Free Agency: With Gerrit Cole Likely Gone, Where do the Astros Turn?
In the world of sports, baseball never sleeps. Shortly after the last out of the World Series is recorded, even before the champagne is dried in the champion’s clubhouse, Major League Baseball has already shifting back into business mode, with its undivided attention turned to offseason preparation for the coming season.
Three year major league veterans are eligible for arbitration, finally able to shed the league minimum salary and make their case in crossing over the $1 Million barrier. Those who have completed six major league seasons finally become eligible to test the waters of free agency for the first time, with dollar signs and a new destination in mind.
In the case of Gerrit Cole, sleep is most likely not hard to come by. With eyes set on shattering David Price’s 7 year, $217M contract, the highest contract ever awarded to a pitcher, chances are no sleep is being lost.
The Houston Astros will no doubt keep their hat in the ring when it comes to the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes, but Houston has more to consider than simply trading blows in what is surely going to be an epic, record-breaking bidding war between heavyweights and more than half a dozen franchises. With half a bullpen to replace, an entire OF to either resign or replace after 2020, and now a Gerrit Cole sized hole in the rotation, it might be in the best interest of the long-term future of the club to allocate the resources it would take to keep Cole in the Lone Star State in a more distributive manner.
Assuming Cole’s tenure is done in Houston, the Astros would have a lot more financial flexibility to work with, especially considering Jim Crane’s willingness to exceed the tax threshold should it be necessary to resign Cole. That tells me the Astros have some money to spend, regardless of if it all ends up in Cole’s pocket or distributed among many pockets. If spent correctly, this offseason can be pivotal in potentially making the 107 win Astros an even better team overall heading into 2020. It starts with free agency, and there are some intriguing names the Astros could be in on.
The Astros have been lacking a catcher that brings a pulse at the plate for much of the 21st century. But then again, so has much of baseball. In 2019, catching has become an endangered species. Offensive prowess has become an afterthought for catchers as teams desire an elite catcher behind the plate instead of in the batter’s box. In the coming days, defensive catchers make take another hit as baseball looks to implement automatic strike zones, essentially taking away the importance of pitch framing.
Should that be the case, I’d expect baseball to circle back around and become more motivated than ever to seek out catchers with offensive upside. Look no further than Yasmani Grandal.
Grandal represents one of the best bats in the league for a player that resides behind the dish. Coming off a year that saw him sign a one year, $18.25M deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, Grandal put together a year that saw him set career highs in HR (28), RBI (77), 2B (26), hits (126) and walks (109). His 5.2 WAR ranked 19th in baseball this past season, higher than Josh Donaldson, Pete Alonso, and just below DJ Lemahieu, who will finish Top-5 in AL MVP voting. Right away, Grandal would be one of the best offensive catchers in Astros history, and the first one with consistent power.
Having opted out of the player option that came attached with his one year deal, Grandal looks to sign a long term contract as he enters his age 31 season. With Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado both set to become free agents, expect the Astros to be a firm player in Grandal’s free agency.
Contract prediction: 4 years, $72M
With Lance McCullers slated to return to the the mound after undergoing Tommy John Surgery following the 2018 season, the hole in the Astros rotation left by Gerrit Cole doesn’t seem to be insurmountable. However, with Wade Miley’s contract being up as well as Aaron Sanchez’s shoulder surgery throwing his future with the team in question, there’s little certainty after Verlander and Greinke. Enter Zack Wheeler.
Given the way the Astros have worked wonders with the pitchers they’ve acquired over the course of the last few seasons, teams have started to take notice when the Astros show interest in underperforming pitchers. Near the trade deadline in July, the Astros were driven to acquire a #3 starter to complement Verlander and Cole. Before eventually landing on Zack Greinke, the Astros were heavily pursuing rental Zack Wheeler. Eventually the Mets decided to stand pat at the deadline, keeping Wheeler and his quality offer in tack. Now a free agent with draft pick compensation attached to his name, many will overlook the quality offer and sign Wheeler based off the potential he possesses.
In the same way Gerrit Cole was a good pitcher turned best-pitcher-in-baseball when he arrived in Houston, many believe the same can be done with Wheeler. Wheeler possesses a triple digit fastball that averaged almost 97mph over the full season and throws four plus off-speed pitches that he commands all for strikes (2.3 BB/9). Sound familiar? Gerrit Cole put himself in a prime spot entering free agency by making professional hitters look like amateurs all year long. Wheeler is of the same ilk. Wheeler can make hitters do, well, this… https://twitter.com/pitchingninja/status/1129099458711568386?s=21
Case in point: Wheeler looks like an ace in the making. Just 5 innings shy of the breaking the 200 IP plateau in 2019, Wheeler’s 4.7 WAR was 15th in baseball among pitchers, ahead of guys like Jose Berrios and his teammate Noah Syndergaard. With a FIP of 3.48, Wheeler can benefit greatly from the defense the Astros can provide him, as well as the analytical department in Houston that will help hone his craft and start to pitch like the pitcher he can be.
