Did Houston Spend Wisely This Winter?

How you view the near-unprecedented teardown of the Houston Astros depends largely on how you view the sport of baseball as a whole. If you’re in it for the long haul, for the joy of seeing teams attempting to build dynasties from within and using their resources effectively, you probably appreciate the commitment to the vision. If you’re a fan who doesn’t enjoy spending your hard-earned dollars to go watch a bunch of players you’ve never heard of (“Look, kids, Marwin Gonzalez!”) lose over 100 games for the third season in a row, then you probably find it to be an abomination.

It’s safe to say that the majority of FanGraphs readers fall under the first category, though there’s a certain validity to both sides. But all that really matters is how ownership feels about it, because while Jim Crane’s commitment to letting Jeff Luhnow blow things up and start from scratch has been admirable so far, there’s only so many 0.0 television ratings a businessman can suffer. That’s especially true as attendance has continued to shrink — down from just over three million in 2007 to half that in 2013, ahead of only three other clubs — and as reports surfaced in December that MLBPA head Tony Clark was “monitoring” the Houston situation, given that the club’s $549,603 average per player was the lowest the sport had seen since the 1999 Royals, who paid out $534,460 per player while losing 97 games. (Luhnow disputes the accuracy of that report, but the fact that Houston’s payroll was particularly low is unavoidable.)

While it’d be beyond foolhardy to deviate from the plan now, and while the continued television mess is a huge limitation for the team, we heard multiple times last fall that the Astros planned to spend to improve the big league team in 2014, with Luhnow insisting the result would be better on the field. It would have been difficult not to, anyway, because additional cost-cutting moves during the season led to an end-of-season roster which had only $1.437 million committed to Jose Altuve in 2014, along with an arbitration case for Jason Castro and $5.5m to Pittsburgh to cover Wandy Rodriguez.

When we started hearing things like “the payroll could be between $50-60 million next year” and that they might actually be in on Shin-Soo Choo, I took the time in early November to imagine all the fun they could have this winter with that flexibility, starting from essentially payroll-zero to spend $50 million or more. The Astros didn’t follow any of my tongue-in-cheek plans — I guess we won’t be seeing an outfield of Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Nate McLouth any time soon — nor did they go down the more realistic path I laid out.

But they did take some steps to improving, making one big trade and signing several major league free agents. As Wendy Thurm wrote earlier today, the Opening Day payroll appears to be around $49 million, ahead of the Marlins but still a good $20 million behind the next-stingiest team, Pittsburgh. Still, it’s in the range that was promised months ago, and it’s a step forward. Did the road Houston took this winter make sense?

The answer to that question really depends on what you’re expecting to get out of this season for the Astros. They are, still, unavoidably a bad team. Even if they improved by 20 games this year — a massive leap — they’d still have 91 losses. In a division with two clear contenders, an Angels team that still has Mike Trout, and a Seattle club that, for all its flaws, did add Robinson Cano, there’s almost no way 2014 doesn’t end with a fourth-straight last-place finish.

But if the goal here is merely to say they’ve found rock bottom, turned the corner, seen the light, however you want to put it, all without damaging the bright future they have, then this winter has been a pretty successful one in Houston. Take, for example, the three categories of deals they made.

1) Traded Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes for Dexter Fowler ($7.85m, with one arbitration year remaining).

This move was so good that it made Dave Cameron’s list of the 10 best transactions of the offseason, even ahead of the Dodgers taking a one-year gamble on Dan Haren, which was universally loved. In order to upgrade from one 28-year-old outfielder to another, the cost was a still-talented young arm who has shown very little improvement in parts of three seasons in the big leagues. Put another way: last year’s Houston rotation was one of the worst in the bigs, and Lyles was below-average even only among Astros starters. He may yet improve; he may not, although Colorado isn’t the best place for him to find out. In return, Houston picked up a solid two-to-three win player who can get on base, do some damage when he’s there, and add a little power. Fowler is not without flaws; he’s also clearly better than Barnes, by multiple wins, and at 29 next season, may yet have some trade value if the team chooses to flip him.

2) Signed Scott Feldman (3/$30m) and Jerome Williams (1/$2.1m) to the rotation.

