Astros Hot Stove Report: What’s next after Abreu?

Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock (13449976k) New York Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo (9) runs to first base on a ground ball against the San Diego Padres during the second inning of Game 2 of a National League wild-card baseball playoff series, in New York Padres Mets Baseball, New York, United States – 08 Oct 2022

Astros Hot Stove Report: What’s next after Abreu?

The latest news, rumors, and opinion on the World Champion Houston Astros offseason moves.

Now that José Abreu has been signed and formally introduced as an Astro, what may be next for the reigning champs?

Astros owner Jim Crane stated the GM position would be filled, but the search could go into the new year. He expressed that he is happy with the work of his three-man team of Andrew Ball, Bill Firkus, and Charles Cook. All three are currently titled as assistant general managers. Hall of Famer and Astros legend Jeff Bagwell has served as an adviser to Crane and assisted in closing the deal for Abreu.

Following the signing of Abreu, Crane discussed the mindset of the team as well as a pair of the team’s own free-agent players:

“We’re active. We’ll stay active in the market. Certainly, Yuli is in the mix. As I mentioned before, Verlander is in the mix. We’re looking at other options, so we’re not finished. We like our team. Pitching is strong, this adds another bat, but we think we can improve a little bit more.”

As far as what the team would be active in seeking, Crane replied:

“We have to look at the catching and maybe another outfielder, and you never have enough pitching. I think those are the spots that are very obvious.”

At catcher, Christian Vázquez would seem a sensible decision. Reportedly his demands are not very high, and since the Astros traded for him at the deadline, there is no compensation to be paid. He’s proven to be an excellent defensive catcher (caught the second No Hitter in World Series history) and he is a good contact bat hitting at least .270 in three of his last four seasons.

Vázquez has expressed a desire to catch every day, and with Martín Maldonado still on the roster, he likely doesn’t feel he would get that opportunity in Houston, though he should. Maldonado is four years older than the 32-year-old Vázquez. His bat shows every bit of that age, especially when being asked to play the majority of games.

Houston doesn’t seem interested in a reunion with him, however, they have been reported to be interested in another free-agent catcher in, Willson Contreras.

Contreras will be entering his age-31 season and is coming off a year where he hit 22 home runs and had an .815 OPS in 113 games for the Cubs, posting a 3.9 WAR. Willy hit .243 last season, which is in line with his production for the past three seasons. Contreras is a capable defender, with his biggest weakness perhaps being pitch framing. Vazquez and Maldonado are excellent at stealing the occasional call. Of course, if MLB ever switches to the Trackman strike zone, that will be irrelevant.

There is a school of thought that the Astros would utilize Contreras not as their starting everyday catcher, but as a sometimes catcher, sometimes left fielder, and sometimes DH. This would be a huge mistake.

Contreras’ bat is very good for a catcher, but doesn’t carry the same impact as a LF or DH. Also, whoever splits time with Yordan Alvarez in LF needs to be a better fielder than Yordan is. Contreras, who has played 35 games in left field in his seven-year career for a grand total of 219.2 innings (out of a possible 315 in those games), grades as a very poor outfielder with almost no range. He has played one inning of OF over the last three seasons.

Now, if the team intended to utilize him as the everyday catcher and put him behind the plate five days a week, that would make a lot more sense. Maldonado could tutor him on the staff and play twice a week as the backup. A backup role could potentially help Maldonado’s bat, as the extra time off and lack of wear and tear on his body can’t hurt him, considering his age (36) and recent heavy workloads.

Would the Astros make Contreras an everyday catcher and still sign another bat? Enter the Justin Verlander discussions.

The Astros had an exclusive window to sign Verlander, but were unable to do so. Verlander has no shortage of big market suitors ready to back up a brinks truck to his home to obtain his services. The Mets, Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, and Rangers and all reported to be interested in Verlander. The most recent reports have the Dodgers as the favorites to sign the reigning AL Cy Young winner. Crane stated he had not visited with Verlander recently.

