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The Astros 2019 roster and the Free Agent market

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Much ado about Free Agents: why the Astros shouldn't play high-stakes poker in the FA market, and what their 2019 payroll might look like if they only extend their own players.

Dallas is gonna be rich!
Dallas is gonna be rich!
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Like clockwork, once every six months, comparisons of payrolls make the rounds, and legions of armchair experts applaud or deride MLB clubs based on the expert's own opinion of what those clubs should be spending.

There was the time that MLB network analyst Peter Gammons called the Astros a disgrace to baseball by deriding their 2013 payroll.

There was last week's mockery of the Mets by Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan because they're spending far less than the Royals:

Finally, there are infinity innuendos by the local Houston rag that the Astros' payroll is a sign that they are unwilling to do what it takes to put a winning product on the field.  Or at least, in the respectable way - keeping up with the Joneses.

In a spate of annoyance, I covered this phenomenon back in July, 2015 with the help of a few friends.  Without beating, reviving, then re-beating that horse to death, my stance in that article is summarized by my reply to one of Passan's Tweets last week:

Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton and philosophical rambling

Furthering the conversation, there has been much healthy debate on TCB of late about whether or not the Astros should pony up the cash to sign one of the two remaining big Free Agent outfielders who were still available at this time last week, Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton.  Since, Cespedes has been cited as wanting as much as 6Y, $132M, which is ironically the same amount for which the Tigers just signed Upton.

This revived the debate over whether or not the Astros should spend on big name free agency.  On our listserv, one of our writers who is more of a fan of dipping into Free Agency than some of the others, made the observation of TCB's collective think tank: "More and more in this thread, I question whither any long-term signing will ever be welcomed. The general tenor seems to be 'I would never want the Astros to sign a free agent at market value.' "

Probably moreso than necessary, I found this statement thought-provoking.  My initial reaction was to say, "Hey, that's a generalization, and I don't feel that way."

Except...I kinda do.

My reasoning is that I want the most bang for the Astros' bucks, and I don't believe the upscale Free Agent market can provide that.  Generally, the best free agents that are available meet the following criteria:

  1. Their previous team was either unwilling or unable to extend them during any previous point of their tenure.  Unwilling indicates that the player either isn't worth the money that the market will demand in terms of performance, while Unable means the player's desired salary is really really really really high.
  2. The player is 28 years old or older (there are rare exceptions), and thus cannot be reasonably projected to exceed their past performance, though it may be matched for a few years.
  3. The player probably wants a contract that will keep them (very) gainfully employed until their mid-late 30's, when there is a low likelihood of them being worth their paycheck.

With that stated, to me it seems more judicious for a savvy club to develop or trade for players and then offer those players lucrative extensions at an age younger than most top-tier free agents.  It seems that players receiving extensions from their own teams almost always have contracts of lower annual value than top-tier free agents, saving the club a bit of cash.  Second, players can be extended at a younger age, meaning the back end of their long contracts will be closer to their peak seasons rather than several years into their decline phase.  

From the club's perspective, this makes a lot of sense.  Extending one's own stars means the club has access to their medical history as well as thorough knowledge of the player's makeup, including work ethic, attitude, and fit within the clubhouse.  From the player's perspective, they become set for life earlier than they would otherwise, don't have to uproot their families, and have less of a chance of a disruptive-to-their-families-and-social-life trade occurring in subsequent seasons.

Having Fun with the 2019 Roster

One of my major arguments against long-term free agent contracts is the potential impact down the road in being able to sign one's own players.  This argument is routinely ignored or dismissed in debates, and so I thought it would be a good idea to put together a visual example of how an Upton or Cespedes type contract could hurt the Astros.

I don't usually do this, but let's fast-forward to 2019 and make some reasonable assumptions about how the Astros might handle their roster.  I am assuming that from 2016 to 2019 the Astros sign a total of zero Upton-esque Free Agents, just to illustrate how the payroll might balloon through reasonable extensions to our favorite stars.