Turning just 30 years old in May of this upcoming season, draft pick attached or not, Wheeler is going to get a big contract from a team that hopes to tap into that potential. He won’t be as good as Gerrit Cole, because when Cole is at his peak no one is. But if Wheeler has ace potential, and all it takes is for someone to show him the ropes, who better to do that than the Houston Astros?
Contract prediction: 5 years, $100M
To many teams, Drew Pomeranz would’ve been a attractive commodity in 2016 when he made the All-Star team with the Padres. Since being traded to the Red Sox in 2016, Pomeranz has been vastly inconsistent. However, after being traded again this past July to the Brewers, Pomeranz reinvented himself as a reliever in the second half of the season.
As a reliever, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA in 17 games, striking out 45 batters in 26.2 innings. A 15.2 K/9 rating, just below that of his teammate Josh Hader. His low 90s fastball saw an uptick in velocity, sitting 94-95 mph and topping out at 97 mph, the fastest of his career by far. He throws his curveball at a far greater rate than any of his other off-speed pitches, averaging about a 38% pitch usage in his three seasons before 2019, in which a much higher usage of his fastball dropped it to 32%.
Entering in his age 31 season, Pomeranz will be looking to ride the success he had late in the season to a multi-year contract. The small sample size will most likely keep him from achieving anything longer than a two year deal. Should the Astros show interest, he would potentially be the reliable left-handed reliever the team has been lacking out of the bullpen for the better part of the last ten seasons.
Contract prediction: 2 year, $12M
Bonus: Blake Treinen
Here’s where things could get interesting. Just last year, A’s closer Blake Treinen put a bow on one of the greatest relief seasons in baseball history. Finishing 6th in Cy Young voting with 38 saves, Treinen allowed 7 ER all year and walked only 2.4 BB/9 with a 11.2 K/9 rating. He was virtually untouchable, seeing everything click all at once coming out of the bullpen. Treinen looked like one of the most dominating players to ever set foot on a mound, a flame thrower with a 100 mph fastball, a low 90s wipeout slider, and a sinker, yes a SINKER, that reaches triple digits as well. Just enjoy. https://twitter.com/pitchingninja/status/1081923289382047744?s=21
In 2018, however, Treinen came back down to earth and had a disappointing encore to his 2018 campaign. A 4.91 ERA to boot, a walk rate that more than doubled (2.4 to 5.7 BB/9), and by mid-September back problems cut his season short and kept him from pitching in the Wild Card game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Despite the struggles, Treinen is expected to receive a raise in his 3rd arbitration case this offseason. Last offseason, Treinen received a much deserved bump in salary from $2.15M to $6.4M in arbitration. With the expected bump again this offseason, the Athletics are going to have to make a tough decision to either walk into arbitration prepared to pay Treinen almost $8M or decide to non-tender him, releasing him to free agency. By non-tendering Treinen, the A’s could attempt to resign him to an extension for a lower sum, but the chances are small he would return, once teams get a chance to make their pitch to him. Many clubs would be quick to snatch up a reliever on the market like Treinen, once again just a year removed from being one of the most unhittable relievers in baseball. If Treinen does in fact hit free agency, write me down as someone who believes the Astros should do whatever it takes to sign him.
Contract: 2 year, $14M
Regardless of how many players the Astros sign, it looks as if the Astros will see an increase in the 2020 payroll. With still a few other players left unsigned like Verlander’s battery mate Robinson Chirinos and set-up man Will Harris, the Astros will have a few more things to examine before they are ready to roll into the new decade. Aside from catcher, the lineup looks set for 2020 unless Josh Reddick were to be put on the trading block in a move to cut salary. Bryan Abreu looks to be ready to lock down a spot in the bullpen, and pitching prospects Cristian Javier and Tyler Ivey will look to continue their meteoric rise in the minors, ready to ascend to the Majors if given a window. The hope is that Forrest Whitley’s 2019 will be the forgotten year in Whitley’s development. Should he come back to the team in 2020 with his control issue having been fixed, look for him to make a contribution in 2020 as well.
As for free agency, should the Astros lose Gerrit Cole, walking into 2020 with two players such as Wheeler and Grandal is much more than a consolation prize. Whoever they end up signing, I expect the Astros to be an active player in free agency during the offseason. Chances are they’ll be in on a number of players we’re not talking about currently and have this team ready to cross over into the new decade, ready to continue what they built in this one. If there is one thing we know about the Astros, it’s that, like the rest of baseball, they never sleep and we shouldn’t expect them to start now.
**Photo Credit: Getty Images**