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Arbitration Deadline Approaches for Astros

Monday is the deadline to offer arbitration to Type A and B free agents.  So, while we try to read the smoke signals drifting up from the Astros' decision to temporarily suspend the Wolf negotiations, we also can ponder the Astros' arbitration decisions for Wolf, Brocail, and Loretta.

Although I have been a proponent (in the past) of offering arbitration to the maximum number of Type A and B free agents, in order to maximize the number of free draft choices, I have to admit that the decision appears more dicey than usual this in, how much are the Astros willing to gamble in order to acquire draft choices?

Take Brocail, for instance, because this is a tough choice.  The Astros get the maximum reward (first round draft pick) if Brocail is offered arbitration and signs elsewhere.  That is a very inviting scenario.  But what are the odds that it plays out that way?  Since Brocail likes Houston, he could accept arbitration and end up getting his previous salary or even more, which the Astros had balked on giving him in the first place.  If Brocail turns down arbitration, his free agent market will be limited by the fact that many teams won't give up a first round choice for a relief pitcher.  But that doesn't mean there would no market for Brocail in that situation.  Teams like the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, and Dodgers likely already know they will lose their first round choice on a more significant Type A signing anyway, and Brocail would be valuable to any contending team.  My guess is that the Astros won't take the chance on offering him arbitration.  If I were making the decision, I might roll the dice, but then it's not my money.

Offering Wolf arbitration makes some sense.  There is a decent chance he signs elsewhere, and the Astros get supplemental round picks.  If Wade wants Wolf so badly, then he wouldn't be worried if he accepts arbitration, and the Astros can get Wolf without a multi-year contract in that scenario.  Chip Bailey, the Chronicle's fan blogger, speculates that the decision to back off negotiating with Wolf is part of a strategy to offer him arbitration and force Wolf to make a choice whether he would accept a market priced 1 year contract, which he would get in arbitration.  The down side of this strategy, if we are to believe the latest from Wade, is that the Astros can't afford Wade without trading some important pieces.  So, the Astros would let Wolf's decision dictate whether they have to trade other players.  My guess is that the Astros offer arbitration to Wolf.  My decision would probably be the same, except I would be gambling that Wolf accepts a multi-year free agent contract elsewhere.

The tea leaves seem to indicate that the Astros would prefer to go for a low salary option at utility infielder, meaning that they don't want Loretta and his contract back.  Loretta prefers a full time second base job anyway; so it seems unlikely that he would accept arbitration.  At first glance, this seems like a no-brainer for offering arbitration.  However, the Astros probably believed Loretta wouldn't accept arbitration last year, and he did accept it.  Given that history, maybe the Astros will fear the same thing might happen.  Given that Loretta has value to the team if he stays, and that his salary won't be huge anyway, I see no reason not to offer arbitration.  I have no guess what the Astros will do, though.

Because the dollars at risk for Brocail and Loretta are not massive, probably on the order of a couple of million each, one would think the risk of offering arbitration is reasonable.  However, the way Wade describes it, the Astros' budget is so tight that the front office can't buy a box of paper clips without getting approval from Drayton.  If the budget is so tight that utility infielders and back up catchers will bust the payroll, then maybe the Astros will conclude that any risk associated with arbitration will be too great to take.  I hope that's not true, but keep it in mind.

And that brings us back to Wade's comments about backing off Wolf, for now because of the threat of a $120 million payroll.  If nothing else, this has sparked some mystery in the Astros' hot stove season. What does it mean?  I have seen a lot of different speculation on Astros' blogs and message boards.   Is Wade engaging in brinksmanship with Wolf, as Bailey's blog seems to suggest?  Does this mean a trade is in the works?

McTaggert at the Chronicle has his own speculation.  McTaggert says:

But it appears there's no room at the inn for Wolf, Valverde and Wigginton. Someone apparently has to go. Who will it be? I wouldn't trade Valverde. It's hard to compete without a top-notch closer. LaTroy Hawkins has closed in the past, but I wouldn't put much confidence in him. If I were the Astros, I'd re-sign Wolf because pitching is at a premium.

That leaves Wigginton, at least to me, as the most likely person to be gone. The Astros have a couple of third baseman prospects in Chris Johnson and Drew Sutton and could move Wigginton for pitching. I could be completely wrong in all of this, but we'll see.

As I think about it, let me suggest another possibility: perhaps Wade is waiting for events over the next week in order to see who will accept arbitration.  For instance, if he offered arbitration to each Type A and B free agent, then he knows that he must make trades if they all accepted least, if you assume the validity of his statements about the budget constraint.