Are the Astros looking to improve the wrong end of rotation?

Are the Astros looking at the wrong end of the rotation?

It’s fair to say there are more in-house solutions for the #5 slot in the rotation than there are for the #1 (or even #2) slot.

To be sure, only Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh can lay any type of claim on the ace role for the Houston Astros. You have to get one of those Texas-size cowboy hats to hold all the names who could fill the last spot for which we’re told Jeff Luhnow is searching.

So maybe, just maybe, the Astros have been looking at the wrong end all along?

Which brings me to James Shields, the former pitcher for the Rays and Royals. Should, would, could the Astros be interested? Jon Heymann even suggests the Astros as a possible landing spot for the just-turned-33-year-old. To be sure, it’s unlikely, but as the asking price drops, many teams have been added to the mix.

However, with some of the normal leading contenders out of the mix (read: Yankees, Angels, etc.) and Houston having expressed an obvious interest in heavily improving this season, well, you draw your own conclusions. Even if the Astros could sign him, is it a good move for the reconstruction project? Does it make sense for the over-hyped 2017 season?

Here are some pros and cons to signing the last, big free agent pitcher on the market.

The Pros.

  • It instantly transforms the Astros from an 80-83 win team into a solid contender.
  • Instant credibility, as if other recent moves haven’t moved the team in that direction.
  • The move puts other pitchers (Feldman, Keuchel, McHugh) into more of their more realistic middle tier roles. With Keuchel at #3 and McHugh at #4, wow, just wow!
  • It relieves some of the “regression” pressure for Keuchel and McHugh.
  • Shields is one of the most consistent pitchers — if not the most consistent — in baseball the past five years.
    • He hasn’t pitched less than 200 innings since his rookie year in 2006. Most recently, 227 (2014), 228 2/3 (2013) and 227 2/3 (2012).
  • Allows the natural progression for Mark Appel, Asher Wojciechowski and Alex White. Wojo and White are quickly pushed to the pen to start the season and strengthen that area of the team as well.
  • Provides a proven leader and veteran to mentor others and set an example.

Yes, there are cons.

  • Shields is 33 and would need at least a 4-year contract, meaning he would pitch into his year 37 with a big deal.
  • A big contract that fails (because of injury or under performance) could set the organization back.
  • How many of those four years will he continue to be good-to-great?
  • The Astros may have to over pay to convince him to play in Houston.
  • If this long-term deal doesn’t work out, will Crane approve others?
  • The deal would require the Astros to surpass the $80 million mark on payroll. Will Crane do it? If so, how much pressure does that mean to win this year?
  • With Feldman, Keuchel, McHugh already in house, would this slow the progression of Appel or the other kids (Josh Hader, Michael Feliz, Vincent Velasquez et al)? Probably not, but could be a factor.
  • Believe it or not, it will be Shields’ largest contract, biggest payday. Can he handle that pressure?

And the questions.

  • Go for broke for Shields?
  • What is your year and $$ limit?
  • Does a 4-year signing make either Keuchel or McHugh (or Appel or Feliz or Velasquez) expendable this year or next?
  • Would a Shields signing clearly — clearly — make the Astros a playoff contender?

58 comments on “Are the Astros looking to improve the wrong end of rotation?

  1. It is a question that has been hanging there in my mind for awhile. I never thought they would go searching for Scherzer, but if they could pick up Shields for shorter and more reasonable – it sure seemed like a possibility. The age is the one bothersome thing here.
    – Sure – go for broke – this would give the Astros a very good top of the order
    – 4 years – $75 million
    – No to me signing Shields falls into something Crane said about under the right circumstances going over his budget – To me there is not point in signing Shields if you are going to trade off Keuchel or McHugh. Now Feldman…..I would consider that.
    – I don’t think you can say a team that won 70 last season is clearly a contender with this – too many working parts have to click – but you have certainly improved the team in the three main areas – starting pitching, relief pitching and offense.


