Pitching was the strength for the Astros in 2018. Following the news that Joe Smith will miss a significant chunk of the season thanks to a ruptured Achilles, the Astros find themselves with more question marks on their pitching staff than anyone would have imagined after having a historically great pitching staff in the 2018.
Astros Opening Day Rotation 2018:
1. Justin Verlander
2. Dallas Keuchel
3. Lance McCullers Jr.
4. Gerrit Cole
5. Charlie Morton
Astros Starting Rotation Right Now:
1. Justin Verlander
2. Gerrit Cole
3. Collin McHugh
Astros Opening Day Bullpen 2018:
1. Ken Giles
2. Chris Devenski
3. Will Harris
4. Joe Smith
5. Hector Rondon
6. Brad Peacock
7. Collin McHugh
8. Tony Sipp
Astros Bullpen Right Now:
1. Roberto Osuna
2. Ryan Pressly
3. Hector Rondon
4. Chris Devenski
5. Will Harris
6. Brad Peacock
Pitchers Lost This Winter:
1. Charlie Morton (Signed 2 year, 30 million dollar deal with Tampa Bay Rays)
2. Dallas Keuchel (Free Agent) (We all know he's not coming back.)
3. Lance McCullers (Tommy John Surgery)
4. Joe Smith (Ruptured Achilles Tendon) (Expected Recovery of 6-8 Months)
5. Tony Sipp (Free Agent) (Would shock all of us if he is back.)
Clearly, at this moment, the bullpen is in a much better place than the rotation. The good news, they have a bunch of internal options to fill the spots that are currently vacant. The bad news, they have some very big shoes to fill in the rotation and the free agent market is not flush with guys that you would expect to come in and pick up where the guys that are gone, left off.
My list of guys that I and most of you have penciled in to fill spots open whether it is in the rotation or bullpen:
1. Josh James
2. Framber Valdez
3. Forrest Whitley
Guys that could have a shot at winning one of the many open spots:
1. Cionel Perez
2. Rogelio Armenteros
3. J.B. Bukauskas
4. Corbin Martin
5. Brady Rodgers
Jeff Luhnow has plenty of options and plenty of very intriguing options to fill the open spots, without having to trade for or signing someone currently outside of the organization. If I had it my way, here is what I would do if was sitting in Jeff Luhnow's chair.
1. Trade for Front End Starter (Example: Corey Kluber)
2. Sign a Veteran Starting Pitcher (Example: Gio Gonzalez)
3. Sign a Lefty Reliever if Price is Right
4. Approach Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole about Contract Extensions
Reasoning Behind My Plan:
1. Trading for front end starter, whether it actually is Corey Kluber or not, fills multiple needs. Okay, so technically, the Astros do not need to grab a front end of the rotation guy since they have those two horses that go by the names of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. For me, trading for a guy that is a one or two on most staffs is the smart move. The move that gives you insurance. Kluber is a great target because he gives you a front end guy that has three seasons left of club control at a very fair dollar considering his production. As much as all of us do not want to imagine a scenario where Verlander and Cole walk after 2019, you know Jeff Luhnow is operating with this scenario in mind.
Again, for 2019, the Astros do not have to land a front end of the rotation guy. It would be very nice, yes. Especially when you consider that they are down three guys from a 2018 rotation that would be a one or two on most major league staffs.
2. The Astros starting staff will not match what they did in 2018, like the hitting in 2018 did not match what it did in 2017. The order of how you accomplish plans one and two in my dream world does not matter. If you need to jump on a veteran starter now, get after it. The Astros need to add another veteran arm that can be counted on to eat innings and give you as close to, if not more, than thirty starts. The market is filled with those type of guys. Adding a minimum of one is a must. While they have very intriguing and real options to fill a rotation spot in the organization, they are all super young arms that we all know will be on innings limits in 2019. It would surprise me if James, Valdez and Whitley did not each make at least one start for the Astros in 2019. Without knowing what kind of limit might be placed on innings for James, if there even is one, his best value for the Astros in 2019 might be out of the bullpen. He throws straight diesel up there and can give you multiple innings. We know how important that versatility is in today's game. Whitley and Valdez, for me, feel like locks to start the season at Round Rock. Framber has to prove he can command his pitches at a higher level and Whitley would have to come out in the spring and throw nothing but zeros on the board to even be considered to open the year in Houston.
3. Jeff Luhnow has basically told us that number three is more than likely not going to happen. They are comfortable with multiple right handed relievers that they have, throwing against lefties. Cionel Perez should factor for them at some point in 2019 and it very well could be out of the pen from the start. At the very least, you have to monitor the market and see if you can walk away with a steal for a lefty out of your pen if you do not feel that Perez or Valdez are ready for that role.
4. I'm calling Justin Verlander and his agents, Mark Pieper and Milchin at ISE baseball, on a daily basis to see if we can hammer out an extension before the season starts. I'm doing the same with Gerrit Cole and his agent, Scott Boras.
