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The Astros' payroll is not a thing

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Despite the winningest Astros season of the past decade, some folks are complaining over their perception of a tight-fisted owner. Here are TCB staff's thoughts on the subject.

A-Rod is very, very expensive.
A-Rod is very, very expensive.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The TCB staff occasionally (read: often) gets involved in debates and discussions behind the scenes that never quite make their way onto the pages of the website.  Usually this is because the conversation is unprintable, aimless, or altogether ridiculous.

Today on the listserv, one of the writers (okay, it was me) observed that certain members of the Twitter torch-and-pitchfork crowd had been bemoaning the refusal of Astros owner Jim Crane to spend money on the payroll comparably to other MLB teams.  It seemed a really odd crusade, since the Astros at the time were tied for first place with only two months remaining in the regular season.  So I ridiculed it.  But it's a legitimate viewpoint, and so of course we separated into battle lines and chewed on it a bit.

Dictator emeritus David Coleman chirped in with the first counterpoint, though he admittedly was putting the topic into perspective rather than taking a side at this point:

The Astros are pulling in $80-$100 million a year in media revenues, both through the national TV deal and MLBAM. Add in any merchandising fees they share with the league, plus straight ticket sales, and they have more than enough to maintain a $150 million payroll.  We've just conditioned ourselves to think of a soft cap on team salaries. But with the money flooding into baseball right now, we shouldn't. The Astros can spend. They're choosing not to. I'm okay with that. They have a plan and are executing it. But, I won't stop others from bringing it up. --D.C.

This is the point often made by observers: The Astros have the money.  The Astros should spend the money. Any less shows a lack of #want.  Note, David would be the first to admit that the figures he's tossed out there are fuzzy and likely inaccurate, but as long as they're in the ballpark -- and they probably are -- then his point stands regardless.

Jason replies with the sentiment that usually ends the conversation for me:

That's all true, I'm just personally opposed to spending huge money when it's not necessary.  Rather focus on retention in 5-7 years. --JM

While true, Jason's statement glosses over the argument that the Astros can probably spend lots of money now and also focus on retention.  David makes this point.

In five to seven years, the money will be even bigger. They can spend now and spend later. I'm not advocating signing three $300 million contracts this winter. But, I think all of our fiscal responsibility with the team is based on an older system, before money started flooding into every baseball teams' coffers.

Here's the other thing. Why can't they spend that much? How will it affect us as fans? How will it affect the team? Will spending that much for three or four years ruin the team forever? Will it make Crane destitute?  No. Baseball is awash in cash. I'm all for fiscal responsibility, but when we start artificially limiting how much the Astros can spend, we're basically rooting for the corporation to hold down labor. I'm not sure I agree with that. --DC

David's right for the most part, but I'm not sure that anybody is trying to artificially limit the Astros payroll.  Quite the opposite, based on what one sees on Twitter.  And the holding down labor argument falls flat when the minimum MLB annual salary is over a half-million dollars and our teachers are making $25K a year if they're lucky.

Anthony chimes in with what we're all thinking by this point:

Ruben, is that you? --AB

David clarifies,

Sure, give Howard eleventy billion dollars. Why not? We can afford it!

I think most people's issue with contracts isn't the money. It's the years. I also didn't express my point well in the last email. What I meant was that we're basically rooting for a corporation to make a profit. I don't care if the Astros make or lose money, so long as they put their best team on the field. --DC

I jump in for the first time since dropping the topic into our listserv like a flaming bag of doodie.

Why, as fans, aren't we geeked out over the fact that the Astros are tied for first going into August with one of the very lowest payrolls in baseball and a strong farm system to support it, and now evidence that the team is willing to work trades to reach short-term goals?  Why are we critical at ALL over the payroll?  Shouldn't we be totally smug that OUR team can achieve greatness without keeping up with the Jonses, and that any expenditure from this point is gravy, not meat?

All the hand-wringing over the payroll is strange to me.  Who cares how much the team spends anyway?  Why is this a benchmark for how much the ownership group cares about winning?  Because obviously, winning can be achieved by a good plan and careful allocation of resources.  And if that plan calls for cheaper resources than the Dodgers or Yankees, doesn't that make the Astros better, not worse?