  2. I think, without a doubt, we are trying to upgrade the wrong side of the rotation. This is why I was open to trading Appel in a possible Hamels trade. I was just reading today fangraphs write up on our top prospects and they project Appel as a strong #3, and he is probably our top pitching prospect. With that being said I don’t see Shields as a #1 anymore, although he clearly would be on the 2015 Astros. There are a few ace-type pitchers who will be on the market next year, including Jordan Zimmerman. If we sign Shields do you see Crane also pursuing one of them next year?


  3. Shields would instantly make this team relevant look what the signing of Scherzer. did for the Nats…..he may very well want the same kind of contract and no, Crane won’t pay that kind of money. We can wish all we want, but it all comes down to money………


    • Becky, Shields is getting nowhere close to Scherzer money. That’s one reason he hasn’t already signed…because he may not even get the $100 million deal he seeks.

      But, timing perhaps more than $$$, Shields may not be — or should not be — an Astro.


  4. If Crane approves the money, there is no reason to not be in favor. If all 3 or 4 starters have a great 2015 – someone will trade with you. If Shields stinks up the job Crane is on the hook for the total. Actually in my mind – no one blocks a good starting pitcher. Now a bad long term deal at the other positions can block someone – but out of 5 starters – you are not going to block a great prospect.


  5. In any business, it is not a good practice for an underfunded company to overpay to acquire something that their fully funded competitors get for less.
    All the staff aces are under contract. Shields will not be a #1 for the length of his contract, just as Scherzer won’t be. I’m a firm believer in paying pitchers like we paid Feldman and developing your aces from within and then locking them up so that you get the full benefit of their contract. We have a chance to draft two great college pitchers this year who will develop at the same time as the younger top prospects we have now.
    I like Keuchel, McHugh, and Feldman as our 1,2,3 for right now. What I think we could afford and could really use is another #3 to add to our rotation to make us a much better one, right now. I wouldn’t mind us trading from our excess players to acquire that kind of pitcher for that kind of money to add to our team.
    Until our big guns mature, I think having more #3s to match up against other team’s 4s and 5s gets us to where we need to be for a $75million payroll team in 2015.
    I will admit that three weeks ago, when we were a lousy team at the $45million mark I wanted Scherzer, because Luhnow had given no indication he was going to explode and get some players and fix some problems. With the improvements he has made I think its better to do what I said above. than to overpay for Shields.
    By the way, just because everybody counts the Yankees out on Shields, doesn’t mean they’re out.


  6. Off on another subject momentarily…. new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, in an ESPN interview this morning, specifically mentioned he’d be open to pursuing the elimination of defensive shifts, which he says give the defensive team a competitive advantage. Surprisingly, some general managers, who believe in sabermetrics, are actually open to such changes. I would love to see this! I believe shifts tend to slow the game down and I go bonkers when I see the batter NOT trying to beat the shift by going the other way, whether by hit or by bunting.


    • Sarge, please don’t take any of my comment as shooting the messenger, but I would be vehemently, adamantly and passionately against this type of move. After reading your comment, I looked up and listened to Manfred’s comments regarding the matter.

      All I can say, is where would it stop? Every team — yes, every team — employs shifts in every game. If you open the door to get rid of the defense for pull hitters, which is what Manfred is talking about essentially, then what about these shifts as well that give the defense an advantage:

      * Corners in because the team anticipates a bunt.
      * Middle infielders squeezing the middle and playing at double play depth.
      * Outfielders playing straight away and deep to protect against extra bases late in a game.
      * Not to mention, infield in to defend a play at home.
      * How ’bout late in the game when you bring an outfielder into the infield to give you five infielders? That’s a “shift” that gives a defense an advantage.
      * Or, outfield in with a winning run at third in the bottom of the last inning and less than two out.
      * Or, even making a shift based on whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed.

      Sorry, as much as I hate to see that defensive shift that Manfred discusses, I’d much more detest messing with the game in so many ways. That’s what’s happening in the NFL now. They can’t even decide what is a catch and what is not a catch.

