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Astros should stick with the Process

The Astros should stick with the process that got them to the playoffs, and not knee-jerk into the high-end Free Agency market.

Scott Feldman was a smart Free Agent signing. But that's not what this article is about.
Scott Feldman was a smart Free Agent signing. But that's not what this article is about.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Some of my best rants articles stem from good conversations on The Crawfish Boxes comments section.  One topic I see repeated frequently calls for the Astros to go for broke and sign a big-money top-tier Free Agent like Jason Heyward or David Price.

Cool, it's a legitimate strategy that some people espouse.  But not me.  I don't really believe in instant gratification at the expense of the future.  And frankly, it's debatable if it's a good strategy even in the short term, as I'll illustrate below.

A popular narrative is often expressed similarly to, "Now that the Astros are in contention, owner Jim Crane should open the pocketbook and spend for the biggest name free agents that fit the club's needs.  That way, he shows he wants to win, and the Astros are a slam-dunk for multiple World Series championship victories!"

I exaggerated a little towards the end, but sometimes even that level of wish-casting is expressed or implied.  The Astros reached this point by patiently growing their roster from the farm system, making smart trades, and by identifying undervalued Free Agents like Scott Feldman, who has a respectable 3.80 ERA with the club, two years into his 3-year $30 million contract.  The Astros call this the #Process, and it has made the Astros front office personalities almost as well-known with fans as the players themselves.

But one part of the Astros fan population believes (as exaggerated above) that now that the Astros are a playoff team, the club should change its talent acquisition plan and do something entirely different.  Can the #process, and let's SPEND MONIES!

I don't get it.  Why mess with something that seems to be working?  Why hamstring future payroll flexibility when NOT hamstringing future payroll flexibility has already proven to be able to get them (and several other clubs) into the playoffs, and even championships?

The thing is, BIG MONEY Free Agents are fun, splashy, and newsworthy.  That's why fans and the media like them, in my opinion.  But in reality, acquisition of BIG MONEY Free Agents, during recent seasons, has not correlated with particularly successful seasons.

Let's play a little game and look at the 2015 playoff teams and count up the number of BIG MONEY Free Agents that they signed.


  • Free Agent Signing of $15 million in annual salary or more, with any contract length,
  • or Free Agent Signing with a total contract value exceeding $60 million (or, 4Y @ $15M per),
  • and Player still on the team's roster as of 2015 Postseason

If this criteria seems somewhat arbitrary....well, it is.  And so, whenever I find a deal that is just outside of this criteria, I'll make mention of it as well in the interest of fairness.

For context, during the 2014-2015 off-season, eight players met this criteria: Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Russel Martin, James Shields, Yasmany Tomas, and Victor Martinez.  And that's just one off-season.  There were nine after 2013 and five after 2012, for a total of twenty-four BIG MONEY free agent contracts given in three seasons.

National League Teams

Cubs:  The Cubs made a big splash prior to this season by signing starting pitcher Jon Lester to a 6-year $155 million deal.  A really big splash.  Lester rewarded them by making 32 starts and posting a 3.34 ERA.  A very nice return.  But that was the first move like that the Cubs made since signing SP Edwin Jackson to a $52 million contract prior to 2013.  Jackson is a cautionary tale for being careful with one's money.  After posting ERAs of 4.98 and 6.33 in 2013 and 2014, the Cubs just up and released him with nearly $22 million remaining on his contract.  He resurfaced at the end of 2015 pitching out of the fourth-place Braves' bullpen. Good grief!

Pirates:  Well, here's an interesting shot across the bow to the narrative that a team has to spend a boatload on splashy contracts to be competitive.  Francisco Liriano wasn't exactly cheap at $13 million per year over three years, but he doesn't meet our criteria of a really BIG MONEY free agent signing.  That's just a little more than Feldman got.  The Pirates have not issued a free agent contract that fits our criteria since....well, maybe not ever.  Not that I can find, going back to the early 2000's, anyway.  They've reached the playoffs three years in a row.

