to stay healthy this year. I do like your idea of having some insurance arms ready on hand, just in case.

So with one spot in the rotation down (kind of), let's go to spots 2 and 3, with Keuchel and McHugh. Both probably deserve a spot in next year's rotation, but how confident are you in their success next year and beyond?

I get that Keuchel is the reigning Cy Young winner, so I don't want this to come off as a knee jerk reaction, but from watching his starts this year, he is nowhere near the same pitcher. He is getting hit, and getting hit hard.

Is it fixable? Sure, he was basically unhittable at home ALL of last year. So the tremendous talent is there somewhere, I just hope it manifests itself next year and beyond. I will admit that this version of Keuchel does not exude tremendous confidence in me.

Same with McHugh. He is solid, but then he is very hittable at times. His curveball is still good, I just worry that the league has adjusted, and since his arsenal does not provide overpowering stuff, he will continue to get hit hard.

This time last year I felt confident with McHugh being our #3 starter. His play this year knocks him down a few pegs, and I think if we want to move into "perennial contender" status, it would be nice if he is our #5 guy.

Musgrove has made a believer out of me as well, but it's too early to activate my fanboy glasses just yet. Heck, Keuchel's Jekyll and Hyde seasons might have scarred me for the next several pitchers. But I do agree that Musgrove probably needs to be in the rotation next year, and I am optimistic that he can continue his success.

That leaves us with just one spot remaining. It might end up being Fiers by default, but I in no way do I think we should pencil him in.

Although I am not overly thrilled with Fiers’ performance this year, it going to be costly to obtain an improvement, and I am just not sure that the benefit would outweigh cost. That is because the acquisition cost of a #3 or a #4 has become ridiculously high, so trading for one would be a tough pill to swallow.

With the 2017 free agent starting pitcher class headlined by the likes of Andrew Cashner, Bartolo Colon, Mat Latos, Colby Lewis, and Rich Hill, bringing back Doug Fister doesn't sound all that bad at the moment.

I suppose with those options, it wouldn't be the end of the world if Fiers is our #5, but I wouldn't be too thrilled about it.

I agree with you on the 4 young guys you mentioned. I like Feliz and Devenski's values out of the bullpen. I also am high on Martes and Paulino, but likewise, do not see them making an immediate contribution in 2017.

So as it stands, the boring answer is that not much will change with our starting rotation for 2017:

Lance McCullers
Dallas Keuchel
Joe Musgrove
Collin McHugh
Mike Fiers

With all due respect, I just don't think that that group strikes fear in the opposition.

I think that that rotation would be fine with the team that we have been in the past, but if we want to make that leap into truly legitimate, consistent contenders, I just don't think that that's good enough.

I hope I am wrong, and I hope that you can help ease my concern, but I am not nearly as optimistic in that group that I would have been one year ago.

Out of those 5, we have an uber-talented-yet-legitimate-injury-risk McCullers, three guys that are trending down this year, and one pleasant surprise in Musgrove that has 18.1 impressive innings under his belt.

Before we even get to the bullpen, tell me that I am overreacting, and that our starting pitching is going to be just fine in 2017 and beyond.

To: Idrees Tily

From: CRPerry13

Ohhhhh man, you really want to rumble, don't you? I didn't expect this article to turn into a discussion of statistical regression, but unfortunately, that's where you've steered me.

Baseball is a long-term thinker's sport...at least if you are a GM, owner, and manager.

It is silly to say, "The Astros are better than the Rangers," because the Rangers have clearly won more and performed better. However, it's not silly to say, "The Astros have a higher level of baseline talent." There are reasons why this is probably true.

It's well-documented that the Rangers have been hilariously lucky (probabilistically-speaking) and the Astros have not. Both teams are likely to "suffer" or "enjoy" statistical regression to their respective baselines in the future due to cumulative regression of individual players.

On-topic, this phenomenon especially applies to the Astros' rotation and why you shouldn't worry about them in 2017.