      Here’s what you do.
      * Teach the hitters to use all parts of the field.
      * Teach your pitchers how to throw to a pull hitter (hint: outside, away.)
      * If the objection is how much time it takes, give ’em the same amount of time as usual. No more, no less.

      Manfred’s reasoning is that he wants to shorten games and increase offense. “Increase offense”? Where do the rules stop on that? A pitcher won’t be able to throw a 2-2 curve ball because it gives him an “advantage”. I realize that’s a little far-fetched, but is it?

      Hopefully Manfred just doesn’t feel like he needs to make a mark and start implementing things because he’s new.


      • Two years ago, in the Cal League Championship game, Lancaster loaded the bases in extra innings with nobody out two innings in a row. The opposing manager brought an extra player from the outfield into the infield and left two guys shallow in the outfield to defend against grounders in the field and shallow line drives. Both times Lancaster failed to get the winning run in and the other team won the championship with a run in the 14th or 15th inning. It was a daring move in a desparate situation and it was a game to be remembered. It was brilliant strategy that worked!
        Imagine an overreaction by some guy in authority to outlaw a perfectly legal strategy so that nobody could do that again, just because he personally didn’t like it.


      • absolutely agree Chip. if teams want to fight the shift, learn how to go the other way or bunt down the line (even if its your second time up in the inning and you have a 7 run lead..ahem) you shift to combat a pull hitter, you open yourself up to strategies to defeat it, if your hitters will just learn to execute.


      • Thanks for allowing me to “whine” about the shifts. I am an OTBP who thinks the sabermetrics are too much and the other “ABC” stats (war? That is what battle is) are in outer space. Just throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball, and run like the dickens!


    • I dislike shifts, especially in extreme numbers. But I vociferously defend the right of teams to do what is legal and is part of the game and I absolutely HATE the idea of changing the actual play on the field because of the personal whims of the commissioner.
      I actually seathe at the idea of anyone suggesting changing the game of baseball itself because they don’t think something that is part of the game is not fair to certain teams.
      Total, absolute BS!


      • Yup. Any rule that restricts the placement of players on the field is just plain bad. It opens a can of worms for further restrictions and, worse, limits future improvements and innovations in defensive as we learn more and more about our favorite game.

        Reminds me of banning dunking in basketball because it gave Lew Alcindor an unfair advantage. Sheesh.


  7. As for the question at hand, I would not sign Shields. I am of the opinion that the Astros have a youngster in house who can take the number five slot and make hay with it.


    • i think so too sarge, too expensive for too many years given his age. appel likely works his way into the rotation sometime this year. barring injury i think we are fairly solid. having said that let me also say kendrick for a reason price and length of contract might be ok. i expect pitching depth to be addressed during this year’s draft.


  8. The thing I dislike about the modern NFL is they are so over legislated and next to impossible to officiate.
    Totally agree that the new commissioner needs to keep his nose out of the shifts.
    Like y’all said beat the shift by teaching hitters to hit the other way.


    • The only way to legislate shifts would be to put defined spots on the field for every defensive player much like the batter’s box for the hitter and catcher’s box for the catcher. Ridiculous idea and if the new commissioner is that much of a bonehead maybe we ought to coax Bud out of retirement. If he wants more offense then institute an electronic strike zone so that it is consistent, make it smaller and pre-set for every individual hitter and/or lower the mound even more like they did when pitchers seemed too dominant in 1968.

      As for the topic at hand, I may be wrong but in my short memory I do not recall the Astros having a history of good results signing veteran free agent pitchers to long term deals. It’s going back a ways but I’m not sure even the Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell signings could be regarded as successes. Of course we did do OK with guys like Ryan, Pettit and Clemens so maybe I’m all wet.


      • Dr. Bill, Carlos Lee hit north of .285 with 128 homeruns and 504 RBIs while here. His defense was unwatchable but he did hit. Also, as you point out, Ryan, was good long term. Now about long term, Pettite and Clemens were not here long, nor was Moises Alou, who averaged 30+ homers, 110+ RBIs, and .300+ while he was here. Jeff Kent did well but was not long term. I would consider “long term” to be 5 years or more.


