What Can Houston Buy This Winter?

You don’t need me to tell you that the Houston Astros are a terrible baseball team (162-324 over the last three seasons), and you probably already know why. GM Jeff Luhnow and his growing collection of former internet baseball writers have committed to a full-scale, ground-up rebuilding of the talent-sparse organization he found himself with when he was hired in December 2011. That meant trading everything he possibly could for young talent, and it meant going with a young, inexperienced, and inexpensive — down to around $13 million total late in the year — roster as they sacrifice a watchable major league product in service of an increasingly bright future.

That strategy, one that I imagine a majority of FanGraphs readers understand and embrace, has been a source of some controversy in the larger sports world, with semi-regular stories popping up here and there accusing the team of not respecting their fans while they skimp on players and pocket the savings.

At the moment, the Astros could easily do the same for 2014. Second baseman Jose Altuve is signed for $1.437 million, and… that’s it. Other than the $5.5m the team is sending to Pittsburgh to cover Wandy Rodriguez, Altuve is the only major league player the team has under contract, and catcher Jason Castro is the only arbitration-eligible player. If you filled all those empty spots with minimum salary types, Wendy Thurm estimated they’d have a payroll of about $14.4m.

There’s an argument to be made that the team is still far enough away from contending that repeating 2013 is the right path, of course. Going from 111 losses is a steep hill to climb, and there’s not really a ton of difference between 51 wins and, say, 61. But after 15 straight losses to the end the season and all the bad publicity, recent reports indicate that Houston might increase their payroll to the $50m to $60m range this winter. (Maybe that 0.0 television rating lit some fires.) That’s still small in MLB terms, but when you’re starting from scratch, that means the Astros could spend more than $40m on next year’s team in the next few months, making them an intriguing winter player — and we’ve already see them go after Jose Abreu and heard rumors connecting them to Shin-Soo Choo.

Abreu went to Chicago, but the Astros have money and a desire to improve. So let’s play a game: what could they do? What should they do? Or put another way, can they even get to the 70-win plateau — a 19-win improvement — without sacrificing the future?

Let’s start with what they are.

What they have (offense)

Not a lot, obviously, but that’s about to change. You can make some assumptions about the 2014 Astros:

C — Castro
1B — Brett Wallace, maybe, with Jon Singleton coming
2B — Altuve
3B — Matt Dominguez
SS — Jonathan Villar, pending Carlos Correa
LF — Robbie Grossman?
CF — George Springer, probably
RF — You, maybe? Eventually, Domingo Santana
DH — Chris Carter

I would point out that this team finished fourth from the bottom in runs scored in 2013, but since you can assume that next year’s club isn’t going to give 1,500 more plate appearances to guys like Carlos PenaJ.D. Martinez, Marwin Gonzalez, and Ronny Cedeno, it’s not really the same team.

Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement there, really everywhere but at catcher, where Castro had a breakout season, and perhaps DH, where Carter at least showed good power around an atrocious strikeout rate. (Fine, second too; Altuve is probably overrated, but isn’t likely to go anywhere.)

Outfield is clearly the biggest trouble spot. 12 different Astros started there last year, from Brandon Barnes to Jake Elmore. Springer isn’t a lock to make the team on Opening Day, and Grossman is intriguing yet unproven. If this team is going to make an improvement next year, adding at least one productive outfielder — maybe two — and finally moving on from Wallace at first base is going to be the best way to do it.

What they have (pitching)

Yikes.

SP — Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Jordan Lyles, Brad Peacock, Dallas Keuchel, Paul Clemens
RP — It almost doesn’t matter. No one irreplaceable.

The good news is that Mark Appel, Mike Foltynewicz, Asher Wojciechowski, and Nick Tropeano should arrive in 2014, Vincent Velasquez and Lance McCullers perhaps in 2015, and Carlos Rodon  is probably going to head to the Houston system in the June draft. The bad news is that the 2013 staff ranked as one of the 15 worst pitching staffs since the end of World War II — and that includes partial seasons from Bud Norris and Jose Veras, who departed via trade.

So while the Astros clearly have needs everywhere, there’s a few obvious trouble spots, namely the outfield, the rotation, and the bullpen. Let’s see what we can do with around $40m, using the dollar values you yourselves crowd-sourced a few weeks ago. For those not included there, I’ll just use my best judgement. (And for the first few, ignore that not everyone actually wants to go to a last-place team.)

