With pitchers and catchers reporting next month, it’s time to reflect on what the Seattle Mariners’ divisional rivals have done to improve their respective rosters thus far. It’s important to emphasize “thus far” because there’s still time to make deals, especially with several notable names still on the free agent market.
After earning a wild card berth in 2015, the Astros were projected to contend for a division title last season. Instead, they took a step backwards finishing third behind the Texas Rangers and the Mariners. Houston’s problems could be traced back to a slow start to the season and rotation regression.
Needs: SP, RP, OF, C
After losing key players to free agency — catcher Jason Castro, starter Doug Fister, outfielder Colby Rasmus, and infielder Luis Valbuena — the Astros acted quickly to fill the holes.
Within five weeks of the World Series ending, general manager Jeff Luhnow signed designated hitter/outfielder Carlos Beltran, outfielder Josh Reddick, and starter Charlie Morton, traded for catcher Brian McCann and selected outfielder Nori Aoki off waivers.
Reddick will take over in right field pushing incumbent George Springer to center field. Aoki appears set to be used in a left field platoon. Options to pair with the 35-year-old include Jake Marisnick, Marwin Gonzalez, and rookie Teoscar Hernandez.
While Beltran was once an elite defender, he only started 67 games in the field last season. Considering he’s entering his age-40 season, Beltran won’t need his glove very often.
Behind the plate, McCann will share duty with Evan Gattis, who returned to being a backstop last season after serving as the Astros’ primary designated hitter in 2015.
Houston’s two best starters — Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. — missed approximately 20 combined starts and were sidelined during the club’s stretch run due to injuries. It’s conceivable the Astros would’ve reached the postseason, if both were available to manager A.J. Hinch in September.
Although Morton was one of the club’s first acquisitions this offseason, he’s not a lock to make the rotation. The nine-year veteran has struggled throughout his career with health and consistency. Those problems continued last season when he tore his hamstring and pitched just 17.1 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Youngsters Joe Musgrove and Chris Devenski, plus Brad Peacock will also be in the mix for that final rotation spot. The 24-year-old Musgrove made his major league debut last August logging a 4.06 ERA during ten starts and one relief appearance.
Management intends to stretch out Devenski, who finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting after tossing 108.1 innings during five starts and 16 relief appearances. Fellow reliever Michael Feliz is also expected to start during Grapefruit League action, although his power arm may be destined for the bullpen.
Houston’s top pitching prospect — Francis Martes — has a Spring Training invite, but probably starts the season with Class-AAA Fresno. Depending on his development with the Grizzlies and the organization’s needs, the 21-year-old could see action later this season.
Currently, Houston has three other lefty relievers on their 40-man roster — Reymin Guduan, Ashur Tolliver, and Kevin Chapman. Combined, the trio has less than 60 innings of major league experience. Acquiring a proven southpaw to the mix would be wise.
Luhnow and manager Hinch have suggested Yulieski Gurriel and Gonzalez will be the club’s primary first basemen. Both Gattis and McCann have dabbled at first base, but have just 15 combined career starts between them.
Defensively, Houston takes a step backwards at each outfield position. Springer was a strong defender in right field, but it’s unknown whether he can match the glove work of Marisnick — the club’s best defensive center fielder.
Even if Springer impresses in center, Reddick won’t repeat Springer’s top-five defense in right field. The Astros’ main left fielder last season was Rasmus, who’s departed for Tampa Bay and a superior defender compared to Aoki.
Importing a quality starter would provide a layer of insurance in case Keuchel or McCullers encounter setbacks. It’d also push Fiers and McHugh further down in the rotation and give their youngsters more time to develop.
Houston has been prominently mentioned in trade speculation surrounding Chicago White Sox ace Jose Quintana and Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays. In both cases, the asking price was reportedly too steep and Luhnow passed. If the Astros seek a less costly option, there are free agents available.
Jason Hammel isn’t a sexy name, but the 34-year-old has averaged 171 innings annually since 2014. Doug Fister was an Astro last season, but faded after the all-star break. Perhaps, a reunion with the 6-foot-8 right-hander makes sense, assuming Fister’s decline wasn’t the onset of age-related regression.
The Astros have the strongest core of developing position players in the division — Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Springer and Gurriel. Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle to winning the division remains their rotation.
If Keuchel and McCullers rebound and the mid-rotation holds up, Hinch’s will be in good shape. Otherwise, Luhnow may be inclined to pay that high price this summer in order to secure a pitcher like Quintana or Archer and win the West.