HOUSTON - As the offseason begins, every team in baseball is faced with the questions, what now? Or where do we go from here? The Houston Astros were hoping to shout out the same answers for a second consecutive season.
“Let’s win it all again!” or “Time to repeat!”
But after losing in the 2018 ALCS in five games to the Boston Red Sox, the answers this offseason will be different. Their goal was to successfully defend their 2017 World Series title, but instead they hit the offseason after four straight losses, including each of their three ALCS games at home at Minute Maid Park.
For a team that certainly will bring back the bulk of their core, the Astros will also face more significant free agency questions than last season.
2015 Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel will be a free agent after spending his entire professional career with the Astros organization. He was drafted in 2009, joined the big league team in 2012 and has been a mainstay in the rotation ever since.
He finished this season with a 12-11 record to go with a 3.74 ERA over 34 starts. He also led the major leagues in hits allowed with 211.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Keuchel said after the game five season-ending loss in the ballpark he’s called home for the last seven seasons.
“This is the first time in my career where I don’t know where I’m going to be at next year. I put my heart and soul into this team for seven years.
“I think anybody in their right mind would be fortunate enough like myself to weather this storm for a couple and them make some progress, I’d love to be here for the long haul,” Keuchel said.
“I know that the business side, doesn’t always meet the human side so we’ll see. I’m in a position to test the market, then we’ll go from there but that’s still a long ways away. It will still probably be a few weeks before I think about it.”
When asked if he was resigned to the face that he’ll be elsewhere next season, Keuchel said. “I’d love to be here, I think there’s been seven years where there could have been extension talks, but one thing or another it just hasn’t come to a head. I’d like to be in this locker next year. That’s really all I can say at this point.”
Fellow starting pitcher Charlie Morton, both ALCS catcher Martin Maldonado and Brian McCann ($15 million team option), and super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez are also in a position to potentially be elsewhere next season.
Morton led the league in winning percentage with a 15-3 mark, but shoulder fatigue limited him at the end of the season and kept him to just one postseason appearance. Morton said he would like to continue playing for the Astros after performing so well over his two seasons in Houston.
Maldonado was only with the Astros for roughly two months after being acquired via trade from the Angels, but quickly became the everyday catcher and that continued into the postseason. He struggled at the plate, but was considered a weapon for the Astros in curtailing the running game of their opponents.
McCann had midseason knee surgery and returned for just 34 at-bats after the all-star break. He’ll be 35 before the start of next season and has a $15 million team option that will not vest based on several provisions not being met. If McCann is back, it will be at a vastly reduced rate and unlikely as the lead catcher.
Gonzalez situation could be much trickier. Even on a team full of stars, Marwin is tremendously valued and he is coming off a very productive 2018 postseason. He led the team with nine RBI and was second with 19 total bases, while starting five games in left field and three games at second base. During the regular season, Gonzalez saw time at every position except pitcher and catcher.
During the postseason, Astros manager A.J. Hinch was asked about sliding Gonzalez to second base with Jose Altuve’s knee bothering him. Hinch said, “I'm often asked about Marwin and I say, ‘He's the answer for everything.’"
Gonzalez had an up and down season, but his versatility and playoff experience should make a him a sought-after free agent. He’s a player the Astros certainly would like to keep around, but could receive offers elsewhere that are too good for him to pass up.
Left-handed reliever Tony Sipp and designated hitter Evan Gattis are also free agents. Sipp was exceptionally reliable this past season, spending most of the year as the team’s only left-handed option out of the pen. Only two AL pitchers with at least 35 innings pitched posted an ERA lower than Sipp’s 1.86, but his combined ERA in 2016-17 was 5.33.
Gattis was tremendous in June with eight homers in 30 RBI and had a successful May with a .952 OPS, but was nearly unusable for the other four months of the season. He had just 33 RBI combined in those four months and hit .172 in August and September. It’s very unlikely he’ll be back with the Astros.
Of greater concern may be several of the injuries that clearly had an impact during the postseason. Altuve, Correa and Lance McCullers, Jr. were all dealing with injuries that at another time of year likely would have had them on the shelf.
ICYMI: #Astros Alex Bregman (@ABREG_1 ) after last night's season-ending loss on how good this team was (better the 2017 champs), injuries that guys were gutting it out through and the chip on their shoulder for next season. @KPRC2 pic.twitter.com/RtMvkG2Wnu — Adam Wexler (@KPRC2AdamW) October 19, 2018
Speaking after the season-ending loss, Alex Bregman said, “We were banged up a little bit. Lance McCullers is pitching with uh, I don’t know if I’m supposed to say what he’s pitching with, but the guy has some heart.
“(Jose) Altuve’s right-knee is the size of a grapefruit, but he’s out there putting together good at-bats. A lot of really good character guys in this clubhouse that will put it on the line for our team.”
Altuve hurt his knee in a game against Colorado in July and was never fully recovered from it, even after his first career stint on the disabled list. He was unsure if the team doctors would suggest for the course of action for his knee as the team concluded.
McCullers spent several weeks on the disabled list late in the season because of what termed a forearm strain. He still managed to appear in five of the Astros eight postseason games out of the bullpen, allowing just one earned run in five innings.
His pitch usage seemed to indicate an injury that is still lingering. He went from using his fastball nearly 40 percent of the time to just under 20 percent in the five postseason games against Cleveland and Boston, relying heavily on his tremendous curveball.
One report suggested that McCullers was pitching through a torn ulnar collateral ligament and could require Tommy John surgery this offseason. The Astros will likely address McCullers situation in the coming days.
Shortstop Carlos Correa played through a troublesome back injury most of the final two months of the season and hit just .180 in August and September. He conceded his back was still bothering him over that time and through the postseason, never really knowing from one day to the next how his back would feel. The hope is rest and treatment will have him past this injury for next season.
The Astros bullpen was a major concern during their 2017 World Series run and it was upgraded significantly over the course of the season. Then unfortunately the top regular season outfit, was very unreliable in their brief 2018 postseason. There may be more changes with that group, but for a team that won a franchise-record 103 games, major changes are most likely not on the horizon.
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