The Let’s Build a Rotation Plan

Ervin Santana ($13.3m), Ricky Nolasco ($12.6m), Ubaldo Jimenez ($12.2m), and Roberto Hernandez ($3.6m) could be had for approximately $41m, along with two draft picks. The quartet combined for 9.4 WAR in 2013. By comparison, the entire Houston rotation put up 7.1, and 3.2 of that was from the departed Norris and the unlikely-to-return Erik Bedard.

The Let’s Stack Our Outfield Plan

Sick of the uncertainty in the outfield? Simply add Jacoby Ellsbury ($18.7m), Choo ($16.2m), and Nate McLouth ($5.9m)for $40.8m and suddenly you’ve got an offense to be reckoned with thanks to 13.5 WAR in the outfield, though of course you’ve flushed your second and third picks to get them.

The “We Just Want To See Some Dingers” Plan

Not that Robinson Cano really wants to go to Houston, but if you add him ($24.5m), Raul Ibanez (~$5m), and Nelson Cruz ($10.6m) with ~$40m, you’ve just added 88 homers to a team that already had some small amount of pop in Carter, Castro, and Dominguez. You’ll also have potentially the worst outfield defense in history.

The Real-World Plan

Fun aside, the Astros have some options. They want to buy back some public support and win some games in 2014, but they also want to look towards the future. Signing veterans with the hope of flipping them in July is probably high on their list, though the fact that the CBA doesn’t allow for the new teams to get draft pick compensation hurts the Astros in that regard. Outfield and the rotation are the main holes, though Luhnow is apparently sick of watching the bullpen blow the rare leads they’re given, too.

Because their first round pick is protected, the Astros don’t have to entirely discount a player with a qualifying offer, but it’s not ideal, either, and doing that to sign players like Choo doesn’t really make sense when he’ll be 34 or 35 by the time this team is ready. So here’s one way to spend $40m in a realistic fashion:

  1. Sign James Loney ($7.6m) — of the many, many ways that the Astros were terrible, defense was high on the list. Singleton had only an 86 wRC+ in Triple-A last year, so it’s not like more minor league seasoning would hurt, Wallace has had more than his share of chances, and Loney’s great glove/low power package should keep the Houston native reasonably priced.
  2. Sign Brendan Ryan ($1m) — I’m spit-balling on his price, but he’s such an atrocious hitter that he’ll come cheaply. His defense remains elite, however, and the best way to make your pitching look better is to improve the defense behind them, especially when Villar looked overmatched.
  3. Sign Ricky Nolasco ($15m) — You actually said $12.6m, but I’m bumping this up to $15m because of the “Houston is atrocious” tax and the fact that the lack of a qualifying offer should make him attractive. Nolasco’s no ace, but he’s durable, having topped 185 innings in five of the last six years, and if there’s anything this team needs, it’s a starter who can eat up innings at a somewhat above-average rate.
  4. Sign Chris Perez  (~$3m) — Like all of you, I hate giving free agent money to non-elite closers, but Luhnow wants to upgrade the bullpen and if Perez wants a closing gig, he can’t be choosy in a field that includes Grant BalfourBrian WilsonJoe Nathan, Fernando Rodney and Joaquin Benoit. Perez is obviously flawed, but if you can look past his off-the-field issues and squint hard enough to think that his lousy 2013 was caused by early shoulder issues that, once resolved, allowed his velocity to increase late (even if his performance didn’t), you might be able to live with him long enough to swap him later.
  5. Sign Matt Albers ($2m) — Albers came up with Houston as a failed starter before being moved in the Miguel Tejada deal, and he’s since reinvented himself as a reliable reliever who gets more than his share of ground balls.
  6. Sign Chris Young ($6.8m) — Young had a terrible season for Oakland last year, but in a better hitting environment, he might still provide league-average offense with good defense in center field. When Springer is ready, Young could move to a corner, and he’s another Houston native. Defense is cheap. It’s a theme. And unlikely the also defensively-gifted Barnes, he might actually hit.
  7. Sign David Murphy ($6.4m) — Like Young, he had a terrible year in 2013, but he can provide plus defense at both corners, and that .227 BABIP plus several years of good previous performance makes it hard to think his career is just over at age 32.

That’s just a touch over $41 million, and it adds a first baseman, shortstop, a starter, two outfielders, a setup man, and a closer, without costing a draft pick or blocking top talent. It doesn’t make the Astros a great team in 2014 or even a good one, of course, but that’s not the point; it at least brings them closer to respectability while  not getting themselves locked into any huge long-term contracts.

