Mandatory Credit: Photo by Godofredo A Vásquez/AP/Shutterstock (13415532f) New York Mets’ Brandon Nimmo watches his two-run single against the Oakland Athletics during the second inning of a baseball game in Oakland, Calif Mets Athletics Baseball, Oakland, United States – 23 Sep 2022
This week’s Hot Stove Report has some major movement, hot rumors, and ideas about what could be next for the World Champion Houston Astros.
As addressed in our previous Hot Stove Report, there was the possibility that Justin Verlander would not be returning to the Astros, and he isn’t. Verlander got a two-year, $86 million deal from the New York Mets that includes a vesting option for a third year at $35 million. The Mets moved on Verlander quickly after finding out that Jacob deGrom was leaving the Big Apple for Arlington, where he signed a five-year, $185 million contract with the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers are clearly committed, having spent $556 million last offseason on Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray. While it only led them to 68 wins, there is a deep desire to improve the team quickly. The Rangers have a brand new ballpark but were only 18th in home attendance, bringing in just over 2 million fans. Their new retractable roof stadium holds 40,300 but they averaged only 24,831 or less that 62% capacity. By contrast, the Houston Astros were seventh in attendance at nearly 2.7 million fans. Minute Maid Park holds 41,168 at capacity, and the Astros averaged 33,197 per game in the regular season, or nearly 81% capacity on average.
The Rangers are also reportedly speaking with free agent starter Carlos Rodón, who is the best remaining starter on the market. They also announced on Tuesday they had signed free agent pitcher Andrew Heaney. Heaney reinvented himself last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, primarily because he learned a slider that helped him strike out a career-high 13.6 batters per 9 IP to go with a 3.10 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. In nine previous seasons with the Angels, he had a career 4.56 ERA. Heaney signed a two-year, $25 million deal with an opt-out after the first season, so he is not a significant financial commitment.
The Rangers are committed to spending money to improve immediately, and after a season in which they could hit but couldn’t pitch, they are adding to their pitching staff in a hurry. The Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels have both also made trades to improve their clubs.
This brings us to the Houston Astros, reigning World Champions but not without a few holes of their own. They are looking to return MLB’s best bullpen from a season ago and re-signed Rafael Montero to a three-year deal worth over $11 million per season. They brought in first baseman José Abreu on a three-year deal. They still have questions in the outfield and at catcher.
In the outfield, the market for Aaron Judge is worth watching. According to Jon Heyman of the New York Post, Judge reportedly has offers from both the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees, with the Giants’ offer believed to be around $360 million.
While the Astros aren’t in on Judge, who appears to be down to just those two suitors, it means the loser of that contract tug-of-war will also be in on the next best outfielders. This is where the competition against the Astros comes into play.
If the Yankees fail to sign Aaron Judge, after failing to sign Justin Verlander, there could be some panic buying. The Yankees could wind up being willing to pay up for the next level of players after losing out on their top two targets in Judge and Verlander. It is embarrassing (to them and certainly to their fans) that the Yankees were outbid by the Mets on a two-year deal for Verlander because of a few million bucks. To lose Judge would be a cardinal sin. They would be spending (or parting with significant minor league talent in trades) in atonement.
Also, take into consideration that the San Diego Padres reportedly offered Trea Turner a $342 million contract. Turner signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $300 million. There was no report on how much of that $342 million was deferred, but the Padres, who, despite already having big money tied up in Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, and soon Juan Soto, were willing to make a major financial commitment to Turner. Therefore, the Padres must also be considered competitors for top free agents right now. There is even speculation that the Padres could make a real run at Judge, making it a three-team race for his services.
Brandon Nimmo is the top free agent outfielder not named Aaron Judge. Other top-tier outfield free agents include Michael Conforto and Andrew Benintendi. Whether the Astros pursue one or two outfielders is not known, although it would seem likely, they will only pursue one. They have been reported to have had discussions with all three players mentioned.
The fact all three player share multiple suitors could drive their prices up, but none should get so expensive they become cost prohibitive.
While Jeff Bagwell has previously stated, he would like to see Yordan Alvarez playing left field 45-50% of the time, Astros manager Dusty Baker is hoping for more. On Day 1 of the Winter Meetings, he was quoted saying he would like to see Alvarez playing the field 65-70% of the time if his body can handle it. The Astros need Alvarez’s bat in the lineup every day and really can’t risk his knees flaring up from too much time in the field. The reality is that the Astros should be looking to pair him with another outfielder who is a better fielder than he is. The reason for that is that whoever they pair him with will not be as good a hitter as Alvarez. This way, when they use Alvarez as a designated hitter, they improve in the field. Using Alvarez as a designated hitter while replacing him in left field with an inferior fielder makes no sense, and the team needs to be able to use Alvarez as a designated hitter around 50% of the time.
