Articles like these are being written about two weeks earlier than any of us anticipated or hoped for heading into the 2018 MLB Postseason. In a perfect world, the Houston Astros would be closing out either the Dodgers or the Brewers in the World Series a week or so from now, the parade would be on the first Friday of November (again), and THEN we would start to ponder the construct of the 2019 edition of the Astros.
Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Instead, the Red Sox did a phenomenal impersonation of the 2017 Astros last week, seizing every relevant moment of the American League Championship Series, and closing out the defending champs in five games. Instead of a repeat celebration, the next couple weeks will be filled with stories of surgeries (Jose Altuve's knee got fixed on Friday), possible surgeries (Lance McCullers and rumors of Tommy John surgery), and some serious roster-shaping decisions.
One of the eventualities of a young nucleus getting older is that the franchise needs to begin making hard decisions on whom to hand the REALLY big contracts. The club already made their statement on one of the team's core players back in March, when they gave Altuve a five-year, $150 million extension. Not one person in town has any issue with that.
George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole — those are all future cornerstones whose big deals are coming, hopefully from the Astros, but you never know. I would think that, if Justin Verlander has another big season in 2019, the team would strongly consider locking him up for his final few seasons. Those would seem to be the obvious central figures of the next half dozen or so seasons of Astros baseball. McCullers would be included there, as well, but his medicals throw everything in the air right now.
So let's focus on the 2018 Astros who will be on the open market this offseason, including two where the club may choose to eject from the remainder of their deals. These eight players represent $63.6 million in salary from the 2018 books (Astros total payroll was just over $163 million, ninth in baseball). Undoubtedly, though, that $63.6 million will get eaten up and then some through some combination of retaining a few of the players listed below, arbitration raises for team-controlled players, and new acquisitions (free agency or trades).
So let's go through the Astros' free agents and try to gauge the chances of each one returning:
DALLAS KUECHEL, SP
2018 SALARY: $13,200,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 15 percent
If we are being truthful, this past season already had sort of a low key "farewell tour" vibe for Keuchel, who we assume is going to get front line starter's money from somebody. While Keuchel has been closer to average (and, at times, injured) for large chunks of the three seasons since his Cy Young Award in 2015, he will be a sellable upgrade in the front of the rotation for many teams out there, and his playoff experience will play well on the open market. Keuchel's role in the revival of this franchise cannot be understated, as he was one of the guys here when times were REALLY bad, and he was the linchpin of the pitching staff when they turned things around in 2015. He was also critical to bringing Justin Verlander to town as a quasi team spokesman. I wish him well wherever the next stop may be.
MARWIN GONZALEZ, UTIL
2018 SALARY: $5,125,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 60 percent
Marwin's free agency should be a fascinating one to follow. On the one hand, he had a fairly substantial (and somewhat predictable) statistical regression in 2018 (.737 OPS), after a career year in 2017 (.907 OPS, led the team in RBI). That said, his value to the team may have been felt more in 2018 with the injuries to Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, as Gonzalez was able to step in capably for either guy, when he wasn't already playing left field. That type of versatility is perhaps more valuable to a winning team than a team going nowhere, so perhaps the peak market for Gonzalez has fewer suitors, but all it takes is one with money to burn. I would bet on Gonzalez coming back, as I think he is viewed by A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow as maybe not a core guy, but certainly firmly on that next circle outside the core.
CHARLIE MORTON, SP
2018 SALARY: $8,875,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 50 percent
Here's a question for you — Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel are sitting at a bar, and you can only buy one of them a drink? Who do you buy one for? (The correct answer: Jose Altuve, who is sitting over in the corner making an H-E-B commercial.) Seriously, I think it's probably Morton, based solely on his Game 7 appearance in the 2017 World Series. I point that out to show that there might be more sentimental attachment to Morton, who's been here two seasons than Keuchel, who's been here seven. Retaining Morton should be a far less expensive proposition, as he is older, and kind of ran out of steam in the second half of the season. I'd bring Morton back on another two-year deal that is slightly bumped up from what he made last season, something like two years, $23 million, and maybe throw in a club option for a third year with some sort of small buyout.
MARTIN MALDONADO, C
2018 SALARY: $3,900,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 65 percent
Up until he forgot how to catch a baseball in the ALCS, Maldonado had been a nice value pick up by Luhnow, a low cost trade target with Gold Glove skills. The team is going to need a front line catcher next season, with Brian McCann likely done as an Astro, and Maldonado's familiarity with the staff allows them to hit the ground running in 2018.
BRIAN McCANN, C ($15M club option for 2019)
2018 SALARY: $17,000,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 2 percent
McCann is not a true free agent, in that there is still a year left on his deal, but it's a club option, and I think there is almost no chance the Astros bring him back for $15 million. In 2018, he only played 63 games, and had the lowest OPS of his career (.640). He hasn't had an OPS over .800 since 2011. From a leadership standpoint, this was a great pickup by Luhnow, as McCann was an integral part of the championship team of last season, but value plays a part at some point.
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EVAN GATTIS, DH
2018 SALARY: $6,700,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 10 percent
Aside from an off the grid stretch in May and June, when he had OPS numbers of .951 and .863, respectively, Gattis was basically an all-or-nothing power hitter the rest of the season. He is as streaky as they come, and given his limitations in the field, I have a hard time seeing the Astros prioritize Gattis. It doesn't mean he won't be back, but I'm guessing he's more back burner than the other names we've mentioned so far.
TONY SIPP, RP
2018 SALARY: $6,000,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 35 percent
Sipp had a very underrated career renaissance in 2018, going from overpriced and completely unusable in 2017 to a valuable setup piece out of the bullpen. The Astros need a left handed arm in the pen, and retaining Sipp probably comes down to how they feel about a guy like, say, Cionel Perez taking over lefty spot duties. With some of the other contracts coming up, and arbitration raises due, spending $6 million on a lefty setup guy again may be out of the question.
WILL HARRIS, RP ($5.5M club option for 2019)
2018 SALARY: $2,800,000
CHANCES OF RETURNING: 20 percent
Remember when Will Harris was an All-Star a couple years ago? Well, this postseason, he was the last guy on the ALDS roster, and he wasn't on the ALCS roster. With several other bullpen options already under contract or team control, Will Harris for $5.5 million feels expensive. We shall see.
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