HOUSTON -- It's hard to believe Astros pitchers and catchers will be working out in West Palm Beach, Fla., in less than a month. A year ago at this time, the Astros were coming off a World Series title, but the expectations haven't changed heading into 2019.
So let's open the Inbox to see what's on your mind about the Astros as we plow closer to the pitchers and catchers report date:
Let's assume the Astros go into Spring Training without having made a significant addition to the rotation. Who could be a dark horse to make the starting rotation out of ST? Assuming that Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Collin McHugh are locks with Josh James, Brad Peacock, Framber Valdez, Forrest Whitley and Corbin Martin as the main candidates for the 4 and 5 spots.
Your assumptions are spot on. Barring another addition to the rotation -- and let the record show I still think the Astros will acquire another veteran arm -- the final two spots in the rotation will be between the kids, as well as Peacock. I think you can rule out Whitley and Martin starting the season in the big league rotation, but James and Valdez will have great shots to win a starting rotation spot. Peacock might be too valuable of a weapon in the bullpen at this point, but his success as a starter in 2017 (10-2, 3.22 ERA in 21 starts) remains fresh in the memory.
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What are the chances you see the Astros' front office re-signing both Verlander and Cole to extensions?
-- Christopher S., San Antonio
They're both free agents after the 2019 season, as you know, which is why the team's window to win another championship remains wide open this year. But I think it would be very difficult for the Astros to come up with enough payroll flexibility to pay both of them the huge contracts they're going to demand. Jose Altuve gets a raise in 2020 that will pay him $29 million a year, and George Springer could push $20 million a season by then in his final year before free agency.
The point is the Astros are facing some impact contract decisions coming up with some of their core players and won't have the luxury of signing a pair of starting pitchers to massive deals. The Astros don't operate like that, anyway. They could let Verlander and Cole walk and try to make another deal like they did a year ago with Cole, getting an up-and-coming star in a trade a couple of years prior to becoming a free agent.
Which Astros arbitration candidates will get their full asking price in their hearings?
-- Allen A., Bay City, Texas
It's hard to say. The arbitration process is something that's difficult to predict. The Astros have three former All-Stars headed to arbitration -- shortstop Carlos Correa, Cole and relief pitcher Chris Devenski. Correa is asking for $5 million, and the Astros have countered with $4.25 million; Devenski is asking for $1.65 million, and the Astros have countered for $1.4 million; and Cole is asking for $13.5 million, and the Astros countered with $11.425 million.
I certainly wouldn't want to make a case against Cole coming off the year he had, but the Astros are hoping to save more than $2 million in arbitration in his deal. Correa seems like a bargain for $5 million, especially if healthy, but he didn't have a great season. The Devenski difference is only $250,000, but the Astros will be aiming to win arbitration cases after losing last year to McHugh and Ken Giles.
Will Lance McCullers be a full go this time next year?
-- Marc A., Benton, Ark.
If not, then he'll be really close, barring a setback. He had Tommy John surgery on Nov. 6, and the timetable for a full recovery is typically 18 months, though it can be shorter. He'll miss the entire 2019 season and should be ready for game action around the start of the 2020 season. McCullers is a bulldog competitor, so he'll attack his rehab as hard as he can.
With the realistic possibility now that either Tyler White or Tony Kemp could begin the season in Triple-A again after bouncing between there and the big leagues for the past three seasons and seemingly proving some of their worth at the big league level last year, can that begin to have a negative effect on those players in the near future?
-- Logan K., Valley Mills, Texas
The roster, in its current composition, wouldn't seem to support a spot for both White and Kemp, especially following the addition of Michael Brantley. Both men have bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues in the past couple of years and made the most of their opportunities with nothing left to prove in the Minors. Sure, not making the big league club is certainly going to affect a players' psyche, but White and Kemp are both professional enough to approach it with the proper mindset.
Do you believe the Astros will trade Kyle Tucker and Max Stassi for J.T. Realmuto? If the Astros trade for a starting pitcher, who do you believe it might be?
-- Roland L., Houston
I think if the Astros were going to acquire Realmuto from the Marlins in a package that included top position-player prospect Tucker they would have done it already. Either they've decided not to trade Tucker, or the Marlins have said "No thanks." Of course, if they decided not to trade Tucker, they could always change their minds. Stay tuned.
A couple of names to keep an eye on in terms of starting pitchers: Sonny Gray of the Yankees and Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays.
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Any news on Correa's back progress? Do you think he will be a long-term Astro?
-- David W., Houston
Correa has laid low this offseason so we haven't had any updates, but we were told rest was going to be the best medicine for back issues which led to a long DL stint last season. He's likely gotten plenty of that.
The Astros would definitely love to tie up Correa long term, but he'll be a free agent at 27 years old in 2022. He could command Manny Machado-Bryce Harper money, whatever that might be. Will the Astros be able to afford it? We will have to wait to find out.
Tags, given the dysfunction of the FA market these days, what do you think are the chances that either Dallas Keuchel or Marwin Gonzalez re-signs with the Astros?
-- Lance P., Houston
I think the closer we get to the start of the season and the longer they're unsigned, the chances grow higher. That's probably true more for Keuchel, because the Astros are still in need for a starting pitcher. Maybe if the market for Keuchel isn't what he thought in a month, he'd decide to come back to Houston. The Astros traded for Aledmys Diaz as the supposed replacement for Gonzalez, so I think it's less likely he returns.