Offseason Outlook: Houston Astros

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In conjunction with this post, Anthony Franco will hold an Astros-centric chat on 11-23-22 at 11:00 am CST. Click here to leave a question in advance.

After a few years of near-misses, the Astros returned to the top of the league in 2022 by claiming their second title in franchise history. They’ve won 100-plus games in four of the last five full seasons and will be one of the top handful of championship favorites next season. Expectations are high as ever in Houston, but months of tension in the front office culminated in a change atop baseball operations just days after their parade. The Astros are suddenly one of the league’s more unpredictable teams going into the offseason — but there’s no question any moves are going to be geared towards maximizing their chances of a repeat.

Guaranteed Contracts

Other commitments: $2MM buyout on Pedro Báez option, $1MM buyout on Will Smith option, $250K buyout on Trey Mancini option

Total future commitments: $373.75MM
Total 2023 commitments: $121.25MM

Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parenthesis, projections via Matt Swartz)

Non-tendered: Josh James

Total arbitration projection: $27.1MM

Free Agents

For a remarkable sixth straight season, the Astros advanced to the AL Championship Series in 2022. The past four years had seen the season end on a disappointing note, with a defeat in either the ALCS or the World Series. That wasn’t to be this year, as the 106-win team swept the Yankees to secure the fifth pennant in franchise history. They finished the job with three straight wins after going down 2-1 against the Phillies, claiming the organization’s second World Series title.

With that kind of success, one would assume the good vibes would continue into the offseason. Towards the end of the year, however, reports emerged about tension behind the scenes — primarily between owner Jim Crane and general manager James Click. As Houston’s lead baseball executive saw his contract expire, the Astros entered the offseason with uncertainty about their long-term direction. Things came to a head when Crane offered Click a one-year contract extension — a proposal below the norm for an executive whose team had accomplished what the Astros have over the past three seasons. Click declined, and the Astros let him go thereafter.

For the first time in three-quarters of a century, the defending World Series winners parted with their baseball operations leader. Houston enters the offseason without a GM, and it doesn’t seem as if they’re in any rush to fill the vacancy. Crane told Brian McTaggart of MLB.com last week he doesn’t envision hiring a new GM until after the calendar flips to 2023. In the meantime, the atypical front office structure sees Crane intricately involved in baseball decision-making. Jeff Passan of ESPN reported Crane personally oversaw the team’s first major offseason roster move — re-signing free agent reliever Rafael Montero on a three-year, $34.5MM deal that fairly easily surpassed expectations. Assistant GM’s Bill Firkus, Andrew Ball and Charles Cook are on hand to help shoulder day-to-day responsibilities.

There’s not a ton of clarity about how exactly things are playing out in the offices at Minute Maid Park, but it seems Crane is as or more involved in key decisions than any of his ownership peers. That’s not entirely new — he directly negotiated a contract with Justin Verlander last offseason and reportedly killed a deadline agreement to bring in Willson Contreras from the Cubs — but it makes Houston one of the more fascinating teams to watch.

Crane and his front office have plenty of decisions to make with a handful of key free agents. They’re already brought back Montero, but perhaps the biggest question is the same one they faced last winter: do they retain Verlander? They did so last year, but the circumstances are far different this time around. Last year, the future Hall of Famer was coming off nearly two full seasons lost to Tommy John surgery. They monitored his progress and guaranteed him $25MM on a bounceback, but they’d have to offer up quite a bit more to keep him in 2023 and beyond. Verlander responded to Houston’s gesture of faith with a Cy Young-winning campaign that saw him lead the majors with a 1.75 ERA through 175 innings.

Now, Verlander’s looking at multi-year offers that easily beat $25MM annually. Crane suggested to McTaggart that Verlander is seeking a pact rivaling or topping the three-year, $130MM deal secured by Max Scherzer last winter. Those comments could get the team in some hot water with the MLB Players Association — the CBA prohibits club personnel from airing a free agent’s asking price while speaking with the media — but it’s not an especially surprising revelation. Scherzer is the closest comparable for a recent aging, future Hall of Fame pitcher still working near the top of his game, although Scherzer was more than two years younger during his free agent trip than Verlander is now.

Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle has already reported the Astros are reluctant to go to three guaranteed years as a result. That raises the real possibility of the nine-time All-Star heading elsewhere after four-plus seasons in Houston. Needless to say, losing a pitcher of Verlander’s caliber would weaken the roster, although the Astros are as well-equipped as a team could be to withstand his potential departure.

The rotation still runs six deep among promising options under club control. Framber Valdez finished fifth in Cy Young balloting this past season and is capable of fronting a staff. Cristian Javier struck out a third of his opponents en route to a 2.54 ERA through 148 2/3 innings. He’s perhaps not yet a household name nationally, but his performance through his first three big league campaigns has bordered on elite. Lance McCullers Jr. is an upper mid-rotation caliber starter when healthy, and he’s only headed into the second season of a five-year extension.

That’s still a strong top three, while Houston has a handful of options at the back end. Luis Garcia has a 3.60 ERA across 312 2/3 innings the last two years. He hit a rough patch midseason but righted the ship during the final few weeks and has a strong multi-year track record. José Urquidy — who would’ve gone to the Cubs had the Contreras trade been approved — is the favorite for the #5 job. He doesn’t have eye-popping velocity or whiff rates, but he’s an excellent control artist who hasn’t posted an ERA above 4.00 in any of his four MLB seasons. Urquidy is the least exciting of the group, but he’s a rock-solid 4th/5th starter for a contender.

Dealing either of Garcia or Urquidy this offseason could be on the table. The front office showed a willingness to move from their rotation surplus to address other areas of the roster in the Urquidy – Contreras tentative agreement at the deadline. Crane killed the deal, but that was reportedly more a reflection of the team’s preference not to unseat Martín Maldonado behind the dish than it was a declaration Urquidy was unavailable. Urquidy still has three seasons of arbitration control remaining and is projected for a modest $3.2MM salary in 2023; Garcia, who’s yet to reach arbitration and controllable for four years, would have very strong trade appeal if Houston fielded offers.

Of course, the team would have less rotation depth heading into 2023 if Verlander did sign elsewhere. That could point towards an increased desire to stockpile in-house pitching, but Houston also could try to expand the role for their top prospect. Hunter Brown reached the big leagues the final month of this year. He started just two of his first seven outings, but it stands to reason the team would prefer to give him a long-term shot in the starting staff. Brown was dominant in his early big league look, allowing just two runs with a 22:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 20 1/3 innings.

No team can count on their same five starters all season, and perhaps the Astros are content to begin with Brown in the bullpen before stretching him out as a starter when injuries inevitably dictate turning to a depth option. Players like J.P. France and Brandon Bielak are on hand as additional depth, and Houston could turn to a lower-cost free agent swingman in the Trevor Williams or Chad Kuhl mold if they wind up dealing one of their starters.

Trading a starter would only be as a means of adding immediate help somewhere on the roster with more uncertainty. A few of those stand out, largely because of possible free agent defections. The Astros are going to have to bring in a first baseman via free agency or trade. Yuli Gurriel and Trey Mancini are each free agents and didn’t play all that well in 2022 regardless. Houston was linked to Anthony Rizzo before he re-signed with the Yankees, and they’re a viable fit for any of Josh BellJosé AbreuLuke Voit or even a lower-cost Gurriel reunion. On the trade market, players like Rhys Hoskins or Rowdy Tellez could be available.

The rest of the infield is already in place, with José AltuveJeremy Peña and Alex Bregman locked in around the diamond. Altuve and Bregman still have multiple seasons remaining on contract extensions, while Peña has five seasons of club control following a fantastic rookie year. Aledmys Díaz is headed to free agency, but the respective presences of Mauricio Dubón and David Hensley should allow him to seamlessly replace him in a utility role. The outfield is a little less settled, with left field the primary area of concern with Michael Brantley heading to free agency.

