The Astros want to add another high-end pitcher to their rotation.
We know this because the team’s owner, Jim Crane, told everyone the reigning World Series champions are looking for another high-end starting pitcher. That’s about as open and honest of an admission as you’ll ever see from a team in the offseason. Pretty refreshing, actually.
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The thing is, it’s not like the Astros have a bare-bones rotation. Quite the opposite. They have an excellent rotation for 2018, a rotation that’s very capable of leading the club to another World Series title: Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel up top, followed by Lance McCullers Jr. (and his nasty curveball) and Charlie Morton, with Brad Peacock and Colin McHugh as outstanding fifth-spot options.
But there are time restrictions with this group. Barring extensions, Keuchel and Morton are set to become free agents after 2018. And, yes, they’d love to keep those guys, but backup plans aren’t a bad thing. Verlander was awesome for the Astros last year, but he’ll be 35 in February and will be a free agent after 2019 (the club waived his vesting option for 2020 as part of the trade agreement). McHugh is a free agent after 2019, too. Peacock (free agent after 2020) and McCullers (after 2021) are the only two under control for more than two seasons, though they do have highly touted prospects waiting their turn in the minors.
So, yeah. There are potential upgrades that can be made as the Astros look to cement their status as perennial contender for the next several years. Keep that in mind when thinking about potential additions; they aren’t likely to be focused on shopping for guys who will soon be free agents.
So what are Houston’s options? There are plenty of them out there. Let’s take a look.
Jake Arrieta, free agent
Thoughts: Arrieta won the 2015 NL Cy Young with an incredible season — 1.77 ERA, 5.9 H/9, 4.92 K/BB, etc. — but he hasn’t been quite as dominant the past two years. In 2017 he made 31 starts, posted a 3.53 ERA/4.16 FIP and struck out 163 batters in 168 1/3 innings. Still very solid. He has a solid track record in the postseason (3.09 ERA in nine starts), and he only allowed one earned run in 10 2/3 playoff innings last season, though he did walk 10 hitters. That October track record has to be appealing to the Astros, because at this point winning more World Series titles is pretty much the only goal. It is, though, fair to wonder what the next couple of seasons might bring. Arrieta will be 32 in March, and his velocity did dip a bit last year; his four-seam fastball clocked in at 92.67, down from 94.93 in his Cy Young season (via Brooks Baseball). He’s not going to come cheaply, and though the Astros made plenty of cash during their October run in 2017, they have other impending contract they’ll have to deal with the next couple of years (Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, etc.).
Yu Darvish, free agent
Thoughts: Like Arrieta, Darvish will be expensive (more than $100 million, maybe much more). Of course, signing a free agent means the club won’t have to dip into its crop of prospects to acquire him, and for a team built on prospects succeeding in the majors, that has an appeal. The Astros know Darvish, who long pitched for the AL West rival Rangers, as well as any team. And, yes, they torched him a couple of times in the World Series after Darvish, 31, was dealt to the Dodgers. But if the report about the right-hander tipping pitches is true, that’s easily fixed. Darvish’s raw stuff is elite, and intoxicating.
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Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Thoughts: There was a report Monday linking the Astros to the Pirates’ ace. It’s no secret that the Pirates are open to dealing Cole (wrote more on him Monday), who finished fourth the NL Cy Young race the year Arrieta won. He’s been strongly connected to the Yankees as well. Cole is arbitration-eligible this offseason and next offseason, then is eligible to become a free agent after the 2019 season. So that means he doesn’t provide the ideal type of long-term security the Astros would want, but having him in the rotation during his 2019 walk year would certainly help ease the potential loss of Keuchel and/or Morton after 2018.
Chris Archer, Rays
Thoughts: All things considered, Archer is the perfect fit. He’s locked into an incredibly team-friendly contract — the club options run through 2021 — and he’s an incredibly gifted pitcher, not to mention one of baseball’s true good guys. The Rays aren’t actively looking to trade him, of course, which means the price in prospects will be incredibly steep. We’re talking “offer you can’t refuse” level. But the Astros have a very good farm system, the type of system with both the upper-level talent and depth necessary to make a deal like this happen. And Archer, just 29, is about as sure of a bet as any pitcher potentially available in a trade (though, obviously, all pitchers carry an inherent injury risk). If any pitcher is worth trading the farm for, it’s Archer, who has a career 3.63 ERA/3.46 FIP and struck out a career high 11.1 batters per nine innings in 2017.
If you’re an Astros fan, this is the move you should be rooting for.
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Alex Cobb/Lance Lynn, free agents
Thoughts: These guys represent the second tier of free-agent starting pitchers, which is pushing the boundaries of Crane’s “high-end” comment. They aren’t as good as peak Arrieta/Darvish, but they also won’t be nearly as expensive. Both could be had for a four-year deal worth well short of $100 million, and that’s appealing. Both have dealt with Tommy John surgery and recovery, and both came back to pitch solid seasons in 2017 that should alleviate concerns related to the procedure. For most contenders, these guys would slot in as a No. 3 starter in 2018; for the Astros, they’d be No. 4/5 guys, which tells you how good that rotation really is. More importantly, they’d provide rotation certainty for the next couple of years.
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