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.
Jeff Luhnow has specifically said he’s on the lookout for starting pitching – someone to slot in ahead of Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, and Jordan Lyles. Because of the situation in which the Astros find themselves, however, going out and signing a high-priced free agent isn’t a likelihood. It’s barely a possibility. So they have to look for bargains.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Francisco Liriano could be a great fit in Houston. But today, in reading Nick Cafardo’s piece in the Boston Globe, another thought occurred to me.
I’ll quote Cafardo:
After an injury-filled season in Minnesota (a bone bruise in his right shoulder limited him to 11 starts) [Carl] Pavano was given a clean bill of health in September and has prepared for his new adventure this offseason. Agent Dave Pepe said he has received a few preliminary calls on Pavano, who turns 37 in January. Pavano could come in with a minor league deal or a one-year major league deal. He had pitched more than 220 innings the previous two seasons for the Twins and could be an interesting back-end-of-the-rotation starter.
In those 11 starts, Pavano still racked up 0.6 fWAR, which would have been good enough for 6th-best in Houston, behind Harrell, Norris, Lyles, Wandy Rodriguez, and Wilton Lopez. He would have been tied with J.A. Happ.
Pavano may be best known for his disastrous run with the New York Yankees from 2005-08. The Yankees signed him to a lucrative contract after the 2005 season, when he was an All-Star for the Marlins and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting. In parts of three seasons (he spent the entire 2006 season in the minors), he amassed just 1.1 fWAR for the Bombers.
That’s one version of Carl Pavano.
The other is a guy who has pitched parts of 11 seasons for 4 teams (Montreal, Cleveland, Florida, and Minnesota) and averaged over 2.0 fWAR. He’s a veteran presence, he doesn’t give up a ton of home runs (1.01 HR/9 over his career), he’s affordable, and he can eat innings. He has a 46.6% ground ball ratio. You’d like to see it a little higher, but I’d take it.
And what’s more, if 2012 was indeed a fluke and he’s now healthy, look at his time in Minnesota from 2010-2011, in which he averaged 3.1 fWAR and a FIP right around 4.
This is exactly the high-upside guy that minor league contracts with Spring Training invitations were built for, and the Astros are exactly the kind of team where Pavano could sign a one- or two-year contract and actually slot into the rotation. He’s been around a long time and could help bring the youngsters along. It’s a signing that makes a ton of sense to me.
For some reason, no one seems to be throwing awards at the 2012 Houston Astros squad.
So I thought it might be fun to distribute my own awards. And, so, introducing the First Annual All-Astros Award Winners:
Rookie of the Year
In theory, this was a wide-open race. Fifteen different players took the field for the Houston Astros who qualified as rookies. On the offensive side of the ball, third baseman Matt Dominguez led the pace. A piece of the Carlos Lee deal with Miami, Dominguez had a slash line of 284/310/477, with 5 home runs and 16 RBI in 31 games as an Astro.
But Dominguez’s output was dwarfed by fellow rookie Lucas Harrell. Harrell had time on his side – he pitched 193.2 innings in 32 games, all of them starts. He was able to keep the ball inside Minute Maid Park, allowing just 13 home runs. He won double digit games (11-11), with a 3.76 ERA, and 2.8 WAR (by comparison, Dominguez had 0.5 WAR, and NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper had 4.9. Arizona’s Wade Miley paced all rookie pitchers with 4.8).
So congrats, Mr. Harrell, you are the first-ever winner of the All-Astros Rookie of the Year Award.
Most Valuable Player
It only seems prudent to divide this award between hitters and pitchers. On the offensive side, shortstop Jed Lowrie may only have played in 97 games in 2012, but his slash line of 244/331/438 is very impressive. He had the best walk rate on the team (11.1%) and a pretty decent strikeout rate, too – just 16.8%. He clubbed 16 home runs and had 42 RBI, both second only to Justin Maxwell, his primary competition for this award. But in the end, Lowrie edged out Maxwell in WAR, wOBA, and wRC+, which makes it awfully hard to pick against him.
On the pitching side, Harrell takes home his second trophy of the night. Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez were the next-best, but each fell at least a win lower than Harrell in WAR, and neither came close in ERA or wins, either. Wilton Lopez had some impressive numbers out of the bullpen, but pitched 130 innings fewer than Harrell.