Yordan Alvarez split his time between designated hitter and left field this past season. The superstar slugger will be in the lineup every day in some capacity, though where is to be determined by the club’s offseason moves. Click had told Rome shortly after the season ended the club considered Alvarez a possible everyday left fielder; it remains to be seen whether a Crane-led front office feels the same way. There are a handful of decent mid-tier corner outfielders who should be available in either free agency or trade. Mitch HanigerAndrew Benintendi and Jurickson Profar are on the open market, while players like Jesse WinkerLourdes Gurriel Jr. or Alex Verdugo could find themselves on the move via trade.

If the Astros are content with Alvarez playing left field, that’d open up the possibility for a more impactful offensive splash via the DH. Houston has again been linked to Contreras — now a free agent, albeit one who’d cost a signing team a draft choice after turning down a qualifying offer — at the start of this winter. Signing Contreras is likely to require the kind of four-plus year commitment the Astros have been reluctant to make under Crane, but he’d add to an already elite lineup and have the ability to rotate between DH and catcher.

Houston has inquired about possible impact center fielders in recent years, even as Chas McCormick has done well when given opportunities. The 27-year-old had a great postseason on both sides of the ball and should have the inside track on the center field job, but Houston could at least kick the tires on potential upgrades there as well. Bryan Reynolds has been a longtime trade target for a number of teams but still seems unlikely to leave Pittsburgh. The Diamondbacks have a few young center field-capable outfielders and could have interest in Houston’s rotation depth in a deal involving Alek Thomas or Jake McCarthyBrandon Nimmo is the only free agent center fielder (aside from Aaron Judge) who’s clearly better than McCormick; Houston will probably check in but seems an unlikely fit for a nine-figure investment in center field. There’s no need for any changes in the final outfield spot, with Kyle Tucker controllable for three more seasons in right.

Maldonado is back at catcher for another season after vesting a $4.5MM option in his contract. He’s a non-factor offensively, but he’s beloved in the Houston clubhouse for his leadership skills. They’ll need a complement to him with Christian Vázquez and Jason Castro both hitting free agency, although well-regarded prospect Yainer Díaz has a bat-first skillset that makes for an interesting complement. The Astros will probably at least dip into the market for a veteran depth player, and their reported interest in Contreras hints at the potential for a bigger splash to split time at catcher and DH.

The only other area of even moderate concern is in the bullpen. Houston had a top three relief corps in 2022, and bringing back Montero to join Héctor NerisRyne Stanek and Bryan Abreu in bridging the gap to All-Star closer Ryan Pressly does a lot of the heavy lifting. Houston’s very thin from the left side, though, with Blake Taylor and Parker Mushinski representing their top options. Will Smith performed well after being acquired from the Braves in a deadline swap for Jake Odorizzi. The Astros bought out a $13MM option that always looked a bit hefty, but a reunion on a lower salary could be plausible. Andrew Chafin, Taylor RogersMatt Moore and Joely Rodríguez are among the other free agent options who could be of interest.

There are a few ways the offseason could go, and the Astros should have the financial ability to build upon their already great roster. The club’s current 2023 payroll estimate is a bit above $160MM, around $15MM shy of this year’s Opening Day mark and almost $27MM below the franchise-record level, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Their luxury tax figure is in the $179MM range, according to Roster Resource, $54MM shy of the $233MM base tax threshold. Houston’s farm system has thinned out — both because of years of picking towards the back of the first round and draft pick forfeiture as punishment for the 2017 sign-stealing scheme. That could lead to a preference for free agency over the trade market, but the interest in a qualified free agent like Contreras suggests they’re not opposed to continue surrendering future value as they look to cement themselves as a true dynasty. Coming off the revenue bump associated with a World Series, Crane will surely be aggressive in attacking the roster’s weakest points in some capacity.

In so doing, he’ll provide insight into how he prefers to build a roster. Reports have suggested Crane took issue with Click’s patience, with the owner favoring more bold strikes. How that manifests itself in the coming months will be fascinating, but no matter the club’s ultimate offseason path, one thing is certain. The Astros have one of the sport’s best rosters and will go into 2023 as one of the favorites for another championship.

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