As The New Year Approaches
Astros Have Been Patient Filling Gaps

Keuchel: Might the beard return?
You would think Astro fans would have figured out the modus operandi by now. They're not the Red Sox or the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Cubs. While Jim Crane is coy about the upper reaches of their payroll budget (as he should be), the once-youthful Astros have matured and need to pay certain players big money to be competitive in the top echelon of Major League Baseball. Their nucleus will soon be either signing long contracts with them or signing elsewhere. Crane can't afford to keep everyone from the 2018 roster that won 103 games and reached the ALCS.

Let's do some math. What's been removed from the payroll since then?
Dallas Keuchel - $13.2 million
Brian McCann - $11.5 million (after Yankee discount)
Charlie Morton - $7 million
Evan Gattis - $6.7 million
Tony Sipp - $6 million
Marwin Gonzalez - $5.125 million
Martin Maldonado - $3.9 million

This adds up to $53.425 million in last year's payroll.

What have the Astros replaced them with so far?
Aledmys Diaz - (approx) $3 million
Robinson Chirinos - $5.75 million
Michael Brantley - $16 million.

That's $24.75 million spent. Before you say there's almost $30 million left for more free agents. Remember there are ten arbitration cases to resolve, all of whom will get raises - the only question is "how much"?

Based on others' projections, Gerrit Cole ($12.75 mil), Collin McHugh ($8 mil), Roberto Osuna ($6.5 mil), Carlos Correa ($5.5 mil), Lance McCullers ($4.75 mil), Brad Peacock ($4 mil), Will Harris ($3.8 mil), Ryan Pressly ($3.75 mil), Jake Marisnick ($2.5 mil) and Chris Devenski ($1.75 mil) would add $22.86 million more than those ten cost in 2018.

Now, $47.61 million of the $53.425 is spent and perhaps you see why they haven't jumped on the bandwagon for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Keuchel or even Nelson Cruz.

I honestly think the payroll may grow by as much as $10 million from last year to account for tv contracts and overall inflation. Everyone agrees the team could use upgrades at designated hitter, catcher and starting pitcher plus, they've already weakened with the loss of McCullers and Joe Smith ($8 million) to surgeries that will cost possibly their whole seasons.

I, for one, am glad the Astros missed out on Cruz. The lineup doesn't need one more one-dimensional righty hitter. I like the DH as a lineup spot for ailing stars and Diaz ought to get plenty of ABs even if he's blocked by Correa, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman around the horn. He's a 20-HR talent if he plays regularly. In the AL, there's precious little bench room to carry a full-time DH which is what Gattis had become after he stopped being a catching option.

Adding J.T. Realmuto in trade would be a great addition if he can be plucked from Miami without too great a loss in young talent. The catcher would probably make Chirinos or Max Stassi expendable. Either would have to clear waivers if they were sent down.

The biggest need is probably in the rotation which still has Cole and Justin Verlander but will probably cobble starts from among McHugh, Peacock, Josh James, Francis Martes and Framber Valdez for the other three spots.

Unless Keuchel comes down on his requests, I don't see him returning. Maybe the recently released shoe commercial praising the city was a signal he might give a hometown discount yet, with Scott Boras as an agent, it is also hard to see sentimentality winning out over a higher offer.

The Astros have been magical pulling pitchers like Morton off the scrap heap and breathing new life into them. Pitching coach Brent Strom gets the lion's share of praise for that. Don't be surprised if the Astros have one or two already in their sights.

The bullpen is thinned but with Osuna, Pressly, Devenski and Hector Rondon, they ought to still be able to hold the late innings. Cionel Perez looks to be either a trade chip or the replacement for Sipp as the bullpen lefty. Valdez is also a lefty candidate should he not win a rotation spot.

Finally, there's nothing that would indicate an Oakland-like revival this year to challenge Houston in the AL West. The Astros can be allowed to coast their way up to the July trade deadline and then identify where they can make moves to make the roster postseason-ready. The rest of the division is largely under remodeling and not ready to make a playoff push, especially Arlington and Seattle.

So, Astros fans, don't sweat it. They probably have one large free agent arrow left in their quiver and a few small ones for depth and then it's back to West Palm Beach to watch the new team gel.

- Bob Hulsey