Luhnow weighs in on Astros' 3 areas of need

December 16th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- The Astros' hunt for a starting catcher remained their top priority as the second day of baseball's annual Winter Meetings wrapped up on Tuesday. Jeff Luhnow, Houston's president of baseball operations and general manager, said he's been "pretty active" in meeting with several teams to discuss trades and the representatives of free agents.

In addition to a catcher, the Astros are in the market for a starting pitcher and a relief pitcher, but a catcher is on the front burner considering and are the only backstops on the 40-man roster. The Astros are strongly entertaining bringing back Robinson Chirinos -- last season's primary catcher -- and have interest in being reunited with Jason Castro, who's also a free agent.

As far as pitching is concerned, the club is looking to replace free agents Gerrit Cole -- gone to the Yankees -- and Wade Miley, and free-agent relievers Joe Smith, Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh and Will Harris, whom the Astros would like to retain.

"All three of those paths, there are opportunities in free agency as well as through trades," Luhnow said. "We're exploring all of it simultaneously and so far nothing's happened. I don't know if anything will happen while we're here but we're able to have the conversations that are progressing further. Not too many options have been eliminated of the options that we're pursuing at this point. We're feeling pretty good about where things stand, but not necessarily optimistic that they're going to happen before we go back to Houston."

Here's a closer look at the Astros' needs:

Both of the Astros' primary catchers at the end of last season, Chirinos and Martín Maldonado, are free agents. Houston signed Garneau on Nov. 26 to provide some depth, but a starting catcher is needed. Chirinos hit .238 with 17 homers, 58 RBIs and a .790 OPS for the Astros this year, in addition to catching every one of 's starts en route to him winning the 2019 American League Cy Young Award.

Because their lineup is so deep, the Astros prefer strong defense from the catching spot, something at which Chirinos made strides in 2019. Castro, a 2008 first-round Draft pick of the Astros who spent the past three seasons in Minnesota, would bring strong defense with some pop from the left side.

"Catching is one of the hardest things to really put down on paper and evaluate in a way everybody agrees," Luhnow said. "So we have quite a spirited debate. AJ [Hinch], having been a catcher, is involved, our scouts have their perspective, and I've got mine. It also creates opportunity because there are things to like about all the guys we're talking about. It's how it all fits together, how it pieces together."

Starting pitching
The Astros won't be able to replace Cole, who dominated last season and finished second to Verlander in a close Cy Young race. He went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and struck out 326 batters, winning his final 16 decisions in the regular season.

The Astros also are losing Miley, who went 14-6 with a 3.98 ERA and entered the month of September third in the AL behind Verlander and Cole in ERA. A disastrous September hurt his market, but a return isn't out of the question. Houston feels good with Verlander and at the top of the rotation, as well as the return of Lance McCullers Jr. from Tommy John surgery.

Luhnow said McCullers could be limited to 100-120 innings next year, underscoring the club's need for starting pitching. Beyond that, youngsters Jose Urquidy, Bryan Abreu and Josh James could be poised to step up into larger roles.

"I think we would all feel better if we had a veteran, someone that has a little bit more of the track record, is a little bit more reliable, that could soak up some of those innings during the season," Luhnow said. "That would be good. Some of those guys we just added to the roster -- [prospect] Cristian Javier -- and there are other guys that are possibly going to work their way into our rotation this year or next year."

Relief pitching
Harris, who posted the best season of his career in 2019 with a 1.50 ERA and 62 strikeouts, is a free agent for the first time. He joined the club as a waiver claim in 2015 and has quietly been one of baseball's best relievers during that span. A return to Houston would be a comfortable fit for both sides.

The Astros have quality arms at the back end of the bullpen in and All-Star , but they need more quality depth. Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski and Joe Biagini provide some depth, but they struggled at times last year. James is being groomed to be a starter, which leaves a hole in the bullpen. Youngsters Framber Valdez and Francis Martes will be in the mix, too.

"There's a lot of different options for us," Luhnow said. "We may end up signing two relievers and may decide in the starting-pitching pursuit for us that Josh James, you know, put him in in hard pencil instead of soft pencil instead of two relievers and make sure we're covering the rest of the game. That's all stuff that we'll sort out in Spring Training."