Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s first Winter Meetings are in the rearview mirror, and as he leaves Nashville, it’s time to look back and see how he did with the team’s most pressing needs:
Upgrade the Bullpen
Last season, the Astros’ bullpen was in the bottom 5 in the major leagues in ERA (5th-worst), batting average against (2nd-worst), save percentage (5th-worst), WHIP (3rd-worst), and home runs against (7th-worst). Upgrading the bullpen is at or near the top of the priority list for most GMs every offseason, and this year was no different for Luhnow.
The first thing anyone notices is the trade of Wilton Lopez to Colorado, in exchange for Alex White and Alex Gillingham. You might raise your eyebrows and wonder how the bullpen will be improved through the loss of Lopez, the team’s best reliever, but it might have been. During the Winter Meetings, the Astros added several arms, including White, Gillingham, Rule 5 picks Josh Fields and Cameron Lamb, and Mickey Storey, claimed off waivers from the Yankees (who’d claimed him off waivers themselves from Houston before the Winter Meetings.)
Storey, Fields, and White should contribute immediately to the 2013 pitching staff. It’s unclear whether White is being looked at as a starter or as a reliever, but the story on him since college is that he could be a fairly dominant reliever. What’s helpful, too, is that he’s a similar-type pitcher to Lopez, but under team control longer. Fields is a power pitcher, and Storey had a very nice season in 2012, with 10.09 K/9 and a 2.80 FIP.
Maybe the best news is that Jason Stoffel, who figures to be a good bullpen arm for the Astros in 2014 if not sooner, didn’t get taken in the Rule 5 Draft. Of course, this is through no great display of skill by Houston, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Prior to the Winter Meetings, Houston had already picked up Sam Demel off waivers from the Diamondbacks.
Lamb and Gillingham won’t pitch for the big league club this season, but Storey, White, Fields, and probably Stoffel will. Without signing a single free agent or spending any real money, Luhnow & Co. at least maintained the big league bullpen, whether or not they actually strengthened it.
Improve the Starting Rotation
Before the Winter Meetings, the Astros went out and snagged Philip Humber off waivers from the White Sox. Heading into Nashville, it didn’t seem very likely that much else would be done to improve the starting rotation, which could benefit from a veteran presence that slots in either above or below Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, and Bud Norris. Figure that the competition for the final two rotation spots is currently between Jarred Cosart, Dallas Keuchel, and Alex White.
Clearly, this is an area where the Astros could use an upgrade, even if it’s just a veteran stop-gap who can hold down the fort until Cosart’s put in some time in Oklahoma City.
There are still some veteran arms I like, including Francisco Liriano, and some more that I’ll discuss later in the week. But during the Winter Meetings, unless you consider White a potential starter, Luhnow did not address the rotation.
Find a Designated Hitter
Despite reports that the Astros checked in on Lance Berkman, Travis Hafner, and Carlos Pena, no one was signed during the Winter Meetings with the express intent of playing DH for the Astros. Rule 5 selection Nate Freiman does look like someone who might be able to fill the role if no one else is signed, as he can provide pop at the plate, but I can’t even imagine that he’s Option A for anyone in the Houston front office.
Though Houston came out of the Winter Meetings arguably stronger than when they went in, there are still holes to address. Still, for Luhnow’s first go-around, it was a pretty solid effort without spending any money or making any compromises.
The move to the American League West means a lot of things for the Astros. One that a lot of people might overlook is pitching. With the DH, many opposing lineups can hit 1-9, which means that a weak bullpen or back of the rotation is going to get exposed.
Not good news for a team that finished 2012 with the worst record in baseball.
When it comes to pitching in Houston, there aren’t many sure things. This is a team where Lucas Harrell is the ace, after all. His 2.8 WAR in 2012 led the team, and it was thanks in large part to his ability to induce ground balls (57.2% GB) and reduce home runs (9.7% HR/FB).
Behind Harrell, the only sure things in the rotation are Jordan Lyles and Bud Norris.
Perhaps the best comparison is the Seattle Mariners, who finished dead last in the AL West in 2012. Harrell’s 2.8 WAR would have been good enough for second on their rotation. Norris’ 1.5 would have been third, and Lyles’ 0.8 would have tied him with Jason Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma for fourth. Not that the Mariners are the benchmark for success, but the Astros’ three pitchers match up well with the Mariners’ rotation, with one exception:
Houston doesn’t have a Felix Hernandez. With a 3.20 xFIP and 8.65 Ks per 9 IP, Hernandez is the definition of an ace, and that’s something every team needs. Especially a team that wants to compete in the AL West.
Unfortunately, there are no aces laying around the Astros organization. At least not right now. And even though this is a team building for the long run, if they hope to remain the least bit competitive this season, they’ve got to think long and hard about signing a free agent who can slot into the rotation above Harrell, Lyles, and Norris. Someone who can miss bats and help the youngsters along.
A rebuilding team certainly isn’t going to sacrifice a first-round draft pick to sign a free agent, but there are some high risk/reward guys on the market, and one I really like is Francisco Liriano. For those of you who don’t remember, Liriano dominated for the Twins in 2005 and 06 before needing Tommy John surgery. He’s shown flashes of brilliance since then – posting 6.0 WAR in 2010 – but has struggled with his consistency.
This is exactly the kind of guy that Houston can take a flyer on. You’re not going to expect a 6.0 WAR in the AL West, but if he can stay healthy, he can certainly lead a young rotation. And he should be fairly affordable. For my money, he should be Houston’s #1 free agent target this winter.
The fifth starter spot could go to just about anyone: Dallas Keuchel showed some nice things in his cup of coffee despite underwhelming numbers overall. Personally, I like Jose Cisnero, who struck out 9.61 per 9 innings in Corpus Christi, and who allowed just 0.58 HR/9. Rudy Owens or Paul Clemens could also be called on to eat innings.
By the end of the summer, I fully expect Jared Cosart to join the big league club. But I think you let Keuchel, Cisnero, Owens, and Clemens battle it out in Spring Training to be the fifth starter. Of course, you could also work the waiver line, the Rule 5 draft, minor league signees, and non-roster invites. Anything to shore up the back end of the rotation.
But none of it means anything unless you can get someone who can slot into the front end.
LHP Francisco Liriano
RHP Lucas Harrell
RHP Bud Norris
RHP Jordan Lyles
LHP Rudy Owens