Even James Click’s critics admit that during his reign, the Astros’ pitching staff became possibly the best and certainly the deepest in baseball in 2022. Considering the motley crew of minor leaguers and cast-offs he inherited to see the team through the Covid year of 2020, this accomplishment is particularly impressive. Allow me to anticipate the critics who would give credit to the Astros’ coaching staff for much of this renaissance. Or perhaps the scouting staff, for finding so much great talent cheaply on the international market. Fair enough, but let’s look at the Click free-agent moves that contributed to this pitching success.
Click inherited Verlander’s 2020 contract for 2020-2021. On this contract, Verlander pitched exactly one game before blowing out his elbow. Obviously, this injury left a huge number of quality innings for the staff to substitute and about $66 million in wasted payroll.
Click rolled the dice in 2022 on the 38-year-old Verlander for what was essentially a one-year contract and hit the jackpot, with Verlander anchoring the staff en route to his third Cy Young award.
An unheralded move at the time, Martinez was obtained in December 2020 in the minor league Rule 5 draft. He was a pleasant surprise as a 28-year-old rookie in 2022, contributing 38.2 IP with a 2.09 ERA. He had 0.4 fWAR but did not pitch in the loaded Astros playoff bullpen
In January 2021, Click signed Ryne Stanek for $1.1 million and re-signed him in 2022 for $2.1 million. His result-oriented stats were other-worldly. His 1.15 ERA was the second lowest in baseball for pitchers with more than 50 IPs. But his peripheral stats were less impressive, and his fWAR of 0.9 was 53rd in MLB for relievers. Still, very good. He only pitched three (scoreless) innings in the 2022 playoffs, probably because Dusty Baker didn’t trust his command. Still, Stanek was a crucial contributor to the best bullpen in baseball.
A week after signing Stanek, Click signed Pedro Baez from the Dodgers on a two-year contract for $10.5 million at age 32. His performance with his previous team, the Dodgers, had already shown decline, and with the Astros injuries limited him to 6.2 IP. This acquisition is widely viewed as Click’s most obvious mistake.
Neris signed a two-year contract for 2022-2023 after eight seasons with the Phillies. He pitched a reliable 65.1 IP and earned an ERA of 3.72 with peripherals considerably better. He contributed 1.6 fWAR. That’s 15th in MLB for relievers, just ahead of Rafael Montero for most fWAR in the Astros bullpen in 2022.
Free agent pitchers who walked:
They all had good seasons in 2022, along with Cionel Perez, who was traded in 2021.
Of course, each of these players would have been redundant on the Astros, with the possible exception of lefty Brooks Raley, who had his best season, accumulating 0.9 fWAR for Tampa Bay in 2022 with a 2.68 ERA.
The Astros bet on the younger Blake Taylor to be their left-handed reliever, but he was injured for most of 2022. If Taylor can come back successfully, this decision may end up being vindicated long-term.
But letting Raley walk cost the Astros. Jake Odorizzi was later unloaded for lefty Will Smith. The Astros wanted to trade Odorizzi in any case, but if Raley were around to lock down left handed-relief, they might have gotten a better return for Odorizzi.
But this is nit-picking. The Astros bullpen had the lowest ERA, FIP, and xFIP in baseball, and Click acquisitions Seth Martinez, Ryne Stanek, Hector Neris, and Rafael Montero (in a 2021 trade with Seattle) were key contributors. Not to mention the boost Justin Verlander gave to the whole staff with his 175 innings of 1.75 ERA pitched.
Of course, the closer, Ryan Pressly, was signed before Click arrived. And who to congratulate for the amazing overachievement of the low-cost international signees: Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy, and Bryan Abreu, who emerged in 2022 with the 29th highest fWAR among relievers in MLB, just ahead of Pressly.
Probably not Click. In fact, he contemplated trading Urquidy for a rental of catcher Wilson Contreras. If that trade had been completed one-for-one as advertised, it would have hurt the Astros too much in the long term to be worth it, in my opinion.
But Jeff Luhnow almost signed Brady Aiken instead of drafting Alex Bregman.
Let’s look at the other half of Click’s battery.
If Click was frustrated by the situation at catcher, I don’t blame him. The Astros were 26th in MLB in catcher fWAR at -0.6. That means that the Astros played below replacement level at catcher in 2022.
Apparently, the Astros have their own formula for rating catchers and are married at the hip to Martin Maldonado. One of Click’s first moves was to sign Jason Castro. If Castro had stayed healthy, this trade might have made sense if Castro had been used as a 50-50, left/right platoon with Maldonado. But he ended up as a $5 million a year part-time backup and missed almost all of 2022 with injury.
I thought the trade was a mistake at the time and that the Astros should have given the backup catcher duties to the versatile and athletic Garrett Stubbs. But Stubbs was traded in November 2021 for Logan Cerny and filled in ably for the Phillies. Ultimately, the decision to sign Castro and give up on Stubbs cost the Astros valuable prospects when the Astros were forced to trade for Christian Vazquez at the trade deadline in 2022.
In the next installment, we will analyze Click’s positional free-agent decisions.