Relievers, backup catcher on Astros' wish list

November 29th, 2023

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

As he embarks on his first Winter Meetings as general manager, Dana Brown of the Astros has clear-cut needs as he looks to improve a roster that was one win away from a fifth American League pennant in seven seasons and returns most of its key players from last season.

"You can never have enough arms," Brown said at the General Managers Meetings earlier this month.

Specifically, the Astros will be in search of relief pitching and catching help when Brown and members of his front office arrive at the Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn., next week. Brown said the focus will be reinforcing the bullpen, as well as finding a backup catcher, with Yainer Diaz set to take over as the starter next year.

Houston returns closer Ryan Pressly and a dominant setup man in Bryan Abreu, so the club is in good shape at the back end of the bullpen. But three key relievers -- Hector Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek -- are free agents and will need to have their innings replaced. Neris (71 games), Maton (68 games) and Stanek (55 games) combined to throw 185 innings last season -- 33.9 percent of the team's relief innings in 2023.

"If it comes down to getting a seventh-inning guy, or we have to use money that we could use for a sixth-inning guy and a catcher, we'll probably get the sixth-inning guy and a catcher and fill the seventh-inning guy from within," Brown said.

One way to improve the bullpen could be adding a starter and moving another arm to relief, but don't expect the Astros to seek high-end starters. After all, they'll return injured starters Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia sometime next season and begin the season with a rotation anchored by Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and José Urquidy, along with Hunter Brown and J.P. France, who were impact rookies in '23.

"I think we're good enough to get back to the postseason with the current rotation, but I'm not being closed-minded to if a starter falls into our lap and we can make it fit financially, I could be interested," Brown said. "Most of all, the priority is a backup catcher and bullpen. And I think that kind of sets us up for at least getting back to the postseason, potentially winning the division and going deep again. If we get that starter, it may make it a little easier."

Houston returns six players on offense who posted an OPS+ of at least 120 in '23 -- Yordan Alvarez (170), Jose Altuve (151), team MVP Kyle Tucker (142), Chas McCormick (130), Diaz (128) and Alex Bregman (122). The Astros will hope for more from shortstop Jeremy Peña, who posted a .705 OPS in his sophomore season, and veteran first baseman José Abreu, who finished with a .680 OPS after a strong September.

"I think we're pretty good in the outfield defensive-wise," Brown said. "I think we ... get offensive production from Alvarez and McCormick and [Gold Glove utility player Mauricio] Dubón. I think we can catch the ball defensively, and I'd rather focus on maybe getting more depth in the rotation, or getting stronger in the bullpen, or getting the backup catcher. The backup catcher and the bullpen are priority. But, [if] we get an opportunity to add a legit third starter or better, we'll definitely be in the mix for that."