Why, yes, the Astros are the reigning World Series champions. But that doesn’t mean the front office can take it easy in the offseason.
This bears mentioning: the Astros are a very, very good team. They figure to be one of the best teams in 2018. Most, if not all, of their core players will be back next season.
Like most teams, though, some fine tuning is required. But the Astros do not have an obviously glaring need. Well, except one. Like, maybe, the need for a quality left-handed reliever.
By now you are probably familiar with the Astros’ lack of a quality southpaw option in the bullpen. At the end of the day, Houston was fortunate to get by most of the postseason without having to use Francisco Liriano in many high-leverage situations. Though I think a case can be made for an increase in usage based on his history against left-handed hitters. Tony Sipp and his $18 million contract from two offseasons ago looks like a mistake in hindsight. His 5.79 ERA and 5.22 FIP in 2017 didn’t help the perception surrounding him in Houston following a disappointing – 4.95 ERA and 6.19 FIP – 2016. The contract did make sense, however, in 2015 when he posted an 1.99 ERA and 2.93 FIP in 54.1 innings.
The need has been established. So, who should the Astros target this offseason in free agency?
Jake McGee, who most recently played for the Colorado Rockies, is an obvious candidate. You may remember McGee from his time in Tampa with the Rays. In fact, he was rumored nearly two years ago to be a trade candidate to Houston.
But this time around he is a free-agent as his contract with the Rockies ended at the conclusion of the 2017 season. And while his first season in Denver – 4.73 ERA in 45.2 innings – doesn’t attract much confidence, his 2017 season – 3.61 ERA in 57.1 innings – helped reestablish some value. After all, pitching in Coors Field for the Rockies has historically not been a good situation for most pitchers. Surprisingly, though, McGee’s splits against left-handed and right-handed hitters was opposite of what you expect from a left-handed reliever.
LHH split in 2017: .256 AVG, .301 wOBA in 84 totals batters faced
RHH split in 2017: .202 AVG, .255 wOBA in 145 totals batters faced
Believe it or not, but his 2017 splits are similar to his career splits in ERA and wOBA. So, McGee is a left-handed pitcher who is actually better against right-handed pitchers. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t take away that he can regain his former lockdown status like he did with the Rays earlier in his career. Expect McGee to demand a similar contact in terms of years and salary that Sipp did a few offseasons ago.
A familiar name in Tony Watson also comes to mind. You may remember him as one of the Dodgers’ relievers used in the World Series. And he is also a free-agent.
The former Pirate was traded to Los Angeles during the summer and he became a reliable option for the Dodgers. His 2017 season – 3.38 ERA in 66.2 innings – is not eye-opening, but he is solid. In his career, the left-hander has posted a .212 average and .258 wOBA against left-handed hitters. He also has a lesser yet similar effectiveness against right-handed hitters. The 32-year old pitcher would likely demand a two-to-three year contract and roughly a similar annual salary that Sipp currently has for Houston.
Due to expected salary demands for both relievers, it is probably a long shot that the Astros actually sign either pitcher.
This is mainly due to the existing salary of $6 million that Houston is paying Sipp in the last season of his contract in 2018. Of course, the Astros could swallow the loss, cut Sipp and sign a free-agent reliever to a similar contract. But the cheaper option could be more likely. Like a reclamation project, which was Sipp back when the Astros initially acquired him from the Padres in 2014.
This reclamation project could be someone like Glen Perkins. The three-time All-Star hasn’t seen much action on a baseball field the past two seasons due to surgery on a torn labrum in his left shoulder back in 2016. In fact, he has only completed 7.2 major league innings the past two seasons. But when he was healthy for the Twins, he closed games and posted respectable numbers.
Statistics from 2011 through 2015: 2.84 ERA, 9.8 SO9 and 143 ERA+ in 313.1 innings
Perkins, however, does not have the expected left-handed – .370 wOBA – and right-handed – .276 wOBA – splits for his career. The shoulder surgery and long recovery will not help him in the open market. But he does have the experience and history of being successful. While the Astros may steer clear and target a more reliable left-handed reliever, it wouldn’t be so farfetched to at least take an extended look at Perkins.
There is also no way in predicting if the Astros will stay in-house or go outside the organization to fill this need. Heck, they may not even go this route. It is quite possible that they roll with Sipp for one more season. A trade for another left-handed reliever is not out of the question. Zach Britton from the Orioles rings a bell. Resigning Liriano isn’t completely out of the question.
Unlike most of their baseball brethren this offseason, the Astros do not have an urgent need. There are one of the few in this situation like the Dodgers and Indians. But that doesn’t mean they can’t fine tune. You should always expect fine tuning from the best team in baseball.
**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs, ESPN and Baseball Reference**