Dodgers:  The Dodgers are big-money spenders, right?  They go nuts in Free Agency.  The Yankees of the west, right?  WRONG.  The Dodgers' huge contracts primarily have come from trades.  They had exactly one "big dollar" free agent on their roster in 2015 that they went out and signed - Zack Greinke, signed for six years and $147 million prior to 2013.  That worked out - Greinke reached two All-Star games with the Dodgers and boasts a 2.97 ERA over the past three seasons.  Next biggest?  Another cautionary tale:  Brandon McCarthy signed for 4 years and $48 million prior to 2015.  He pitched 23 innings in 2015, with a 5.87 ERA.  Even Yasiel Puig's "big" contract was only $42 million, and that is spread over seven years!

Mets:  And this year's media darling, the New York Mets?  Well, they signed Curtis Granderson to a 4 year, $60 million deal back before 2014.  He's been pretty good.  And even that deal isn't really on the painful side, as it only barely meets the criteria for BIG MONEY that I set above.  Other than that, nope.  The Mets haven't invested in BIG MONEY Free Agents since they signed Jason Bay in 2010.  Bay, incidentally, hit .234/.318/.369 as a Met with only 26 home runs in three seasons before he was released.

Cardinals:  No dice.  Johnny Peralta signed for $53 million, but that was over four years, coming out to a bit over $13M per year.  Not pocket change, but it's not as if they broke the bank like they did for Matt Holliday in 2010.  That $120 million contract actually worked out pretty well for the redbirds.  .298/.386/.498 and four All-Star appearances.  Score one for the Free Agent market.  But really...that was almost seven years ago!

Let's continue with the AL

Royals: Did you know that the Royals just won the 2015 World Series?  And that they participated in the 2014 World Series?  Surely they have some big-dollar free agents, right?  Wrong-O.  The days of the Royals overpaying for decrepit Jose Guillen and bafflingly overpaying for Gil Meche are far in the rear-view.  The Royals signed exactly zero Free Agents that meet our criteria.  The closest they've come is the 2-years $20 million for Edinson Volquez.  That's not going to break the bank.

Yankees:  Well, the Yankees have quite a few that match our criteria, but that shouldn't shock anybody.  Carlos Beltran is $15M per season for three years.  Hiroki Kuroda signed for $16M in 2014 and $15M in 2013.  Brian McCann ($85M before 2014), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153M), one really expensive reliever in Andrew Miller ($36M), not to mention Mark Teixeira ($180M, 2009), CC Sabathia ($161M, 2009), and Alex Rodriguez ($275M, 2008).  Masahiro Tanaka ($155M) is good, but he's never made it past 154 innings pitched in a season.  Chase Headley is on the outside looking in at only $52 million over four years.  All in all, those players have been pretty decent.  Some excellent.  Some just average.  But what has it gotten them?  Bupkis since 2012, when they lost the ALDS.  And now they have all those unmovable contracts on rapidly eroding players.  This isn't the 1990's anymore, Yankees!

Astros:  You know the history here.  The largest Free Agent contract the Astros have signed since Tim Purpura left was Feldman, with a de-escalating three-year $30 million contract.  The Astros made the playoffs in 2015.  The Astros made the playoffs in 2015!!  Who needs BIG MONEY free agents?

Blue Jays:  Another monster payroll team, with a ton of BIG MONEY free agents, right?  Jose Bautista? Edwin Encarnacion?  Josh Donaldson?  Troy Tulowitzki?  All acquired via trade.  No, the only mega Free Agent contract that the Jays have handed out in the past five years was the five year deal given to catcher Russell Martin last off-season.  Martin's a pretty good catcher.  And he can hit.  So not a bad deal at far.  I wonder what this will look like when he's 36 years old, when they're paying him $20 million per season.

