As the Houston Astros' championship level window has evolved and progressed over the last half decade or so, through various forms of attrition, there have been big shoes to fill. When Gerrit Cole left in free agency, and Justin Verlander lost his 2020 and 2021 seasons to injury, Framber Valdez and others had to fill those shoes. George Springer's shoes being filled in centerfield is still a work in progress. Someone will have fill Carlos Correa's shoes next season, it would appear.
However, the former Astros employee who might cast the longest shadow and have the largest figurative footwear to fill is former general manager Jeff Luhnow, who as fired back in January 2020 in the wake of the sign stealing scandal. Luhnow had the best run of any GM in any sport in our town from about 2015 through his termination, so good that most of the pieces of this Astros AL champion in 2021 were Luhnow acquisitions.
All you really need to say is that the Astros are set to lose the marquee free agent in the market for a third straight offseason, and they're still favored to win the American League next season. That's largely due to the depth built by Luhnow.
So it's James Click's job now, and has been for nearly two years, to keep this title window alive. It's a big offseason for Click, as the likely departures of Verlander, Correa, and Zack Greinke leave (a) big holes to fill, and more importantly (b) lots of money to possibly spend.
So how confident are we that Click can go execute and keep this team in the mix for 2022 and beyond? Well, let's take a look at his performance in 2021, and see if history can serve as the bets forecaster for the type of job Click does in keeping Houston's baseball faithful happy, and keeping this roster at or near the top of the heap. Here are the significant moves made by Click in 2021, along with letter grades! (We love letter grades!)
RE-SIGNED MICHAEL BRANTLEY (2 years, $32M)
This signing was HUGE on the day it occurred, because it appeared as though Brantley was on his way to Toronto to join George Springer in their outfield. Instead, he returned to the Astros on the same exact deal he'd arrived to in 2019, a two-year, $32 million contract. While health was an issue for Brantley — he played in 121 games, and had 508 plate appearances — he finished second in the AL batting race to his teammate, Yuli Gurriel, and was a steady, solid bat throughout the postseason in the two-hole, logging a .319 batting average. He is back for one more year in 2022.
SIGNED PEDERO BAEZ (2 years, $12.5M, player option for 2023)
GRADE: F (for now)
Baez was brought in as the big addition to the bullpen, and the team got practically nothing out of him in 2021. He contracted COVID during spring training, then injured his shoulder while building his strength back up. Eventually, he was activated in August, but appeared in just four games before going back on the injured list. If he can return to the form he flashed as a leverage reliever with the Dodgers for seven seasons, this would be pennies from heaven.
SIGNED RYNE STANEK (1 year, $1.1M, arbitration two more years)
If you're going to spend big on your core guys, then you need some Stanek-like signings to fill out the bullpen and rest of the roster. Click had some familiarity with Stanek from when the two were both in Tampa, and he brought in the Kenny Powers lookalike on a one year, $1.1 million deal. Stanek etched himself into the game plan as Ryan Pressly's main setup guy, and after Kendall Graveman arrived, Stanek was still sued frequently in key situations. He struck out 83 batters in 68 innings, and logged a 3.42 ERA. He is arbitration eligible for two more seasons.
SIGNED JASON CASTRO (2 years, $7M)
Castro's return to the Astros, after departing in 2016, was largely successful. He provided a veteran backup catcher to starter Martin Maldonado, and perhaps the biggest revelation was Castro as a pinch hitter and substitute in late innings, where he notched one of the biggest hits in Astros history, the game-winning single in Game 4 of the ALCS versus Boston. As a substitute in 2021, had a .407 batting average and 1.145 OPS, compared to his .197 batting average and .721 OPS as a starter.
SIGNED JAKE ODORIZZI (2 years, $22M)
This was easily Click's least productive move. after Framber Valdez broke a finger in spring training, and initial reports had him missing the season perhaps, Click went into triage mode and brought in Odorizzi on what essentially amounted to a two-year, $22 million deal. Thankfully, Valdez was able to return, and the thought was the rotation would be considerably deeper with Odorizzi in the fold. Unfortunately, Odorizzi was very inconsistent, finishing 6-7 with a 4.21 ERA, and was relegated to long relief in the two playoff series for which he was active. Odorizzi regaining his All Star form of 2019 would be a huge boost to the Astros' 2022 title hopes.
EXTENDED MARTIN MALDONADO (2 years, $9M thru 2023, team option for 2023)
Everybody loves the Machete, despite his .573 OPS, because he is like an iron wall of granite behind home plate, with a machine gun for an arm, and the brains of every Greek philosopher and old school mathematician put together. I think he will be the manager of the Astros someday, but for now, it's nice to have him as the team's backstop for a couple more seasons.
EXTENDED LANCE McCULLERS (5 years, $85M)
This one is complicated. By most statistical measurements, Lance McCullers was fantastic in 2021, finishing with a 13-5 record and a 3.16 ERA. He led the league in last number of hits allowed per nine innings, but also led the league in walks allowed. When he wasn't overpowering, McCullers was
extremely wild. If you were getting the McCullers that we got up to his forearm strain in the ALDS, then the $85 million for the next five seasons is a MAJOR bargain. However, I can't ignore a forearm strain at the worst possible time, and think back to McCullers' injury history and wonder if this is something we have to worry about every year. Overall, I'm okay with it, and if he'd made it through the postseason healthy, the signing is probably an A-, but he didn't make it through the postseason healthy. So, there you go.
TRADE DEADLINE DEALS for GRAVEMAN, YIMI GARCIA, and MATON
I'll group all three of these together, since they came in a rapid fire fashion right around the trade deadline. All three had their battles with consistency during the last couple months of the season, to where it felt like these might be three L's for click on his trade ledger. However, the postseason provided redemption for all three, as they were part of a bullpen that was able to carry a pitching staff whose starters only made it past the fifth inning one time in the final 12 games of the postseason. The Maton trade in particular was positive reflection on Click, as he boldly traded a starting centerfielder (Myles Straw), entrusting that position to rookies Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers, who both performed capably in the aftermath of the deal.
OVERALL GRADE for CLICK: B+
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