Has it really been only six weeks since the Astros basked in the glory of its first World Series championship? Can’t the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Cubs, Dodgers and others just give a guy a chance to bask in peace? So much for peace on earth, good will toward men!
Meanwhile, the American League is fast becoming a league of the haves and have nots. Fortunately for Houston fans, the Astros are clearly entrenched in the group of teams in the former group. At least for now.
The Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Houston and now perhaps Angels are beginning to leave a chasm between the leaders of the pack and the rest of the league. Yes, things can change and they can change quickly, especially with injuries, under performers, trades yet to come and other factors. Including agents. Enter Scott Boras.
Still, it is very clear that the Yankees aren’t going to stand pat after missing the World Series by one win. Between additions, subractions, new coaching staff and more, you’ll already need a scorecard in the Bronx. The Angels have made the biggest signing of the off-season to date, Boston is chasing key additions and several players are already off the boards, including two former Astros (Luke Gregerson, Mike Fiers).
Key question: Will the early heavyweight activity force the hand of Jeff Luhnow? Or should he feel confident and content going into a slate-wiped-clean 2018 season when he hopes to have a full year out of Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, George Springer and others?
Indeed, there is never rest for the weary. And, Luhnow is likely facing the need for a major shuffle of sorts, whether it’s bringing in another top-of-rotation piece, strong bullpen additions or even a even designated hitter/outfielder that allows Marwin Gonzalez to go back to his Super Sub status.
Joe Smith is a nice addition to a getting-crowded bullpen, but he’ll likely need to make another splash or two before the team heads to Florida in a couple of months.
Here are the key questions for Luhnow going forward. None of these are new, but perhaps more highlighted now. My responses, takes and impressions are also probably a little obvious as well, but it’s where we are as Christmas approaches with a nice trophy already under the tree.
What to do with Dallas Keuchel?
Scott Boras is an absolute game-changer for Luhnow, Keuchel and the Astros. Luhnow can trade him now or trade him mid-season, but it’s reasonable to wonder if Keuchel is worth the Boras contract he’ll get (from some team). He’s obviously a Gold Glove All Star who has struggled at times since his 2015 Cy Young season (168 IP in 2016, 145 in 2017). He turns 30 on New Year’s Day and the Astros will have to determine if he’s worth a gargantuan contract.
What it comes down to: Is Keuchel serious about making Houston his long-term home? If he/Boras want to test the market and say “we’ll talk at the end of the season”, he has to go. Now or by July 31. The haul Houston would get via trade vastly outweighs the single compensation pick if it offered a qualifying offer and Keuchel declined. From Keuchel’s perspective, he will have to weigh if he can get a better deal now or during the season with Houston rather than become a free agent next November and face $ battles with a free agent class that likely includes Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, J.A. Happ, David Price, Matt Moore and others.
To tandem or not to tandem?
Fresh off the most unusual World Series pitching demonstration in history, the Astros can enter the season with a new approach. Will Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock start next season? Or do they became trailblazers and pioneers for a new category of pitcher: The Tandem. Most of us are old enough to remember when the elite closer came on the scene. (There were only three 30-save seasons before 1970, then came the likes of Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers). We’re all young enough to have witnessed the use of set up pitchers and the implementation of the “hold” in the mid-80s.
So is it possible we’re entering a new phase, where a “reliever” enters the game in the fourth, fifth or sixth, throws as many pitches as the starter and “closes” out the game? Are Morton and Peacock the John Smoltz of their generations? Pitchers who begin their careers as starters, but finish strong in a completely different role?
What it comes down to: Can Houston keep Keuchel? Can the rotation stay healthy? Does Luhnow bring in another rotation piece like Jake Arrieta that pushes Peacock and others to the bullpen?
Seriously, where to upgrade?
Other than the bullpen, it’s difficult to find a place for a major upgrade, especially when you’re talking megabuck offers. The bullpen is the bullpen and, yes, it needs help. Around the horn, it doesn’t get much better than Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve, Correa and Alex Bregman. On Springer, I’ll borrow a line from the 2016 presidential campaign: Lock. Him. Up!
You can make your arguments on Josh Reddick, but he’s Luhnow’s guy and likely is going nowhere. Enter Marwin, who was the left fielder down the stretch and playoffs and now has an I’ll-get-every-dollar-for-you agent. Sure Giancarlo Stanton would have been great in right and Houston may need to go for broke on that type of player. It’s a question of where to spend your money.
What it comes down to: Do the Astros believe Jake Marisnick, Derek Fisher or even Kyle Tucker (or maybe Colin Moran we hear now?) will provide enough bang to move Marwin back to his Backup Everything as Super Sub.
Who to lock up?
It’s time to start prepping for the future and Luhnow will have to cast his lot soon. The plight with Keuchel demonstrates what is to come — and even more dramatically — with Springer, Altuve, Correa, Bregman, perhaps Peacock and others. The Astros can still win big with Keuchel, either in a long-term deal or Herschel Walker-like trade. But now time is of the essence.
As I’ve mentioned before, Altuve, Correa, Springer and possibly Bregman could easily become $200 million players. Think about that! You can pay me now, or you can pay me later, but payday is coming soon.
What it comes down to: Luhnow and his statistical minions likely already have projected all of the above forementioned players into their early 30s, mid-30s and perhaps into their 40s. There are plenty of upsides and even some downsides to consider. For example, and don’t shout me down when I’m preaching so good…shorter players don’t always have longevity, so Luhnow will need to consider Altuve’s long-term viability.
Bottom line, he will prioritize these players with criteria that includes age, durability, free agent class, willingness for a home-town deal, fitting into the plan, other players at the position etc.
- Luhnow makes a move or two, possibly one that isn’t popular or one that comes with a gamble.
- Keuchel is likely traded by July 31, especially if the Astros can sign another top-of-the-rotation pitcher and Boras plays hard ball.
- The rotation is the strong point for 2018.
- More tandem (long relievers) like Morton, Peacock and possibly Lance McCullers Jr for next season.
- Altuve or Springer are the first guys to lock up.
- Boras creates a monopoly and becomes the agent for all Astros’ players.