Working again off of Tim Dierkes’ list of possible non-tender candidates, I took a look at possibilities that may arise after the November 30th deadline.
Four guys jump out at me as possible additions to the starting rotation in Houston:
1. Phillip Humber – Humber was a part-time starter for the White Sox last year, after serving as a full-time starter in 2011. These are his only two seasons with any real sample size, but they might as well be two different pitchers. The 2012 version of Humber struck out more batters (7.50 K/9 vs. 6.40), but he also walked more (3.88 BB/9 vs. 2.26) and gave up way more home runs (2.03 HR/9 vs. 0.77). His groundball rate dropped precipitously, from 47.1% to 34.9%, and more of the flyballs he gave up left the park (16.5% in 2012; 7.7% in 2011). That’s a bad combination. The 2011 version of Humber is very good – 3.6 fWAR over 163 innings. The 2012 version is very bad – -0.2 fWAR over 102 innings. There doesn’t appear to have been an injury, as his velocity didn’t change at all, but in 2011 he started throwing more of his low-90s fastballs, cut his changeup use in half, and essentially substituted his slider for his curveball, which was arguably his best pitch. I don’t know the reason for the change, but if he can go back to being closer to the 2011 version, relying on his offspeed stuff, I have a good feeling he can have a good season.
2. John Lannan – Prior to 2012, Lannan put together 1.0+ fWAR in 4 straight seasons, despite a FIP over 4. What I like about him for Houston is his ability to induce grounders – his career GB% is 53.0 – and his ability to limit home runs (0.88 HR/9 over his career). He strikes out about as many guys as you’d expect someone with a fastball in the high 80s to strike out (4.71/9), and he walks way too many to go with it (3.4/9), but I still think he’s an improvement over the current tail end of the rotation.
3. Charlie Morton – Solving the puzzle of Charlie Morton is a bit tricky. He’s another groundball pitcher (career 53.0%) who doesn’t give up a lot of home runs (0.80/9). In many regards, he and Lannan are the same pitcher, except that Lannan is a lefty and a year younger. But they both have way too few strikeouts and way too many walks, but they limit fly balls and home runs, which is always going to play in MMP. Morton has never approached 200 innings in the majors, which is a concern. 2011 was the only season he topped 100 innings, as a matter of fact (171.2). Morton’s a sinkerball/two-seamer guy who struggles against lefties (read Dave Cameron’s article on his platoon splits in 2011), which limits him a great deal.
4. Mike Pelfrey – Pelfrey was on the verge of becoming a pretty darn good starter when he went down in 2012, after just three starts. He had season-ending Tommy John surgery on April 30, which will certainly raise a few eyebrows, but this is still a guy who posted 3.0 fWAR in 2008 and 2.8 in 2010. If he can make any sort of a comeback, he could be the steal of the offseason for some lucky team. If you consider the 12-18 month “recovery period” finite, he could still come in and make an impact this season.
1. Scott Atchison – I’m a little surprised to see Atchison’s name on this list, as he did manage to accumulate 1.0 fWAR last season. It was also his second-straight season with a FIP under 3 and a xFIP under 4. He’s not the strikeout artist he was when he first came up, but still punched out 6.31 per 9 IP while walking just 1.58/9. He’s given up just 2 home runs over the past two seasons (81.2 innings) with Boston, as well. If he gets non-tendered, I don’t expect that the Astros would be the only team on the phone with him, but he’d definitely be a worthy free agent target.
2. Kameron Loe – Astros fans aren’t strangers to Loe, who’s spent the last three seasons in Milwaukee, and was with the Rangers before that. He’s another guy who doesn’t get many strikeouts and who gives up too many walks, but he’s got a career 56.7% groundball rate, and has allowed fewer than 1 home run per nine innings pitched over his career, despite playing parts of 5 seasons in Arlington. Last year wasn’t a great year for him, but he still managed to be replacement-level. He doesn’t exactly belong on this list, as he is already a free agent after refusing an assignment to Triple-A.
