Ten years ago this offseason, the Astros were coming off a disappointing 74-88 record, which was only good for fifth place in a rather weak NL Central. By Baseball-Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement, Michael Bourn (5.0 bWAR) was Houston’s best player heading into the next decade. Ed Wade was also the general manager and Junction Jack was still lurking at Minute Maid Park. The bottom had yet to truly fall out from under the franchise, but it was quickly approaching.
Fast forward ten years, and, well, what can I tell you?
The Astros are fresh off their second World Series appearance in three seasons. They actually won a title in 2017. The rebuild under Jeff Luhnow produced the fruits we were all promised, at least on the field. Any franchise would love to enter a new decade under similar circumstances if the buck stopped there. However, Houston is also embroiled in a very ominous sign-stealing controversy that threatens the credibility of the franchise along with their lone championship. There is also the lingering fallout of the Brandon Taubman saga to address as Major League Baseball continues to investigate the Astros on different fronts. The possibility of severe sanctions is precariously hanging above the entire operation like a major storm slowly coming into view on the horizon.
Even with business supposedly operating as normal, the front office is also faced with a tight budget while rivals are improving. We saw the Yankees officially introduce Gerrit Cole as the ace of their starting staff. Anthony Rendon brings another star third baseman to the AL West with the Angels. Even the Rangers decided to bolster their starting staff with the additions of Corey Kluber, Kyle Gibson, and Jordan Lyles. The Astros still boast one of the more talented rosters in baseball and figure to be the early favorite again in the AL West for 2020. Yet there isn’t much financial flexibility to address the few needs they actually have this offseason.
The Astros have been linked to the following free-agent catchers in the last few weeks: Robinson Chirinos, Martin Maldonado, and Jason Castro. There have also been rumors of the club inquiring about Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes as a possible trade acquisition. The club seems intent on not exceeding the second tax threshold of $228 million for 2020, and that figure will likely play a major role in who is the next starting catcher for Houston. But this is the one position that the Astros need to iron out before Spring Training early next year.
There is no question that the Astros rotation on Opening Day 2020 will look different than their 2019 version. Only Justin Verlander could remain from a starting staff that featured Cole, Wade Miley, Collin McHugh, and Brad Peacock at Tampa in late March earlier this year. Of course, Peacock figures to remain on the 2020 roster, but his role for next season hasn’t exactly been determined. Much like the catcher situation, the Astros will likely aim to fill out the rotation with a veteran on a bargain contact, much like Wade Miley’s one-year, $4.5 million deal last offseason. Keep an eye on veteran starters recently non-tendered by clubs as potential buy-low candidates. Another possibility is to sign another reliever, which may force Peacock or someone else into the rotation.
Add another to the bullpen?
As it stands now, the Astros bullpen depth chart per FanGraphs is Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith, Josh James, Chris Devenski, Joe Biagini, Framber Valdez, and Peacock. Smith, in particular, was recently re-signed by the club for two-years, $8 million. Odds are that free-agent Will Harris, who was one of Houston’s most reliable relievers in the past five seasons, will attract lucrative offers elsewhere. This is where the current payroll crunch affects how the Astros can assemble their 2020 roster. With the lack of flexibility and the incoming three-batter rule minimum, the odds are probable that the Astros won’t add another veteran reliever, unless it is another buy-low candidate. Plus, there are a few arms in the minors who may fill any void at a league minimum salary.
If your hope is that the Astros will suddenly come to life in free agency, or the trade market, odds are remarkably low this offseason. Too much of the premier talent in the farm system was drained in recent trades while payroll flexibility is basically non-existent at this time. To create a small amount of flexibility, Jake Marisnick and his estimated $3 million contract was traded to the Mets for a pair of minor leaguers. Thankfully, the roster is still really talented from top to bottom. We’ll just have to see if that lack of flexibility will hamper any chance of another long postseason run next year.