Can’t a team even have a chance to bask in peace?

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.

My predictions:

  • 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.

FREE BLOG WEEKEND: Sure is nice up here on the mountain top!

Hello friends!  The Astros played into November for the first time and, as a result, the off-season dates will come a tad quicker for Jeff Luhnow, A.J. Hinch and the players who are wearing a new ring these days.

And, just so you know, opening day is only 140 days away. Hmm, that used to be a number important to Twitter!  Okay, nevermind. Pitchers and catchers start reporting, if you are wondering,  around February 14.

Yes, the Astros will need to squeeze in a lot of activity with awards, free agents, trade discussions, winter meetings, arbitration, discussions about extensions and more. Here’s a quick calendar if you’d like to keep track of some of these things:

  • Nov. 13-16.  GM Meetings in Orlando, Fla.
  • Nov. 14. Managers of the Year announced.
  • Nov. 15. Cy Young Awards announced.
  • Nov. 16. Most Valuable Players announced.
  • Nov. 20. 40-man rosters must be finalized.
  • Dec. 1. Tender/non-tender deadline. All arbitration eligible players on 40-man must be tendered/non-tendered.
  • Dec. 10-14. Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla.
  • Dec. 14. Rule 5 draft.
  • March 29. Opening Day

And, to continue the discussion about standing pat or going with what you have, here are a few other thoughts.

  • Rotation: Consider if Hinch can get a full year out of Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton. With an occasional cameo from Brad Peacock.
  • Bullpen: Can you get Ken Giles to translate his regular season success to the post-season?
  • Infield: Whoa! Just give me 150 games each from Yuli Gurriel (139), Jose Altuve (153), Carlos Correa (109) and Alex Bregman (155)! These guys hit their groove together in September. How ’bout April? (Numbers in parentheses are # of games played in 2017). AND, those four started only 74 games together during 2017.
  • Outfield: For Reddick, see Giles above. A full season of Marisnick/Gonzalez/fill in the blank with George Springer in center and Reddick in right would be nice.
  • Catcher: More of Brian McCann and find a backup who can spell him for a 2-3 games at a time if necessary.
  • DH: Evan Gattis, unless you want to plug-in one of the young guns or find a suitable replacement on the open market.

Yes, you can make a keen argument to stand pat, or at least reload from within. But do the research. Most winning organizations are the ones who are constantly looking to upgrade.

In 2018, the biggest “upgrade” may come with an extension for Keuchel or Altuve.

And, a couple of other goodies before I let you go.

  • The Astros have had 10 different managers and interim managers since 2000. Take that in for just a moment.
  • A.J. Hinch has the best winning percentage of any Astros’ manager (.558) and next year should climb into fourth place on the all-time wins’ list.
  • If Hinch is named Manager of the Year, he’ll join Hal Lanier (1986) and Larry Dierker (1998).
  • Jose Altuve now has four Silver Slugger awards, one behind Craig Biggio.

And some questions for your weekend:

  • Without looking, do you know which player led the team in these categories: Doubles? Triples? Walks? IP? Ks by a pitcher? Games started (pitcher)?
  • The Astros scored an MLB-leading 896 runs in 2017. It’s not an Astros’ record though. Do you know which team scored 938 runs?
  • Do you remember when these guys were the Astros Top 10 prospects (2011)? Only one of them has made it big.  1. Jordan Lyles, rhp. 2. Delino DeShields Jr., of.  3. Jonathan Villar, ss. 4. Mike Foltynewicz, rhp.  5. Jio Mier, ss. 6. J.D. Martinez, of. 7. Jimmy Paredes, of. 8. Tanner Bushue, rhp. 9. Austin Wates, of. 10. Ariel Ovando, of.
  • A.J. Hinch should have his fourth complete season as Astros’ manager in 2018. Who was the last manager to make it four full years at the helm of the team?
  • It’s possible that Houston could add another Gold Glove winner or two in 2017. Do you know which players (yes, players plural) have won five Gold Glove awards for the Astros?
  • You read about Silver Slugger awards above, but who is the only pitcher to win a Silver Slugger award for Houston?
  • Bonus question: Would you take Carlos Beltran back on a $2 million contract for 2018?