added 11/4/2014 by Bob Hulsey
With the TV deal all but done, the Astros can now think about how to expand their payroll and take another step forward in the American League West. While it's important to remember the Astros improved by 19 games, it's also important to remember that they still lost 90 games.
Aside from Jose Altuve and Chris Carter's 37 homers, there wasn't much outstanding about the offense and there was no pitcher who produced more than 12 wins although the lack of offense and the problems with the bullpen surely contributed to that.
This is still not a good team but it is one with a lot of upside. If Jon Singleton generates offense as he is capable, if George Springer can stay healthy, if Jake Marisnick can duplicate his breakthrough second half and if Max Stassi takes the next step up, this team will improve dramatically without much to add from outside.
There are also several players on the cusp of making the majors including shortstop Carlos Correa, third baseman Colin Moran and outfielder Domingo Santana. You don't want to sign a top free agent who will block these players from getting their chance to debut on the big stage.
Therein lies the problem with many of the options I've seen discussed on the internet. Going after Josh Donaldson or David Freese or Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez invests too much in a player that could end up blocking someone else.
Most of the internet wags want to upgrade shortstop or third base with good reason. Matt Dominguez fell off dramatically and Jonathan Villar never arrived. While Marwin Gonzalez did admirably at shortstop (.277/.327/.400/.727 in 285 at bats), his real value is as a utility player who can sub competently at several positions.
Some would like to see us also add a power bat for the outfield. That's a good idea but they are generally pricey. If the Astros are willing to pay Dexter Fowler for his final arbitration year (not a given but at least a 50/50 possibility), I'm happy to open the season with an outfield of Fowler, Springer and Marisnick while waiting for Santana or possibly Preston Tucker to emerge from the minors. I don't see an urgency to add an outfielder unless Fowler is traded, presumably for pitching.
The offensive player I would like to see the Astros pursue in free agency is former Astro Jed Lowrie. While principally a shortstop, he has the versatility and power to be moved around depending on who is ready for a step up in the organization.
With the modern propensity to carry 13 pitchers and with the DH in the AL, the bench depth is reduced to just three players and one is going to be the backup catcher. That puts a premium on versatility for the other two spots - one generally an infielder and one generally an outfielder although it helps if even those two can be utilized in many ways.
Lowrie had a down year with Oakland in 2014 (.249/.321/.355/.676) but that will just help to hold down his demand as he enters the free agent market. He had OPS of .769 and .791 the two years before that (including his 2012 season in Houston) with home run totals of 16 and 15 respectively.
Jed is a Stanford product (so are Jason Castro and the new manager A.J. Hinch) who is a plus defender that is already accustomed to playing on a team that is driven by statistical analysis. He's a switch-hitter with power who can ably fill in all over the infield. He's already familiar with the Houston environment, has already shared the pivot with both Altuve and Gonzalez and carries the competitive spirit you like to see from players on a young team.
With all the ground ball pitchers the Astros are grooming, having a stellar defensive shortstop is going to be vital. We've already seen what Lowrie can do so he should easily relax the pitchers with his precision there.
Lowrie draws walks and has good speed despite not stealing a lot of bases. He's obviously an attractive player to the decision scientists as Jeff Luhnow has already traded for him once before.
He'll turn 31 in April so a four-year offer at $8-10 million a year will likely put us in the running to sign him. I'd recommend pursuing him before Hanley Ramirez, the top shortstop in free agency, is signed because his price might climb once HanRam is off the market.
I'd bring Lowrie in primarily as the shortstop for 2015 but he can be moved to third base as soon as Correa is ready for the big time. If Moran is also ready, you still have a remarkable fall-back option guy off the bench who can also spell at DH and 1B if needed. I suspect his trade value will be sustained throughout the contract so if all our farm prospects blossom, he can still be dealt away at the right time and yet he can hold down the fort if one of these prospects hits a snag.
For now, Marwin Gonzalez can return to being the utility infielder off the bench he does so well but he is starting his arbitration phase and might soon be too expensive to keep around in that capacity. With Lowrie around, the Astros can maintain the roster flexibility needed as prospects come up from the minors so he isn't blocking someone who needs a chance.
Signing Lowrie also leaves plenty of payroll room to add a starting pitcher or upgrade the bullpen. I'd prefer to upgrade the bullpen as I'd rather see the stable of starting pitchers we already have fight it out behind Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh for the coming season. Adding a free agent starter means all those well-touted arms we have in the high minors would be competing for only one job instead of two.
The Astros would be wise to see 2015 as another building year, not a year where they have to compete for a division crown. They aren't ready for that yet. 75-85 wins would be a big success in my mind, regardless if it puts them second, third or fourth in the division. The 19-win jump this past year only puts them back on the path to contention. The hill becomes much steeper going forward and it would be wrong to think they are further along than they actually are.