Slow January Soon To End

Verlander: Open to extension
(c) Associated Press
You're forgiven if you think the lack of progress in baseball signings is because of the partial government shutdown. That's just an illusion. The Astros claim to have three holes on their roster but they have the luxury of waiting until July to fill them and, in the meantime, rely on home-grown solutions that might pan out.

Unlike two weeks ago, last week did have some news but nothing unexpected. The Astros Winter Caravan sailed through south and central Texas. A new Astros Hall of Fame will be added at Minute Maid Park to replace Home Run Alley. The Baseball Hall of Fame elected four new members (congrats to Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and the family of the late Roy Halladay) but none with local connections.

While Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling inched closer to induction, Jeff Kent and Billy Wagner stayed far back while Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman failed to generate the minimum 5% of votes to continue on the ballot for next year.

In a way, it seems harsh but Oswalt and Berkman were both victims of the same disease. They were great for a time but not long enough. Call it "Dale Murphy Syndrome" if you will. For a slugger, Berkman had just 366 career homers in his 15 seasons. Pity poor Fred McGriff who whalloped 493 dingers and couldn't get in to Cooperstown.

Oswalt was done after 13 seasons and twice won 20 games. He was in the Top 5 of Cy Young voting five seasons but never won the award. It didn't help Berkman or Oswalt that their best years were spent in the media backwater of Houston, rather than Boston, New York or Los Angeles.

Honestly, this was all to be expected. What Astros fans have really been waiting for is answers to who will be their designated hitter, starting catcher and fourth starting pitcher. Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto is in pursuit by several teams who may have to fall back on Matt Weiters or Martin Maldonado if they can't add Realmuto.

Who will join Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Collin McHugh in the 2019 rotation? Will the Astros really be satisfied with rookies Josh James and Framber Valdez taking 40% of their starts? Dallas Keuchel is still out there unsigned as are free agents Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez.

The DH puzzle is both simpler and trickier. Former Astros Evan Gattis and Marwin Gonzalez are still on the market plus a handful of others like Mike Moustakis, Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds who could fill the bill. The opening at DH could also allow top prospect Kyle Tucker to play regularly while Michael Brantley, George Springer and Josh Reddick get most of the outfield starts.

The biggest hold-up in the process seems to be about free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Both are top-shelf stars who will cost a lot of money to sign so any team fantasizing about adding either one has to set aside a good chunk of available payroll until their destinations have been decided.

Personally, I don't think either is a good fit for the Astros but some of the players they do want won't have their market values set until Harper and Machado determine where the bar is.

Some players and agents complain that there is (gasp) collusion among teams to hold player salaries down. Older fans may recall there really was collusion back in 1987 which led to Tim Raines going unsigned beyond Opening Day and Andre Dawson handing the Cubs a blank contract where the team could name the salary. Hopefully, Harper and Machado don't come to that.

I think it has more to do with the plethora of sabermetric Moneyball types running front offices. Look at what Oakland was able to cobble together last year without a genuine big name on the roster. If a team wins 90+ games without a megastar, why bother shelling out the big bucks?

While Jim Crane and the Astros are competitive with the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers on the field, they are not in terms of tv revenue and merchandising. They should reward their own stars with better contracts before thinking about signing a big-money free agent.

Once Harper and Machado land somewhere, you'll see the dam break and contracts get done. We're just three weeks away from camps opening and less than a month away from the first exhibition games. Until then, Hot Stove watchers will just have to wait and speculate.

Somewhere down the road, the Astros will also need to decide what to do with Verlander and Cole for 2020 and beyond. Cole is presently at an arbitration impasse with the ballclub that is more than $2 million apart. Verlander, meanwhile, says there has been no discussion regarding a contract extension but that he's open to one. The pair both finished in the top five of last year's Cy Young race and may have asking prices that will preclude any extensions.

- Bob Hulsey