Pitchers and catchers report within weeks. That means it is time to review the offseason moves of the Seattle Mariners and their division rivals. We have already discussed the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles Angels. Now, it is time to discuss the World Series champion Houston Astros.
Houston’s offense led the American League in runs scored and every other significant offensive category with the exception of home runs where they finished second. Jose Altuve was MVP and earned a batting title. Altuve and teammates George Springer and Marwin Gonzalez were top-10 in the league in OPS.
The rotation did not lack for talent, although availability issues were a concern. Only one pitcher — Mike Fiers — made more than 25 starts or logged 150-plus innings.
The bullpen was a strength during the regular season, but almost cost Houston a chance of winning it all. So much so, manager A.J. Hinch resorted to using starters Lance McCullers Jr, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton in relief roles throughout the postseason.
One could argue the Astros’ biggest move for 2018 occurred last August. That is when general manager Jeff Luhnow acquired former Cy Young winner and league MVP Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers.
Verlander’s arrival may eventually be viewed as a transformative moment for the Astros organization. His presence solidified the rotation going into the postseason and gives the club a co-ace to pair with another former Cy Young honoree — Dallas Keuchel.
Earlier this month, Luhnow continued to reinforce his starting staff by acquiring Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cole proved ineffective, by his standards, with a 4.26 ERA and 4.08 FIP. But he did manage to log 203 innings and make a league-leading 33 starts.
If Cole’s 2018 production more closely resembles his career stat line (3.50 ERA and 3.27 FIP), the Astros have a pitcher who lengthens their already quality rotation. Moreover, the 27-year-old provides insurance, if Keuchel departs via free agency after the upcoming season.
To deepen his bullpen, Luhnow signed a pair of free agent veterans — Joe Smith and Hector Rondon. The side-arming Smith is an established eighth-inning setup man, who posted a career-best 11.8 K/9 last year. Over the past three seasons, the 33-year-old has averaged 61 appearances and 57 innings.
The right-handed throwing Rondon has both closer and setup experience after spending his first five seasons with the Chicago Cubs. But he struggled with his control last year, particularly against left-handed hitters.
During his first four years, Rondon’s walk rate against lefty hitters was 6.3-percent. Last season, that number jumped to 14-percent. If the 29-year-old can regain his old form, the Astros will have a formidable late-inning weapon capable of closing games, if incumbent Ken Giles were to falter or be unavailable.
To provide more left-handed relief options, the club selected Anthony Gose from the Rangers during the Rule 5 draft and claimed Buddy Boshers off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. Other southpaws on the 40-man roster include nine-year veteran Tony Sipp and rookie Reymin Guduan.
Gose is an interesting acquisition. After spending five seasons in the majors as an outfielder, the Detroit Tigers decided to convert him into a pitcher last year. The 27-year-old, who pitched in high school, had his fastball clocked at 100-mph during 11 appearances with High-A Lakeland.
If Gose does not remain on the 25-man roster for the entire 2018 season, Luhnow will have to offer him back to the Rangers for a price of $25 thousand. If Texas declines, the Astros can waive the native Californian. Another option would be for both clubs to work out a deal that keeps the newly minted pitcher with Houston.
Boshers’ overall numbers are not particularly appealing, but he held left-handed hitters to a .224/.258/.397 slash line last season. Conversely, righties teed off (.300/.367/.538). If used primarily as a lefty specialist, the 29-year-old could potentially provide value.
With Evan Gattis likely to spend more time as a designated hitter than a catcher, the club may carry three backstops this year. With that in mind, Tim Federowicz was signed to add depth behind starter Brian McCann and Max Stassi.
As good as the rotation looks on paper, last year’s durability concerns still exist. Both Keuchel and McCullers missed time last season due to injuries, as they did in 2016. A prolonged absence by the pair could be devastating to the Astros’ chances of repeating as champions.
That said; the presence of Verlander and Cole helps mitigate the risk of Keuchel or McCullers going down. Behind the big three, the club has Morton, Peacock, and Collin McHugh. In addition, prospect Francis Martes and David Paulino provide minor league depth.
The bullpen sets up well assuming Giles does not suffer any lingering effects from his postseason struggles. The club’s starting depth will likely push McHugh into a relief role. That assumes Luhnow does not flip the 30-year-old to address another need.
As already noted, Gattis will likely fill the designated hitter gap caused by the retirement of Carlos Beltran. But the departure of Cameron Maybin via free agency creates some uncertainty regarding in left field. In house, the Astros have super-utility man Gonzalez, Jake Marisnick, and perhaps rookie Derek Fisher.
The Astros boast a strong core of players, which includes Altuve, Verlander, Keuchel, McCullers, Giles, Gonzalez, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel. For that reason, they are primed for another deep postseason run.
Having said that, the biggest challenge facing Houston will be their rotation. If Cole bounces back, Verlander repeats his late season performance, and the duo of Keuchel and McCullers remain available; the club is in great shape.
Otherwise, Luhnow may be shopping the market for help this summer.