A midseason flight of fancy: Can the Astros contend next year in the AL West?

Jun 9, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie (4) is congratulated for hitting a home run by left fielder J.D. Martinez (14) during the ninth inning against the Chicago White Sox at US Cellular Field. The White Sox won 10-1. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE

Twenty-eight million. That's the minimum dollar amount the Astros will have committed to paying for players on their active roster next season, including bonuses paid for declining club options. This does not include contracts for arbitration-level players such as Lowrie and Norris, but does include rookie-level contracts for each roster spot, plus guaranteed salary.

Maybe I'm the only one who finds that number surprising, and a little exciting.

Assuming Daddy Crane is willing to pry open his wallet to the tune of $90M--the five-year average for the Astros payroll from 2007 through 2011, rounded up slightly to help account for inflation--that's a pretty big chunk of change for Jeff Luhnow's front office to play around with.

Assumptions

Let's run with that $90M number for now. That's a solid mid-market payroll. It might even be a little conservative--the Astros reached a high of $102M in 2009--but let's play it safe. Let's also make some rough guesses at dollar figures and assume the Astros will want to keep Jed Lowrie ($5M), Bud Norris ($2M), Wilton Lopez ($1M), and Fernando Rodriguez ($1M) around. That leaves us with a payroll of $37M, and $53M to spend in free agency and/or trade.

How far do the Astros have to go?

According to Pythagorean Expectation--the amount of games a team is projected to win based on runs scored and allowed--the Astros are currently playing like a 73-89 team. That seems pretty reasonable given the team's talent level; maybe a win or two high. This gives us an interesting case study: The Miami Marlins, who last season finished 72-90, and who added $41M worth of free agents during the offseason.

At the time of this article's writing, they stand at 32-29, with a Pythagorean Expectation just south of .500. That may not look especially promising--they're competing, but don't look quite good enough to cut it--but let's dig a little deeper before we write this whole "going for it" idea off. Let's see what kind of return the Marlins are getting on their investment of $41M.

Jose Reyes, who signed for an AAV of $17.6M in the offseason, has produced a decent 1.1 WAR so far. According to FanGraphs he's on pace to produce about $12M in value.

Heath Bell, who signed for an AAV of $9M, has produced only 0.1 WAR so far. He has been terrible this year, and it shows. Even if you think WAR undervalues relief pitchers, it's clear by his other numbers that his value has been negligible, and that his role could have been filled just as well by an ML minimum player.

Mark Buerhle, who signed for an AAV of $14.5M, has produced 0.9 WAR so far, a roughly $10M pace.

So far, the Marlins are not getting anywhere near the baseball value you would expect based upon the dollars they spent in free agency. If they were, they would likely be near the top of a competitive division.

Given the Astros hypothetically have more money to spend and could spend it more wisely, let's say that jumping from a 73-win talent level to about 90 is at the borderline of reasonable.

Would that get the job done? Last year, the Rangers won the AL West with 96 wins. This season, their division-leading pace is a little shy of that, and they're overall getting older--most of their core players are exiting their primes, and their best player, Josh Hamilton, may not even play for the Rangers next season. Also, the Rays won the Wild Card last year with 91 wins. So yes, 90 wins would put the Astros in the general range of contending. They wouldn't be a surefire playoff team, but they'd be in the mix.

Let's proceed, then. How could this money be spent?

Team Strengths and Weaknesses

The Astros' WAR leaders are Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve at 2.7 and 2.0 respectively. The Astros have done a solid job offensively, right around league average, with first base, catcher, and the outfield being the greatest areas of weakness among position players. First base is somewhat resolved in that we have an elite first base prospect in AA ball.

The Astros' pitching fares much worse, with Norris and Wandy topping the charts at a measly 1 WAR apiece, and the Astros having given up far more than their fair share of runs.

2013 Free Agency Strengths and Weaknesses

This is where things get really interesting. Remember how I said the greatest weaknesses of the Astros include their pitching, their outfield, and the catcher position? Guess where this upcoming free agent market will be strongest, should things stand as they do today?

That's right. Outfielders, catchers, and pitchers.

I won't do any imaginary roster-building here; this article is already too long, and I'll leave the fun part for you guys. Spend that $53M for me. Who would you add? How many players, and which ones would be your top targets? Would you also be a buyer on the trade market, and if so, who would you target?

I'll leave you with a list of some of the most interesting 2013 free agents who popped out at me.

Catcher*

  • Russell Martin (age 30, 1.4 WAR)
  • A.J. Pierzynski (age 36, 1.9 WAR)
  • Mike Napoli (age 31, 1.2 WAR)

*Keep in mind that catchers don't get to play everyday and post lower WAR totals as a result.

Outfield

  • Josh Hamilton (age 32, 3.6 WAR)
  • Michael Bourn (age 30, 3.6 WAR)
  • Melky Cabrera (age 28, 2.4 WAR)
  • B.J. Upton (age 28, 1.2 WAR)
  • Shane Victorino (age 32, 1.5 WAR)
  • Angel Pagan (age 32, 1.5 WAR)

Starting Pitchers

  • Zack Greinke (28, 2.8 WAR)
  • Cole Hamels (29, 2.0 WAR)
  • Edwin Jackson (29, 1.4 WAR)
  • Shaun Marcum (31, 1.1 WAR)
  • Anibal Sanchez (29, 1.8 WAR)
  • Brandon McCarthy (29, 1.4 WAR)
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