Reports are that Verlander wants a Max Scherzer type deal in the range of three years and $130M. The Astros may be the only team in baseball that could afford to lose a pitcher like Verlander and not really miss a beat. Houston’s pitching depth is otherworldly, with a projected starting rotation of Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy should Verlander move on. That doesn’t include rookie sensation and Verlander clone Hunter Brown, who was named the PCL Pitcher of the Year at Triple-A. The Astros could maintain their very successful six-man rotation without Verlander.

Verlander had a historical season, considering his age and the fact he was coming off Tommy John surgery. Regression should be expected. Never in his career has he posted as low an ERA over an entire season as he did in 2022. Most pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery are limited to 160 innings when they are in their 20s, and history has shown pitching a heavy workload following that surgery is highly detrimental to the success and health of that pitcher going forward. While Verlander may have a right arm blessed by the baseball gods directly, he did throw 195 innings combined in the regular season and postseason. What Verlander did in 2022 defied all history, but how long can he do that?

While Crane has expressed that the team is capable of exceeding the luxury tax, and the Astros current contracts certainly indicate they aren’t afraid of being taxpayers, there are levels to the tax game. $233M is the first tax line, with one set of penalties. Exceeding $253M would put the Astros into a second tier of penalties for spending. Considering Crane’s previous aversions to being a taxpayer at all, it stands to reason that he would not want to pay the more excessive penalties for going over the second tax line.

Signing Verlander at an average annual value similar to Scherzer’s $43M would put the Astros tax payroll at approximately $240M. That would have only $13M under the second tax line, and likely prevent them from a substantial upgrade in the outfield like Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, or Andrew Benintendi.

Nimmo is considered the second-best outfielder on the market after Aaron Judge. Most estimates have Nimmo receiving a contract in the neighborhood of five years and about $110M. There is a line of suitors for him, as he is a strong defensive outfielder who can play all three positions well, is an accomplished leadoff hitter, and has excellent on-base skills. Nimmo has a career .385 OBP and .824 OPS; those are terrific numbers for those metrics.

The Rays, Mariners, Giants, Mets, and Blue Jays have all been linked to Nimmo. His ability to be an on-base machine with extra-base power (54 XBH in 2022) while being an above-average defender in center field makes him very coveted. With all of the interest in him and the dearth of quality center fielders, his price tag could reach $25M per season. He would still be worth it, but it would push the Astros closer to that tax line.

Of course, if the Astros let Verlander walk and paid Nimmo $25M AAV, their taxable spending would only be $225M at that point. That would still be below the first tax line, freeing them up for another potential bat.

Depending on how the club views Chaz McCormick would likely impact whether they sought two outfielders or one outfielder and a pitcher. They could certainly benefit from having a left-handed reliever in the pen. Getting an outfielder and pen lefty is far more palatable to Crane’s bottom line if Verlander moves on.

Michael Conforto is another player the Astros have been reported to be interested in, and he is a terrific buy-low candidate. Conforto posted a strong .265/.369/.495 slash line (. 864 OPS) from 2017-2020, but had a down 2021 as nearly every Mets player did. He then missed the 2022 season after having shoulder surgery. The compensation attached to Conforto for turning down the Mets’ qualifying offer has long expired, so a team only need pay him and not worry about any other compensation to acquire him.

Conforto is not only a legitimate power hitter but also an above-average outfielder who can play both corners. While he cannot play center field, he could split left field with Yordan Alvarez and play right field when Kyle Tucker needed a day off. Like Nimmo, he is also a left-handed bat and creates great balance for the lineup.

Balance in the lineup will be more important than ever next season as MLB does away with the shift. No longer can right-handed relievers just pound lefty batters inside to force them to hit into a shift. No longer will 110 mph balls be scooped up by second basemen playing halfway out in right field to scoop those balls up and turn them into outs. Teams will have to teach pitchers how to work both sides of the plate and attempt to get lefty batters to pull outside pitches to roll them over. Bullpens will have much more trouble matching up than they have had in over 20 years. That lefty/righty alternating balance will make the Astros a matchup nightmare for any team’s bullpen, especially during innings six through eight.

In addition to the Astros, the Mets, Mariners, and Cubs are all reported to have interest in Conforto.

Taylor Rogers and Andrew Chafin headline a left-handed reliever market that is not very deep, though it does include former star closers Aroldis Chapman and Brad Hand.

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