Astros Hot Stove Report: Houston Playing It Cool

Sep 30, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets right fielder Michael Conforto (30) hits an RBI single during the third inning against the Miami Marlins at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Astros Hot Stove Report: Houston Playing It Cool

While other teams hopeful of contending in 2023 spend money like crazy, the Houston Astros have taken a much more measured approach.

Big names continue to fly off the board in MLB free agency, but they aren’t coming to Houston.

The Astros have been content to let their fellow contenders blow wads of cash on mega long-term deals, while Houston has mostly sat on the sidelines watching and monitoring without making many moves. Yes, they added José Abreu as an upgrade at first base and brought back high-leverage reliever Rafael Montero, but beyond that, the Astros have been pretty quiet. While the frustration among the fans is understandable (who doesn’t want Houston to build a juggernaut and just maul everyone?) Jim Crane has stayed true to his words and his history. He spends money where he feels it’s necessary and doesn’t give out mega deals.

Former Astros shortstop Carlos Correa finally got his blockbuster deal done; he will be collecting $350 million over the next 13 years from the San Francisco Giants. I’m happy that Carlos secured his bag, but Crane was never giving a 13-year deal or $350 million to anyone. So far, he hasn’t had to.

While other teams spend monster bucks on eternal contracts (only a slight exaggeration), the Astros have continued to find ways to replace departed stars from their farm system or with quality, affordable free agents. When the Astros have made big splashes, they have done so in trades, not in the free-agent market. Houston doesn’t have a lot of ammunition to use in trades right now.

The New York Yankees, for example, not only dropped a cool $360 million to bring back outfielder Aaron Judge, they have now committed to a six-year, $162 million deal for free agent starting pitcher Carlos Rodón. Rodón has put together back-to-back terrific seasons as a starter and is a strikeout machine who has earned a pair of All-Star selections. Rodón and Judge are both terrific players and combined just signed for over half a billion dollars because the Yankees haven’t been able to develop prospects like the way the Astros have.

What makes this Astros’ run so incredible is the talent they have let walk away, only to replace those players for a fraction of the cost. Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Justin Verlander are the headliners of the list of players the Astros have let go since the end of the 2017 season. They have brought up players like José Urquidy, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, and Hunter Brown in that time. Houston has been uncanny in their development of players, especially pitchers.

They have replaced George Springer with Chas McCormick, who made one of the greatest postseason catches you will ever see. They replaced Carlos Correa with Jeremy Peña; all Peña did was win a Gold Glove, ALCS MVP, and World Series MVP. Their ability to keep reloading has been nothing short of incredible.

When the Astros have needed to go outside the organization, they’ve mitigated their risk with shorter-term deals. Abreu was the best available first baseman on the market in the Astros estimation. Houston inked him to a three-year contract. Judging by the crazy numbers being thrown around in free agency, you could almost say Abreu is a bargain at three years and an AAV of $19.5 million.

Nearly every contending team has either spent big bucks on pitching or still needs pitching. The Astros are the only team in baseball with the luxury of excess pitching. They rode that pitching and tremendous defense to a World Championship.

While it feels like forever since the Astros locked up Abreu and were seemingly due to sign Willson Contreras any minute (he ultimately signed with St. Louis), other teams have brought out the Brinks truck.

The Yankees, in addition to Judge and Rodón, have also committed $40 million to first baseman Anthony Rizzo and $11.5 million to relief pitcher Tommy Kahnle. (4 players, $575.5 million)

The Mets have committed to some serious money. CF Brandon Nimmo for eight years and $162 million, five years, $102 million for closer Edwin Díaz, two years and $86.7 million for SP Justin Verlander, five years, $75 million for SP Kodai Senga, two years, $26 million for SP José Quintana, one year, $10 million for RP David Robertson (6 players, $461.7 million).

The Phillies have signed SS Trea Turner for 11 years and $300 million, SP Taijuan Walker for four years, $72 million, and RP Matthew Strahm for two years and $15 million (3 players, $387 million).

San Diego signed SS Xander Bogaerts for 11 years, $280 million, and RP Robert Suarez for five years, $46 million. (2 players, $326 million).

San Francisco has picked up deals for Correa for 13 years, $350 million; OF Mitch Haniger for three years, $34.5 million; SP Sean Manaea for two years, $25 million; SP Ross Stripling for two years, $25 million, and OF Joc Pederson one year, $19.7 million. (5 players, 454.2 million).

Texas has added SP Jacob deGrom for five years, $185 million, SP Andrew Heaney for two years, $25 million, RP Martín Pérez for one year and $19.7 million (3 players, $229.7 million).

With all that big-time action, it is understandable if Astros fans feel left out. The team is still looking for upgrades at both catcher and the alternate left field spot.

After talks with Willson Contreras fell through, the Astros tepidly pursued Christian Vázquez. Vázquez ultimately signed in Minnesota for three years, $30 million. It’s beginning to look more and more like the Astros’ best option at backup catcher may be Yainer Díaz.

The Astros have reportedly been in discussions with the Arizona Diamondbacks regarding OF/C Daulton Varsho. Varsho is a strong outfield defender and not so good behind the plate. He has power but does not hit for a high average. These talks were reported on Dec. 12, and my suspicion is nothing is going to happen.

Varsho hit 27 homers and had 16 stolen bases while posting a .302 OBP and a .745 OPS in his second season. According to the numbers, he is a terrific defensive outfielder. Varsho is solid as a center fielder and excellent in the corners. As a catcher, his defensive metrics and caught-stealing percentage are lackluster at best.

The Astros have been rumored to be interested in Andrew Benintendi. Benintendi is reportedly seeking a five-year deal worth $90 million, similar to the contract the Red Sox gave Masataka Yoshida. It is indicative of the change in the marketplace, as initial reports had him looking for a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $60-65 million. The free-flowing money has increased everyone’s demands.

MLB teams are awash in money right now. Between new television deals and Disney making their final payment to MLB for BAMTECH, every team is essentially starting the year with $115 million before they open the doors. There has never been more money in baseball than there is right now, and it is getting spent fast and furiously.

This is why OF Michael Conforto has been my choice for the LF/DH timeshare with Yordan, it will likely only require a very short-term commitment to add Conforto. Conforto is said to be looking for a one-year show-me deal with designs on hitting the market next offseason off of a strong rebound campaign, allowing him to score a big deal. One year between $19-23 million should be enough to bring in Conforto.

Plenty of national baseball media believe there will be no bargains in free agency this year. With players signing contracts for super long durations and huge dollars, finding a “value” player will be more challenging. It would appear the Astros are content to let other teams blow their whole wallet load on players before getting in the game.

Houston only really needs one player, but there could be significant interest in that player if the positional scarcity becomes an issue. Houston may be content to bring back LF Michael Brantley, who has been a very solid bat for them, even without the home runs. Brantley, of course, must prove he will still be able to field his position and that he will be healthy by spring training. Those are two things that are not a sure bet right now.

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