Astros: The Critical Decisions Ahead (Midseason Review, Part 2 — Revised)

Author’s note: This is a revised version of an earlier article, updated in light of recent events) It is always easier to write about what has happened than to predict what will happen. The Astros chose to make a decision that I had considered along with other options but did not include in this article. That decision and player performances since then led the Astros to another personnel decision. These choices offer us clues to how the team will manage the roster in the weeks ahead. In addition, injuries have beset multiple pitchers at both the major league and minor league levels. I had intended to just modify this article to reflect the few changes that occurred during the past week; however, as of the afternoon of June 28, so many things have happened that it is better to just start where the Astros are today and map out the roster moves I expect from now until the trade deadline.

Astros fans should know, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, that the Astros are not only excellent, but arguably the best team in baseball. But there are still critical roster decisions that need to be made in the next six weeks. Done right, the 2019 World Series Trophy will return to Houston. Done wrong, the championship window will be narrower and will start closing faster. These decisions started on June 19 when Jose Altuve returned from the IL and Cionel Perez was sent back to Round Rock.

This discussion of internal roster decisions is the second part of a comprehensive early midseason review:

  • Part 1: “Astros: The Best Team in MLB” — A position-by-position breakdown of why the Astros are the best team in baseball
  • Part 2: “Astros: The Critical Decisions Ahead” — Examining internal roster management decisions the Astros will soon face
  • Part 3: “How to make the Astros Even Better” — A discussion of key trades that could take the Astros to legendary status

Taken together, these three articles outline a possible blueprint for the rest of the Astros season and beyond. Today, we’ll tackle the second part by exploring the roster moves that will shape the rest of the season leading up to the trade deadline.

The Astros have off days on July 1 and July 4 before the All-Star Break from July 8–10. The off days may allow the bullpen to not get overused. I believe the Astros will rotate Armenteros, Guduan, Perez, and now Sneed for the 12th and 13th spots, the last two spots on the pitching staff, depending on usage. I will not try to predict these rotations. One thing we learned this week is that injuries are stressing the ability to properly stage the rotation and we will discuss that.

Injuries – Who is hurt, and when could they return?

The first thing we must address now is who is injured, when they might return, who got sent down when, and therefore when are they available to return.

On 6/28/19, Brad Peacock was sent to the Injured List with shoulder discomfort. The Astros said they believe he will be available coming out of the All-Star Break. Reymin Guduan was once again recalled. Reymin must have a suitcase packed at all times, as this is his fourth time to be recalled this year. The roster right now looks like this.

Clearly there are questions about which pitchers will start games between now and the All-Star Break. The first game in question is July 2. The options include:

  • Cy Sneed: Making his first MLB start.
  • Cionel Perez: Could be recalled and someone would have to be sent down (likely Sneed). Perez pitched 82 pitches on his start on June 28 in Round Rock. That would likely make a start on three days’ rest a challenge.
  • An opener could start, depending on the usage, between now and July 2.

I would assume Sneed will be given a chance to start on July 2. Because the Astros have an off day on July 1, Miley can make the start on July 3 on regular rest. Verlander and Cole can then make the starts on July 5 and 6. The start on July 7 would face the same possibilities as July 2; Valdez and Armenteros would then be eligible to be recalled from AAA. Overall, the starting pitching situation is not nearly as dire as it may seem due to the off days.

The main issue with the starting pitching has been two straight days of short starts by Valdez and Peacock. Both are not out of the rotation, and eventually an upgrade at SP will be needed.

The original version of this article illustrated how, if the Astros had sent down Straw as I expected they might, the team would have likely needed Gurriel or Altuve to make at least one start at shortstop and would have needed Reddick, Alvarez, or Brantley make a few starts at first base. I believe that the team chose to keep Straw to have a better option at backup shortstop and a better option for first base. With White and Gurriel playing almost every day, it is possible to cover 1B.

The Astros keeping Straw tells me:

  • They have prioritized Straw ahead of Kemp.
  • They believe Straw is viable at SS, or at least he is more viable than Gurriel or Altuve.
  • They are very uncomfortable with Reddick or Alvarez at 1B.

Straw has an OPS of 0.808 and Kemp has on OPS of 0.711. Both have one IF position they have played. In a perfect world of backup infielders, Straw playing SS is a better match with Diaz, who is better at 2B and 3B than at SS. Getting to that point without having to DFA Kemp may be a challenge, however.

From now until the All-Star Break, the Astros will cycle the pitching staff to keep arms in the bullpen. Luhnow has indicated that when the Astros visit a National League park, they would rather have the 13 position players available for extra pinch hitting of the pitcher spot.

Next Major Roster Move: July 11
Diaz, Peacock, and Smith return

Several moves will be made after the All-Star Break. The Astros play for 14 straight days after July 11. We will assume they carry 13 pitchers in that stretch.

There are two SP slots open post-ASB. These will be covered by two of these three possibilities:

  • Peacock slots in as the fourth starter again, assuming his shoulder is okay.
  • Valdez, Perez, or Armenteros has good starts in AAA and returns to be the fifth starter (with Sneed sent down).
  • Sneed pitches well and continues as fifth starter.

To make room for Peacock, I project that Guduan will be sent down. The Astros have several capable relief pitchers vs. LHB even if they do not keep LHRP Guduan. I believe that, depending on their relative performance between now and July 11, either Guduan or Devenski will be sent down here. I will guess it will be Guduan sent down once again.

