2023 did not end the way Astros’ fans wanted. Every day since Game 7 I wake up and life seems less full.
Still, it’s never too early to start thinking about next season First, a brief rundown of players under contract or control, and then some speculation about how and where they might improve the 2024 team.
PLAYERS UNDER CONTROL (who played for the Astros in 2023)
SP: JV, Valdez, C. Javier, J Urquidy, Luis Garcia, Lance McCullers, JP France, H Brown, Ronel Blanco.
INF: Yainer Diaz, Joses Abreu & Altuve, J Pena, Bregman, M Dubon, Kessinger, J Singleton
OF: McCormick, Tucker, Alvarez, Dubon, Meyers, Julks
RP: Pressly, Montero, Neris (player option), Graveman, Abreu, Kuhnel, S. Martinez, B Souza,
LOSSES: Maldy, Brantley, Stanek, Maton, Neris?
IMMEDIATE AREAS OF NEED:
There are three: backup catcher, 1b/lf, relief pitching. Gone is pitcher whisperer Maldy, and needed is something like a platoon catcher, preferably one who can hit left-handed. Yainer was never a bulwark of durability in the minors, and you probably need someone who can catch 60-70 games. There’s no clear internal candidate after the trade of Korey Lee and the severe underperformance of JC Correa and Luke Berryhill at the upper levels.
Michael Brantley barely played. We know Yordan likes playing LF but has durability issues. Maybe pencil him in for 60-80 games out there. We can assume a new manager will see someone who put up 3.8 fWAR, Chas McCormick, as perhaps a “bigger than average boy” and play him in CV regularly, with an occasion turn at LF to give Dubon a turn. It seems like a 4th of type who can hit and perhaps play 1b would be a priority. Think Joc Pederson or Lourdes Gurriel. Internally this would have been Justin Dirden if he didn’t plateau. Or maybe Joey Loperfido.
Finally, the bullpen. It’s not obvious what Neris does with his option. Given the bullpen money being paid to Pressly (15), Montero (11.5), and Graveman (8), it seems unlikely the Astros will give an aging Neris a deal like the Montero deal. I could see something smaller to keep Maton (2/12) but the reliever market can get weird and wacky. The Sousa small sample size was tiny but delicious. And there’s a chance Forrest Whitley gets transitioned to a bullpen piece and an arm like Ryan Gusto might be ready right now.
Even with the Mets paying roughly half of JV’s salary in 2024, it’s still a big number. Together with the Graveman contract, the Astros added essentially 30 million to their 2024 payroll, which currently is estimated to be close to the tax threshold when the arb. salaries come through (Tucker and Framber may each get around 13 in arb. Not too shabby). That payroll number includes Neris at 8.5.
A mark of the Luhnow/Click years was “no bad contracts.” The Astros have three: Abreu, McCullers, and Montero. I don’t mean to say these are bad players, but I mean that, in terms of value, if you wanted to trade these players, most FOs would probably balk at the idea that acquiring any of these players would merit giving up something of value.
A team can normally improve three ways (there’s a fourth which is just giving more playing time to good players inexplicably benched, but we’ll leave that aside on Dusty Retirement Day): free agency, trades, promotions. With the areas of need identified and payroll constraints outlined, it’s fair to say that the Astros aren’t vying for Ohtani. Besides, there just aren’t that many “big fish.” After Ohtani and Bellinger, things thin out. Lucas Giolito is the 8th best FA according to mlb.com.
Given little wiggle room and a bad FA class (will a big WS and a thin market boost Lourdes to a 3/60 contract? He seems like a 2/20 type of guy), we may get to see what kind of offseason trader Dana Brown is.
Likewise, 2/12 for Maton? Or another mid-tier reliever coming into FA? That’s what the free agent market will look like. Even a Jordan Montgomery will probably be too rich for Crane’s blood.
There’s myriad guys we want, but with the 29th best farm system after the trade deadline and an uninspiring performance in the AFL (Kennedy Corona got injured the first day and has only played in two games; Guilfoil and Ullola’s ERAs are above 9), it wouldn’t appear we have a lot of minor leaguers. What about major leaguers?