Admittedly, it seems strange to go with Lopez over Harrell here, since Harrell did win the team MVP, but if we’re looking for the best pitcher, I still think the nod has to go to Lopez. He didn’t throw nearly as many innings as Harrell, so his cumulative stats are all a lot lower, but his xFIP of 2.80, a WHIP of 1.04, SIERA of 2.53, and a 20.8% strikeout rate (and 3.1% walk rate) are all miles better than Harrell. If the Astros had found themselves in more high-leverage situations, Lopez could have been called on to throw more innings. Since he didn’t, his overall value may pale next to Harrell, but compiling 1.4 WAR in just over 66 innings is nothing to scoff at.
I’m going to break this award up, as well. It’s hard to find a defensive metric where Justin Maxwell wasn’t the best in 2012, but there is one, which we’ll get to later. Maxwell more than doubled his nearest competitor (Brandon Barnes) in UZR. His ARM, RngR, and ErrR are all at the very top of the team. But there is one area where he lost out.
Brian Bixler – signed this morning by the Mets, by the way – may have played just 59 innings at the major league level last season, but he did it all over the field. Second base, third base, shortstop, and both corner outfield positions. His 73.3 UZR/150 is impressive – almost 2.5 times Maxwell’s 29.4. So he wins as the best overall defender, though Maxwell wins as the best full-timer in the field.
As mentioned above, there isn’t an offensive metric where Jed Lowrie didn’t dominate his teammates in 2012. Though Maxwell did end up providing more power (.232 ISO to .194), he simply couldn’t get on base anywhere near as often as Lowrie. Lowrie’s value comes from putting the ball in play. He led the team in wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. It’s difficult to get past Lowrie’s numbers, though Maxwell’s output can’t be denied. Still, in overall offensive capability, I have to go with Lowrie.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recently wrote:
Another potential trade partner for the Royals could be Houston, which is open to moving certain assets for multiple parts. The price for a starter such as right-hander Bud Norris or righty Lucas Harrell would be lower than it is for, say, Hellickson. But of course, the impact might be lower, too.
That begs the question, then: Could the Astros deal Lucas Harrell or Bud Norris?
Harrell won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2015, and is under contract until 2018. He put up 2.8 WAR in 2012, his first full season as a major league pitcher, easily leading the Houston rotation. He gave up just 0.6 HR/9, and he has a 57.2% groundball rate, which is always going to play well in Houston. Sure, he doesn’t strike many guys out (6.51 K/9), but he projects as a nice #2 or #3 guy in this rotation for years to come, at an affordable rate. In short, I simply don’t see him going anywhere.
Norris is a bit of a different story. Under the right circumstances, he could be flipped for some interesting prospects. Norris misses more bats than Harrell (8.82 K/9), but his 39.2% groundball rate doesn’t play as well in Minute Maid Park, as evidenced by his 1.23 HR/9 and his 4.23 FIP. He’s arbitration-eligible in 2013, and he’s a free agent in 2016. His 1.5 WAR in 2012 was the highest of his career, and now may be the perfect time to sell.
The only problem is that there’s no one to replace him in the rotation. Outside of grabbing a free agent, or making a veteran pitcher part of the deal, I don’t think you can plan on plugging anyone else into the rotation in Norris’ place. As I’ve discussed before, Dallas Keuchel, Jose Cisneros, Rudy Owens, and Paul Clemens are the only guys I can see pitching at the big league level.
This isn’t an unsolvable problem. There are any number of free agents who could be had cheaply, and who could conceivably throw up 1.5 WAR, in combination if not individually. Besides, 2013 is not the Astros’ focus. But I do think Jeff Luhnow wants to put a competitive team on the field, even if he fully expects to land at the bottom of the standings again.
I wouldn’t expect a trade like this to happen until closer to the deadline, when Jared Cosart has put in some innings in Oklahoma City. But it could happen this winter – stranger things have certainly happened. But if it’s going to be with the Royals, I think an innings-eater like Bruce Chen would have to be part of the deal, along with a prospect package that I really hope would include Danny Duffy.
Norris is probably at the height of his value, so it is a good time to sell, but he’s not going to net a top-tier prospect. So you have to look at things realistically. But it could certainly be the case that we’ve seen him throw his last game as a Houston Astro.
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