Six Astros Become Free Agents
Keuchel, Maldonado Also Gold Glove Finalists

Keuchel: Will Boras lead him to New York?
(c) Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle
Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox for wining the Worlds Championship in 2018, particularly former Astros Steve Pearce (the World Series MVP) and J.D. Martinez who both had starring roles, and Boston manager Alex Cora who was the bench coach for Houston in 2017. Watching the Dodgers crumble at home before them looked awfully familiar to Yankee and Astro fans. It seemed Boston could always find the key hit when they needed it.

Now the Astros turn their attention to a winter season that will include some major changes. Starting pitcher and former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel highlights the group. Reportedly, the Astros will offer Keuchel the free agency qualifying offer of $17.9 million for one year service - an offer Keuchel is expected to turn down but would allow the Astros to add a draft choice if Keuchel signs elsewhere.

It's not impossible to think Keuchel would agree to the deal and hope for a better season in 2019 than the 12-11, 3.74 ERA mark he posted this year which might net him the sort of contract the top echelon pitchers enjoy.

Then again, a year of setbacks or injuries could decrease his value. There's always that gamble.

The expectation is that Keuchel, represented by super-agent Scott Boras (as are many of the Astros), will go to the highest bidder regardless and that would most seem to be a team like the Yankees or quite possibly the Rangers, now free from the contracts of Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. Dallas in Dallas?

The other five new free agents are starting pitcher Charlie Morton, catcher Martin Maldonado, versatile fielder Marwin Gonzalez, designated hitter Evan Gattis and lefty reliever Tony Sipp. While none are expected to receive the qualifying offer, Morton, Maldonado and Gonzalez are expected to still be wooed by Houston this winter in hopes of re-signing. Veteran catcher Brian McCann may soon join the free agent crowd but the team has until Friday to decide if they will pick up the option year on his contract. Reliever Will Harris is another player with an option year.

The payroll position is such that the Astros can't keep everyone and shouldn't try. Pitcher Gerrit Cole and shortstop Carlos Correa are among the players expecting big raises in arbitration.

The Astros would also like to add a power bat and another starting pitcher (particularly if they lose Keuchel and Morton while Lance McCullers is staring at possible Tommy John surgery on his right elbow). Morton, who had said frequently that he'd retire after the 2018 campaign, has changed his tune and would like to return to Houston but could find himself in a bidding war after a 15-3 season.

Keuchel, Maldonado and Team MVP Alex Bregman are finalists for AL Gold Glove Awards at their respective positions. Maldonado won last year with Anaheim and Keuchel has won four of the past five years at pitcher.

Second Baseman Jose Altuve had knee surgery the day after the ALCS ended. He was definitely hampered by it during the second half of the season and in the postseason but his return helped the Astros to outlast stubborn Oakland for the AL West crown. Likewise, shortstop Correa was just a shell of himself in the second half and revealed his back was still aching after a two-month summer rest. Both are expected to be back at full health in time for the start of next season.

One area that seems to be overlooked by this front office is trading veterans who seem to be peaking and getting some top talent in return. Relievers Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock spent the year mostly in the bullpen when they could have been regular starters on half the clubs in the league. Chris Devenski also has starting in his background. Dealing one plus a solid prospect could be the way to lure a strong veteran catcher as opposed to re-upping Maldonado or McCann.

The 2018 club deserves credit for defending their division crown and winning a franchise-record 103 games during the regular season but a 4-0 postseason start quickly fizzled into an 0-4 finish at the hands of the Red Sox. Finding ways to close the gap will be their focus for the coming year.

- Bob Hulsey