  9. Don’t worry……..Luhnow will find a guy who’s trying to get back his mojo, then
    trade him at the break. happens almost every single year. There are ALWAYS
    pitchers who will take ANY deal……so go look in the trash to find another warm body to stick out there. Personally I think Oberholtzer can, and WILL improve this year, so your rotation will look just like it did last year. The pitchers who get an invite to spring training need to know the field is WIDE open…….so throw your best stuff!


  10. Just watched a portion of his discussion on defensive shifts. Maybe he could institute that BEFORE a batter enters the batters box, all fielders except the pitcher and catcher must declare which side of 2nd base they will play. Then they can not move back to the other side until a new batter is announced. OR limit the infielders on dirt or grass area to only 2 players. Sort of a Eddie Feigner -King and His Court type of game. And without a doubt, make any pitch over 90 miles an hour and an automatic ball. I did not believe we could do worse than Bud Light. Boy, this Nimrod may prove that wrong.


  11. The problem with “going for broke” on Shields is how will it look paying $12-$15 million a year when he’s 35 and the third or fourth best starter on the team. That kind of contract could be an albatross for the Astros in the year we’re supposed to be winning the World Series.

    If we did sign Shields, I’d want a front-loaded contract like Feldman got. Say $15 million this year, $13 million next year, $11 million and 9 million when he’s 37 years old. He’s easier to move if we need to, and we’re paying him just $48 million over years.

    Like others have said, signing Shields means keeping you’re other starters. Signing Shields means the Astros are “all in” for 2015 and 2016, and probably beyond. Maybe you trade Peacock or Oberholtzer, but not McHugh, Keuchel or Feldman.

    With the power in this lineup, the bullpen and an ace like Shields, the 2015 Astros would be the 2014 Royals.


  12. Between making shifts illegal and pitch clocks, these idiots are trying to ruin baseball.

    I watched a pitch-clock game from the AFL online. It was a small nuisance in a fall-league game. But imagine having a pitch clock when there’s two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run playoff game. Ridiculous.

    As for the shifts, if you don’t want a stacked infield, learn how to go the other way with the ball. Sheesh, how hard is that? As a Little Leaguer I learned how to drive the ball the other way. And I was a horrible hitter. I would think Prince Fielder can figure it out, too.


  13. And speaking of “surrender.” I heard a rumor that Homeland Security knocked on the front door of my buddy, Bopert and escorted him off because of what he posted on this site. Does anyone know if that is true? 😦


  14. – Shields: offer him Feldman money, but no more.

    – defensive shifts: I’m a bit torn. As a fan, I hate watching them. At the same time, seeing David Ortiz challenge an official scorer’s ruling that an error (not fielded pop up) should have been a hit infuriated me. Here’s a guy who could collect as many singles (or doubles if he’d decline a few cheeseburgers once in awhile), but is too stubborn to hit the ball to LF. We shouldn’t add rules allowing guys to pretend it’s slow pitch softball.

    Pitch clocks: Yes! But not the way implemented. Start with the batter. Keep them in the box unless they call / ask for time (limit 1x per AB). If pitcher is on rubber and hitter has not assumed ready stance, let umpire count him in…maybe 10 sec to start. If pitcher is taking too long, in view of umpire when hitter has assumed stance, issue a warning. On second warning, with runner on base, issue a balk. Really, though, preventing hitters from doing the Bagwell/Nomar routine will help considerably. They put rules in when I was in college and can’t recall a time I ever felt rushed or even impacted by it.


    • All the bunting I think you could expect or want from this particular team will be: 1. from Jed Lowrie to beat the shift; and 2. in inter-league games our pitchers will bunt to try to sacrifice Lowrie over to second after he has bunted his way on against the shift. Looking at our line-up, I don’t see anyone besides Lowrie that I want to see bunting except some subs like Marisnick, Torreyes, Presley, Gonzalez, Grossman, or maybe, in sacrifice situation, Hank Conger.


