5 Free Agents to Upgrade the 2013 Astros
The World Series ended Sunday with a Giants sweep and, while that spells the end of baseball for the 2012 season, it hardly means the organizations are on break. In fact, things are just about to get going with the hot stove season. This is that time of the year when players retire, get traded, or sign with new teams if they’re free agents. The Astros also officially become an American League team and will be looking to upgrade one of the most anemic rosters in all of Major League Baseball.
First, a few notes on my criterion. I generally looked for players who could provide solid short term value (so as to not block players coming up from the farm system), who had a track record of success, and for the most part weren’t going to be the highest paid free agents in their class. Also, because the payroll situation for 2013 is a bit murky, I picked a “full retail” free agent (a higher cost player who’ll command a good salary) and a “bargain bin” one (a player who could be had on the cheap, possibly looking to rebuild value).
Below are the five roster spots that the Astros should be looking to upgrade via free agency.
5. Relief Pitcher – Setup Man
First, some interesting stats: 12 wins in relief (worst in NL), 31 losses in relief (2nd worst in NL), 32% of inherited runners scored (tied for 2nd worst), 136 games pitched on zero days rest (2nd in NL), etc, etc. If you think the Astros didn’t have a very good bullpen in 2012, you are correct in that assumption. Wilton Lopez and Wesley Wright were really the only two decent relievers the team had at the end of the 2012 season, so it’d be wise to see the team spend on this area. I’d advocate using Wilton Lopez as the closer because 1) this team will likely not need a closer very much, 2) he did a decent job in that role in 2012, and 3) he’s cheap.
Kyuji Fujikawa. Who? Oh, just Japan’s Mariano Rivera. He’s been quietly putting up video game numbers over the past six seasons in the NPB (a career of 1.36 ERA, .855 WHIP, and 12.9 K/9 ratio.) and is now a free agent (meaning he won’t have to be posted). Multiple MLB teams will express interest in him and it’s likely he’ll get a multi-year deal out of it. Of course, his gaudy stats are likely to rise due to the increased competition of the MLB, but he should still be a quality reliever. A two year, $6 million contract might just be a chance worth taking.
Jason Isringhausen. He’s 40 years old, and nowhere near the dominating closer he once was, but I like him for a few reasons: 1) He pitched for the Angels last year, so is familiar with the division. 2) He appeared in 50 games last year and has been reasonably healthy over his career. 3) He’ll likely be had for peanuts. He made $650k last season and probably won’t command much more than that for 2013. For that kind of money, he’s the kind of stabilizing veteran presence that could be extremely valuable to an inexperienced Astros bullpen.
4. Backup Catcher
I’m not going to talk a lot about Chris Snyder here because, honestly, there’s not much to say. Snyder was a below replacement level backup catcher on a team that really used him more like a starter. Because the Astros still don’t know if Jason Castro can be healthy enough to be the #1 guy, the team should consider spending like they’re buying a starter. Preferably, that’d be a veteran with a right-handed bat (since Castro is a lefty) and someone who provides solid offense or defense.
David Ross. He’s hardly young at 35 (36 on March 19th), but is the exact veteran presence the Astros could use at catcher. His slash line of .256/.321/.449 won’t blow anyone out of the water, but it’s above average for the position and would be a step up from what Snyder offered in 2012. Baseball-reference.com (BR) gave him a WAR of .8, which may sound somewhat paltry, but means his $1.625 million contract last season was a relative bargain. Ross played in 62 games last year as Brian McCann’s backup in Atlanta and likely would get more playing time with Houston—something that could be attractive for the player. One to two years at $2 million per season would be a solid signing for the Astros.
Carlos Corporan. Yes, Carlos Corporan! He’s not yet a free agent. (In fact, the Astros own his rights and he’s still pre-arbitration eligible! Hooray!) If the team wanted to use him as a backup plan to Castro, they’d only be on the hook for the league minimum. (Honestly, that might not be such a bad idea considering how thin the free agent crop of catchers is looking right now.) Corporan provided some much needed pop with four home runs in 27 games with Houston last season while also providing decent defense. His slash line was .269/.310/.449, which was almost exactly the same kind of offensive output as David Ross. He was good enough to be worth .5 WAR according to Baseball-Reference.com. Corporan is quite a bit younger than Ross (28), too, so he might be the favorite here.
