Winter report card: Houston Astros
With roughly a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting their offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for their prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012.
2012 Results: 55-107, 6th place in NL Central, now moved to AL West. (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Fernando Abad, RHP Wilton Lopez, C Chris Snyder
Key arrivals: RHP John Ely, RHP Josh Fields, 1B Nate Freiman, RHP Philip Humber, RHP Jose Veras, 1B/DH Carlos Pena, RHP Alex White
Unsurprisingly, it’s been a rather quiet winter for the Astros, who are steadfastly sticking to the long-term rebuilding plan put in place when Jim Crane purchased the team last winter and hired the stat-savvy Jeff Luhnow to be general manager. They didn’t lose anyone of consequence to free agency, having dealt pending free agents Carlos Lee, Brandon Lyon and Brett Myers — as well as Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ, covering everybody making more than $1.15 million — during the summer.
Their biggest move of the offseason thus far has been to trade Lopez, who took over closer duties after Myers was dealt, to Colorado in exchange for White and a Low-A pitching prospect, righty Alex Gillingham. The 24-year-old White is a former top prospect (47th on Baseball America‘s 2011 list) who has been tattooed for a 6.03 ERA at the major league level, mostly with the Rockies; last year, he threw 98 innings of 5.51 ERA ball in 23 appearances and 20 starts, most of them as part of Colorado’s four-man rotation scheme.
White will compete for a rotation spot, as will the 29-year-old Humber, acquired off waivers from the White Sox, and the 26-year-old Ely, acquired in a minor deal with the Dodgers. Humber threw a perfect game against the Mariners on April 21 but wound up torched for a 6.44 ERA while allowing 2.0 homers per nine in 102 innings. Ely, the owner of a career 5.70 ERA in 115 1/3 big league innings, threw just 2 2/3 innings for the Dodgers in 2012 but honed his fastball-changeup combo at hitter-friendly Albuquerque and won the Pacific Coast League Pitchers’ Triple Crown by going 14-7 with a 3.20 ERA and an impressive 8.8 strikeouts per nine.
The lineup’s big addition is the 34-year-old Pena, who’s coming off an abysmal season in which he hit just .197/.330/.354 with 19 homers and a whopping 182 strikeouts in 600 plate appearances for the Rays. He’s penciled in as the starting DH, with Brett Wallace continuing his bid to hold down the first base job. Any hope that top prospect Jonathan Singleton — a 21-year-old who hit .284/.396/.497 with 21 homers at Double-A — would join the fray went up in smoke as he recently drew a 50-game suspension for testing positive for marijuana. That could at least help Freiman, a 26-year-old Rule 5 pick plucked from the Padres, get a longer look; the 6-foot-7 first baseman hit .298/.370/.502 with 24 homers at Double-A San Antonio in 2012.
Unfinished business: Who closes? Houston indicated that Veras will get first crack when it signed him to a $2 million deal that includes as much as $500,000 worth of incentives for games finished. It may work; the 32-year-old journeyman can dial it up to the high 90s with his fastball, and last year struck out 10.6 per nine for the Brewers, but he has just five career saves to his name, not to mention a walk rate of 4.9 per nine. That has caused him to wear out his welcome quite often; the Astros will be his sixth team in six years.
If Veras can’t hold down the job — or if he’s traded mid-season, since churning closers is clearly part of Houston’s plan — it’s not obvious who the next man on the totem pole is. Quite likely, it’s an experienced free agent reliever who’s still looking for work and willing to accept a similarly incentive-laden deal. If not, it could be Hector Ambriz, a 28-year-old righty who put up Veras-like strikeout and walk rates (10.2 and 5.1 per nine, respectively) in 19 1/3 late-season innings for the Astros; he offers mid-90s heat. A longer shot is Fields, a 27-year-old former first-rounder who was plucked from Boston with the first pick of the Rule 5 draft. He lacks major league experience but can hit 95 with his fastball, accompanied by a power curveball that’s a borderline plus pitch. He struck out 12.0 per nine in 58 1/3 innings split between the Double-A and Triple-A Red Sox affiliates.
Preliminary grade: B-. There’s nothing sexy about what the Astros have done this winter, but they’ve avoided the quick fix and done themselves no harm. They still have an opportunity to pick up a veteran free agent or two who may be worth a longer look or a midseason flip, particularly in the outfield, where the prospective starting unit of J.D Martinez, Justin Maxwell and Fernando Martinez could use some muscle.