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 Pena, J.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)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Balfour, Brian Wilson, Joe 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.