3. Right Field
Like Chris Snyder, Brian Bogusevic is really a backup player who started way too many games and provided sub-par value. He did show some value as a defensive replacement, and a bat off the bench, but his .596 OPS in 2012 was absolutely woeful. Bogusevic is an out of options player, meaning that if he is designated for assignment he would be exposed to waivers and likely claimed by another team. The Astros have been more than generous with his playing time the past couple of seasons and should hopefully be looking to move on.
Jimmy Paredes is another player the Astros experimented with in right field late last season, but he’s still extremely raw and relatively new to playing the outfield. He could use another season of experience at AAA OKC.
Torii Hunter. He’s not cheap, nor will he command much of a discount off of what he made last season (around $18.5 million), but he was worth every penny of it (his 5.3 WAR last season was worth $23.6 million according to Fangraphs). He’s 35 now, so a long term contract seems unlikely. Can be had on a one year deal? It’s certainly worth looking in to for Houston. Hunter is a premier player, can be counted on to provide power, and knows the AL West like a glove. Additionally, he’d bring a bit of star power to a team that’s lacking recognizable faces. If the Astros offered one year at $15 million, would Torii take it?
Juan Pierre. His big contract days are also behind him, but he’s still a player providing value. He made $800,000 last season with the Phillies and rewarded them with 1.6 WAR according to BR. Pierre isn’t going to hit more than 1-2 homers a year, but he tends to find a way to get on base (.351 OBP in 2012). He’d slot in nicely as the Astros lead-off hitter, moving Altuve back to a natural position at the two spot, and would also provide a lefty bat to platoon with Justin Maxwell. Two years at three to four million might be a worthy investment here.
2. Designated Hitter
The Astros had one of the worst offenses in the National League with 146 home runs (10th), 583 runs (15th), and a collective .236 batting average (14th). The team is sorely lacking a bona fide power hitter who can add some thump to the middle of the lineup. The closest thing the Astros have to an in-house DH is Jonathan Singleton, but he’s never played a game above AA before. Is that really who you’re hoping will anchor the Astros lineup?
Mike Napoli. If the team really wanted to make a splash—and stick it to the Rangers at the same time—they’d sign Napoli. He’s 31, and in the prime of his career, so three years might be the minimum it’d take to sign him. He’s played the entirety of his career in the AL West and isn’t strictly a DH—he can play catcher and first base, too (which are other potential weak points on this roster). His bat is solid (he hit 24 homers last year) and has typically played above his contract. Napoli may not be a bargain at $12-14 million per season, but he could be an extremely valuable and consistent part of the Astros lineup for the immediate future.
Jonny Gomes. The journeyman outfielder/DH hit 18 home runs last season for the surprising Oakland A’s. For one year, $1 million they got their money’s worth—and then some. Gomes is still relatively young (32 in November) and has consistently hit for power in his career. The A’s will most likely try and re-sign him, so a multiple year deal seems likely. A two year, $10 million contract might just be a steal.
1. Starting Pitcher
This is, perhaps, the biggest trouble spot for the team. Houston’s 4.56 collective team ERA ranked 13th in the NL and they delivered some of the fewest quality starts in the league. Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, and Jordan Lyles all seem like locks to be in the rotation next year, but none of them profile as anything more than a number three starter. The Astros are in desperate need of a top of the rotation pitcher who can be relied upon to throw 200 innings and give the team a legitimate chance to win some games. Unfortunately, everyone is always looking for quality starting pitching, so it’ll be an extremely competitive market.
Hiroki Kuroda. He’ll be 38 in February, but had one of his best seasons in 2012 when he won a career high 16 games and threw 219 innings for the Yankees. In his five seasons, he’s been very consistent with a career ERA of 3.42, a WHIP of 1.182, and a K/BB ratio of 3.22. He’s also open to signing a short term deal, as he did when he signed with the Yankees for one year $10 million in 2012. Is he worth a raise and multiple years? Absolutely. Fangraphs thinks he was worth $17.5 million last season. A two year deal, at $12 million per, would be money well spent.
Brandon McCarthy. There’s a possibility that McCarthy, the ace of the Oakland A’s staff, will command big bucks on the free agent market this winter. But there’s also a chance teams will avoid the pitcher entirely. McCarthy, as you may remember, was hit in the head by a line drive late in the 2012 season and has battled injuries throughout his career. If McCarthy doesn’t get a long term deal to his liking, he could sign a short term contract before seeking a long term deal again in the 2013 offseason. If that’s the case, and assuming he doesn’t re-sign with the Athletics, he could be an intriguing option for the Astros at $6 million for 162 games.