Let's run a thought experiment.
The Astros payroll has come under some heavy criticism lately, and justifiably so. Money is coming in from outside sources, but the Astros are keeping the payroll at a bare minimum so far. In fact, no Astro player is signed to a contract except Phillip Humber, who's making under a million next season.
What if Houston did go crazy on the market? How much would that help the team? Is there a way that they could sign enough free agents to put them in the playoffs?
Let's assume that they can get all these players signed. Pretend it's a video game and the fact that Houston has been atrocious for the past two seasons won't matter to said free agents. Let's also assume we can undo some free agents signings already and put them on the Astros instead.
If we use Jeff Passan's list of the top free agents, we get a nice list of guys who could help the Astros at positions of need: outfield, DH, starting rotation.
What if Houston signed all of these players?
Josh Hamilton $25 million, 4 WAR, replaces -0.6 WAR (-0.4 Schafer, -0.2 J.D.)
Zack Greinke $20 million, 5 WAR, replaces -0.6 WAR (Keuchel)
Mike Napoli $13 million, 3 WAR, replaces 1.0 WAR (.5 Corporan, .5 Scott Moore, 0.0 Wallace)
Anibal Sanchez $17 million, 4 WAR, replaces 0.2 WAR (0.6 Happ, -0.6 Galarraga, 0.0 Abad, 0.2 Edgar Gonzalez)
Nick Swisher $15 million, 4 WAR, replaces0.9 WAR (0.2 Bogey, 0.7 F-Mart)
Michael Bourn $15 million, 5 WAR, replaces 2.3 WAR (JMax)
That's an entirely new outfield of Bourn in center and Swisher and Hamilton on the corners. Napoli would play first and DH some, while also serving as a backup catcher to Castro. Both Sanchez and Greinke slot at the top of the rotation, with Norris and Harrell behind and Lyles suddenly the team's fifth starter.
Those are all projections on salary, with the exception of Napoli. In actuality, if Houston signed all these guys, they'd probably have to overpay, which brings the price tag well north of the $105 million I have set down here. Add that to the roughly $30 million owed to the current players, and the Astros have about $135 now committed to the 2013 team.
As a team last season, the Astros generated 9.6 positional WAR and 8.0 pitching WAR. We're replacing 3.2 of that total WAR with the free agents, totaling 25 WAR. Add that to what's left of Houston's total and we get about 40 WAR.
So, we'd have the most expensive team in club history, but would it get Houston into the playoffs. Let's assume everything breaks right, everyone stays healthy and they hit their projected WAR totals. How does that 40 WAR compare to playoff teams from last year?
Last year's ten playoff teams totaled the following WARs
San Francisco: 29.9 batting WAR, 14.7 pitching WAR, 44.6 total WAR
Detroit: 21.1 batting WAR, 24.8 pitching WAR, 45.9 total WAR
New York (AL): 30.8 batting WAR, 20.3 pitching WAR, 51.1 total WAR
St. Louis: 33.4 batting WAR, 18.9 pitching WAR, 52.3 total WAR
Cincinnati: 25.9 batting WAR, 21.0 pitching WAR, 46.9 total WAR
Washington: 28.7 batting WAR, 21.4 pitching WAR, 50.1 total WAR
Baltimore: 15.3 batting WAR, 16.6 pitching WAR, 31.9 total WAR
Oakland: 23.7 batting WAR, 18.1 pitching WAR, 41.8 total WAR
Texas: 26.5 batting WAR, 23.9 pitching WAR, 50.4 total WAR
Atlanta: 29.0 batting WAR, 18.5 pitching WAR, 47.5 total WAR
Thought it's far from a given, it appears a team needs to be over 40 WAR to be in playoff contention and probably should be closer to 45 or 50 WAR to have a realistic shot at the postseason. The Orioles are the only outlier, and we know they completely outperformed their peripherals down the stretch, so it's not surprising to see them show up poorly here.
WAR isn't really used this way. It's not a good judge of team talent, since it's imperfect for pitching and sometimes pretty off on bullpen talent. Still, this should give us a good benchmark on what to expect if Houston completely raided free agency...not enough. Even if everything broke right for Houston next season, they'd still just be on the cusp of the playoffs and would likely miss out, even after spending.
When you add in the improbability of all those free agents signing with a team as bad as Houston, and the Astros would really have to make a trade to bring in high profile talent. What if Houston made that huge Toronto-Marlins deal and picked up the pieces FLA sent up north?
Jose Reyes $10 million, 5 WAR, replaces 1.8 WAR (1.0 CJ, 0.5 Dominguez, 0.3 Tyler Greene)
Josh Johnson $13.75 million, 4 WAR, replaces 0.2 WAR (0.6 Happ, -0.6 Galarraga, 0.0 Abad, 0.2 Edgar Gonzalez)
Mark Buerhle $11 million, 3 WAR, replaces -0.6 WAR (Keuchel)
John Buck $6 million, 2 WAR, replaces 0.5 WAR (.5 Corporan)
Emilio Bonifacio $2.5 million, 3 WAR, replaces -0.6 WAR (-0.4 Schafer, -0.2 J.D.)
That improves the team by 16 WAR in players, subtracted from the 1.3 WAR they'd replace, gives Houston 14.7 new WAR to its old total of 9.6 plus 8.0, or 32.3 WAR. Still not good enough to cross that 40 WAR threshold for the playoffs. Plus, the payroll is now up to $73.5 million with long term commitments to both Reyes and Buerhle that get dramatically more expensive after this season.
So, let's go the more realistic approach. Let's say the Astros sign players they can get to improve this team, adding a few key names at key spots. Say...
Lance Berkman $8 million, 4 WAR, replaces 0.0 (Wally)
Joakim Soria $4 million, 2 WAR, replaces -0.1 (Fernando Rodriguez)
Brandon McCarthy $6 million, 3 WAR, replaces replaces -0.6 WAR (Keuchel)
Nate McLouth $1 million, 1 WAR, replaces replaces 0.2 WAR (0.2 Bogey)
There, you've got a bat a first base, an outfielder, a reliever and a starter. Obviously, Soria is off the table, but at that price, he'd have been a reasonable addition. And yet, that still only improves the Astros so much. They're up 9 WAR on what they had, which added to the others gives them 26 or 27 WAR. That makes them about a 70-win team, maybe more.
All this is also assuming Houston can maintain some of those performance levels from last year in a harder league, which it can't. So, if we drop that current WAR down a few notches, the Astros suddenly have a very tough road to get back to respectability.
My point, from all this, is that spending money is not the end-all, be-all of this team. They money Houston is getting from the RSN contract is not enough to put them back in contention quickly. But, for an extra $20 million (as shown in the third scenario), Houston could add some familiar big league faces on short deals without blocking anyone. They'd increase their win total slightly, not spend more than they had said they'd commit before the offseason began and buy some fan goodwill.
Too bad it's not going to happen.