Now that the confetti has flown, the fans decked out in the finest championship gear, and the players scattered to the corners of the globe to enjoy their well-earned vacations, it’s time for the Houston Astros to look forward to the 2018 season. As of Monday, major league teams can sign any free agent they choose – and the Astros should consider free agency in a few key areas to bolster the roster.
As of November 2, the Astros lost designated hitter Carlos Beltran, relievers Tyler Clippard, Luke Gregerson, and Francisco Liriano, and outfielder Cameron Maybin. It’s unlikely that they will bring any of these players back, though not impossible. Beltran earned his ring, and would be well within his rights to hang up the cleats now — or he could easily find another one-year contract on a team desperate for veteran leadership. Maybin could be a valuable contributor in 2018.
Unfortunately for Houston, the area in which it was weakest throughout 2017 is not exactly blessed with an overabundance of top talent: relief pitching. During the postseason, Houston did use every single pitcher on its roster at least once (11 for the ALDS, 12 for both the ALCS and the World Series), but true relievers threw only 38 1/3 of the 159 innings across all three series. In some ways, this is only a symptom of the innovative way A.J. Hinch used his bullpen — when Lance McCullers or Charlie Morton is capable of finishing a game without needing to go to a shorter-inning arm, then you go there (but not in the regular season). However, it also points in a larger sense to the problems Houston had all year.
Whom could they get to shore things up? The top reliever on the market is probably Wade Davis — and with Ken Giles showing fatigue at the end of the year, having a second late-inning worker wouldn’t be the worst way for Houston to go. This, of course, assumes that Davis is able to recover from the elbow problems that plagued his late-season appearances. If the Astros decide that depth arms are the way to go, there are plenty of those — Addison Reed and Joe Smith, for example. The better thing may be for Houston to seek a trade partner, or turn to the minor leagues for answers.
Another possibility for the Astros is to acquire another starter, allowing them to move one of their lower-rotation members into the bullpen full-time. Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish top the list of available starting pitchers, and while both have questions around their current ability to produce, if Houston is willing to pay, either one could improve the quality of the entire pitching staff. Again, however, Houston may want to target a mid-level starter in trade talks, such as Dan Straily.
While Yulieski Gurriel outperformed expectations in his first full major league season, the departure of Beltran means Houston could also use a solid first baseman/designated hitter combination. This is the one area where there are very interesting options for Houston to possibly pursue — Eric Hosmer comes to mind immediately, with his left-handed bat balancing out a fairly right-intensive Houston starting lineup. The immediate concern: Hosmer is no primary DH, and it’s unlikely that at only 27, he will be willing to hand over his glove.
Lucas Duda is also a left-handed bat, and his career is in such a place that he likely fits into a DH and occasional 1B role, while still giving the Astros both the ability to retool the look of their lineup and a decent dose of power.
There are certainly some intriguing options for the Astros should they look to the free-agent pool to reload for an attempt at a repeat championship, but with the lack of depth in this year’s class, there might not be an answer. Houston is in the enviable position of being just fine, should it not sign anyone of note, but there’s always room for improvement.