Feldman is not exciting, even though he’s taking up nearly a quarter of the club payroll. Williams is less exciting. But then, the baseline isn’t “exciting.” It’s not “playoffs.” For this team, it’s merely “getting better,” and in order to add at least something to that awful rotation, the options were limited. Houston wasn’t going to give up a draft pick for an Ervin Santana or an Ubaldo Jimenez, nor should they have, even if any of those guys wanted to come to Houston. They weren’t going to trade for David Price or entice Tim Hudson to spend his final years in last place. They weren’t going to convince Bronson Arroyo to take his brand of flyballery to Houston, and again, in last place.

That means that what’s left are the mild upgrades, and Feldman and Williams certainly count as that. Feldman, when healthy, has consistently put up seasonal FIP numbers of around 4.00, and xFIP slightly less than that, though BABIP fluctuations has made the ERA not always align. $10 million annually sounds high; then again, that barely buys two wins these days, we can’t know how much extra the Astros needed to kick in to convince even a mildly-useful player to come. Williams may or may not end up in the bullpen, and may or may not continue on the pace that made him worth about 1 WAR in 351 innings for the Angels. For $2.1m, it’s practically free to find out, and again, WAR only works when the guys you’re replacing are even up to being the R.

3) Added Matt Albers (1/$2.45m with club option), Chad Qualls (2/$6m with club option), Jesse Crain (1/$3.25m), Anthony Bass (trade from San Diego), and Darin Downs (waivers) to reinforce the bullpen.

The bullpen was like the rotation, but worse: By ERA, by FIP, by xFIP, by BB/9, by HR/9, by WAR, by whatever metric you choose to use, the 23 Houston relievers, from Wesley Wright down to two cameos from Lyles, were the worst group in baseball. They were actually worse than that; even though WAR is an imperfect stat for relievers for several reasons, it’s still a laugh to at least point out that no group of relievers in the history of baseball in our database ever managed a WAR quite so bad as -5.4. (Again, don’t take that too seriously, if only because WAR is a counting stat, and past teams with superior and/or old-school rotations who pitched deeper into games wouldn’t have had the opportunities to compile that bullpen number.)

However it is you want to put it, the bullpen was atrocious, and Crane and Luhnow both placed it on their list of priorities this winter, though “making it less terrible” isn’t the same thing as “spending big,” because we should know by now that awful teams don’t need to spend on their bullpens. And so while you might snark a bit at some of these names, know that last year’s names were Hector Ambriz and Paul Clemens and Chia-Jen Lo and Jose Cisnero. Crain, remember, was so good in his three years in Chicago (176/65 K/BB, 2.10 ERA) that Tampa Bay traded for him knowing full well he had a shoulder injury. Albers seems unlikely to keep up his BABIP magic, but has thrown at least 60 innings in each of the last five years, with a FIP below 4.24 in four of them. That would have made him practically an All-Star candidate on this team.

And Qualls, well, everyone likes to make fun of Chad Qualls. With good reason, too. But do remember Eno Sarris’ semi-positive look at Qualls:

Of course, those that are thinking of the 2010-2012 Chad Qualls are snarfing their milk right now. But that’s a little unfair. In 2009, he had a bad knee injury. Apparently he changed his mechanics to relieve stress on that knee. It was only in 2013 that he went back to his old delivery, to great results. Take a look at some of his per-pitch stats in 2010-2012 and then last season:

Category Frequency Velocity Whiff% GB%
Years 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013
Sinker 65% 62% 92.5 94 6% 7% 63% 71%
Slider 34% 38% 87 87 14% 19% 39% 55%
Change 1% 0% 84 4% 75%

In terms of movement, he gained an inch of horizontal movement on the sinker, and his slider got tighter. Both pitches gained velocity, and both pitches were much more effective in 2013. This echoes what Qualls says in the piece above, too. Despite being a sinker/slider guy, Qualls also didn’t show a big platoon split on his pitches. Against lefties last year, his slider got *more* whiffs (22%) even as it lost the grounders (36%). The sinker still did its thing (66% grounders v LHB).

It’s still not going to be a good bullpen. It’s still not going to be a good team, at least not until George Springer and Carlos Correa and Mark Appel and friends get going. But if the goal this winter was to:

1) Be a better team, if even only somewhat
2) Show the fans and the union that more money could be spent
3) Provide some sort of veteran base for the coming prospects
4) Buy future talent by signing potentially tradeable assets now, and
5) Not sacrifice anyone you’d miss in the future

…then it’s hard to say that the Astros misfired this winter, especially if you buy into the PR value of saying they reportedly “just missed” on Jose Abreu and supposedly offered north of $100 million for Masahiro Tanaka. It’s still going to be a long season in Houston, one filled with far more losses than wins. But finally, after all these years, it seems like the bottom has been reached, and now it’s uphill towards the goal. It’s doubtful that any of the players acquired this winter are going to be on the next Houston team that reaches the playoffs. But in their own way, whether it’s through future trades or giving potential free agents a slightly better impression of the team or helping a young pitcher blow just one less big league game, they’ll have helped play a part in that. That’s money well spent.