3. Jose Veras – Veras is a big boy at 6’6″, 235 lbs. He’s pitched the last three seasons for three different organizations (Florida, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee). He’s also put together two straight 0.5 fWAR seasons, and has struck out 9.39 batters per 9 IP in his career. Yes, he walks a lot of guys (4.92/9), but he doesn’t give up home runs, which if you hadn’t noticed, is a skill I personally value quite a lot, especially for Minute Maid Park. FIP likes him; xFIP likes him more – he’s been under 4 for the past 3 years. Though he’s lost velocity on his fastball over the past several years, it still sits right around 94, and he offsets it with a nice curveball.
By November 30th of this year, teams will have to determine whether or not to tender a contract offer to their arbitration-eligible players. If they do not offer a contract, the players become free agents.
Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com has compiled an excellent list of possible non-tender candidates. Of course, these are just his guesses, so there’s nothing official about this list, but it’s an interesting place to look for possible Astros pickups.
I’ve identified six guys from this list who might be reasonable targets for the Astros to fill immediate needs, should they be non-tendered, plus three others who address less-significant needs.
1. Daric Barton – In parts of six seasons, Barton has put together a slash line of 240/364/370. He’s not a prototypical slugging first baseman – he’s hit just 27 home runs in 1,901 plate appearances – but he doesn’t strike out a lot (16.6% career, though he spiked at 23.5% in 2012), and he makes contact. Barton looked great in 2010 – he had 10 home runs, had a walk rate of 16.0%, a .131 ISO, .360 wOBA, 126 wRC+, and 5.0 fWAR – all career highs. Since then, his power numbers have plummeted as his strikeout rate has spiked (from 1.08 BB/K in 2010 to 0.69 in 2012. ) His slash line in 2010: 273/393/405. In 2012: 204/338/292. If he can regain any of his pre-2011 form at the plate, he’d make a nice addition to the lineup.
2. George Kottaras – Kottaras is sort of a mystery to me. This is a guy who’s never really been able to receive a lot of playing time – edged out by Derek Norris in Oakland during their march to the postseason in 2012, for example. But he’s also a guy with a .205 ISO last year, .207 in 2011. He also topped .330 wOBA in each of those years. The Astros, in their search for a backup to Jason Castro, might be well-served to kick the tires on Kottaras. He’s never had negative fWAR, despite not exactly being a defensive stalwart. He’s got a career slugging percentage of .412, and he gets on base at a .320 clip. Bill James’ projections for 2013 – optimistic even by BIS standards – are 240/345/435 with 357 plate appearances (considering he’s never topped 250 in a season, that’s a bit puzzling, obviously.) But Kottaras is certainly a guy who could back up Castro, maybe even play some DH, and provide a left-handed bat with some pop off the bench. Well worth a look.
3. Casey McGehee – McGehee has worked his way through half of the NL Central – since 2008, he’s played for the Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates, as well as 59 plate appearances for the Yankees in 2012. In his first full season in Milwaukee (2010), he had 23 home runs and 104 RBI in 670 plate appearances. He’s a guy who’s never walked much (7.7% over his career), but has a reasonable strikeout rate of 17.2% in that time. He plays both corner infield positions, and even has 180.2 innings at 2B in his major league career, though his defense isn’t exactly his strength. He puts up good power numbers (career .414 SLG), and could be a candidate for a DH who can spell the starters at first or third.
4. Mark Reynolds – Everyone knows the score with Reynolds. He’s a guy who puts up prodigious power numbers (.240 career ISO), and prodigious strikeout numbers – only 5 times in Major League history has a player struck out 200 or more times in a season. Reynolds has done it three of those 5 times (2008-10). Still, even in a year where he’s considered a non-tender candidate, Reynolds put up an a decent .335 wOBA. In fact, he cut his strikeout rate to a career-low 29.6%. And though he clubbed “just” 23 home runs, do bear in mind that that’s still more than any Astro was able to hit. You have to expect Reynolds to hit in the 230 range next year, with 30+ home runs. Certainly a solid choice for DH.
5. Gaby Sanchez – Sanchez had 19 home runs in both 2010 and 2011, with a career slash line of 269/346/440, but struggled to a 202/250/306 line in 196 plate appearances with Miami in 2012. The Marlins optioned him to the minors in early July and traded him to the Pirates on July 31. He fared much better in Pittsburgh, going 241/323/397 in 130 plate appearances. If Dierkes is correct and Sanchez is in fact non-tendered, I’d be both surprised and delighted, as I happen to think he’s a no-brainer for the Astros. Prior to 2012, Sanchez hadn’t posted a wOBA lower than .342 (though it’s interesting to note that it has become progressively lower in every single season of his career). He plays a decent first base, but could just as easily slot in as a DH.
