The past few days have featured one of the most active and chaotic periods of free agency in recent memory. The imminent expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA)—or more specifically, the specter of a lockout—clearly motivated teams to make any substantial signings days ahead of Wednesday night’s de facto deadline. The Astros were not participants.
Many of the market’s biggest names, including Max Scherzer, Corey Seager, Robbie Ray, Marcus Semien, Kevin Gausman and Javier Báez have picked their new teams in the past 72 hours. Although the Astros agreed to terms with Justin Verlander (1 year, $25 million with player option) on November 17 and with reliever Héctor Neris (2 years, $17 million) this past Saturday, Starling Marte is the only other notable free agent they’ve reportedly been attached to, and he’s now with the Mets.
FanGraphs’ Roster Resource estimates the American League champions have roughly $18 million left to spend before breaching the current luxury-tax threshold, effectively preventing them from signing another marquee player in addition to Verlander. The lack of activity in recent days has ostensibly confirmed that notion. Even James Click himself seemed to as well:
Asked if the Astros are close on anything else before the CBA expires, James Click said "right now, we're just focused on Neris and once we get through this and get everything official, it will be business as usual and we will continue trying to improve the team as best we can."— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) November 30, 2021
While vague on the surface, the verbiage used by the Astros general manager might also be revealing, as “business as usual” could signal a lack of aggressiveness going forward in free agency, save one or two relatively minor additions.
Despite the complications stemming from the expiring CBA, most notably the forthcoming lockout (barring an unexpected development) and by extension, a transaction freeze, it seems Click is satisfied with the Astros roster in the interim.
It’s unknown at this point how long a lockout would last, but whenever business does resume, free agency is likely where the Astros will make their remaining acquisitions, and there is one in particular that is a necessity: shortstop.
With Carlos Correa seemingly due to receive the massive, Francisco Lindor-sized contract he reportedly wants—thanks to Seager and Semien netting deals that were arguably above-market—there’s truly a zero percent chance the former No. 1 overall pick re-signs with Houston, whose five-year offer at the beginning of the offseason appears to be even more non-competitive now than it did several weeks ago.
There is another premier shortstop still on the market in ex-Rockie Trevor Story, but it’s fairly likely that Click intends to sign a stopgap player such as José Iglesias, Andrelton Simmons or Freddy Galvis and use them as a bridge to Jeremy Peña, whom Baseball Prospectus ranks ($) as the Astros’ top prospect. While the 24-year-old Peña played at the Triple-A level in 2021 and produced a gaudy slash line (.287/.346/.598) in 133 plate appearances, poor walk (4.5 percent) and strikeout (26.3 percent) rates could indicate his bat is not yet ready for the major leagues.
Alex Bregman was once thought to be a potential replacement should Correa not remain with the Astros long-term, but perhaps due to lower-half injuries, Click apparently does not believe Bregman to be a viable option. Utilityman Aledmys Díaz has experience at shortstop, but he’s appeared there in only 14 games since the Astros acquired him following the 2018 season. And even when he was playing regularly at the position during the three years prior, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Outs Above Average (OAA) graded him poorly.
The pursuit of Marte displayed the Astros’ desire to upgrade in center field, but now that he’s in New York, there aren’t any free-agent options that project better than Jake Meyers or Chas McCormick.
As for the bullpen, another area of the club that’s been viewed as needing external reinforcements, Neris may be all that’s added to it this winter, as the Astros tendered a contract to Rafael Montero, who was a possible non-tender candidate. Click voiced that he expects contributions in 2022 from Montero and Pedro Báez, who hardly pitched in 2021 due to a shoulder injury.
Under the soon-to-be-old CBA, the Astros entered the offseason with upward of $50 million to play with. Neither Verlander nor Neris addresses a significant hole on the roster, but their short-term contracts fall in line with the organization’s extensive track record of frugality in free agency. Given that inflexible strategy, it wouldn’t be surprising if both pitchers ultimately wound up being the Astros’ most expensive signings of the winter.