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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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bjsworld
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bjsworld
2 years 5 months ago

* Garza didn’t have a draft pick attached to him.

Steve
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Steve
2 years 5 months ago

I love Houston’s off-season. They got better while building up for their future and spending relatively nothing in the process. Major success.

VORP is too nerdy
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VORP is too nerdy
2 years 5 months ago

I thought Houston would have their pick protected?

Ben Suissa
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Ben Suissa
2 years 5 months ago

houston in theory should just be bombing every year, let guys develop in the minors. But baseball is a business, so u cant just outright do that – so what can you do? make some moves, not spend too much money, not give anything away to hurt the future

Preston
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Preston
2 years 5 months ago

There’s a football team and a Basketball team in Houston, and Dallas and San Antonio both are in the same tv market adding three more Professional teams, plus college and even High-School sports are big money in Texas. Losing 100 games every year has crippled their standing in the market. There is no guarantee that the fans come back when the team starts to be good again (if they become good again).

Preston
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Preston
2 years 5 months ago

Plus, forgot the Rangers in Arlington too.

joser
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joser
2 years 5 months ago

Not disagreeing — you damage your brand no matter what, and baseball has an uphill slog in a football state regardless — but how many of those teams are playing in June and July?

Matt
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Matt
2 years 5 months ago

Are there a ton of other things to watch in Houston? Yes. But let’s be honest: there are no 0.0 ratings and the attendance isn’t as bad IF THE FANS WHO WANTED TO FOLLOW THE TEAM COULD ACTUALLY WATCH THEM. I’m an Astros fan, but the TV deal with comcast means that not only do I have to watch the worst team in baseball I have to change cable providers to do so has made it a lot easier for me to just follow the box scores.

Purps McGurps
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2 years 5 months ago

this is a good article, Mike. I am a beverage. Also, they should have signed James Loney for cheap.

Preston
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Preston
2 years 5 months ago

Why do they want Loney? They have Carter and former top pick Brett Wallace at the MLB level and Jon Singleton at AAA. Loney has been worth 8.9 WAR in 1084 games, that’s an average of 1.35 WAR per 162 games, and despite his strong 2013 his last three years he’s averaged only about 1.4 WAR. There’s a pretty good chance that one of Carter or Singleton could provide that kind of value, and a small chance that Wallace might become useful. Second, why would Loney want to do that. His two main suitors were the Rays and Pirates, both competitive teams. Houston would have had to overpay to attract Loney and he’s probably not worth more than the 3/21 he got.

Purps McGurps
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2 years 5 months ago

because Loney is a better defender and a better platoon option to face RHP. Don’t look at the last 3 years with Loney, because he was used correctly for the first time just last year–as a platoon player against RHP, not an everyday player. I’m more basing this on the article that Mike cites here based on moves they should have made. Plus, he’s from Texas, and while that never guarantees a player from going there, you’d have to think that given when Loney signed, he would have probably considered.

This is about ways to spend money and improve the team in mild ways. Carter, in particular, is a horribly bad defensive player whose offense doesn’t justify him being the future. James Loney just last year (when he was used correctly) was worth 2.3 WAR more than Carter over the same number of appearances.

Preston
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Preston
2 years 5 months ago

First, Carter is cost controlled and 2 and 1/2 years younger, he has more offensive upside and doesn’t have substantial platoon splits. A lot of his negative value on defense has come from him playing the majority of his games in the OF. The fact that the Astros think he’s athletic enough to be worth trying in the OF means he could probably be athletic enough to be a passable if not good 1b. And that’s really not the point at all. Carter has looked good enough at the plate that the Astros should wait and see if he takes a step forward both offensively and defensively. If he doesn’t work out they have Jon Singleton a once highly regarded prospect who might still figure it out. And while he’s a complete long shot, theres a non zero chance that a guy with Brett Wallace’s pedigree finally figuring it out too. Considering the myriad of holes on the roster, this isn’t a good place to spend the money.