6. Andres Torres – Torres is a guy who’s seen great heights and great depths. He bounced back and forth between the majors and minors in the Detroit and Texas systems before landing in San Francisco in 2009. In that season, he put together a .374 wOBA season, going 270/343/533 in 170 plate appearances. The following season, he flashed a great glove and swung an equally-great bat, compiling 6.9 fWAR. From there, it’s been largely downhill. 2011 and 2012 were struggles for Torres, even as his strikeout rate has fallen and his walk rate has increased. His ISO fell to .107, his wOBA to .297. He still managed to put up 1.7 fWAR for the Mets in 2012, partially due to his plus defense and baserunning (13 SB), but he still failed to light the world on fire. If the Mets do end up non-tendering him (which I’m not so sure they will,) he’d be an interesting guy to take a look at – he plays all three outfield positions, shows power, steals bases, and hits from both sides of the plate.
And now, for something completely different…
7. Jesus Flores – Somewhere near the bottom of Jeff Luhnow’s offseason shopping list is finding a backup for Jason Castro. There are a few ideas on how this could be done – signing a top-line free agent like Mike Napoli is one way in which it could be done. Signing someone like George Kotteras (above) is another. A third would be to take a look at a guy like Jesus Flores. Flores presents an interesting case because there’s nothing spectacular about him. His career 241/289/375 line describes him pretty well – a guy who’s competent at baseball, but who doesn’t do anything beyond the ordinary. His fielding is reasonable, but not stellar. He’s just 28 years old and he’s served as more-or-less a backup in Washington for the last 6 seasons. In short, he won’t put any pressure on Castro, but would serve as a competent backup. He might not aid much in the growing-up process, like a Rod Barajas type might, but he’s also not completely lost at the plate, on the chance that Castro ends up missing part of the season due to injury.
8. Ben Francisco – If it doesn’t seem that long ago since Ben Francisco was a Houston Astro, that’s because it’s not. After receiving Francisco as part of the ten-player A.J. Happ trade with the Blue Jays, he played just 31 games with Houston before they flipped him to the Tampa Bay Rays for a player to be named later (any minute now). Well, what if Francisco ended up back at Houston at the same time as the PTBNL in his own trade? How incredible and amazing and awful and insane would that be!? The answer, of course, is “very.” Still, I like Francisco’s profile. He plays both corner outfield spots, and every year until 2011, he posted a wOBA over .330. It’s been falling ever since, but I still can’t help wondering if he might make a valuable bench piece.
9. Brendan Ryan – I can hear you all right now. “But… Brendan Ryan is a shortstop! If the Astros don’t need anything, it’s a shortstop!” Hear me out on this. Jed Lowrie, easily the centerpiece of the Houston Astros offense, plays shortstop. He’s actually better at third base, but for now he plays shortstop. With me so far? Okay, good. Now. Jed Lowrie has never put together more than 387 plate appearances in a single season. Why not, you ask? Well, because Jed Lowrie has a tendency to get injured, often in freakish and unfortunate ways. Now imagine, if you will, a scenario in which the very best offensive player on the team (Lowrie) was put in a position (designated hitter) where he would be less-susceptible to freakish and unfortunate injuries. The truth is, Lowrie is not a particularly good defender. He’s got a 1.7 UZR/150 at shortstop; 6.4 at second base; 5.5 at third base. Brendan Ryan, on the other hand, has a 12.2 UZR/150 as a shortstop. He’s not going to blow anyone away offensively. He has a career 244/306/327 line, and went just 194/277/278 in Seattle in 2012. In addition to that, he just had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, which is particularly unfortunate because that is the elbow with which he happens to throw a baseball. But seeing his name on the non-tender list got my head a-spinning… imagine putting our best offensive player at DH, eliminating his propensity toward freakish injuries, and taking his defensive liabilities off the field at the same time? You have to admit, it’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had.