[Walks into home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, smells the air.]
“Huh, that wasn’t here last season. Smells like old people.”
Indeed, the Houston Astros have finally broken out the checkbook and bought some vintage bats. As it stands, the Astros’ four highest-paid players for this coming season weren’t in the organization on Opening Day 2016: Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltrán, and Yulieski Gurriel, who will cost a combined $54.9 million next season.
Houston’s position players were the youngest in baseball last year, with an average age of 26.6. Reddick will be 30 by Opening Day, McCann will be 33, and Gurriel will be 32. Beltrán, the one-time Astros playoff hero who, at $16 million, will be the team’s most expensive player, will not only turn 40 in April, but he’s literally gone paunchy and — when he can’t find his markers — bald.
Why would the Astros give up on their core of young position players, particularly when the Cubs — as a fellow big-market team that was run into the ground at the end of the last decade, then sold to owners who empowered a new front office to lead the team into a hard tank — just rode that train to a title?
The answer lies in how the Cubs’ and Astros’ paths have diverged, and how much of that gap Houston is able, or even willing, to make up.
Despite whiffing on two no. 1 overall picks (Brady Aiken and Mark Appel) in spectacular fashion, which the Cubs never did, the Astros built their team from a blueprint similar to Chicago’s.
(Giles didn’t work out as well as Chapman in the short term, but we’ll give him some rope because (1) he’s under team control for four more seasons and (2) getting lit up in April is better than sitting it out because you got suspended under the league’s domestic violence policy after your girlfriend alleged that you choked her.)
If these players are each team’s core, there’s not a ton of difference in quality. I’d rather have Bryant than Correa, but I’d also rather have the Bregman-Springer-Altuve combo than the Schwarber-Rizzo-Báez combo. The Cubs’ only clear advantage on these parallel moves comes from the juxtaposition of Fowler’s All-Star campaign in 2016 and Rasmus being so bad the Astros just stopped dressing him by season’s end, but neither player will be back for 2017, anyway.
The Cubs separated themselves in three areas outside this core: First, Jake Arrieta happened. Second, they developed a catcher, Willson Contreras, while the Astros fumbled around with Jason Castro, Hank Conger, and Evan Gattis. Third, even if you write off Jason Heyward, the Cubs hit big in free agency by signing Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist.
The Cubs’ lowest Opening Day payroll in the rebuilding phase was $92.7 million in 2014, which they nearly doubled in the next two years, topping out at $171.6 million this past season. The Astros’ highest Opening Day payroll, by contrast, was $96.9 million in 2016, up from a shameful $26.1 million in 2013.
The difference between flirting with the wild card and strolling to 103 wins and the World Series is sometimes as simple as being willing to suck it up and pay top dollar for front-line starting pitchers.
If Astros GM Jeff Luhnow had the opportunity to go out and pay $41 million for 391 innings of Lackey and Lester, which is what the Cubs got last season, you’d hope that he’d jump at the chance. But he can’t do that for two reasons.
First, this year’s free-agent class, as it’s been said, is utter butt crack. The only difference-making starting pitcher out there was Rich Hill, who just re-signed with the Dodgers for three years and $48 million. While Hill would’ve helped the Astros rotation significantly, quantity is more of a problem for Houston than quality, and Hill, even with his 187 ERA+ last season, hasn’t qualified for an ERA title since Bregman and Correa were in middle school.
Apart from Collin McHugh, who’s averaged 30 starts a year since joining the Astros in 2014, and no. 5 starter Mike Fiers, Houston is in dire need of reliable pitchers. Keuchel was that guy, reaching 200 innings in 2014 and 2015 before shoulder inflammation dogged him in 2016. Lance McCullers is outstanding when he’s healthy — over the past two seasons, he has the 25th-best ERA+ in baseball among pitchers with at least 200 innings, but a no. 2 starter is supposed to throw that many innings every year.
Promising second-year man Joe Musgrove’s professional career highs are 14 starts and 100.2 innings, and Charlie Morton has been about a league-average pitcher since 2011. He’s both qualified for one ERA title since then and failed to make even 10 starts in two of those six seasons. The Astros would have a competitive playoff rotation without making any more moves … if they could get their five best pitchers to October without getting hurt.