Let's take the rotation case-by-case, to assuage your doubts, oh panicky one.

Keuchel: One of the most predictive ERA-like stats readily available to us is xFIP. Keuchel, despite his 4.75 ERA, boasts a 3.52 xFIP. That is within 15 points of his career xFIP, and nearly identical to his xFIP in 2013 when I rightly predicted that he would be the Astros' best pitcher in 2014.

This indicates a high likelihood that Keuchel will return to being a great pitcher even if he doesn't return to "Cyeuchel," which was a long-shot anyway.

McHugh: His xFIP is 3.91, identical to what it was in 2015. His high ERA is driven by the .362 BABIP, which is the highest in baseball. (Talk about bad luck!) Pitcher Wins is a stupid stat, but he didn't get 19 of them last season by being crappy. 2016 is the oddball, not a representation of the future.

Fiers: He has not been good by any measure, but his 4.26 xFIP would be acceptable for a 5th starter until an elite prospect pushes their way into the mix. I certainly wouldn't complain if the Astros signed somebody better, but I'd be fine with him sticking around too.

Considering Fiers’ drastically lower strikeout rate this season, it seems logical to assume 2016 represents a "worst-case" scenario for him, with only upward to go. He does have a career xFIP of 3.86, after all. I would not be in favor of replacing him with another Doug Fister type, because of the near presences of Martes and Paulino.

If I am the Astros, I am frustrated by those three guys' results this season, but I am comforted by looking into the future, even for the remainder of 2016, and feeling like I have an above-average, dependable, and cost-controlled rotation. I'm standing pat.

I don't say these things to belittle your opinion, but rather to talk you back from the ledge. No doubt, the pitching this season has been frustrating, particularly from the rotation. But I'll put my faith in proven forecasting methods rather than small-sample ERAs built on stats like BABIP and HR/FB rate that are largely outside of a pitcher's control.

What would you do in the relief corps? Assuming the Astros don't pick up Neshek's option, they still have two years and $12M left on Sipp, plus a year left on Gregerson. Who takes the open bullpen spot?

To: CRPerry13

From: Idrees Tily

Thanks Chris. I see where you are coming from, and you bring solid research/data/stats to the table, so I do appreciate that.

Ultimately, I think what you are saying is that the data suggests that the probability of the trio in question improving next year is greater than the probability of them continuing the downward trend. I get it, and I hope that those predictive stats prove to be correct.

For some reason though, and you may call this illogical, but my gut is telling me to still disagree with all of that solid data (for at least 2 out of those 3 guys). Of course, "my gut" and the "eye ball test" are easy to dismiss, so I wouldn't necessarily blame you for doing that, but I at least want to put this in writing now, so in the unfortunate scenario where I end up being right (hey, there's a first for everything I suppose!), I can say that I saw it coming. And if I was able to see it coming, the fine folks in the front office, who are much smarter than I, should have seen it coming, and at the least, had a solid contingency plan in place (not to insinuate that they don't currently at the moment).

And even with my complaints and my concern, I will also concede that I can't provide a realistic solution. So there is not much I can do about it, rather than complain and throw a fit.

The best-case, perfect-world scenario in my opinion, is that we acquire a legitimate ace via trade (i.e. Chris Sale or Jose Fernandez, which are both pipe dreams at this point), which would bump everyone down a notch, so we would yield a rotation that I'd be much more comfortable with of:

Acquired Ace
Lance McCullers
Dallas Keuchel
Joe Musgrove
Collin McHugh

(pushing Mike Fiers into a swingman/innings eater out of the bullpen)

I would happily go to battle with that potential rotation, but because the real world does not have the "overwrite rejected deals" like in the videogames, I also understand that my hope is not really feasible.

Therefore, even after all my bellyaching, and my concerns, it looks like we both agree that the starting rotation, at least to start 2017, will probably consist of the following (along with their projected 2017 salaries):

Lance McCullers ($600,000) - My made up MLB league minimum projection for 2017. I am thinking it will probably be lower, but I rather be conservative on the expenses side of things.