Preston
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Preston
2 years 5 months ago

The Projection systems make my point nicely.
Chris Carter
Steamer- 1.4
Oliver- 2.4
Zips- 1.5
Fans(I’ll include it because why not)- 2.1

James Loney
Steamer- 1.3
Oliver- 1.7
Zips- 1.0
Fans- 1.8

Not a single projections (public opinion included) likes Loney better than Carter. Maybe they’re all wrong and you’re right that Loney has figured it out. But even so I don’t see it as a 7 million dollar upgrade.

Purps McGurps
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2 years 5 months ago

but, you think spending the money on Feldman, Crain and the like was better?

If you’re Houston, you’re accomplishing the goals that Mike highlights in this article, and signing a 2-WAR player like Loney while pushing Carter to DH isn’t exactly spending money in poor fashion. If anything, you can trade him when the prospects are ready and add more depth to the minor league system.

I agree that 3 years is a bit much, with that said.

Preston
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Preston
2 years 5 months ago

The difference is that those signings don’t exclude playing other players who could be good. They certainly don’t have 5 guys worthy of pitching in an MLB rotation and they certainly don’t have 7 guys worthy of bullpen spots. And spots continually open up in the rotation and bullpen throughout the year due to injury and ineffectiveness. So filling those spots with those guys doesn’t block anybody. Carter isn’t a perfect player, he might not even end up being an adequate big league player, but he’s shown enough promise that he deserves the ABs. I just don’t know why you would pick out Loney as the guy they should have gone after.

Purps McGurps
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2 years 5 months ago

because I think they can get a good return for Loney in the trade market, and I’m not as optimistic on Carter as you. I think that’s just the bottom line.

Jim
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Jim
2 years 5 months ago

James Loney signed for 3 years and $21M. That signing wouldn’t have made much sense for Houston because they probably won’t be contending in that window and it would take playing time away from Chris Singleton. Besides I don’t think he would’ve signed with Houston for the same price he signed to go back to Tampa.

Purps McGurps
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2 years 5 months ago

As I said, James Loney isn’t a “WS contending” first baseman. He’s a guy that will provide 2 WAR for $7 mil/year, which is good value that can mildly upgrade the team in the short term.

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 5 months ago

Loney was on TB last year, which was a playoff team. That’s a “WS contending” team. You don’t magically have to have, say, 5 WAR from your 1B. There’s no magic formula that you must get X WAR from Y position.

You just have to get enough from all your players to get into the crapshoot that is the playoffs. You can do that with or without Loney.

(Granted, that’s easier to do with a 6-win 1B than a 1-win 1B, insofar as you need fewer aggregate “wins” from your other players.)

Plucky
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Plucky
2 years 5 months ago

Problem with Loney is that the Astros only need a 1-year stopgap at first, half a season if they are lucky and Singleton is ready by midseason. Loney or someone equivalent on a 2-year deal would have been OK, but 3 years is too long a of a commitment for any 1B, and Loney in particular has turned into a classic so-famous-for-being-underrated-he’s-overrated player. Furthermore, this offseason extremely marginal 1B’s have been getting paid quite well, so it’s not a buy-low-flip-later market. That ship sailed last winter.

I’d have been in favor of them taking a flyer on Morneau, Youkilis, or Morse if they could have gotten them on 1-year deals, but that was apparently not to be.

Carter is atrocious in the field, but at 1B is basically a 1-win player (I consider him 2 wins a DH, 1 at 1B, and 0 in LF). Even if you’re generally unhappy with him in the field, making a 3-year commitment to a guy who represents a 0.5-1 win improvement that you only want for 1 year just wouldn’t be very good decision. Lots of contending teams have holes at 1B they paid up to plug not particularly well, there was/is no reason for the Astros to chase that market

Steve Holt!!
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Steve Holt!!
2 years 5 months ago

That stopgap is Brett Wallace. He has about 300 at bats to sort it all out, if he is lucky

Purps McGurps
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2 years 5 months ago

Plus, we’re talking a 2 or 3-year deal. Not a huge risk for a team that is still building for the future. When Singleton is ready, then it’s probably easy to trade Loney for a good return assuming he has good numbers from primarily facing RHP plus above average defense.

Jackie T.
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Member
Jackie T.
2 years 5 months ago

Nah.

Purps McGurps
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2 years 5 months ago

nice contribution to this stirring baseball conversation, Andrew.

Nah
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Nah
2 years 5 months ago

Of more value than your asinine idea that has hijacked a good article.