Catcher:  Because he's so rockin' on defense, the Astros extended Jason Castro with a 4-year contract that includes a 2019 salary of $12 million.  The backup is Tyler Heineman, in his pre-arbitration years.

First Base: A.J. Reed is an All-Star, but pre-arbitration because of Super 2.

Second Base: Jose Altuve is in the last club option year of his current contract, and is paid $6.5 million.  The club is trying to figure out how to offer an additional extension to keep their Hall of Fame-bound 2B.

Third Base:  Either Colin Moran or Alex Bregman hasn’t been traded and is still here, making peanuts.

ShortstopCarlos Correa is in the second year of the historic twelve-year extension he received in 2017, and is making $15 million in 2019.

Right FieldGeorge Springer, after leading the AL in Home Runs, is in the second year of his own six-year extension, and also is making $15 million.

Center FieldCarlos Gomez signed a 3-year extension in 2016, and is making $20 million in this, the last year of his contract.  It took that much to keep him from Free Agency.

Left Field: Some variation of a Tucker or like-minded prospect is manning left field, providing about 2 WAR at a bargain price.

Designated Hitter:  Tyler White is holding his own, or perhaps Jon Kemmer.  Either is pre-arb.

RotationDallas Keuchel ($25 million), Collin McHugh ($18 million), Lance McCullers ($15 million), and Mike Fiers ($12 million) have all signed below-FA-market extensions.  Joe Musgrove has won a Cy-Young award, but has not reached an arbitration pay raise.

BullpenKen Giles is making $8 million in arbitration, and the rest of the bullpen $20 million combined.

Throw in another $10 million for the bench.

Now, I doubt that the Astros' 25-man roster will look quite like this.  But it is easy to look at the youth and talent on the 2016 Astros and say there's an argument to extend all of the players I extended above.  It's also reasonable to say that the yearly salaries for most of them are possible, and also less than they would likely make if they reached Free Agency.  I even have a hefty helping of pre-arbitration players sprinkled in to manage cost somewhat (thank goodness for that prospect pipeline!)

But if you add them all up… $180,000,000 for the 25-man roster.  That seems a little high to expect the Houston Astros to spend, and that doesn't include a big-name free agent.

Conclusions

In 2016, people are complaining that the Astros won't spend money on the biggest name Free Agents.  People also have an expectation that the Astros will extend their young stars to long contracts.  With today's Free Agent prices, and with the Astros' expected (reasonable) projected payrolls for the next five to ten years, the two are mutually exclusive.

Are you willing to sign Justin Upton now, only to see him entering his decline phase three years from now, but still paying him 15% (or more!) of the total payroll?  What if that prevents the Astros from giving an extension to Lance McCullers, forcing them to play a prospect who probably won't be as good, or sign a cheap free agent as a fill-in until Upton's salary is off the books?

It's easy to respond in a couple of ways, but these aren't responses I agree with.  I've seen some people say variations of "Jim Crane is rich, he should just spend more money."  Easy for you to say--it's not your money.  This may also be related to dubious claims about revenue earned from TV contracts, which are actually unreported publicly by the clubs.  Another response is, "Well, they'll just develop another prospect who is as good as McCullers."  Sure, maybe.  But the odds aren't that great, and it seems like an awfully risky thing to gamble on, considering the alternative is just...paying McCullers.

Instead of quibbling with my contract extension values above, or whether or not the Astros should extend Carlos Gomez, look at the larger point being made.  Big-name Free Agents are horribly expensive and rarely live up to their contracts.  Among hitters, Matt Holliday with the Cardinals--an organization the Astros seem to be emulating in their approach to Free Agents--is the only one that comes to mind who hasn't received a big Free Agent contract resulting in buyer's remorse three years down the road.  Big Free Agents typically will be paid for their declining years and won't meaningfully exceed their past performances.  Big Free Agent contracts can and probably will prohibit a club like the Astros that don't have infinite resources from extending a younger, better, and cheaper player that they already have history with.

To me, playing high-stakes poker in the MLB Free Agent market makes no sense.  The money can be spent more wisely.  And that, again, should be applauded.