Astros Hot Stove Report: Houston could be done, and a former Astro gets redone

Sep 20, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa (4) reacts while running off the field during the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Astros Hot Stove Report: Houston could be done, and a former Astro gets redone

The last 24 hours have produced massive news that will have a gigantic ripple effect across Major League Baseball. Carlos Correa’s 13-year, $350 million deal with the San Francisco Giants came apart due to medical concerns expressed by the Giants during Correa’s physical exam, and the New York Mets swooped in to sign the former Astros star to a 12-year, $315 million deal before the sun came up.

Correa, a No. 1 overall pick by the Houston Astros in 2012, hit .291 during his only season in Minnesota after seven years with the Astros. He finished last season with 22 home runs and 64 RBI. for the Twins. Now 28 years old, Correa’s new contract with the Mets will expire when he is 40.

The shift of power in the league changed drastically as a result. San Francisco, which sought to be a major player in free agency, has completely fizzled out. The Mets, meanwhile, steal the back pages of the New York tabloids from their crosstown rival Yankees. The Mets offseason spending spree has now surpassed $800 million, and has the team firmly entrenched as a World Series favorite.

Mets’ owner Steven Cohen has signed the following players to contracts just this offseason:

SS Carlos Correa: $315 million

CF Brandon Nimmo: $162 million

CP Edwin Díaz: $102 million

SP Justin Verlander: $86.6 million

SP Kodai Senga: $75 million

SP José Quintana: $26 million

C Omar Narváez: $15 million

RP Adam Ottavino: $14.5 million

RP David Robertson $10 million

All of these players are upgrades for a team that won 101 games last season. New York’s lineup now consists of Brandon Nimmo, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Starling Marte, Daniel Vogelbach, Mark Canha, and a combination of Omar Narváez and top prospect Francisco Álvarez. That is an incredibly strong lineup and an improvement over last season’s. That lineup is paired with a rotation of Max Scherzer, Verlander, Senga, Quintana, and one of Carlos Carrasco/David Peterson/Tylor Megill.

Why does this matter for Astros fans? Primarily because the Astros are past just trying to win their division, instead competing primarily to win the World Series. The Mets have not only joined the Astros as contenders in that pursuit, but New York’s massive offseason may have made it the favorite.

The New York Yankees, meanwhile, just went from dipping their stogies in their glasses of Crown Royal to throwing them at the television. The Yankees’ signing of free agent starting pitcher Carlos Rodón to a $162 million contract after bringing back outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Anthony Rizzo had them feeling like champions of the offseason, only to get pushed off the front page by their crosstown rivals.

Judge is a great player, but he is unlikely to ever hit 62 home runs again. Rodón gives the Yankees another top arm in their rotation. Rizzo’s swing-and-miss rate and chase rate both reached career-highs in 2022. The Yankees are better, but probably not good enough to ‘slay the dragon’.

The dragon is the Houston Astros, who made their own moves this past week. Houston executed its primary plan for the outfield, and re-signed Michael Brantley to a 1-year, $12 million deal with an additional $4 million in incentives.

Houston loves Brantley’s leadership both on and off the field. He is a highly respected leader in the clubhouse by his teammates. He is a high-contact, high-on base percentage left-handed bat that balances the lineup better. With the elimination of the shift, that balance becomes even more important. Defenses can no longer move a shortstop or third baseman into short right field against lefties, and bullpen arms that have become accustomed to pounding lefties inside to make them hit into the shift will now have to learn how to work both sides of the plate. Not all of them will be successful, and the Astros’ primary left-handed batters are good at hitting lefties.

The major concern for the Astros is Brantley’s health. The operation that ended his 2022 season was his third shoulder surgery, although it was not on his throwing shoulder. It was his front shoulder when in the batter’s box as a left-handed hitter, and important area to be healthy for a high-contact hitter who does not strike out often.

The shoulder isn’t the Astros’ only concern with Brantley. He has dealt with recurring ankle injuries since 2018. As a member of the Astros, these recurring injuries have not caused him to miss a lot of games, but they have prevented him from playing the field for significant stretches and hindered him on the base paths. Considering the Astros’ well-established priority of protecting Yordan Alvarez’s knees by limiting his time in the field, Brantley’s ability to stay healthy and play the field is important for keeping his bat in the lineup and not compromising the health of Alvarez.

At this stage of his career, Alvarez is a better fielder than Brantley. Yordan has worked hard to become a good outfielder, improving his range and displaying an arm that is both strong and accurate. Brantley’s range is shrinking, and while his arm is accurate, it is not particularly strong right now.

While a player like Michael Conforto represented better defense and far more power, the Astros chose to stay with someone they knew, liked, and trusted. A healthy season from Brantley will reward that faith.

With the re-signing of late-inning reliever Rafael Montero, the addition of first baseman José Abreu and now Brantley, the significant spending portion of the Astros’ offseason has likely concluded. Houston still has a large number of arbitration-eligible players to work through, but the offseason’s decisions are mostly already made.

Barring a late offseason trade, it would appear that Korey Lee and Yainer Díaz will battle for the backup catcher position in spring training.

In the American League West, here is what teams have done so far this offseason:

Texas Rangers: SP Martín Pérez accepted qualifying offer ($19.65 million), signed SP Jacob deGrom (5 years, $185 million), signed SP Andrew Heaney (2 years, $25 million with an opt-out)

Los Angeles Angels: signed SP Tyler Anderson (3 years, $39 million), acquired 3B Gio Urshela from Minnesota, acquired OF Hunter Renfroe from Milwaukee, signed RP Carlos Estévez (2 years, $13.5 million),

Seattle Mariners: acquired OF Teoscar Hernández from Toronto, traded OF Kyle Lewis to Arizona, acquired 2B Kolten Wong from Milwaukee for OF Jesse Winker and IF Abraham Toro

Oakland A’s: traded C Sean Murphy to Atlanta for C Manny Piña, UT Esteury Ruiz, and minor leaguers.

Outside of the A’s, who will remain a poverty franchise at least until they move to Las Vegas, the other three teams all improved. They haven’t closed the gap on the Astros, but they will be better. The Rangers have the most chance to improve with their added pitching, assuming they can maintain health (deGrom) and effectiveness (Heaney). Texas can hit, but its pitching was abysmal last season. That should improve.

Oddly enough, the Angels made smart, albeit more subtle moves this offseason. The Angels chose not to make any big splashes, likely because of their pending sale. That was actually a wise decision for them, as Urshela and Renfroe are solid players.

The Mariners were the team closest to the Astros last season in the division, but there’s no guarantee they are much better than they were. Hernández’s production may have been a product of playing in a homer-friendly park in Toronto, and Wong is a decent player who bats left-handed with some pop and speed. Those players’ impacts may not necessarily translate to a lot more wins, as the Mariners’ record will be predicated more on their pitching and the continued development of potential superstar outfielder Julio Rodríguez.

As things stand, the Astros still appear to be the best team in the American League, followed by the Yankees, and then the Mariners, Guardians, Blue Jays, and Rays.

National League teams like the Mets, Padres, and Phillies have made the bigger improvements. Those teams have spent big money this offseason in ways the Astros have not.

The Astros didn’t need to. Houston is still a 100+ win team, atop of the heap in the AL West, runners of the Astros Invitational (also known as the ALCS), and the defending champions. Another typical Astros season (ALCS appearance, likely World Series appearance) will only cause haters who wanted to crush the Astros over the parting of ways with former general manager James Click to cry more.

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