  15. A bit off topic, but I was listening to MLB Network Radio this morning and they had one of ESPNs sabermetrics guys on there (first name was Mark). They were discussing Jed Lowrie and how he makes good contact, but this was suppressed in Oakland because of the stadium. He predicted a big spike in Jed’s numbers this year. I just thought I would share this as it may be why Luhnow felt comfortable giving him 3 years. It might also explain why he loves Gattis so much (RH dead pull hitter with power playing half his games at MMP). Take it for what it’s worth.


    • Tim, when Lowrie was in the Houston lineup earlier, he did well in power and RBI numbers. He is a 30+ homer and 100 RBI man in this stadium. He hit .244 and I would like to see that stat elevated. Gattis was a favorite of mine on my fantasy league teams two years ago when he was an unknown.


      • The reason I brought this up is because, like most of us here, we can see the lack of OBP and the high strikeouts, but none of us has a ‘Decisions Science’ department at our disposal. The Astros probably use analytics deeper than any other team in MLB. Since we can see the lack of OBP and high Ks clearly so can Luhnow, but he probably has some information, such as Lowrie’s numbers spiking at MMP that we can’t see. For example, Valbuena has a high line drive rate. There may be something deeper into this that makes him more valuable than we can see. Just a thought.


      • Sarge, no way that Lowrie is a 30 HR/100 RBI guy. I’ve seen other comments in recent days about how many players the Astros now have who potentially can hit 30 home runs. Predicting that from players who have never done that — some at any level of pro ball — is like saying that Domingo Santana and Mark Appel will be in Houston by June and be instant success stories. Yes, there is power in the lineup and I will suggest that several players are 20 HR-type guys, but not 30. Each of these players needs to play their role and their part. If Hinch is a good manager, he’ll help each player define that role and part and the team will gel and win.


  16. Call me the minority but to me the question is simple – it’s two factors when it comes to Shields.

    1 – Does he make the team better? Given that you won’t give up anything, except a sandwich pick I believe, I would say that yes, he immediately makes the team better. Now – I am not as optimistic as you to think the team is a 80 win team as currently composed, but it is better than it was on opening day last year – and Shields would make them even better.

    2 – Would he immediately block or remove someone from the rotation that I would feel, as GM, is ready for some sort of break out? Scanning the current field I would say no, but who knew Keuchel and McHugh were coming last year? Luhnow is certainly in a better position to know than I.

    If he isn’t blocking someone, and he makes the team better, better enough to swallow 20 mil, I say do it. As long as you are going to get bang for the buck, 20 mil worth of pitcher, you can figure out what happens in 3 years if he falls apart in 3 years.

    I remember when the Mets gave Pedro that huge deal, it was the GM of the Mets that basically said it is understood that in baseball when you hand out a huge offer to someone for 4-5 years that you can expect only 3 great ones – but of course that guy ended up unemployed.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. With a pitcher of Shields’ age [33] what I look for is the trend of his [a] strikeouts per nine innings, [b] hits-allowed, [c] walks-allowed, [d] WHIP, and innings pitched. Shields’ strikeouts were down last year, and his hits allowed were up a little. But his walks-allowed were down significantly [only 48 all year], so his WHIP actually dropped a very little bit [to an ace-like 1.18]. And his IP were actually right in line with his career average [227]. This guy is still an ace. The only question I would like an answer to is why were his strikeouts down and hits-allowed up – and in particular could a drop in velocity account for these things?


  18. Getting back on topic next years free agent class may be one of the deepest in starting pitching in years. I don’t see Crane doling out big contracts to SP in consecutive years. You have Cueto, Zimmerman, Grienke and Fister, among others, as potential FAs next year. This may also suppress the cost some. I think we should wait until next offseason.


  19. Rumor has it that the Astros are inquiring about Kevin Correia…….please don’t
    sign this guy, he has been going down hill for the last 3-4yrs. We already have some experienced starters we can get a look in about 3 1/2 weeks.


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