While this would seem to rule out Michael Brantley, the team is still monitoring and conversing with Brantley to gauge his interest and his health. Brantley just had his third shoulder surgery on his right shoulder, having his labrum repaired. The important thing to note is that Brantley throws left-handed. The surgery will not have the same impact that it did when center fielder Jake Meyers had labrum surgery because Meyers had surgery on his throwing shoulder.
However, injuries are not uncommon for Brantley, who has also been dogged by repeated ankle injuries over the last few years. Brantley has battled ankle injuries since 2017, and while the recurring injuries haven’t caused him to miss significant time, they have at times relegated him to designated hitter duty for extended periods. Now entering his age 36 season, Brantley’s range in the outfield has deteriorated to below average. His arm is average but very accurate. At this point, he is not a better fielder than Alvarez and is an injury concern. While a fan favorite, he should be considered a fallback and not a primary option for the team as the tandem fielder with Yordan.
Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds has asked the team for a trade. Reynolds is entering his age 28 season and was an All-Star in 2021. While his production dipped from 2021 to 2022, he was still at .807 OPS player with 27 home runs. An increased strikeout rate is of some concern, but the real issue is that the Pirates will want a major package of prospects in exchange for Reynolds, and Reynolds will be looking for a big payday.
Reynolds is entering the final season of a two-year, $13.5 million contract that bought out his arbitration years. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and will be looking for a deal likely larger than Brandon Nimmo is looking for this season. For a team that already has a weakened farm system as far as top tier talent, to give up what is left of their top prospects and then pay a player over $25 million when they can choose just to pay a player that is just as good between $20 million and 25 million this season doesn’t make much sense.
For the outfielders connected to the Astros, signing Nimmo would cost the Astros their fifth-round pick as compensation since Nimmo rejected a qualifying offer and the Mets were taxpayers. A fifth-round pick would not preclude the Astros from making an offer if they wanted Nimmo. Conforto and Benintendi do not have compensation attached to them.
For those people who were wondering about Cody Bellinger, he accepted a one-year $17.5 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. He had multiple-year offers, but he wanted a one-year deal in hopes of proving he could get back to his previous production levels. From there, Bellinger could reenter the market and score a big contract next offseason.
Also, among outfielders, there is a new entrant into the market as Japanese left fielder Masataka Yoshida was posted today by the Orix Buffaloes. Yoshida is a 5-foot-8-inch, 176-pound on-base machine with elite contact skills. He slashed .335/.447/.551 last season with 21 HRs, 88 RBIs, 80 walks, and only 41 strikeouts. He has led the Japanese league in OPS each of the previous two seasons and led Orix to a championship this season. Because he is a posted player, teams have to pay a fee for signing him. Any team signing Yoshida would have to pay $5 million for the first $25 million of his contract, $4.375 million for the next $25 million of his contract, and then 15% of any money above $50 million on his deal. So a $50 million contract would cost the MLB team a $9.375 million fee to Orix as compensation. It is just money, as opposed to prospects, but it is essentially like a tax on signing him. However, he is considered an immediate impact player, and the Astros are certainly cash-rich right now.
Regarding the catching market, the Astros have been connected to Willson Contreras. They had the opportunity to trade for him at the deadline, but owner Jim Crane nixed the deal with input from manager Dusty Baker. In the proposed deal, the Astros would have acquired Contreras in exchange for starter José Urquidy.
Urquidy now figures to have a prominent role with the Astros following the departure of Verlander. The Astros can now make a run at Contreras without parting with anyone from their roster.
A week ago, it seemed the Astros were the definite front-runners for Contreras, but reports have cooled off over the last several days. There are no reports indicating either side has moved on; there just isn’t any new news. As of now, the Astros are still considered the favorites to sign the three-time all-star.
Contreras also comes with compensation attached, as he rejected a qualifying offer from the Cubs. The Astros would stand to lose their third-round pick if they signed Contreras, as compensation for him would be their first available pick following Competitive Balance Round B. Round B follows the second round of the draft. This is because the Cubs were not taxpayers but are also not a team that receives revenue sharing.
There were also reports that if they were unable to come to an agreement with Contreras, Houston could pivot to trying to bring back Christian Vázquez. Vázquez has previously been reported to be looking to catch every day, and the Astros would have to sell him on another timeshare with Martín Maldonado. Vázquez would not be happy getting limited playing time again in Houston.
It has also been reported that the Astros are in the running for Athletics catcher Sean Murphy. Murphy has three years of team control remaining and a healthy market for his services. As a result, while Murphy won’t be pricey from a dollars standpoint, likely fetching around $3.5 million in arbitration for 2023, it will take a strong package of prospects built around one of the Astros young catching prospects (Korey Lee and Yainer Díaz) to bring Murphy to Houston, and as we detailed earlier, Houston is not rich in top tier prospects at the moment.