2016: What Has to Happen
1. The Addition of a Left-Handed, High Impact Bat
As Johnny Cueto showed just last night, the Astros have great difficulty hitting quality right-handed pitching. The top of the lineup is stacked with three right-handed stars (Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Correa) who all hit lefties better than righties. In Altuve’s case, the split is profound. If you include Evan Gattis and Carlos Gomez, the only one of their top six batters in the order who is left-handed — LF Colby Rasmus — is also the only free agent.
Part of this will be solved with the arrival of A.J. Reed, the slugging first baseman who is Houston’s best remaining prospect. Playing Jon Singleton over Gattis — a strategy that looks great on paper but seems to have no support from anyone who matters — would also balance the order.
Beyond the internal options, I would break the bank, no questions asked, for Jason Heyward. The 26-year old Cardinals outfielder is patient (.359 OBP), a superior defender, and is coming off a season where he hit a career-high .293. His youth, production and athleticism make him a coveted free agent. I would expect the bidding to reach $140-$150M, perhaps higher. The Astros have very few long-term payroll commitments, and could frontload Heyward’s contract to pay him most the next two or three years, while Correa, Springer, Altuve and Keuchel are team-controlled and affordable. This is a strategy they used with Feldman two years ago. Heyward would be a tremendous fit batting second or third in the Astros lineup, breaking up the trio of right-handed stars they currently feature.
2. The Health of George Springer
Springer, who is also entering his age-26 season, has posted matching 126 OPS+ seasons to start his career, very strong, borderline-star performances. He has been limited to 180 of a possible 324 games, and his absence from the lineup significantly weakens the Astros, particularly their on-base ability near the top of the order. In 102 games, Springer was worth 3.8 WAR. A healthy, 150-game season would be worth an extra two wins, even if no continued improvement occurs. I also believe Springer has a 35+ HR peak season or two in his near-future, and they need him healthy to tap into that upside. Even if it doesn’t come in 2016, those two extra wins are wins the Astros will need in 2016.
3. Velocity in the Pen
The Astros should not trade the farm for Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel. The acquisition cost would far outweigh the benefit of a year or two of those relievers. What the Astros really need is velocity. Perhaps the biggest reason the Rangers won the division is two shrewd bullpen acquisitions: RHP Sam Dyson from the Marlins, and LHP Jake Diekman in the Hamels trade with Philadelphia. What did those pitchers have in common? They both hit 98 MPH on the gun fairly routinely. In big games, pitchers who can overpower and avoid bats are especially desirable. As we saw in Game 4, guys who pitch to contact are extremely vulnerable to focused, desperate offenses in big games.
The solution here may be in-house, with young guys like Velasquez, Michael Feliz, or Mark Appel all capable of sitting in the mid-90s out of the bullpen. But if not, the Astros need to take fliers on intriguing high-velocity options from outside the organization.