Payroll to play significant role in Astros' offseason
Pennant-contending club will need to deal with arbitration-eligible key players
HOUSTON -- This should be one of the most interesting offseasons in recent memory for the Astros, who are poised to make a run at the American League pennant next year after coming within six outs of knocking off the Royals in the AL Division Series.
The Astros' payroll figures to increase once again, thanks in large part to an impressive group of arbitration-eligible players who will get big raises. That includes ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel, first baseman Chris Carter, catcher Jason Castro and designated hitter Evan Gattis. The payroll finished around $90 million in 2015.
"There's still a commitment to winning, very much so, and if that increases the resources even more, [owner] Jim [Crane] has assured me the ownership group is behind us," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "'We're going to take a look at what we think our needs are, what's available, and how we can improve this ball club. I'm sure we'll have resources dedicated to do that."
Despite the strides the Astros made last season, they have significant needs heading into the winter. They'll be in the market for a power arm at the back end of their bullpen, as well as a left fielder. They could bring back Colby Rasmus in left or choose to find other options at that position from a deep free agent class.
"There's going to be an impressive list of free agents out there, and as a front office, we have to reflect on some players we have," Luhnow said. "There are some decisions to make in the near term, as far as options and who we'll retain and so forth. Less than most teams do, because most of our players are under our control. It's too early to say specifically what we need at this point."
The Astros will also try to bring in another starting pitcher to add to a top-heavy rotation that could use one more arm. They must also decide how to handle the corner infielder positions and catcher, where Castro and Hank Conger are both arbitration-eligible.
Here's a breakdown of the Astros heading into the offseason:
Arbitration-eligible: IF Luis Valbuena, 1B Carter, C Castro, DH Gattis, C Conger, IF/OF Marwin Gonzalez, SP Keuchel, RP Josh Fields, RP Sam Deduno.
Free agents: RP Tony Sipp, SP Scott Kazmir, OF Rasmus, RP Oliver Perez, RP Joe Thatcher, RP Chad Qualls (club option for 2016).
Rotation: Left-hander Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA), who's arbitration-eligible for the first time, and right-hander Collin McHugh (19-7, 3.89 ERA) combined for 39 wins, giving Houston a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. The strides made by hard-throwing rookie right-hander Lance McCullers (6-7, 3.22 ERA) have vaulted him into the top-of-the-rotation discussion for 2016. Veteran Scott Feldman (5-5, 3.90 ERA) had a pair of significant injuries, including a shoulder sprain that cost him the final month, and pitched quite well in the second half. He'll be making $8 million next year in the third and final year of his deal.
Mike Fiers (2-1, 3.32 ERA), acquired in a July trade with Milwaukee, will be in the mix, along with Vincent Velasquez (1-1, 4.37), Michael Feliz, Mark Appel, Brett Oberholtzer, Asher Wojciechowski and Dan Straily. The Astros will make a run at a veteran starter in the winter. Doug Fister, Mike Leake and -- if they really want to open the wallet -- David Price are the free agents to watch. Also, do they re-sign Kazmir?
Bullpen: For the second offseason in a row, the Astros will be looking to bolster their bullpen. They added Will Harris (1.90 ERA), Luke Gregerson (3.10 ERA) and Pat Neshek (3.62 ERA) last year, and for five months, had one of the best bullpens in the AL before the relief corps ran out of gas in September. Houston has a glaring need for some firepower at the back of the 'pen, which is why they made a run at Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman in July. Don't be surprised to see them try to get one of them again in the winter via trade. Lefty Sipp (1.99 ERA), who was very dependable, is a free agent and could get a multi-million dollar deal somewhere. First, the Astros must decide to pay Qualls $3.5 million next year or cut him loose for $250,000.
Catcher: Starter Castro and backup Conger are both arbitration-eligible and should both return, barring a trade. Castro (.211, 11 homers, 31 RBIs) didn't have a good offensive year -- though he did have some clutch hits -- and will be costly in his final arb year. He made $4 million last season. Conger (.229, 11 homers, 33 RBIs) swung a hot bat at times, but his struggles controlling the running game were an issue. The Astros could stick with this duo for one more year unless they find something they like in the trade market. Max Stassi hit well in his limited time in the big leagues after scuffling at Triple-A all season.
First base: What will the Astros do with Carter? His late-season surge -- he led the Majors in batting, slugging and OPS in the final two weeks of the season -- only complicates matters. Carter looked like he was headed for a non-tender when he hit .185 with one homer from July 30-Sept. 17, but now the Astros have to debate bringing him back. Of course, top prospect A.J. Reed is waiting in the wings after leading all of the Minor Leagues in homers, and Tyler White's bat could put him in the mix as well. Jon Singleton still has upside. Perhaps there's a trade market now for Carter, who will likely make between $5-6 million next year.
Second base: Jose Altuve is about as entrenched as you can get. He's a three-time All-Star who, this season, reached 200 hits and led the AL in hits and stolen bases for the second year in a row. He started 153 of 162 games at second base after missing seven games in mid-June with a strained hamstring. Next year will be the third year of his four-year, $12.5-million contract that has club options in 2018-19.
Third base: If Valbuena (.224, 25 homers, 56 RBIs) returns -- likely at more than $5 million -- the Astros could platoon him at third with Jed Lowrie (.222, nine homers, 30 RBIs), who will be in the second year of his three-year deal. Valbuena set a career high in homers, but the overall production from the position could be better. The Astros could look for external options to bring in some competition, or even decide to trade Lowrie or Valbuena. White could be in the mix for time at third as well.
Shortstop: The Astros appear to be set for years with Correa, who played most of 2015 at 20 years old and hit .279 with 22 homers, 68 RBIs and 14 steals. He'll likely be the AL Rookie of the Year and an MVP candidate in the near future. Houston signed Lowrie to start at short at the beginning of the year, but his thumb injury opened the door for Correa to take hold of the position for the next decade.
Outfield: Carlos Gomez (.242, four homers, 13 RBIs, 10 HRs with Houston) was a dynamic presence in the lineup, when healthy, after coming over in a trade from the Brewers. He'll be in his final year before free agency at $9 million in 2016, and he should start again in center. George Springer (.276, 16 homers, 41 RBIs, 16 steals) will hold down right field while looking to have a heathy season for the first time in his brief career, but he's an impactful player offensively and defensively. If the Astros don't bring back Rasmus (.238, 25 homers, 61 RBIs), they'll have a huge need in left field. There are some interesting free agents on the market, including Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton. Jake Marisnick (.236, nine homers, 36 RBIs, 24 steals) and Preston Tucker (.243, 13 homers, 33 RBIs) figure to remain in backup roles.
Designated hitter: Gattis overcame a horrible April to lead the Astros in homers (27) and RBIs (88) in his first season in Houston, which was streaky. He's arbitration-eligible for the first time, and will command more than $3 million, but there's no reason to believe he won't return next year in some capacity.