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Off-Season Plans: Ideal Free Agents & Trade Targets (Part III of III)

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve tuned in to the first two installments, dear reader, you know that my Exile is not secretly running the Astros. Just days after I wrote how running it back is a bad idea, the Astros head negotiator signed Montero for 3/34.5.

A few preliminary principles before laying out some rules. The salary scale in baseball is just weird. Compare it to basketball, where Zion Williamson makes 10 million out of the gate. Top end talent makes about 20% more in basketball, but Zion makes 15x more than Kyle Tucker on his rookie contract. Which is to say, the pay gap between young guys and vets is kinda steep in basketball, but insane in baseball. They key to having a strong roster in baseball, from 1 through 26, is that your back end guys are good, and some of your stars are cheap. The Astros can afford to pay Montero, maybe their 19th most valuable player, 10 million AAV, but by doing so they limit their ability to pay other players to fill a hole.

Likewise, in trading, you want to trade from a surplus. When the Astros traded Myles Straw, it wasn’t because Straw is no good; he’s good. It’s because they had guys they thought could do just as well, but Straw was a proven MLB player and had more value.

At the MLB level, the Astros have one area of surplus: starting pitching. At the upper levels of the minors, they have surplus at catcher (both Korey Lee and Y Diaz are on the 40-man; and Luke Berryhill finished strong at Corpus), and they have surplus in the outfield, especially CF (Meyers, Leon, Julks, Dirden). Of those players, only Yainer and Lee have the kind of value that might bring back an MLB player higher than a Dubon-level 26th man type.

With Click out and Crane having greater say, the odds of re-signing JV are higher than they were last week. If they do sign JV, they go into 2023 with 7 viable starting pitchers. In 20 September innings, Hunter Brown looked the part and posted a 1.98 FIP. Sorry, fans of depth, stashing Brown in the bullpen in case two starters go down is a massive waste. If they bring back JV, one of the other six needs to be traded for an MLB part.

Regarding the outfield, I don’t think those holding back from a Chas Chomp realize how good McCormick is. Here are the CFs with more than 400 PAs who posted a better wRC+ than Chas: Trout, Judge, Rodgriguez, Nimmo, Springer, Harris, Reynolds. That’s it; the whole list. Chas is a 3 WAR/year player, trending up. Those aren’t easy to come by, especially on minimum salaries. If you don’t believe he’s a starting center fielder, then trade him. Just as Christian Javier was too good to be a fifth-option bullpen guy, so Chas is too good to be a 4th OF.

The Astros had strong player performances everywhere but 1b and C.

Onto free-agents targets: the obvious need is 1b/dh. There’s a notion in Houston that the Astros win with great defense. I’d agree to a point. The Astros catch the ball, but the guys with range are Bregman, Pena, Tucker, and Chas. Yuli, in particular, is a good glove with bad range. But it may be that the Astros don’t want a less reliable glove, which would rule out Josh Bell. A good-fielding option would be Anthony Rizzo, who would also be another left-handed bat. If they’re less concerned about handed-ness, Jose Abreu might be a nice option. Abreu would cost around 2/40, due to his age. Rizzo at age 33 might be demand three years at slight lower AAV (maybe 3/50). I’d worry whether the power resurgence was a Yankee Stadium mirage though. Bell is a weird mix: a power hitter with great plate control who doesn’t K much? That works in Houston. He’s only 30 and a switch hitter. But his fielding and running numbers look bad. Could he be someone you play 80-ish games at 1b and hide at DH for 60-70 games? That would require another 1b. Internally, the Astros might like Y Diaz’s bat enough to let him play some 1b. And if they want Hensley getting more AB’s he’s certainly athletic enough to cover the position. They could, alternatively, sign Rizzo and Bell.

Or they could sign Rizzo and Contreras, the Cubs former catcher who just declined a QO. Like Bell, he’s only 30 and provides good offense from an offensively-challenged position. He could DH 80 games and catch 60. He’ll likely demand the longest commitment, something like 4/80. This signing makes a lot of sense (if the rumors that he’s bad at handling pitchers are overblown) as he solves both the catcher and the DH problem. I don’t think, after the Montero signing, that the Astros can sign JV, Rizzo, and Contreras. But they could sign Rizzo and Contreras and trot out a lineup like this:

  1. Altuve
  2. Tucker
  3. Bregman
  4. Alvarez
  5. Contreras
  6. Rizzo
  7. Pena
  8. Chas
  9. Maldy

Your bench, then, is Meyers, Hensley, Dubon, and maybe a LH bat who can play around the field, like Adam Frazier or Grossman for something like 1/4.

On the pitching side, the Astros have 6 starters (if they let JV walk) and 6 reliable relievers (Pressly, Montero, Stanek, Neris, Abreu, Maton) plus Blake Taylor, JP France, Dubin, Blanco, Paredes, etc.. If they go back to a 5-man rotation, they need two relievers to get to 8, and it makes sense to sign or trade for a cheap reliever they think can pass the baton. Otherwise, it’s okay to go into ST and let last year’s AAA arms compete for the final spot.

If the Astros sign JV and decide to trade a surplus pitcher, it would make sense to offload Luis Garcia due to his value. One out of the box idea would be to trade him to the Jays for Kirk, the ill-bodied C/DH. The Jays have catching for days and enough offense. They could sell high on Kirk & they sorely need pitching. Another potential target is Nate Lowe of the Rangers, or, if they wanted to take on more money, LeMahieu of the Yankees (that would probably demand something lower, like Urquidy). At that point, though, I’d rather just keep the pitcher and sign Abreu for similar money.

Whom should the Astros be targeting in a trade or free agency? Let’s get the hot stove going! Oh, and I forgot to add, HOUSTON ASTROS, 2022 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIOOONNNNSSSS!!!!!