What are the Astros aiming for exactly?

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Having finished with baseball’s worst record three straight years, the Astros have mastered the art of being bad. And it’s worked out for them; thanks to their early draft picks and some veteran-for-prospects trades, they now boast one of the game’s very best farm systems.

That left the Astros with a decision to make entering 2014. Was it time to start going in the other direction and try to put a competitive team on the field? Or was it worth going for one more No. 1 overall draft pick?

It seems like they’ve chosen the former. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe.

The Astros made their biggest signing in years when they added starting pitcher Scott Feldman on a three-year, $30 million contract. They also traded one of their youngest pitchers in Jordan Lyles for a legitimate starting center fielder in Dexter Fowler. Plus, they signed three veterans for their bullpen in Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and the rehabbing Jesse Crain.

Those all seemed like solid moves with the idea of regaining respectability. It’s certainly not the kind of transition needed to contend in the tough AL West, but it should be sufficient to avoid a fourth straight 100-loss season in 2014.

Their latest move Monday, the signing of Jerome Williams, makes it even more evident that just not losing 100 games is the goal. Williams has no upside; his function is solely to soak up innings. He’s made 40 starts and 29 relief appearances for the Angels the last two seasons, posting a 4.57 ERA. That he can alternate between middle relief and the rotation gives him value, but really, that value comes in the form of not having to throw some 22-year-old minor league prospect to the wolves instead. Basically, he takes away that worst-case scenario of having to continue starting the youngster with the 5.50 ERA.

The Astros of the past could have used a guy like that. But the 2014 Astros? After already adding four veteran pitchers? Honestly, if they think they need a guy like Williams, then doesn’t that mean they’ve failed?

The Astros have 24 pitchers on their 40-man roster. 21 of those guys are 25 or older. Two of the three that aren’t, 23-year-old Jarred Cosart and 24-year-old Brett Oberholtzer, are expected to be a part of their rotation anyway. What does it say about all of these 25, 26 and 27-year-old pitchers the Astros are carrying that the team still thinks it needs Williams around?

The early word is that Williams will be in the rotation. The pitcher he’s most likely to bump is left-hander Dallas Keuchel, a 26-year-old who struck out 7.2 batters and walked 3.0 per nine innings in 22 starts and nine relief appearances last season. That K/BB ratio, combined with a very strong groundball rate (56%), would seem to give him some upside. Certainly more than Williams has. If not Keuchel, maybe it will instead be Brad Peacock, who averaged 8.3 K/9 IP in his 14 starts and four relief appearances last season.

Perhaps the early word is wrong. Maybe Williams will be employed in the swing role that Lucas Harrell figured to fill. If so, there’s little harm in that. But that the Astros believed they needed Williams to patch a hole now speaks to the lack of faith they have in all of those options in hand.

63-99, here we come!

Reds sign Nicholas Castellanos to a four-year deal

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The Cincinnati Reds have signed outfielder Nicholas Castellanos to a four-year deal worth $64 million. The contract includes opt-outs after both 2020 and 2021, which is certainly good for Castellanos, allowing him to go back out on the market if he has a big year. Odd that the Reds would agree to that, but on an annual basis it’s kind of a bargain for them so you figure that has something to do with it.

With Castellanos in the fold the Reds are going to have a lot of outfielders when they hit Goodyear, Arizona in a couple of weeks, with newcomer Shogo Akiyama, Jesse Winkler, Nick Senzel, Aristides Aquino, Travis Jankowski, Scott Schebler, and Rule 5 draftee Mark Payton already on the roster. Senzel was an infielder before last year, of course, so he could move back to the dirt, perhaps taking over short from Freddy Galvis, who could be dealt. Alternatively, the Reds could trade from their newfound outfield surplus.

Castellanos, however, will have left field to himself. While he’s shaky at best with the glove, he had a breakout year at the plate in 2019, hitting .289/.337/.525 overall (OPS+ 121), but slugging at a blistering .321/.356/.646 pace (OPS+ 151) after being traded from the Tigers to the Cubs. In Chicago — rescued from cavernous Comerica Park — his big doubles power turned into big homer power.

Now that he’ll be playing in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark one can only imagine the damage he’d do.