Houston Astros: Winter meetings preview

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To Jim Crane’s left sat the slugger who will lengthen his lineup, make it deeper than any in the American League and address the most obvious offseason need for the defending World Series champions. José Abreu arrived a week before baseball’s winter bonanza, but he won’t preclude Crane from craving more. 

Crane masqueraded as a general manager throughout November and netted two of baseball’s most lucrative deals. Two days after parting ways with James Click, Crane engineered a three-year, $34.5 million deal with reliever Rafael Montero. Abreu’s three-year, $58.5 million contract is perhaps the most consequential signing by any team thus far. 

“We’re not finished,” Crane said during Tuesday’s news conference introducing Abreu. “We like our team, our pitching is strong and this adds another bat, but we think we can improve a little bit more.”

Four days in San Diego should afford Crane and the Astros an opportune chance. Baseball’s winter meetings are a breeding ground for activity and an impetus for action during the sport’s drawn-out winter. 

Crane is not expected to attend the meetings. It’s unclear if his three assistant general managers will have any autonomy or authority to finalize transactions on site. Bill Firkus and Charles Cook have held their new titles for less than a month. Andrew Ball, the longest-tenured of the assistant general manager trio, has only been an Astros employee since January.

Crane dispatched Firkus to Miami during the negotiations with José Abreu, perhaps signaling some form of hierarchy among the trio of assistant general managers. Pete Putila’s departure for San Francisco in October left Firkus as the front office’s longest-tenured employee. He spent this season as the team’s senior director of baseball strategy before Crane promoted him to assistant general manager in November.

Make no mistake, though, Crane wields all of the power. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell’s influence is growing, too, media guide title be damned. Bagwell spoke Tuesday like a man more involved in decision-making than any “community outreach executive” in baseball may be.

“The main thing we want to do here is, I don’t want to hear windows,” Bagwell said. “I want to hear every single year we have a chance to win. That’s how we have to base our decisions: short-term, but the long-term in the back of our minds. Like how are we going to be in three years, five years, 7-10 (years).”

Sustainability is a goal of any franchise. Few can actually claim it. With six consecutive American League Championship Series appearances, the Astros can. Adding Abreu makes them a favorite to reach a seventh, but neither Crane nor Bagwell seemed content. Both mentioned outfield and catching as areas Houston could upgrade. 

Neither mentioned starting pitching, even as reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander remains unsigned. If Verlander signs elsewhere, the Astros still return a six-man rotation that includes Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy and Hunter Brown. 

Verlander is not a necessity, although ruling out a reunion is impossible, especially given his close relationship with Crane. Last month, Crane told MLB.com that Verlander is seeking a contract similar to Max Scherzer’s three-year, $130 million pact with the New York Mets. Verlander turns 40 in February. Scherzer signed that deal before his age-37 season. 

Crane and the Astros had an exclusive negotiating window with Verlander for five days after the World Series. At the time, multiple people with knowledge of Crane’s thinking said he had questioned Scherzer’s deal in the past and appeared hesitant to give anything similar to it. Once those five days elapsed without a deal, Verlander entered the open market. He had meetings with both the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers in November.

“I haven’t visited with him lately,” Crane said Tuesday. “I have read the press like you have. I haven’t talked to him.”

According to Cot’s Contracts, Houston remains $40,434,523 under the competitive balance tax after signing Abreu. Crane said this week the Astros will “certainly have the ability to go to and over it, if we want to.”

Houston may covet a lefthanded-hitting outfielder and an offensive catcher more than another starting pitcher — even one of Verlander’s stature. Before he left the organization, Click said it was “trending toward” Yordan Alvarez assuming everyday left-field duties in 2023. Bagwell disputed that on Tuesday. 

“I think if you look at left field, that’s something we’re going to think about,” Bagwell said. “I want Yordan (Alvarez) to play 45-50 percent of the games in left field. I think it’s good for him. Mentally, it’s good. He enjoys it. That’s important. There’s going to have to be some way we figure it out … but I need Yordan to play 45 to 50 percent of the games.”

Alvarez and Kyle Tucker are the only two lefthanded hitters on the 26-man roster. Adding more balance seems crucial. Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Andrew Benintendi are all ideal fits. 

If Crane has a bigger splash in mind, the team has coveted Willson Contreras since the start of free agency, multiple people within the organization said. The Astros had a deal in place to acquire Contreras for José Urquidy at the Aug. 2 trade deadline, but Crane vetoed it at manager Dusty Baker’s behest

The Chicago Cubs extended Contreras a $19.65 million qualifying offer when the offseason began. He declined it, meaning any team that signs him must forfeit a draft pick. If Houston signs Contreras, it will relinquish its second-highest draft pick in 2023 along with $500,000 in international bonus pool money.  

During Click’s tenure, the Astros shied away from free agents with qualifying offers attached. Most of their reticence stemmed from not having a first- or second-round draft pick in 2020 or 2021 — part of Major League Baseball’s punishment for the sign-stealing scandal. Now that both are back, perhaps it makes the club more amenable to giving one up.

Doing so could disrupt some clubhouse chemistry. Last year, Martín Maldonado guided Houston’s pitching staff to the best season in franchise history and cemented himself as one of this team’s unquestioned leaders. Next season is his final under club control. Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz both wet their feet at the major league level last year, too. Adding Contreras may make Maldonado a trade candidate to clear space for one of Lee or Diaz to be the backup.

“We have Lee and Diaz. I personally have not seen enough of them to make a decision on either of those two,” Bagwell said. “I know what we have in Maldy, which is one of the best teammates and (being) all about winning as I’ve seen. Everything he does is about winning and I love Maldy. But there’s always room for upgrades. We just have to figure out where we’re going.”

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