2016 didn’t quite go according to plan for the Houston Astros. After reaching the American League Division Series in 2015, it was expected that they’d win the AL West and move forward in the playoffs last year. Needless to say, that’s not exactly what happened.
Houston still finished the year with a very solid 84-78 record, but they were five games adrift of the Wild Card playoff and were third in the division, 11 games back of Texas. They ended up being a very good run prevention team, allowing just 701 runs across the year that ranked fourth in the American League behind Toronto, Cleveland and Boston.
It was the offence that really struggled though, scoring a total of 724 runs that ranked eighth in the AL and an 15th in the majors. They had a number of gaping holes in the lineup, in particular at catcher, first base, and the corner outfield.
Heading into the offseason, the Astros had promised a bold offseason and they’ve certainly delivered on that, acquiring catcher Brian McCann from the Yankees and then backing that up by handing Josh Reddick a four-year, $52 million deal.
Each of the two moves is as significant as the other, so let’s break them apart and look at exactly how the Astros are going to be taking strides forward.
McCann is a soon to be 33-year-old veteran catcher who will be playing his 13th season in the big leagues when he takes the field in 2017. He’s renowned as being a great leader of the pitching staff and has always been able to put up decent offensive numbers for a catcher too.
He struggled in his three years with the Yankees though between 2014 and 2016, hitting a combined .235 with 69 homers, 43 doubles and 227 RBIs. Despite his struggles at the plate in New York, McCann was still capable of big hits including this walk-off home run on Independence Day eve in 2015.
2016 was arguably the worst of McCann’s three campaigns in pinstripes, hitting only 33 extra-base hits with 58 RBIs, a .242 batting average and a .748 OPS. He’s been on the decline offensively since 2012, though 12 long balls, 25 runs batted in and a .290 average helped him to an All-Star appearance in 2013, the seventh of his career.
Though he played exclusively as a catcher or DH with Atlanta, the Yankees have added to McCann’s versatility by starting him at first base on 11 occasions in 2014. His greatest asset though obviously comes behind the plate where the veteran is rated as an above-average pitch framer.
Former Astros backstop Jason Castro was highly regarded for his pitch framing skills too, though McCann’s bat makes him a significant upgrade.
The new Houston catcher will now likely pair with Evan Gattis, whom the Astros acquired from Atlanta early in 2015. The duo will both get regular action at catcher and as the DH, though Gattis could potentially also get reps in left field and McCann at first.
Throughout his career, Gattis has been significantly better against left-handers than he has against righties. His career average of .273 when facing southpaws is significantly higher than the .240 batting average he holds against right-handers. Gattis has also struck out nearly 3.5 times more often against right-handers. That split was even more evident in 2016 when the right-handed swinger’s batting average was nearly 60 points higher against lefties.
Though McCann’s splits are far less significant, he’s typically been better against right-handers throughout his career, hitting them to the tune of a .269 average as opposed to a .258 mark against southpaws. Last season McCann may have struggled at the plate, but the split was even more apparent as he hit just .218 against lefties, while his OPS was nearly 100 points lower against them too.
With that being the case, Houston may potentially just go with a catching tandem of Gattis and McCann, rather than having them both in the lineup at the same time. McCann has started no fewer than 100 games in 10 of his 12 big league campaigns, though perhaps he might be willing to relinquish some playing time in favour of postseason success. It’s worth noting that the veteran has been to the postseason on five different occasions but is yet to win a series.
The Astros do have Max Stassi slated to be their backup catcher, however the 25-year-old could quite easily be moved to a team that may present more opportunity.
Josh Reddick was the other significant acquisition for Houston on what was a busy Thursday in their front office, as they landed him on a four-year deal that will keep him at the club through the 2020 season.
The 29-year-old Reddick has to be considered one of the more undervalued corner outfielders going around as he’s put together a career .255/.316/.430 slash line while averaging about 12 homers, 16 doubles and 43 RBIs per season.
Just as McCann was essentially a replacement for free agent catcher Jason Castro, Reddick takes the place of Colby Rasmus on the roster as a left-handed corner outfielder. Entering his ninth season in the majors, Reddick had previously spent time with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics before being dealt to the Dodgers at the trade deadline in 2015. He went on to play in 10 postseason games with LA where he picked up 10 hits in 26 at-bats without an extra-base knock.
The Astros had already made a trade for Nori Aoki earlier in the offseason, and though Aoki is also a left-handed hitter it’s plausible Houston may potentially use them both in the starting lineup, with Aoki patrolling left field and Reddick opposite him in right.
George Springer is the other part of this equation as the 27-year-old is coming off an impressive campaign during which he put together a .261/.359/.457 slash line with career-highs in home runs (29), doubles (29), triples (5) and RBIs (82). He also played in all 162 games throughout the season, starting 147 of those in right field.
The organisation may choose to use Springer in center field, a position he’s played over 2100 innings at in the minors. In that situation, Jake Marisnick could become the team’s fourth outfielder with Gattis also on the roster as a backup. Alternatively, they could easily flip Aoki in a trade or non-tender him a contract and keep Springer in right.
Since hitting spray charts came into prominence in 2012, Reddick has been an obvious pull hitter with just four of his 86 home runs landing in either left field or center field. That said, he’s certainly shown the ability to spray the ball around the field with nearly half of his doubles coming from the left side of the field.
Houston’s lineup still looks quite unbalanced as seven of their projected starters hit from the right side of the plate. The only two left-handed hitters they have in their lineup are the two additions made on Thursday: McCann and Reddick. As a whole, the Astros have just four hitters capable of batting left-handed, with Nori Aoki and switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez the other two.
With that being the case, one would have to think the ‘Stros may not be finished adding position players. They could easily look to bring in a left-handed first baseman/DH. Of those still on the market, Adam Lind could be had on a cheap one-year contract, while Houston could also seek to reunite with corner infielder Luis Valbuena.