The Houston Astros have been the busiest team in baseball over the last few days. While they may not have been able to sign Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (who signed last week with the Blue Jays), as we speculated could have been an ulterior motive when discussing their signing of his older brother Yulieski Gurriel, they didn’t let that slow them down. Since Wednesday, the Astros have signed Charlie Morton and Josh Reddick and traded for Brian McCann.
Let’s break everything down.
The first deal to go down was a two-year deal for the 33-year-old Morton, with $14 million guaranteed and up to $5 million in incentives. Under normal circumstances, signing a pitcher who only started four games the prior season before he was shut down after a hamstring injury, has only crossed the 150 innings threshold twice in nine seasons and has a career ERA of 4.54, probably wouldn’t be big news. Welcome to your 2016 pitching free agent market, everyone!!! Now, with Jeremy Hellickson accepting the Phillies’ qualifying offer and Bartolo Colon on the Braves, it’s even thinner than it was to start!!!
This year, teams are going to have to get creative. If you’re planning to make some shrimp tacos and you go to the store and the shrimp are really expensive and smell a little sketchy, do you buy them anyway? Nah, you probably rejigger your taco filling since you don’t want to pay for the privilege of worshipping the porcelain god. While we’re on the subject of health, the incentives part of the contract is especially important, as Morton does not come without health concerns. After all, the Phillies had a $9.5 million mutual option which they declined. And can you blame them? Nope, but you also can’t blame the Astros for taking a chance on Morton given the dismal starting pitching market this offseason.
While there are only four starts to go on before he injured his hamstring last season, there were at least some encouraging signs. His velocity was trending up and he was changing up his repertoire, but it was only four starts, which is, well, not a lot. Can he stay healthy? Will his new velocity and approach help him figure out how to get lefties out? Those are some pretty serious questions.
With the market looking the way it does this offseason, I guess it’s at least reassuring that the Astros didn’t spend a ton of money for a pitcher who will both end up a disaster and eat payroll for four or five years. Maybe Morton will bounce back and kill it this year, and for a bargain. Stranger things have happened. Need I remind you that Rick Porcello just won the freaking Cy Young Award?
Next up, the McCann trade. While Evan Gattis is still in town, one-half of their catching platoon Jason Castro hitting free agency, the Astros needed to decide how to approach their situation at catcher. Castro was a plus-defensive catcher, but his 88 wRC+/OPS+ weren’t doing the team any favors. The Astros decided that they would prefer McCann’s 103 wRC+/99 OPS+ at the plate and hope that they don’t miss the defense. McCann just had his 9th straight season with at least 20 home runs, so he should provide the Astros with plenty of power from the left side of the plate.
McCann still rates well in terms of pitch-framing, which the Astros will be counting on in terms of getting Dallas Keuchel some more of the low strikes he needs to succeed. Of course, McCann is 32, which is, as they say, old in catcher years. Of course, the Astros can always have Gattis catch and spell McCann with a vacation in the DH spot.
In terms of what they sent to New York, it was a couple of hard-chuckin’ young men, Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman. Both players have “stuff,” but are still in the lower minors and have a ways to go before they see any time in the majors. With the emergence of rookie phenom Gary Sanchez in New York, it certainly made sense to hand over the reins and get a salary dump and a couple of live arms in the process.
Did the Astros get exponentially better with this trade? Nope, but what they lost in defense with Castro they will likely get back on offense with McCann. The fact that they’re only on the hook for a couple years (plus a vesting option for 2019) at $11.5 million per year (after the Yankees ate some salary) makes it a fairly reasonable trade from the Astros perspective.
Lastly, we come to Reddick, who signed a four-year, $52 million deal in Houston, pending a physical. Much like the other deals, there’s things to like and things to give one pause. Either way, the Astros needed to do something, with Colby Rasmus hitting free agency for real this year, as his .206/.286/.355 slashline (75 wRC+/76 OPS+) didn’t earn him another qualifying offer. While Rasmus’ hitting last year left an awful lot to be desired, at least his defense kept him from being completely unplayable, as he was a 1.4 fWAR/2.2 bWAR player in 2016 overall. On the year, though, Reddick wasn’t much better than Rasmus in 2016, with 1.2 fWAR/2.6 bWAR, with the difference due to the fact that, while DRS didn’t find Reddick’s defense objectionable, UZR did.
The big question is whether you think Reddick will be a better player going forward. Reddick’s 2016 was a story of monthly splits, highlighted by his .414/.485/.500 May and lowlighted by his .161/.223/.172 August after heading to the Dodgers. Speaking of splits, that’s one area for potential concern for Houston. While Reddick has always had some platoon splits, his 2016 (.155/.212/.155 in 104 at bats) was the worst year of his career in terms of hitting left-handed pitching.
With the market still in flux right now, it’s not clear that the Astros absolutely had to give Reddick a fourth year, so, I guess, good for him. That being said, the Astros didn’t necessarily terribly overpay either. This is certainly one of those deals that’s tough to analyze without the benefit of hindsight, because it really just depends on whether Reddick can put up a couple more seasons like the player we got used to before he had some extended slumps which dragged down his whole season.
All in all, it’s tough to get particularly excited about any of the Astros moves individually or, for that matter, as a whole. They’ve got an exciting young core to build around and they had some needs to address thanks to free agency losses this offseason and address them they did, even if there were sexier options out there. At the end of the day, they were all reasonable moves in light of what’s available at the free agent corner store this offseason. A certain amount of spreading the risk always makes a lot of sense in baseball, and the Astros certainly did that, even if it’s less sexy than just signing the best available players, contract considerations be damned. This is in fact one of those Schrödinger’s Cat situations, that can be both a set of terrible moves and a set of brilliant moves at the same time. We will just have to wait until next season when we can open the box.