No matter what the Astros do, they’re going to be fighting the Mariners for fourth place at best, and I can’t fully say that spending for 2014 is the strategy I would be taking. But if it is their plan, they have no shortage of options, ones that won’t hurt the future, and could give them tradable assets in July as well as satisfy fans in the short term.



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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


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Jaack
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Jaack
2 years 7 months ago

I was thinking all of these plans together. Even though it adds ~150 million to the payroll, they’ll still be more cost efficient than the Phillies.

PFP
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PFP
2 years 7 months ago

Fantastically great article with tragically no mention of Punto. Punto 2016!

nada
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nada
2 years 7 months ago

Punto for POTUS?

LaLoosh
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LaLoosh
2 years 7 months ago

wow, not far from what the Mets ought to do….

FeslenR
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FeslenR
2 years 7 months ago

Except Mets “don’t have” money and are run by an even worse ownership.

Nook L.
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Nook L.
2 years 7 months ago

“even worse”? I thought the new Astros owners are supposed to be good. Is the honeymoon there over already?

Anyways, don’t get me started on the Wilponzis… or better known as Bud Selig’s BFF.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
2 years 7 months ago

In other words the Cubs strategy, sign undervalued veterans to short term deals and flip them for whatever B prospects you can get come July. Its pretty much exactly what they should do.

Scott
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Scott
2 years 7 months ago

They could also sign a few valued veterans to flip for A prospects in July, sign a bunch of expensive Cubans to flip for A prospects in August, and play the international market more. They should be activly seaking out and trading for competitive ballance picks at the end of round 2 and 3 as well. If the object is good prospects, they can spend $50 million in a variety of ways to basically buy them.

efb123
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efb123
2 years 7 months ago

Best article on the Astros I’ve ever read.

SDiaz
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SDiaz
2 years 7 months ago

Would going after Masahiro Tanaka make any sense for them. He would be expensive but he is also only 25 and would still be in his peak while the farm actually starts to materialize. Plus as an IFA there would be no loss of a draft pick.

Spud
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Spud
2 years 7 months ago

I would like to see them get a higher end player to be a true leader in the club house. I wouldn’t want to over pay for Elsbury but someone on he right side of 30 who will be under contract for 5 years or so and be part of a real foundation as the young guys start showing up. I haven’t studied the list of who’s available but there aren’t many besides Elsbury I’d be considering.

CJohnson in Austin TX
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CJohnson in Austin TX
2 years 7 months ago

I know that Loney has a good defense reputation at 1b, but I notice that he has five consecutive years of negative defensive WAR.

Eminor3rd
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Eminor3rd
2 years 7 months ago

That part fooled me for a while too — the DEF metric is UZR plus positional adjustment. Go down to the Fielding part and you’ll see that he has rated positively, just not positively enough to not get a penalty for playing first.

LaLoosh
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LaLoosh
2 years 7 months ago

um, ok….

KDL
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KDL
2 years 7 months ago

Another way…Loney ranks 4th or higher in most advanced defensive metrics among 1b for the last 3 years. He is one of the best/better defensive 1b.

(If the name wasn’t fitting, but a cue to read your response as satire…I apologize.)

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 7 months ago

This. How do you think David Ortiz collects -15 fielding runs each year. The occasional game at first in an NL park can’t account for THAT.

Bender Rodriguez
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Bender Rodriguez
2 years 7 months ago

I can tell you what Houston can bite this winter and it wouldn’t cost them a single peso.

Different Colin
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Different Colin
2 years 7 months ago

They seem like a good candidate to buy low on Michael Morse, and look to flip him. Put him in a 1B, DH rotation, with only the occasional OF excursion (you know, to “convince” trade partners the he “can” play there too).

Also, they could take a page from Oakland, and try to fill more positions through platoons, with the hope of being able to trade away the platoon parts at the deadline.

yolo
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yolo
2 years 7 months ago

It’s worth mentioning that Chris Young is one of the best hitters ever at Minute Maid Park, putting up a slash line of .392,/.430/.732 over 107 PAs. Obviously it’s 107 PAs, but it’s not like he’s a bad player. He’s probably one of the best bargains on the FA market right now.

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City
2 years 7 months ago

Chris Young seems ideal – he may want to sign a short-term deal for an affordable price to rebuild his value. That seems perfect for the Astros. The other side of the equation is – it probably seems perfect for a lot of teams. Pirates need an affordable RF’er on a short term deal while they await Greg Polcano. The Red Sox may want to platoon Jackie Bradley with a right-handed CF’er if Ellsbury leaves. But stil… the Astros could do a lot worse than Chris Young.

