A Signing Too Far

added 1/22/2015 by Bob Hulsey

Things went well for the Astros this winter. They cleared up the television fiasco. They settled with Jacob Nix and ended the messy 2014 draft issue that threatened future draft picks. GM Jeff Luhnow found his pitch-framing catcher in Hank Conger. He signed two solid relievers to shore up the bullpen. He brought back Jed Lowrie who should boost the Astros with his defense and versatility.

Luhnow brought in low-cost slugger Evan Gattis from Atlanta without being tied to the contract of B.J. Upton although it cost him three good prospects to do so. Then, after failing to reach a contract with outfielder Dexter Fowler, Luhnow shipped him to Chicago for third baseman Luis Valbuena and starting pitcher Dan Straily, thus upgrading two positions while unloading a contract that saved them at least $4 million.

The Astros were on a roll. They seemed two-deep at every position heading into 2015 but then Luhnow overreached. Tempted by the thought of bringing in a talented outfielder he once drafted while with the Cardinals, Luhnow signed free agent Colby Rasmus to a one-year deal for $8 million.

Why do I call it an overreach? First, let's start with Rasmus himself. A first-round pick in 2005, Rasmus came to the majors in 2009 and exploded out of the gate at the age of 22. He hit .285 with 7 homers and an .813 OPS through his first 200 at bats. Stardom was predicted.

Rasmus had run-ins with Tony LaRussa and the Cardinals front office and was shipped mid-season to Toronto just two years later. In 3+ seasons north of the border, Rasmus has batted .234 although on pace to average 20 home runs per season. Injuries and slumps cut his performance in 2012 and 2014. His OPS+ during his time in Toronto was an unimpressive 97 (100 is average).

I see Rasmus as a poor man's J.D. Drew, a temperamental guy with enormous talent who never put the whole thing together but team after team overpaid hoping he would break through.

Yes, this is a one-year contract and hardly a budget-buster. But having Rasmus in the lineup regularly could negatively impact three other players who matter more to the club's future.

Jake Marisnick displayed great defensive skill as a center fielder. With Fowler out of the way, it seemed like the door was open for Marisnick (part of last year's deal with Miami for Jarred Cosart) to grab that job and help Gattis who was then projected as the left fielder.

Luhnow now talks of Marisnick having "a chance" to be the left fielder after signing Rasmus. If Marisnick wasn't going to win the job in center, surely George Springer could fill the job but it looks like the Astros have decided he'll stay in right field now.

Then there's Gattis himself. His health will prevent him from being an everyday catcher so his only positions are left field, first base and designated hitter. All three of those positions now appear filled by others. To maximize the offensive potential which is, truly, the only asset Gattis brings, he needs to be in the lineup - but where?? At first in place of Jon Singleton? At DH in place of Chris Carter? In left field in place of Marisnick, Robbie Grossman, Alex Presley or other options? Did we just deal three good prospects for a guy with no position?

With the modern roster configurations where teams expect to carry 12 or 13 pitchers, a 10-man American League lineup means a bench of only two or three non-pitchers. The backup catcher, Conger, must be one of them and Marwin Gonzalez will likely be the other.

If you include the veteran Presley as the fourth outfielder, there's now no roster room left for Marisnick, Grossman, Matt Dominguez or any other prospects who might look ready this spring. Barring injuries or trades, those guys are already blocked.

That's why the Rasmus signing looks like an overreach to me. The roster looked well-crafted for an up-and-coming squad before Rasmus got here. Now he's blocking other guys who could have used the experience in 2015 to be a bigger factor in 2016 and beyond.

The best-case scenario is that Rasmus rips the cover off the ball for four months and Luhnow ships him at the trade deadline for a pile of prospects before he reverts to his 97 OPS+ reality. Like with Drew, there will always be a sucker out there for Rasmus hoping that, this time, it will be different.