Contention in '24: Astros' offseason primer

November 1st, 2023

This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart's Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

HOUSTON -- A World Series championship-or-bust season ended in disappointment for the Astros, who lost their final five home playoff games and were beaten in seven games in the ALCS by the Rangers -- the team they edged on the final day of the regular season for their sixth AL West title in seven years.

The Astros will have a new manager in 2024 following the retirement of Dusty Baker, and the club’s window of contention remains wide open. Houston returns most of its key players from 2023 -- the Astros’ 10 highest bWAR players are all under contract -- and will welcome back injured starting pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia at some point next year.

With that in mind, here’s an offseason FAQ:

Which players are set to become free agents?
Outfielder Michael Brantley, catcher Martín Maldonado and right-handed relievers Ryne Stanek, Phil Maton and Hector Neris.

Are any of them likely to receive qualifying offers?
The Astros will not extend a qualifying offer to any of their free agents.

Which players have options, what’s the impact on payroll?
Neris has an $8.5 million player option ($1 million buyout) for 2024, but he’s likely to test the open market. Houston has a strong interest in bringing him back, considering his popularity in the clubhouse and his terrific 2023 season (1.71 ERA in 71 games). The deadline to exercise the option is five days after the end of the World Series.

Who might be a non-tender candidate, and when does the club have to make that decision?
Of the Astros’ seven arbitration-eligible players -- left-hander Framber Valdez, right fielder Kyle Tucker, infielder/outfielder Mauricio Dubón, outfielder Chas McCormick and right-handers José Urquidy, Bryan Abreu and Garcia -- none are non-tender candidates. The non-tender deadline is Nov. 17.

Who needs to be added to the 40-man roster this winter to avoid the Rule 5 Draft?
Outfielder Kenedy Corona (Houston's No. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline), shortstop Shay Whitcomb (No. 25) and right-hander Misael Tamarez (No. 30) are eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft if they aren’t added to the 40-man roster. Teams must decide by Nov. 15 to add players to the 40-man roster.

Corona, a versatile outfielder, played all but six games last year at Double-A Corpus Christi, where he slashed .244/.324/.449 with 20 homers, 61 RBIs and 31 stolen bases, making him a power and speed threat. Whitcomb whacked 35 homers, which tied him with Twins prospect Yunior Severino for the most in the Minor Leagues. Whitcomb split the season between Corpus Christi and Triple-A Sugar Land, slashing .240/.281/.434 with 178 strikeouts and 42 walks. The hard-throwing Tamarez, who was 13th on the team’s preseason Top 30 list, had a rough year at Sugar Land, going 1-10 with a 5.08 ERA in 26 games (19 starts). His biggest issue was walks -- 60 in 101 innings.

Relief pitcher Joe Record needs to be added to the 40-man or become a Minor League free agent, and Houston could create room with pitchers Forrest Whitley, Enoli Paredes and Joel Kuhnel and first baseman Jon Singleton on the 40-man at season’s end.

What kind of help do they need and will they be active in free agency? Who might they target?
With three potential free agents, the Astros will have to address their bullpen first and foremost. Bringing back Neris would be a good start, but Maton has been a key piece to the relief corps the past two seasons, posting a 3.00 ERA this year in 68 games. Stanek is unlikely to return in 2024.

Houston could use some left-handed relief help. In addition to Josh Hader, who’s a closer and likely out of the Astros’ price range anyway, the next-best southpaw lefty that will be on the free-agent market is Aroldis Chapman. Yes, the Astros have had their clashes with Chapman through the years, but 100-plus mph from the left side is a huge weapon. Another hard-throwing reliever, Jordan Hicks, is a free agent. He’s from the Houston area and could be a fit.

Who might they be willing to trade?
The Astros traded their top two prospects -- outfielders Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford -- to the Mets to get Justin Verlander at the Deadline, so trading high-end prospects for relief pitching is probably out of the question. In terms of the Major League roster, the most tradeable pieces are Urquidy, right-handers Brandon Bielak and Seth Martinez and outfielder Corey Julks. Anyone willing take on right-hander Rafael Montero’s contract?