In addition to the two starting pitchers, Joe Smith is likely to return at this point. A position player will be sent down to build the pitching staff to 13 pitchers.

Aledmys Diaz will likely return after the All-Star Break. His return provides plenty of flexibility, as Diaz can play every IF position and LF.

Diaz’s return will force the most critical roster decision. Will the Astros DFA White or Kemp, trade them, or demote others to keep those two on the roster? Don’t be surprised if the Astros trade for a SP sooner rather than later and clear roster slots in the process. A trade when Diaz is ready would make a lot of sense.

The pressure is on all of the team to perform. White has been relatively hot. Kemp has been consistently good all year and played surprising well at 2B. Marisnick was good in May, but not so good in April or June. I do not believe Kemp will be DFAd. He will be likely traded instead. Straw has outperformed but has had a far more limited playing time than the others.

It might not be fair, but expect Straw to be sent down in one of the two moves shown here, unless the Astros can get an early trade. I think the decision comes down to DFAing White or demoting Marisnick. The playing time would likely distribute thus in each scenario:

Keeping White (and optioning Marisnick) means there is good IF/OF balance, with Diaz and Kemp providing the back-ups. If Springer is looking good in CF and the loss of Marisnick is mitigated, then this option may be more attractive.

Keeping Marisnick (and DFAing White) means there is continued pressure on the IF to put in excessive playing time, especially for an older player like Gurriel. There would likely be five starts at 1B that would have to be covered by Reddick, Alvarez, or Brantley. If the Astros will not start either Reddick or Alvarez at 1B (and I don’t think they are comfortable with doing that), then they simply will not DFA White until Correa returns.

Overall, losing Marisnick as a defender is a significant loss to OF defense, but that impact is offset by not having an outfielder starting at 1B in a quarter of the games.

The relative performance of White vs. Marisnick is a key item to be monitoring over the next few weeks. The roster balance of Option 1 seems better than Option 2. DFAing White is a likely final decision as he is not likely to clear waivers or net a significant trade return. For this reason, I believe the Astros will choose to option Marisnick. The roster grid for the 20 games from July 11 until August 2 (after the trade deadline) would look like this:

I believe the organization will execute at least two key trades that will impact the roster for the rest of the season. For a discussion of the trade deadline moves and the roster after the moves, see Part 3: How to Make the Astros Even Better” — A discussion of key trades that will take the Astros to legendary status.

For the purposes of the rest of this article we will assume that Kemp, White, and others are traded. If White and Kemp are not traded, they will be DFA’d to facilitate the next roster moves.

Roster Move: August 2 — Correa returns, Tucker is promoted, and White and Kemp are DFA’d or traded

In late May, I laid out the whole Super 2 dynamic and applied it to Yordan Alvarez. As a follow-up, I was asked on Twitter when I thought Tucker would be promoted. My answer at the time was after July 26. I now believe it will be after the trade deadline or when an appropriate 25-man-roster-clearing spot trade can be made. To clear the roster space for the promotion of Kyle Tucker, I believe the Astros will trade Tony Kemp. Since May 1 (a 51-game stretch), Kyle Tucker is batting 0.320/0.397/0.690/1.087 for 156 wRC+. This is crazy and approaches the level of Alvarez in AAA. The only reasons he won’t be up earlier are (1) to seal his Super 2 status for yet another season, and (2) the practical challenge of this roster’s personnel dilemmas. Tucker coming up means Kemp has to be moved. After Kemp can be traded, the decision to promote Tucker will be based on whether the Astros want the extra year of pre-arbitration badly enough.

I have also assumed that Correa will wait until after the trade deadline to be returned to the Astros. Obviously, if he heals faster, this will be expedited. The return of Correa likewise forces the Astros to move out Tyler White. With Correa available for the lineup, Diaz will slide into the 1B starts that would have gone to White. This will boost the production from 1B even further. I believe a more rested Gurriel will also perform better.

White and Kemp will essentially be building or destroying their trade value between now and the trade deadline.

The roster will look like this after the trading deadline, without adding the players for whom the Astros will trade Kemp, White, Fisher, Armenteros and others.

Roster Move: September 1 — Rosters expand; Stubbs, Mayfield, Straw, Marisnick, Guduan, Martin (if healthy), Perez, and Rodgers return

On Sept. 1, the rosters will expand, and the players who have cycled through the roster will be called back to the Astros. The expanded roster will be used to give many players additional rest and make sure everyone is ready for the postseason. Some interesting subplots that the Astros will want to settle in September:

  • Do the Astros carry three catchers in the postseason?
  • Do the Astros find a postseason roster spot for Straw? (What sort of September playing time does he get vs. Marisnick?)
  • Do any pitchers who have been acquired move Peacock and Valdez to the postseason bullpen, and what effect does that have on the pitching roster?
  • Is Whitley healthy and productive in August? Will he get a shot in September?
  • Is Martin healthy or does his elbow injury lead to a long time on the IL?

You might notice that I do not have White, Kemp, Fisher, and Armenteros on the September roster. Find out where I think they could be going in trades in Part 3: “How to Make the Astros Even Better” — A discussion of key trades that will take the Astros to legendary status.

If you are curious about how the rest of the season might play out with regard to playing time for each position player given all of the above, see the following table:

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