The Astros made a huge addition to their pitching staff recently by signing Josh Hader but it doesn’t appear they are done. “I think our bullpen is pretty solid,” manager Dana Brown said yesterday, with video relayed by Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. “We may be able to use one more there. But the pitching, if we get a starter, we could put one of the starters in the ’pen. That would solve that problem. But I’m always in the market of saying ’Hey, where can we find pitching? You know, where can we make it better?’ I think our rotation’s good enough to get back to the World Series right now but I’m always looking to improve pitching because I know how guys get hurt during the course of the year.”
The Astros are set to open the 2024 season with the same rotation mix as they had in the second half of the 2023 campaign. Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier will be in the first three slots. Luis García, who had Tommy John surgery in May of last year, could return at some point in the second half. Until then, the spots at the back half will likely be taken by some combination of Hunter Brown, José Urquidy, J.P. France or Brandon Bielak.
The bullpen, however, has seen more turnover since last year. Each of Héctor Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek reached free agency. Neris signed with the Cubs and Maton with the Rays, while Stanek is still a free agent. The Astros made one big push to cover for those three losses by signing Hader.
The signing of Hader gives the Astros a deadly trio to finish games, with Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu also excellent relievers. But the group gets a bit less scary after that. Rafael Montero is coming off a rough year, posting a 5.08 ERA in 2023 after signing a three-year, $34.5MM deal. The 40-man roster also has guys like Ronel Blanco, Bennett Sousa, Shawn Dubin, Forrest Whitley, Seth Martinez, Parker Mushinski, Dylan Coleman and Oliver Ortega but they are all pretty light on experience.
Adding to that group would be sensible but it’s interesting that Brown said that could come via adding a starter and bumping someone from that mix to the bullpen. Brown looked pretty good for much of the year but seemed to fade down the stretch, with a 3.62 ERA through June but a 6.95 ERA after. He’s still only 25 and that was his first full season in the big leagues, so it’s possible he’ll avoid that slowdown as he acclimates to the big league grind.
Urquidy came into 2023 with a career ERA of 3.74 but his .253 batting average on balls in play and 78.5% strand rate were both on the lucky side. His 4.35 FIP and 4.29 SIERA pointed to some regression, which came last year. He posted a 5.29 ERA in 2023 and also missed about three months due to shoulder discomfort.
France was fairly solid in his 24 outings, with a 3.83 ERA, though he might be due for some regression himself. He only struck out 17.4% of batters faced with a .289 BABIP and 76.7% strand rate, leading to a 4.66 FIP and 4.96 SIERA. Bielak also had a 3.83 ERA last year in his 15 outings, though also with concerning peripherals. Though his 50.2% ground ball rate was strong, both his 17.6% strikeout rate and 10.2% walk rate were subpar. His 76.2% strand rate may have helped him out, which is why his 5.19 FIP and 5.02 SIERA weren’t as pretty.
Those are generally adequate options for a club to have at the back of a rotation, particularly when the front is so strong. But as Brown alluded to, injuries will happen and there’s always room for more pitching. Bielak is out of options, so perhaps he could get bumped into a relief role if the club were to find another starter somewhere.
How much ability they have to pursue external additions will be an interesting variable. The club has generally been reluctant to pay the competitive balance tax but came into this offseason right near the line and then blew past it when they signed Hader. Per Roster Resource, their CBT number is currently at $255MM, well beyond the base threshold of $237MM and nearing the second tier of $257MM. Getting another pitcher of significance, unless via some sort of cash neutral trade, would surely involve pushing over that line and incurring a higher rate of taxation. The free agent market features big names like Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery as well as guys like Michael Lorenzen, Hyun Jin Ryu and many others.
Elsewhere on the Astros’ roster, McTaggart also relayed some video of new manager Joe Espada, answering a question about Yordan Álvarez playing the outfield. “I think that Yordan could play more left,” Espada said. “I’m going to try to put him more in left field because I think it’s important for us to open up the DH spot a little bit more for some other guys to get some more rest. I think when Yordan is healthy and he’s moving around really well, I think he plays a good enough left field for us. But also, I really want to keep that DH spot open to give some guys, you know, get them off their feet and keep their bats in the lineup.” When asked specifically about catcher Yainer Diaz, he affirmed that Diaz would be a guy he’d like to keep in the lineup even when he’s getting a day off from catching.
Álvarez is one of the best hitters in baseball, having hit .295/.390/.588 in his career for a wRC+ of 166, and will be in the lineup as much as possible. But injuries have been an issue from time to time. He missed almost all of the 2020 season due to right knee discomfort. Hand inflammation sent him to the injured list in 2022 and he dealt with an oblique issue last year. As he has battled those issues, his time in the field has never been huge. Thus far, he has topped out at 467 2/3 innings over 56 games in 2022.
Moving him out of the designated hitter slot more often would open more time there for other guys, as Espada mentioned, but it would come with the risk of stretching Álvarez. More time in the field increases the chances of suffering an injury. Meanwhile, the defensive metrics are split on how capable he is with the glove. He’s logged three Defensive Runs Saved thus far in his career but Outs Above Average has him at a -10.
But if he were to head out to the grass a bit more often, it could benefit someone like Diaz. The young backstop is in line to get a lot of playing time anyway after hitting 23 home runs last year, but no catcher starts every game. J.T. Realmuto led the league with 130 starts behind the dish last year with no one else topping 116. That means there will certainly be days where Victor Caratini is donning the tools of ignorance and Diaz would need the DH slot to get into the lineup.
If Álvarez were to play left field more often, that could cut into the playing time of Chas McCormick or Jake Meyers. The Astros will have Kyle Tucker in right field the vast majority of the time, leaving only position for that duo if Álvarez is in left. Both are capable of playing center but Brown said in December that the club was planning to give Meyers a shot at the regular center field job with McCormick the regular in left.
Meyers has strong defensive grades but has hit just .235/.296/.379 in his career thus far for a wRC+ of 88. McCormick’s defense isn’t graded quite as strong but he’s still above average, and with much better offensive output. He’s hit .259/.336/.449 overall for a wRC+ of 120. Pushing Álvarez to the outfield more often would have to squeeze one of them out. Brown also said last month that the club is open to add a left-handed hitting outfielder, with both Meyers and McCormick hitting from the right side.