Purps McGurps
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Purps McGurps
2 years 5 months ago

Hijacked? You mean in relation to what the article is actually talking about?
stfu

jrogers
Member
jrogers
2 years 5 months ago

I’m quite familiar with Marwin Gonzalez; he’s the guy who broke up Yu Darvish’s perfect game.

MSpitz
Member
MSpitz
2 years 5 months ago

Another reason not to take that Team relievers-WAR stat too seriously…the second worst group of relievers (1966 Mets) are listed as starting 27 games.

hobbes020
Member
hobbes020
2 years 5 months ago

I agree it looks like this offseason checked all the boxes that were reasonable as you laid out. This team had no business signing a mega contract at this point in the development cycle. The people screaming for one either dont understand what’s trying to be accomplished, or are so short sighted they will trade a dollar today for ten tomorrow.

The only signing that gives me pause is Feldman, it does seem like a mild overpay, but as you said it was made fairly early and there’s no way to know how the market would play out. The Capuano or a couple others deal would have been much preferable, but who knows if they would have come. As long as Feldman stays healthy its reasonable.

LaLoosh
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2 years 5 months ago

its not too soon for them to make some strategic trades, not just player dumps they’ve done till this point. They appear to be a good fit for Ike Davis fwiw… even if Jon Singleton is the future 1Bman in their long range plan, they also have a DH and a guy like Ike is a buy low and is an upside play that they should be in the market for. With just Jesus Guzman set for 1B this year, Ike would be a fine fit to at least platoon at 1B. There are plenty of chips from which to make a deal like that.

B N
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B N
2 years 5 months ago

The only person who can truly tell if the Astros spent wisely this winter is their GM’s future self, with the benefit of hindsight. Here is a computer projection of Jeff Luhnow one year from this date: http://bit.ly/NuBSU1

chongo
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chongo
2 years 5 months ago

Have we as fans become slowly “conditioned” by owners in MLB to accept the 5 or 8 year plan of rebuilding? Meanwhile the team makes money, and we get nothing. And here we can’t even watch our belovedly bad Astros on television. I think this type of conditioning- though it has worked in the past decade for some teams- is no longer viable. Houston is losing fans that will not likely come back, not in this day and age; and these fans that I talk to are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. The younger generations? Forget it. In the future owners may not feel they can totally punt and get massacred three seasons in a row- or even two. And for what? A collection of unproven, talented minor leaguers who other teams were willing to part with, or high draft picks who are years away of becoming or not becoming productive major leaguers- most of them won’t be. Our lives will have shortened a decade before they are in a pennant race again.

Plucky
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Plucky
2 years 5 months ago

I dislike the extended suckage as much as you do, but realistically, what do you think the alternative was? Hang onto rapidly fading Oswalt & Berkman and pay Pence & Bourn like stars, and then sign a half a dozen FAs to fill all the holes left by what was the worst farm system in baseball? The only Purpura/Wade-era draftees and international signings that have turned into contributors are Castro and Altuve. Springer, Foltynewicz, and DeShields are Wade picks and look like they’ll be real players, but we’d still be waiting on them in a non-teardown. Check out the 2009 team (http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/HOU/2009.shtml) and try claiming with a straight face that there’s anything resembling the basis of competitive team there. Also try claiming with a straight face that with a $105M payroll (8th in MLB that year) they had the headroom to sign anyone to turn them into one. Astros management from 2006-9 was the worst combined baseball management in a generation. Wade made some better decisons on the way out, but rebuilding while trying to save face 2011-present would have meant 75-win, out-of-contention-at-the-deadline seasons and a present/future which includes no Correa, Appel, Singleton (Pence trade), or Cosart (Pence trade) and quite possibly more lost draft picks signing medioctrities

Steve Holt!!
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Steve Holt!!
2 years 5 months ago

Amen. As an astros fan, I spent the whole of 06 to 09 dismayed

Kiss my Go Nats
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Kiss my Go Nats
2 years 5 months ago

I honestly think the Astros have a shot at 70 wins this season. Of course that depends on the youngsters doing slightly better than many projections and the vets staying on the field, but it is a noticeably better than zero percent chance at 70 wins.

Preston
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Preston
2 years 5 months ago

Feldman and Fowler don’t seem like big additions. But then you realize that if the ~2 WAR that they provide would have made them the most valuable pitcher and second most valuable position player on the roster last year. And hopefully the innings that they are playing are being taken away from the myriad of players that provided negative value a year ago. Which means that each guy could bring an improvement of more like 3 WAR. Add in a full season of Cosart and hopefully a full season of Springer and this team is hugely improved.

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