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On the Astros: Spending money, budgets and how to build a contender

A Twitter conversation forces a longer article thinking about the right way to rebuild

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Sean and I went back and forth quite a bit on the subject of the Astros spending in free agency. It all started with this tweet:

I respect Sean's point and, until the Astros actually spend money, have to agree with him. We can't know if they'll be willing to expand payroll until they do it. We can't know if they can be competitive in a negotiation until they land a big fish.

My only question is whether or not this is a bad thing.

Do we really know the Astros won't spend money? That's been the most popular opinion of owner Jim Crane since he took over the club. Three years of bare bones payrolls support the critics who call Crane cheap and say he will never spend money on the team.

We just don't know that the Astros are hamstrung financially. We assume that the TV deal affects things. We know that the Astros get treated as the big-market team in revenue despite the fact that their actual revenues have been down for years.

We also know that for the last three years, the Astros have set a budget for spending each season. Last winter, when that budget increased, they landed expensive players. They basically doubled their payroll from 2013 to 2014. They spent money, not just making noise about finishing second in the Jose Abreu derby.

None of that can tell us if they will ever spend big, if they can ever add someone like Jon Lester or Pablo Sandoval.

Spending limits

One of the criticisms also leveled against this front office is its adherence to player evaluations. The Astros know pretty well what to expect out of players production-wise and want to pay them accordingly. Scott Feldman got $12 million in 2014 and, by FanGraphs less sophisticated methods, was worth around $9 million. Call the $3 million difference a 100-loss tax.

But, that's a pretty accurate accounting for Feldman's value on the open market, considering how expensive pitchers who throw 180 innings with sub 4.00 ERAs can get.

What happens when that tax to sign a franchise-altering talent goes too high? Why did they miss out on Abreu? Couldn't they have gone a few million more to add a young first base masher? Imagine the Astros offense with a consistent threat at that black hole of a position.

If the Astros know how much they should spend on a player, but the bidding goes higher than that, they'll never add anyone. At least, that's a common complaint of their system.

What's the opposite, though? Fans would be just as critical of a player who was overpaid for his production. Heck, some of you nearly rioted when Feldman was given $30 million. What if James Shields signs for four times that, yet only produces at a Feldman-ian level?

Building contenders

One of Sean's main arguments is that the Astros will eventually have to overpay to get better. They will need their own version of the Jayson Werth deal to make a splash and to signal that they are serious.

The Werth deal looked terrible for two years, but didn't look so bad this season. Werth is a big part of that NL-leading Nationals team.

The Angels did something similar, spending big for Vladimir Guerrero and Mo Vaughn before opening up the coffers for Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton. The Marlins did it with Jose Reyes and Friends.

None of those contracts looked great at the time, but the teams still got value out of them. They had money to spend and needed to make a statement.

Should the Astros follow that model? After all, the Angels, Dodgers and Nationals all made the playoffs after building with the checkbook.

On the other hand, the Royals rebuilt without overpaying a free agent. The Pirates certainly didn't spend big on free agency. The Cardinals let one of the best players in franchise history walk and are still contending.

Different strokes for different folks.

What the Royals and Pirates did this year was spend money on smart pickups. Edinson Volquez signed a one-year, $5 million deal before this season. Russell Martin is in the second year of a two-year, $17 million deal and has been a huge influence on this young Pirates team.

The Plan

Ultimately, any fan talk about payroll comes down to personal opinion. There's no doubt that Kung Fu Panda will make the Astros a better team, but at what cost? Would you rather see Houston land a superstar who's probably past his prime and on the decline or spend smartly and land players like Russell Martin?

As a writer, I lean toward the former, since it gives me much more fodder to write about. But, as a fan, I lean toward the latter. I'd rather the Astros add complimentary pieces and keep developing core players internally.

Houston has a productive farm system. It doesn't need to turn to free agency to fill holes. Circling back to Sean's initial thought, it may not matter if the Astros have the payroll punch to win a bid for Tomas.

But, think about the Dodgers. Their best offensive player may be Yasiel Puig. He was signed for seven years and $42 million in 2012. That's just $12 million more than Scott Feldman will earn in three years. Puig is the fourth-highest paid outfielder on the Dodgers roster, but is there a more important player for the offense?

It's an interesting question. What's more important, spending money or identifying and quantifying talent?