The Astros offseason began earlier than most, and in a relatively unusual way. On November 13, outfielder Colby Rasmus accepted the team’s qualifying offer of one-year, $15.8 million dollars instead of opting to seek a longer-term deal, as most players do. Rasmus was relatively solid for the Astros in the outfield in 2015, playing over 250.0 innings at each outfield position, and slashing .238/.314/.475 with a career-high 25 home runs in 485 plate appearances over 137 games. Rasmus shined particularly bright in the postseason, clubbing four home runs with six runs batted in alongside a .412 (7-for-17) batting average. While he’ll likely be earning more than he’s worth in 2016, Rasmus will solidify the Astros outfield without the risk of a long-term contract.
A month after the Rasmus signing, the Astros made another free agent re-signing, this time with relief pitcher Tony Sipp. He returned to the club on a three-year, $18 million dollar contract. Sipp was a huge asset in the Astros’ bullpen in 2015, recording an ERA of just 1.99 in 54.1 innings, fourth-best in the major leagues among left-handed relievers with at least 50 IP. Sipp’s strikeout numbers were characteristically good, as he posted a 10.3 K/9, and his walk rate was the best in his seven-year career, at 2.5 BB/9. Sipp will now be signed through his age-34 season, and looks to continue to be a key part of the Houston ‘pen for the next few seasons.
The day after Sipp inked his contract with the club, Luhnow made another move to bolster the team’s bullpen for the long-term. On December 12, the Astros sent a trio of minor league pitchers to the Philadelphia Phillies along with major-league pitchers Brett Oberholtzer and Vincent Velasquez in exchange for closer Ken Giles and minor league infielder Jonathan Arauz. Giles, at 25 years old, features one of the best two-pitch mixes in the league, with a fastball that sits around 97 mph and a nasty slider in the mid- to upper-80s. Giles also has the stats to back up his stuff, posting a 1.80 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 70.0 innings for the Phillies in 2015. After notching 15 saves with Philadelphia after the trade of Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals, Giles looks to be the Astros’ full-time closer in 2016.
After keeping relatively quiet for over a month, the Astros made what looks to be their last major-league move of the offseason on January 28, signing free-agent starter Doug Fister to a one-year deal, with $7 million dollars guaranteed and a potential $5 million in incentives based on innings pitched. Fister was relatively disappointing in 2015, posting a career-high 4.19 ERA in 25 games (15 starts) with the Washington Nationals, after accumulating an ERA below 3.70 every season from 2011-2014. Fister has the potential to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy for the Astros, but comes with a lot of risk after a shaky season. Fister leans on a sinker-slider mix, relying on ground balls to compensate for his below average strikeout rate. However, Fister’s ground ball rate was the lowest of his career since 2009 last season, at just 44.6 percent. If Fister can improve on that mark and adjust back to pitching in the AL for the first time since 2013, he should be a solid addition to the Houston rotation.
At the minor-league level, the Astros picked up a few interesting pieces via trades and free agency. Wandy Rodriguez returned to the club on a minor-league deal after pitching for the club in eight seasons from 2005-2012, making 218 starts and accumulating a 4.04 ERA. Rodriguez will likely serve most of the season in Triple-A but will provide some experienced depth in case of injury. In addition to Rodriguez, the club added pitchers Cy Sneed, Cesar Valdez, Brendan McCurry, Edwar Cabrera, and Dan Reynolds to the organization. Sneed and McCurry had success in the minors in 2015, and look to continue producing in 2016. Sneed, 23, will likely begin the season at A-Advanced or Double-A, and McCurry will likely start with Triple-A Fresno. Valdez is an interesting piece, having not pitched in affiliated baseball since 2011, but posted a 2.63 ERA in 160.2 innings with the Olmecas de Tabasco of the Mexican League in 2015.
Houston also added infielders Danny Worth and the aforementioned Jonathan Arauz as well as outfielder Eury Perez to the minor league system. Worth is 30 years old and didn’t play in the majors in 2015, but hit .314/.394/.469 in 399 PAs for Triple-A Reno in the Diamondbacks organization. Arauz is just 17 years old, and hit .254/.309/.370 in his first professional season with the Phillies’ rookie-league club in 2015. Perez is probably the most interesting of the trio of position players, as the speedy center fielder hit .269/.331/.303 in 133 MLB PAs with the Braves in 2015, as well as slashing .297/.370/.373 with 28 stolen bases in 271 PA for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves of the International League.