The current offseason isn’t only a time to concentrate on next year’s club, but also on the subsequent seasons.
If the 2019 season started today, the Astros would be without the services of sixty percent of their starting rotation from the previous season. Dallas Keuchel is likely to leave the only franchise he’s ever known in free agency. Charlie Morton figures to draw plenty of interest on the open market. And it sounds as the prospects of Lance McCullers Jr. pitching next season appears rather low right now. For a stating rotation that was one of the best in the sport last year, the current situation is not enviable.
The Astros have to address any needs in the starting rotation this offseason. But we must also remember that Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are scheduled to be free agents following the conclusion of the 2019 season. Any acquisition should also account for the future beyond 2019. One pitcher that the Astros ought to consider is a familiar name: former Angel Garrett Richards.
Now, I’m well aware of Richards’ injury history. He has a long laundry list of durability concerns, and he is currently on the mend following Tommy John surgery in late July. Any team that acquires his services will likely look at a 2020 return date, perhaps September 2019 at the earliest. But the talent that former Angel possesses, when healthy, is difficult to ignore. Like multiple Houston pitchers already, Richards is known for a high spin rate, which translates well to his fastball-and-curveball combination. Of all starters last season, Richards finished with the highest average spin rate of 2774 RPM. Second place? Justin Verlander with a 2662 RPM. Does a high spin rate always translate into positive results? Of course not, but it is a valuable skill for a pitcher.
When healthy, Richards is a top of the rotation talent. In addition to his high spin rate, his fastball has routinely hovered around the mid-to-upper nineties. Before his Tommy John surgery, the age-30 starter threw an effective 76 1/3 innings with a 3.66 ERA. If health and durability weren’t an issue, Richards would likely be one of the best starting pitchers in baseball today.
Like the case I made for Michael Pineda nearly one year ago, who was also expected to miss a season due to injury, the Astros should acquire pitching depth for the future. While it would be nice to see Verlander and Cole stay with Houston for the long-term, there isn’t a guarantee that either pitcher will be back. You can’t count on Richards next year, but he could be a valuable option for the Astros starting in 2020.
Any team interested in Richards will likely have to offer a two-year contract ranging from $8-$12 million per season. That seems a lot for a pitcher who will miss the entirety of the 2019 season, and quite frankly it is. The right-hander is this year’s definition of a high-risk, high-reward situation. But if he returns to a similar form that he has displayed earlier in his career, then the investment is well worth the risk.
Honestly, a contract like the one Richards will probably receive this offseason isn’t all that crazy in today’s baseball. For one, it is a short-term contract that wouldn’t hamper future payroll. If a team claims it will, then that leads us to a different story. Second, the yearly salary can be distributed in a way to help the signing club this season. For example, Pineda signed with the Twins last offseason for two-years, $10 million. In lieu of paying Pineda $5 million per season, the two parties agreed to have Pineda paid $2 million in 2018 followed by an $8 million salary in 2019 when he is scheduled to pitch again. Pineda’s still guaranteed $10 million, regardless if he pitches again. But the Twins were able to distribute the money in a way to help the club in 2018. Any team that signs Richards may do something similar if he and his agent agree to such an arrangement. Still a risk, yes, although it is a worthwhile one in my opinion.
Will the Astros show any interest in Richards, if they haven’t already? I have no idea. Personally, I would hope they do as the former Angel has some of the best stuff in the game. Again, Richards’ health has played a huge factor in whether he is on the field or not. Suppose if the Astros do show interest though, then they may have a leg up on the competition. Everybody in baseball knows what they have done for the careers of Keuchel, Cole, Morton, and Collin McHugh. Verlander, who already had a storied career in Detroit, found a new level of success with Houston. Throw in an attractive option at the end of a contract offer, and the Astros may have a key piece for the future waiting in the wings.