Dallas Keuchel ($10,000,000) - As Dallas is earning $7,25M this year, I think $10M is a reasonable expectation as a raise via the arbitration process.

Joe Musgrove ($600,000)

Collin McHugh ($4,000,000) - 2017 will be McHugh's first year of arbitration, so the projection will be admittedly more tricky. Using Alex Cobb as a comp, I think a $4M projection is reasonable.

Mike Fiers ($2.500,000) - Same as McHugh above, 2017 will be Fiers' first year of arbitration. Using Rubby De La Rosa as a comp, plus a small bump for inflation, $2.5M probably gets us close.

With those projections in mind, the starting rotation costs us only $17,700,000. And although I am not as high on that collective group as you are, I do have to admit that I like the cost-efficiency there. That's just a little less than half of what Zack Greinke will cost the Diamondbacks next year. Ouch!

And you asked me about the bullpen, so let's talk about them. Generally speaking, the bullpen as a unit has been very good this year. So I don't see much turnover, but playing armchair GM, I do make some changes. First, let's list the obvious mainstays in my humble opinion:

Ken Giles
Luke Gregerson
Will Harris
Michael Feliz
Chris Devenski

That leaves us with 2 spots to fill. I would take the calculated risk of not picking up Pat Neshek's $6,5M option, and replacing him with James Hoyt.

That leaves us with one final spot, currently filled by Tony Sipp. I actually agreed with his signing last off-season, and liked the deal for us, but he is further cementing the idea that he is basically a sunk cost. So I cut him, and eat the remaining $12M remaining on his deal. It won't feel good to do it, but again, if we want to establish ourselves as a legitimate contender, moves like this simply have to be made, and the fat simply has to be trimmed.

Since cutting Sipp leaves us without a traditional LOOGY, what should we do? We can continue using Devenski and his devastating change up as a weapon against left-handed hitters, as they are only hitting .226/.282/.354 off of him.

Our primary LHP internal candidate is Reymin Guduan, and I am not sure his control will be refined enough by Opening Day 2017. A LOOGY isn't necessarily a must, so we could always use a RHP internal candidate such as Brendan McCurry, who is not overpowering, but very deceptive, who has had success against lefties thus far in his minor league career.

The more I read up on McCurry, the more appealing he becomes. Because the left-handed reliever free agent class isn't overly inspiring (other than Aroldis Chapman), I'll roll the dice with the internal candidate duo of McCurry first, and Guduan as a backup plan, and hope that both continue to develop and improve.

That leaves me rolling out the following 2017 projected relief corps of:

Ken Giles ($650,00) - Giles made slightly more than the league minimum last year, so I am applying a consistent approach for next year as well.
Luke Gregerson ($6,250,000) - under contract, no projection necessary
Will Harris ($3,500,000) - 2017 will be Harris' first year of arbitration. I think using AJ Ramos as a comp gets us close.
Michael Feliz ($600,000)
Chris Devenski ($600,000)
James Hoyt ($600,000)
Brandon McCurry ($600,000)

That means our bullpen is projected to cost a mere $12,800,000. I didn't realize that our bullpen would be so cheap. If this cost-efficiency trend continues after we do our offense, I just might decide to make a serious run at Aroldis Chapman.

I'd be pretty comfortable rolling with the above, but replacing McCurry with Chapman, and getting an incremental increase in the domino effect that would follow, sure does sound tempting to me.

What would your off-season bullpen plans look like my friend?

To: Idrees Tily

From: CRPerry13

Let's wrap this up. My bullpen would look much the same as yours, but with Sipp instead of McCurry. I'm against going LHP-less, for the only reason that it's important to give batters different looks throughout games. I'm also not ready to write off Sipp after only 30 innings this season, ignoring how effective he was from 2014 to 2015.

Thanks for the conversation! I do believe we have given the Astros a solid blueprint to follow, and I am sure they thank us for it. Let's talk about hitters next week, ok?