The most obvious trade chip is Jake Meyers. For the analytically minded, he’s essentially an older, outfielded Jeremy Pena. But for his injury-riddled 2022, Jake has always provided value when given a chance. This value comes on the basis of his defense and base running. Despite a slash of 228/296/382 in 341 PAs, Jake posted 1.7 fWAR in 2023. In 2021 he posted 1.2 WAR in 147 PAs. A certain kind of GM with a lot of holes in his lineup and payroll limits sees Jake and lights up at the idea of a 3 WAR regular who’s never been given a chance to be a regular.
The Astros don’t really have anyone else to trade. Dubon is needed as insurance for an injury to an OF or middle IF. Corey Julks is expendable as better OFs await (Leon, Loperfido, Dirden?). Julks seemed to sacrifice power for an attempt to control the zone, and was impressive in stealing 15 bags during his Houston stint, but I have to imagine almost every team has two or three quad-A type players they think are as good as Julks.
Could Brown package a bad contract with Meyers? Did he see enough of Joey Loperfido, and does see the future of playoff success in base-stealing, that he tries to package Abreu with Meyers, even if it’s for a C prospect and a backup catcher?
Without a salary floor, MLB is not the NBA. There’s no OKC out there who’s going to absorb a Davis Bertans contract. Maybe the Twins saw enough of Playoff Abreu? Likewise, a team like the Red Sox isn’t going to look at Montero as a path to an improved bullpen, even if they want Meyers in CF. Graveman may make a GM feel better about his bullpen but why not keep him if you’re not retaining Neris? Brown could of course trade Tucker or Valdez and yield a huge return, but you don’t trade stars when you’re trying to win. Would a patient team see Luis Garcia as a long-term asset? More as a 2025 acquisition? You don’t see a lot of FOs operate this way.
The Astros might get creative and bundle a few international guys who need to get on the 40-man for a fringe reliever type, but that’s just dice rolling.
Brown could further deplete the farm. The one area of minor league depth starting pitching. You have the 2021 college arms who’ve seen their values rise (Gordon, Arrighetti, Kouba), the 2022 college arms with upside (Taylor, Knorr, Dombroski, DeVos, Guilfoil) and the intriguing international guys (Ullola, Tamaraz, Fleury). I’m sure Brown wouldn’t balk at trading any of the guys in the latter two categories if it pushed a deal over the edge. After trading Gilbert and Clifford, I think he needs to keep Loperfido, Baez, and Melton. And after JP France saved our butts, he’s not getting rid of the arms who made it to AAA.
Internally, the Astros have some nice options to improve. As mentioned above, Arrighetti and Gordon should be ready to fill the JP France role next season. Kouba also posted a nice season and Ryan Bravo came out of nowhere to dominate AA. Forrest Whitley might just be a MIRP at this point, but could he be our MIRP?
Pedro Leon is maxed out at AAA. He’s taken over 1100 PAs there. Speed kills. Can he be a 26th man on an MLB roster? I think so. Justin Dirden and David Hensley are only one year or less removed from having us excited. Can either bounce back?
The two guys who can probably help most as position players, in my opinion, are Will Wagner and Joey Loperfido. Wagner can flat out hit and he has HOF bloodlines. He doesn’t have a clear position or defensive chops, but he can definitely DH twice week and fill in at corner IF and LF, albeit only at home games. The other is Joey Loperfido. He has huge power and the athleticism to steal 20 bags. He may not be ready in April, but by July he could be.
Who could the Corey Julks of 2024 be? By this I mean a guy who has a nice stretch of play despite coming out of nowhere. The candidates are Zach Daniels and, if it counts as nowhere, Kessinger, Dirden, and Leon.
There’s no clear path to improvement for this team. No top 100 prospect is banging on the door, no obvious major FA signing to fill a clear position of need. Trade chips are few. Luckily the team is already good, and the best hope for 2024 is simply to play better and stay healthy. The calvary of incoming help won’t be boisterous, but quieter moves around the edges might be enough to move this team from low to mid 90s in wins and return to postseason glory.