Hunter
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Hunter
2 years 7 months ago

Chris Young attended the high school baseball powerhouse Bellaire HS about 10 miles from the Astros’ Minute Maid Park. I’m sure he would be more inclined to sign with Houston than other FAs.

NeilS
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NeilS
2 years 7 months ago

It’s also worth mentioning that Chris Young accomplished this against Houston Astros’ pitchers.

brendan
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brendan
2 years 7 months ago

mike, I know this article is somewhat light-hearted, but shouldn’t you use forward-looking projections, rather than 2013 WAR totals, for the players you target? FG writers are supposed to set a good example!

Preston
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Preston
2 years 7 months ago

I like the idea of going after Chris Young, he’s young enough that he could be part of your future. He brings plus defense and offensive upside. I also think that Garza might be an attractive addition, he doesn’t cost a pick, but unlike Nolasco is probably good enough to have been deserving of a QO. Maybe he doesn’t want to go through a rebuild after his Cubs experience, but money can be pretty persuasive.

gnomez
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gnomez
2 years 7 months ago

The “We Just Want To See Some Dingers” Plan

Sign Napoli as DH; put Ibanez, Carter, and Cruz all in the outfield… oh man oh man… who plays CF?

Trent Phloog
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Trent Phloog
2 years 7 months ago

A related but abstract question: Would it be possible to build a competitive team from a single free agent class? If you didn’t care how much money you spent? That is, if you signed the top 25 free agents this year, how good would your team be?

Trent Phloog
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Trent Phloog
2 years 7 months ago

For example, your lineup could look like:

C McCann
1B Napoli
2B Cano
SS Drew
3B Uribe
LF Cruz
CF Ellsbury
RF Choo

Bench: Beltran, Saltalamacchia, Granderson, Peralta, Infante

Rotation: Santana, Garza, Jimenez, Feldman, Nolasco

Bullpen: Wilson, Nathan, Balfour, Benoit, Crain, Mujica, Howell

That team would actually be pretty good! At least for the first year or two…

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
2 years 7 months ago

Since they’re an AL club, they could put Choo or Cruz on DH (Rotating Napolin in) and put Granderson out there for improved D. Presumably Granderson comes out and Beltran DHs vs. lefties.

FeslenR
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FeslenR
2 years 7 months ago

I think Peralta and Infate would play 3b before Uribe…

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 7 months ago

The 2013 free agents should pool their money and appeal to MLB to start a new franchise!

bh192012
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bh192012
2 years 7 months ago

RF chris Young 6.8
OF David Murphy 6.4
1B James Loney 7.6
SS Brendan Ryan 1

SP Paul Maholm 7.1
SP Jason Hammel 7.4
RP Pat Neshek 1.4
RP Chris Perez 3
—-
+40.7 million

20 wins for sure, maybe even gets them up to .500 ball.

Sean
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Sean
2 years 7 months ago

Think its quite a stretch that those 8 guys can add 20 wins…

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 7 months ago

I’m assuming the number you used is from our projections. Is it from what we would give, or what we think they would get? Because even the crowdsourced “realistic” guesses were definitely low. For example I find it hard to believe Loney signs for less that $10 million AAV after the year he had.

Dave Mc
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Dave Mc
2 years 7 months ago

Poor Ricky Nolasco! He finally got away from the Marlins, now FG wants to send him to the Astros.

Maverick Squad
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

Sure, the Astros suck and no-one would want to play on a team that just lost 111 games. But they can offer a starting lineup chance- eg. Chris Young could get 700 ABs for the Astros easy- other clubs he’d only be a platoon or 4th OF.
Even if they get only 1 WAR from each position player and starting pitcher that’s 13 WAR- maybe enough to get them to less than 100 losses. If the team can improve by 10 wins or more, at least it’s a sign they are going in the direction (assuming they don’t hurt the future).

Roger
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Roger
2 years 7 months ago

Am I crazy for thinking Japhet Amador MIGHT get a crack at taking Wallace’s job in the spring?

cowdisciple
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cowdisciple
2 years 7 months ago

I know nobody ever actually does it, but they could sign a star (such as Tanaka, maybe?) and use their remaining year or two of cheap noncompetitiveness to frontload the crap out of a seven-year deal and essentially prepay the whole thing. If I were a fan who wanted to see smart commitment to winning from ownership, that would go a long way.

Ryan D.
Guest
Ryan D.
2 years 7 months ago

They need to get on TV first.

wpDiscuz