It's just a very strange fact that we as fans have accepted that Moar Money = a greater commitment to winning. --CP

And this is the esoteric philosophical point I wanted to drive home in this editorial.  Why has player payroll become a thing?  Do we gain cachet as a fan base if we win 90 games with a $150 million payroll instead of a $75 million payroll?  Well heck, then, let's just offer a $30M/year extensions to and Marwin Gonzalez, Chris Carter,  and Roberto Hernandez.  That way, we'll still be on pace for 90+ wins, but we'll reach the magical "cool payroll" number that apparently we have to reach to not tick off grumpy people on Twitter.

Problem solved, right?

And that's what I'm driving at.  It's not about the money, and it never has been. It's been about the winning.  If you can spend like the 1990s Yankees and win, then great.  But isn't it greatER to spend like the Astros and win?  Anthony says:

I legitimately don't care about payroll. It's so incidental. It's been proven that spending does not generally correlate with winning.

I have less issue with the "Get better players" mantra. It's the "Spend more" mantra that I find annoying because it misses the point. If you paid everyone on the current roster twice as much, bam. You've spent more money so you must be twice as serious about winning. --AB

Turns out, this is what David was saying along, but using the opposite metaphor (big spendy clubs instead of small spendy clubs)

Chris, I think you hit what I'm getting at. Worries over payroll shouldn't exist. Every baseball team has plenty of money. The sport is full of it. Owners don't open their books, so they can cry poor and claim they don't have the "financial resources" to pay a player or make a trade.

What we should care about are the years. The years of service time going out in a trade. The years of a contract. Not the money. For instance, most of you who are against a Hamels deal don't care that he's made $23 million when he should be paid $13 million. You care that he could be clogging up a rotation spot in three years when he's bad and his salary will mean they can't cut him.

Which is smart. In other sports, we have to care about salaries because there are caps. In baseball, there are none. Even the luxury tax is ridiculous, since so few teams try to hit it. --DC

Brian and Joshua chime in:

It's very odd. We're a great team right now with a $70 million-something payroll. So we've proven we can build a winner the right way without breaking the bank. Crane promised after year one that he would steadily increase the payroll, and so far he's done that, with roughly +$20 million each off-season since (30 -> 50 -> 70).

[People] have been going "winning cures all" for the last half a decade. Now we're winning and people are coming back to the park but WAIT A MINUTE, we're not spending enough while winning. I don't understand. --BS

It becomes an issue if front office isn't spending money to get better players. For example, James Shields was available this winter. He signed for a relatively reasonable deal in San Diego. It's likely the Astros could have signed him given their payroll this season. Or, if you don't like Shields, a different free agent starter.

They didn't, and we don't know all the reasons for that. Could be they just decided there wasn't a good fit. This is where the payroll argument comes in though... starting pitching has been thin this year, thin enough that the club has started several rookie pitchers and traded prospects to fill the gap. Isn't this an example of lack of spending hurting the club? -JC

Which brings me back to my point.  Sure the Astros could have signed Shields (if he wanted to come here at the time), or Scherzer, by throwing $40 mil per at him.  But is that really better than how they decided to play it?  Lance McCullers has been great. Vince Velasquez has been good.  What it comes down to is summarized by Mazer Rackham at the end of Ender's Game.  "I did it the way I did it, and it worked. Above all, it worked. Memorize that defense, Graff. You may have to use it, too."

The Astros are on pace for a 90-win season, and they're doing it with a payroll around $70 million.  That's a playoff pace and their highest regular season win total since 2004.  So why is anybody complaining about Jim Crane's willingness to spend at this point?  I return to my original question, "Why is player payroll even a topic?"

I'll leave you with this.  At the end of the conversation, clack came in and succinctly summarized my entire feeling on the matter, in an eloquent and un-arguable manner:

I think we tend to ignore that spending money carelessly or imprudently tends to make business organizations unsuccessful.  I get perplexed by very smart commenters who say that the Red Sox and Dodgers shouldn’t care about player "value," but should just use brute force dollars to spend as much money as necessary to blow away other teams.  In real world competition, this doesn’t work unless the business is a monopoly.  Major league baseball is very competitive with lots of smart front offices.  The difference in recognizing even small slivers of value can make a difference in overcoming competitors.  It’s not just profitability, but a "mean and lean" mindset which leads to success.  The mindset of "money is no object" will lead to a wasteful organization that isn’t nimble on its feet and which will face bad long term consequences (the probable future of the Angels, for instance). At the least, the big spending team will continually divert its management resources to figuring out how to restructure payroll.  So, the lecture is over---I’m just saying that, for me, it’s not rooting for Jim Crane’s profits, but rather rooting for an efficient management team which looks to find every advantage over the competition. - clack

Preach.