Rangers:  Those money grubbing southern Oklahomans.  They bought their playoff team, didn't they?  Free Agented themselves into a good roster?  Well, sort of, but not really.  Adrian Beltre's $80 million deal actually looks like a bargain now.  He's hit .309/.358/.514 as a Ranger and might go into the Hall of Fame with a Texas logo on his cap.  But what about the seven years and $130 million doled out to then-31-year-old Shin-Soo Choo prior to 2014?  He misses a lot of games and had to bounce back this season after a dreary .242/.340/.374 line in 2014.  That sure doesn't look like money that will end up being well-spent in the long run.

So what?

Look, nobody is saying that teams shouldn't spend money.  BIG MONEY, even.  But just using one season as a microcosm (sample sizes, I know, I know), the case is fairly convincing that BIG MONEY free agents don't do much to help a team reach or succeed in the playoffs.

Of those eight big money (I'll stop capitalizing) players signed prior to the 2015 season, only two (Martin and Lester) showed up on playoff rosters.  That's two players out of more than 250 that appeared on playoff rosters, or less than 1%.  Is that predictive?  I dunno.  is it interesting? Certainly.  What it means is that all of the the 2015 playoff teams built their talent through other means than buying the best mercenaries directly from the free market.

Some of them waited to see if a big-money player performed well for a crappier team, then traded prospects to acquire them, as the Blue Jays and Dodgers have done.  Some have built almost entirely from within, a-la the Royals, Pirates, and Astros.  Some did a combination of those things, plus rented guys at the trade deadline; I'm looking at you, St. Louis.  Regardless, only the Yankees built their 2015 playoff team with expensive free agents that they signed themselves, and their playoff run wasn't exactly auspicious, nor has it been an annual routine over the past few seasons.  Their future doesn't look look particularly rosy either, though they should remain at least somewhat competitive as they whittle away the years until those contracts end.

A long-time respected TCB commenter pointed out that teams should acquire talent wherever possible, including free agency.  I agree.  But recent history has shown that signing a Free Agent entering his 30's to a big money contract is a low-percentage play.

Oh, there are decent arguments to be made for "younger" free agents like Jason Heyward, who is only 26 years old, or Justin Upton (28).  And perhaps shorter-term contracts for even older guys is a great way to improve a club.  Somebody will enjoy the performance of Alex Gordon if they are able to swing a 3-year contract.

But shoot.  If Heyward gets $200 million from somebody, what does that do to their future financial flexibility?  Will Heyward's contract be restrictive enough that a bubble team will be unable to add a Gordon-type Free Agent in 2020 to push them even further into contention?  What if it's restrictive enough that a club can't, say, extend their superstar shortstop to a 10-year $200 million contract of his own that will lock him up through age 34?  And if they do that anyway, what does that do to future payroll flexibility from there?  Two guys in 2022 making $50 million, and a payroll of $150 million total?  $100 million won't stretch very far among twenty-three other guys in the year 2022.  And isn't that exactly what happened to ruin the Astros back when 30% of their payroll was going to Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Carlos Lee, leading to ten years of futility?

And that's if your $200 million gamble on Heyward even pays off.  Is he a slam dunk superstar?  That career 118 wRC+ just doesn't look very "200 million-y" to me.  But that could be his price on the free market.  At least he plays good defense.  Or rather, he did during his mid-20's.  I wonder how quick he'll be at age 37, or how strong his arm will be.

So I'll qualify what the commenter stated.  Yeah, a team should gain talent wherever possible, but the club should never disregard historical evidence that expensive long-term contracts don't have a high rate of getting a club into the playoffs.  Or improving their chances to win a World Series championship once there.

The Astros should go ahead and sign free agents this season.  Maybe a lefty-masher to platoon in left field.  A strong starting pitcher of the Scott Kazmir variety.  Perhaps even a full-time outfielder like a Gordon, or a short-contract first baseman to bridge the gap to AJ Reed, like a 1-year incentive-laden deal for Justin Morneau.  But to spend a cartoonish fortune on one of the so-called "top tier" free agents?  No thankee.

Stick with the #process.  It seems to work.