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Off-Season Plans: Why Running it Back is a Bad Idea (Part I of III)

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Teams that win 106 games typically don’t have a ton of weaknesses or places to upgrade the roster. This is certainly true of the Astros. And nothing makes a team feel more perfect than topping off a 106-56 campaign with an 11-2 playoff run.

So why not run it back? Running it back seems like the most common-sense thing to do, but in a world that changes, staying the same is no formula for success.

Every player on the Astros will be one year older than they were the year before. And we know that pitching, especially bullpen pitching, is volatile. The Astros cannot rely on their bullpen being #1 next year, so they better find some hitting, especially at 1b and DH. It’s probably unrealistic to expect Yordan and Altuve to be that great and that healthy, so there’s a real concern that the offense could slip further if bats aren’t added.

The Astros have some free agents and some decisions. Brantley, Yuli, Verlander, Montero, and Aledmys Diaz, are all free agents. Should the Astros keep them all? Four of them? Let me be the first to say, one or maybe even none of them. And they should also get rid of Dubon. Because running it back is a bad idea.

Let me make the case against each player, not because I don’t love them, but because by doing so, a seemingly outlandish argument will make more sense.

JV will want a Scherzer deal, aka, something along the lines of 3/120. That’s a lot for a guy who had signed an extension three winters ago (2/66) where he threw six innings for that money. He’ll be 40 next spring, and the Astros already have six good starters. Why invest in a player who, despite being historically great, is old? Remember, that 120 million can be used elsewhere.

But surely the team needs Yuli back? He rediscovered his swing in the playoffs, and he fortifies the infield defense. The reality is that Yuli showed his age in 2022. Yes, he’s elite at scooping low throws, but his range is objectively bad. And without extreme shifts, they’ll need him to cover more ground against lefties. His power has largely evaporated (.117 ISO) and his wRC+ of 85 helped contribute to his NEGATIVE 0.9 fWAR. Let’s turn a weakness into a strength.

Aledmys Diaz has always been a likable Astro. He came over to replace Marwin in 2019 and he’s generally produced league-average offense while providing solid utility defense, averaging about 1 WAR /year in 300 PAs in non-COVID years. He’s only 32, although he looks and plays older than that, and he’ll likely get around 2/12 on the open market. That’s chump change, right? The problem, however, isn’t just signing Diaz, it’s the spot that he takes. And it’s reasonable to expect a younger, cheaper player with better athleticism to surpass what Diaz does in the field and on the base paths, while reduplicating what he does at the plate. Further, that younger player could produce enough to make Houston see they have a starting-caliber player on their hands. If you re-sign Diaz, you don’t get to see that.

Montero, meanwhile, just proved to be a quality MLB set-up man, and he’s finally found his groove. Why not keep him? Well, he won’t be cheap. And the Astros are already paying closer and set-up money to Pressly (14 mil; worth every penny) and Neris (8 mil), plus Stanek is Arb 3 and coming off a historical season. He made 2.1 last year; that probably doubles or triples. You can sign Montero for 3/24, but do you really want to devote that kind of money to your bullpen when it already has multiple guys on the wrong side of 30, who just pitched an extra month, when you have league-minimum options like Seth Martinez and Enoli Paredes, and low cost arms like Abreu and Maton?

Brantley, I admit is the toughest case and I wouldn’t mind if he came back on a good deal. He’s signed consecutive 2/32 deals and he’s only 35. Why not, say, 2/20 for Brantley? Because, I’d respond, he’s old, frequently injured (averaged 92 games/season in last two) and his skills are deteriorating. Sure his wRC+ of 127 was better than his very good 2021 (wRC+ 121), but his power is diminished (.128 ISO) and his running and fielding are below average. Why add another older, injury-prone player to a team that’s going to start Maldy and Altuve, and has other regulars with troubling injury histories (Alvarez, and Bregman)? Why not go with a younger, more athletic option? If Brantley is retained, it would make sense as a 1b/DH. He’s a good enough athlete to handle the position change and it would save his legs a bit.

Running it back, in short, means assuming that aging players won’t keep aging. The Astros got the discount on JV last winter precisely because of those concerns. They were able to re-sign Gurriel for cheap on that basis as well. But eventually the song ends, and if you want to extend your window, you need to stay young. The two ways to do this are: (1) lock up your core, and (2) let young guys play.

Sure, Yuli as a bench-bat for a cheap contract sounds like a great idea. But what’s the point, in modern baseball, of a bench player with no positional versatility? And who’s going to tell Dusty that Yuli is a bench bat? Moreover, who is Yuli pinch-hitting for? What team uses a late-inning 1b replacement?

More to the point, the Astros are paying a lot of money over the next few years to Altuve, Bregman, Pressly, McCullers and Alvarez. They have elite players who are now one year closer to free agency: Tucker, Framber, Javier, and dare I say it, Pena. In general, smarter front offices don’t lock up pitching because of injury, but Framber may be an exception to the rule as he seems like a 220 IP/season tank that will roll for several more years. Why not buy out the last three arb years for something like 5/110? But this is getting us into Parts II and III.

Most fundamentally, the Astros need to integrate their new, young talent. They don’t have a Kyle Tucker in the wings right now, but they have very good players. They have glove-first (Lee) and bat-first (Y Diaz) catchers on the 40-man. Yainer could use more seasoning, but Lee is 24, has had nearly 500 PAs in AAA, and the team needs to use 2023 to find out if he can be a viable replacement for Maldy.

In September fans got a sniff of David Hensley and it gave a nice little high. Hensley needs to get the ABs that Aledmys has gotten. With Diaz gone, he can be a sub for Pena, Bregman, and whoever is on first. And maybe some LF.

The Astros also have Jake Meyers? Remember the old CF of the future? Meyers is 26 and has had 474 PAs in AAA over the last two years. He probably doesn’t have much trade value now due to his injury. Why keep a Dubon when it means keeping Meyers in the waiting pen? Dubon isn’t a FA, but he’s also not part of the future. Meyers might be. And if he’s not, what about Pedro Leon, who spent the entire season in AAA and mostly stayed healthy. He stole 38 bases and hit 17 HRs. He can play ss/2b and elite CF. He has a canon of an arm.

But are they ready? At a certain point, guys don’t get better in the upper levels of the minor leagues. They get bored. Hunter Brown was getting bored. Pedro Leon hasn’t dominated enough to get bored, but he’s either part of the future or he isn’t. And if he is, he needs to be exposed to the major league team. He’ll be 25 in May. Keeping him in the minors for another year just means his asset value decreases. Move him up or move on from him, should be the motto.

Ditto, you’re wasting Hunter Brown in the bullpen or as SP “depth” in 2023. Whitley, Arighetti, Dubin, Jayden Murray, JP France, and Bialek (if they keep him) can be depth. Hunter Brown can be your #6 starter.

The Astros can’t see what they have with younger guys if they don’t ever see them in Houston. And they can’t ever see them in Houston if they run it back. Younger, athletic players like Tucker and Pena made a huge difference. They also keep our window open. If we re-sign all of these players, we’ll never see what we have. Bringing back Montero and JV means we decrease the likelihood of discovering the next Abreu and Javier. Each saggy contract for an older player means there’s that much less of a pool to lock up the young core. And in guys like Pedro Leon we might not have a future cornerstone, but teams might see enough in 2023 to make a Myles Straw trade, and we might see enough to see a brighter future with Gilbert or Melton. But not if he and Meyers rot in AAA another year.