HOUSTON -- The signing of relief pitcher Ryne Stanek to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million on Thursday represented the Astros' first significant roster move of the offseason. Despite the signing being the first, Houston has been busy trying to improve its roster.
As you’ve probably noticed, the free-agent market has been moving extremely slow this year with all the big names still out there, including George Springer. The uncertainty about the upcoming season with the coronavirus pandemic still raging means teams are taking a cautious approach to spending money, though that may soon change with Spring Training approaching.
Cleveland's trade of Francisco Lindor to the Mets may get things rolling a bit, and teams are slowly starting to spend a little bit more money. Former Astros outfielder Robbie Grossman signed a two-year, $10-million deal with the Tigers, reuniting with his former manager in Houston, A.J. Hinch.
The start of Spring Training is still over a month away -- if it starts on time -- and the Astros are still working on improving their roster. Stay tuned.
Let’s open the Inbox for the first time in 2021:
What are the Astros' plans for center field? There's no replacing Springer's production, but do you expect an external addition like Jackie Bradley Jr. or Enrique Hernández, or do you think they'll give Myles Straw the job?
If they don’t re-sign Springer -- and I don’t think they will -- they’ll almost certainly have to go outside the organization to find another center fielder. Of course, Bradley is probably the next-best option available on the free-agent market, though trades are possible, as well. Straw could still find his way into the starting lineup at some point, but I don’t think the Astros are ready to hand him a starting job yet. This team is built to contend and needs an established presence in center field, whether that’s Springer or anyone else. Until Springer makes a decision, Houston might be left in limbo while trying to figure out its plans in center.
Do you keep Springer and Michael Brantley, or go after an ace type pitcher?
I don’t think it’s an either-or situation. The Astros need to fill two outfield spots with the likely departure of Springer and perhaps Brantley, and they will go after another starting pitcher. An ace pitcher? Those are hard to acquire without paying tons of money (Trevor Bauer) or giving up loads of prospects like they did for Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke in recent years. There’s no need to do that. Houston has a solid rotation, but it lacks depth. I don’t see them breaking the bank for an ace pitcher, as opposed to a finding mid-level starter to help fill out a rotation in 2021 that currently has Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier.
Any chance the Astros try Yuli Gurriel or Yordan Alvarez in the outfield?
There’s zero chance a 36-year-old Gurriel suddenly moves to the outfield after playing corner infield his whole life. As for Alvarez, it’s possible. The last time I asked Astros management about this late last year, I was told it would be a decision that’s made in Spring Training. Alvarez is coming off surgery on both knees, which is troubling for a 23-year-old player, but is also a relief for the Astros to finally clear up his knee issues. Houston would have more lineup flexibility if Alvarez could play some outfield, especially in National League parks if the designated hitter doesn’t return. If the Astros re-sign Brantley, they’d ideally like to get him some time at DH, as well, which may be harder to do if Alvarez isn’t playing at least some outfield. Check back when Spring Training starts.
Do you think the Astros will sign a bargain free agent for rotation competition? Like Chris Archer for an example?
Yes, I do. Like I said above, they’re not shopping at the top of the free-agent starting pitching market, and they don’t have to. The Astros have a solid rotation, but lack depth. We know there are going to be injuries and underperformance this year, so you’ll need more than five starters. Depth will be a bigger issue in 2021, when pitchers will be asked to throw 150-200 innings in a full season after throwing 50-70 innings in last year’s shortened season. That’s going to lead to some injuries, so depth is tantamount. Expect the Astros to address that starting pitching depth at some point.
Do you think the Astros will continue to strengthen the bullpen via free agency or trade? I have a feeling that they’re going to stick with the young arms they have for their rotation.
Yes, they are not done beefing up the bullpen. The signing of Stanek was the first of what could be a few free-agent signings for general manager James Click, who is approaching one year on the job. Click has been busy behind the scenes looking to address the depth issues Houston has in its bullpen. The team has had talks with several high-leverage relievers, including Brad Hand, Alex Colomé, Liam Hendriks and Trevor Rosenthal. It’s clear Houston is looking to find a true closer in 2021, which would enable the club to move Ryan Pressly back to the setup role in which he flourished.
It seems the Astros offseason focus is pitching, what does that mean for all the rookies that had breakout debuts?
Most of those guys will still play key roles in 2021. That includes Cristian Javier, who finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting and will be in the rotation. And it includes relievers Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor. The Astros are counting on all three of those pitchers, who had breakout performances in 2020. Other youngsters, such as Andre Scrubb, Luis Garcia and Bryan Abreu -- remember him? -- could play increased roles as well. If they can get outs, the Astros will find a way to use them.
Why did the Astros only offer Stanek a one-year deal?
There was no reason to offer a multiyear deal. Stanek didn’t pitch well last year, although it was only 10 innings of work with the Marlins, but there was no reason to sign him to more than a two-year deal when you could have him on a one-year deal.