Second, this offseason’s moves so far won’t actually bump up the Astros’ payroll that much, so while it looks like ownership has empowered Luhnow to go deep into a nine-figure payroll, we don’t know for sure that that’s the case. They’re adding $60 million to the payroll among McCann, Morton, Beltrán, Reddick, and a raise to $14.4 million for Gurriel, the Cuban defector who signed last July and made $1.9 million for a 36-game stint in the majors.
But for all the talk about spending big, the Astros also wiped $58.425 million off the books over the past five months when Rasmus, Castro, Luis Valbuena, and Doug Fister hit free agency, Scott Feldman and Pat Neshek were traded, and Carlos Gómez was released. That group of seven players was worth a total of 5.9 bWAR to the Astros last year, most of which came from Rasmus’s glove and Valbuena. Even accounting for arbitration-based raises for Keuchel, Springer, and a few others, the Astros haven’t poured money into the lineup so much as they’ve reallocated the money they were already spending last season, and even though they were said to be in on Yoenis Céspedes and Edwin Encarnación, coming in second for a free agent doesn’t impact the team or its payroll.
The only way for the Astros to make a Lester-sized impact on their starting rotation would be to trade for Chris Sale, Chris Archer, or an equivalent pitcher, most likely using Bregman as the centerpiece of the package.
(For what it’s worth, I absolutely think they should do this for the same reason the Cubs should trade Schwarber: The positional makeup of the team makes Bregman less valuable to the Astros than to other clubs. Having Carlos Correa forces the Astros to play Bregman at third, which forces Gurriel to move across the diamond to first, significantly reducing the value of not only one but two key players. Using Bregman in a package for Sale or Archer not only gets Sale or Archer, it’d free third base back up for Gurriel, instead of forcing him into an unfamiliar position where his bat would be less valuable.)
Absent an upgrade in starting pitching, the best way for the Astros to get better is by plugging holes in the lineup. Most of the time, the best hitters on the team will play at the easier defensive positions — DH and the four corners. The Cubs, with Rizzo and Bryant, are certainly built this way. But the opposite is true for the Astros; their two best hitters, Correa and Altuve, are up-the-middle guys.
The weakest offensive position for the Astros last year, by OPS, was center field, which was largely the province of Gómez, who hit so poorly he was released in August, and Jake Marisnick, who is an excellent defender and has great hair, but cannot hit a lick; he posted a 62 OPS+ last season, and 68 for his career. After that, the three worst spots in the lineup were left field, DH, and first base, which are theoretically the three easiest positions to play (particularly in Minute Maid Park, where left field is smaller than my living room carpet), and therefore could accommodate bat-first players.
Except, last season the Astros couldn’t find any. In left field, Rasmus had the worst offensive season of his career, the first base duo of rookies Tyler White and A.J. Reed posted OPS+ marks of 82 and 49, respectively, and DH Evan Gattis got pulled into catching for 55 games, leaving Houston to fill three traditionally offense-first positions with utility players like Marwin González and Tony Kemp.
Notice where McCann, Reddick, and Beltrán play. McCann allows Gattis to move back to DH most of the time, or out of the lineup completely against righties, and for all the talk about McCann’s defensive deficiencies as a big, 33-year-old catcher, he’s going to be better back there than Gattis.
Meanwhile, Reddick, who posted a 111 OPS+ in four and a half seasons in Oakland, isn’t a great hitter for a corner outfielder, but he’s a way better hitter than Rasmus, Kemp, and Teoscar Hernández were last season. And while Beltrán isn’t the hitter he was in his prime, he still posted a 122 OPS+ last year and made 67 starts in right field. Beltrán will either solve the DH problem or play in a corner, moving Springer to center field and taking Marisnick’s bat out of the lineup.
Most importantly, these signings don’t actually impact the Astros’ core of Correa, Bregman, Altuve, and Keuchel — no significant prospects were traded away, no draft picks lost. Though McCann and Beltrán in particular are big names, they’re supplementary pieces, an attempt to change an F to a B or a C at three spots in the lineup, get any production at all from more than half the team’s payroll, and — if you like — sprinkle in a little Veteran Presence around the periphery of the clubhouse.
Not every team can follow the Cubs’ road to the World Series, and the Astros aren’t rejecting it — they’re just trying to find a different way around the traffic.