My guess is that neither of them sign an extension ahead of the season, and if I was to peg who would be more likely of the two, it's Verlander. By all accounts, both guys have absolutely loved their time in Houston, where they have both had massive amounts of success and arguably put together the best seasons of their careers in 2018. With Verlander being 35, on a team that is contending, in a place where he will forever be a legend for what he did in 2017, it is hard for me to imagine him pitching anywhere else during his next contract. That being said, while he has defied father time and looks like he will continue to do what so few have, you know there will be a limit on how far the Astros want to extend knowing that father time could come knocking at any given second for a guy with the millage that Verlander has. It will be interesting to see what JV gets with his next deal. He has said he could see himself pitching until he is 45 if his body allows it, I cannot envision a scenario where he is landing more than a four year deal with any team. If the Astros offer him three years for somewhere between 75 and 100 million, does he say no?
Locking Cole up to an extension this winter is a pipe dream thanks to his agent being Scott Boras. He wants all of his clients to always hit the open market, especially when one of them is of the caliber that Cole is, that appears to be getting better and will be just 29 years old when he hits the free agent market for the first time in his career. Getting Cole locked up this winter would only happen if that is what Gerrit wants. He would have to go to Boras, like Stephen Strasburg did in 2016, and tell him that he is not interested in pitching anywhere else and he wants to get a deal out of the way now. If the Astros want to play ball in that scenario, it is hard to imagine that they could not find common ground for a deal, having done something with another Boras client in Jose Altuve, not too long ago.
While the most likely scenario to play out is the one where the Astros lose one of Verlander and Cole after the 2019 season, I do believe they want to keep both in Houston for the foreseeable furture. While losing Verlander would sting badly, losing Cole is the one that I fear the most. You do not want to let the guy walk and he go all Max Scherzer on you after the Tigers let him walk for his mega deal with the Nationals at the age of 30 with one Cy Young Award under his belt. He has only won two more of those awards in the first four years of his seven year deal with the Nats, while also finishing fifth for the award in the first year of the deal and second for it this past season. I want no business of being Scherzer'd.
I think the Scherzer comp for Cole's deal is a great one and in all likelihood it will exceed the 7 years, 210 million bucks that the Nats shelled out for him in January of 2015. While they have to worry about the future deals of Correa, Bregman and Springer, to play with the big boys, you will have to bite the bullet and spend more than you ever have before to keep the best of your best around moving forward. While none of us exactly know how a mega deal for either Cole or Verlander would affect their future spending, locking those two up feels like a risk worth going for.
Wrapping It Up:
1. The Trade Market
Right now, it appears to be slim pickings if you are seeking to land bona fide ace. The Astros do matchup well with Cleveland in a package for Kluber, but of course it will be a deal that stings. You could probably land Noah Syndergaard from the Mets, but the package to land him would likely sting even worse than a Kluber package. You could look to the used to be viewed as an ace type, looking to bounce back candidates, that might come at a reasonable price. Do you think getting Sonny Gray out of New York and into the hands of Brent Strom is the magic he needs? Can you work another deal with the Toronto Blue Jays and possibly land the likes of Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez? Could you somehow convince the Minnesota Twins to part with the curveball wizard that is Jose Berrios? What about one of their guys at a lower tier in Jake Odorizzi or Kyle Gibson? Zack Greinke has a bunch of money left on his deal, but he is basically this generations version of Greg Maddux, could you take on a large chunk of his money to soften the blow on the package you would send to the D-Backs? There are plenty of intriguing trade options available for Jeff Luhnow to go down this road again.
2. The Free Agent Market
Will you play on the higher end of what is left on the free agent market, or will you let it play out, looking to land a piece later in the winter on a much cheaper and shorter than expected deal? Are you looking for a multi-year deal with a free agent or is it one year only candidates? Do you feel the need to sign a lefty for your rotation? Options are aplenty, just don't go in thinking it is a lock that you are signing the next Charlie Morton for your system. Guys like Ground Chuck don't grow on trees.
My Prediction Based on Nothing:
I have no insight to anything here, like all of you. This predicition, like so many of mine this offseason, will most likely not pan out.
1. They trade for Zack Greinke, taking on most of the money he is still owed (3 years, 104.5 million), allowing them to not surrender their top of top prospects. A few weeks ago I shot down Greinke's name hard when multiple people brought him up to me, but given the recent rumblings that they checked in on him last winter before landing Cole, and with the D-Backs desperate to shed as much of his salary as possible, I think he really might be in play to be pitching in Houston in 2019.
2. They sign Gio Gonzalez or Wade Miley to no more than a two year deal, most likely a one year deal. Quality, reliable, veteran innings eaters for the back end of the rotation, Miley less likely to me than Gonzalez.
3. Josh James opens the season in the pen, filling the McHugh role as he slides back in the rotation.
4*. Justin Verlander signs a 3 year, 85 million dollar extension. Gerrit Cole signs a 7 year, 230 million dollar extension.
*I do not actually believe number four one bit. I just wanted to put it out there that way if one of them, or both for some magical reason happens, you can tell everyone that you heard it here first and maybe get my name on like SportsCenter or MLB Network or something.
5. They do not sign any bullpen arms. Grabbing two starters allows them to slot younger guys in to roles in pen that might be best for their value for the franchise in 2019.
That's it. I'm finished now. Jeff, if you're reading this, you're welcome. Please make all of my wild thoughts come true now, please.