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Be Careful of What Astros Trade You Wish For

A big trade? Be careful what you wish for. Your future self disagrees with you.

The Astros should trade for a stud starting pitcher, amirite? They should throw third baseman Alex Bregman and the entire farm at the Rays for Chris Archer!* Or pay almost as much for Gerrit Cole of the Pirates**. Jose Quintana looks cold in Chicago, no?** Sonny Gray was almost a Cy Young winner two seasons ago***—he’d look great in orange and blue! Justin Verlander anybody?****

* Never mind that the Rays are a couple games out of their division and Archer has the best contract in baseball, so the Rays have no incentive.

** Never mind that Cole and Quintana, had they been on the Astros all season, would have been two of the worst regular pitchers on the staff.

*** Never mind that Gray has been out-pitched by Mike Fiers since then.

**** $78 million over three seasons

Never mind those never minds. Let’s pretend that there actually was a viable top of rotation starter available in trade (there isn’t), and that the Astros could hypothetically trade for one by dealing away some combination involving Bregman and/or top prospects Kyle Tucker and Francis Martes.

Trading away significant cheap assets for a top of rotation starting pitcher is a very bad idea. And not just for one reason, but for several. Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way:

  1. The Astros don’t need to add a starter to be one of the winningest baseball clubs in history.
  2. The concept of a “big 3” playoff rotation is one of the biggest myths perpetrated in recent memory. The Royals won a World Series off the arms of Johnny Cueto (3.44 reg. season ERA), Danny Duffy (4.08), Yordano Ventura (4.08), and Edinson Volquez (3.55). When you’re scoring 5.5 runs per game, a rotation with two aces (Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers) and several #3 types in Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, and Mike Fiers, not to mention a bullpen that is half a win better than the rest of baseball and it’s not even June...why bother?

But there’s a really big reason to not deal off significant young assets that nobody seems to want to talk about.

MONEY.

What follows is a thought exercise only. Quibbling in the comments section about actual future contract values of players or who could be traded for what is not germane to the point. One can’t just assume the Astros can trade expensive and not-great veterans for star youngsters. That only happens when the team is crappy, and the Astros aren’t going to be.

Let’s suppose the Astros win the World Series this year one way or another. Or let’s not, because it’s irrelevant to this exercise.

Fast forward to the 2019/2020 offseason. At the worst, the Astros have made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. It was a great run.

But now the Astros have a problem.

Back in the glory days of 2017, the Astros sported a tidy 25-man roster payroll of $124,343,900, which was 18th in the major leagues. An efficient payroll for one of MLB’s great historical teams.

But after 2018, to keep their ace pitcher, the Astros needed to shell out 4 years at $20 million per to Keuchel.

This offseason, coming off of a couple MVP-caliber seasons, the Astros dealt another 3 years at $20M per to keep clubhouse captain George Springer on the roster.

Also:

  • Lance McCullers is making $10 million in arbitration. Or more.
  • Collin McHugh recently signed an extension paying him $10m for a few years, a pretty nice deal for all concerned.

Here’s the problem: Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa want to get PAID. And it’s easy to understand why after both guys finished Top 3 in the AL MVP voting for the last three seasons. And if there’s one thing the Astros absolutely cannot afford to do, it’s lose the greatest player duo in franchise history (yeah, I said it) right as they both hit their prime.

So both get $30 million contracts.

By this somewhat rough estimate, that puts Keuchel, McCullers, McHugh, Altuve, Correa, and Springer at $120 million just by themselves.

With nineteen more roster spots to fill.

How much would Garrett Cole want after 2019? Jose Quintana would add another $10.5 million. Chris Archer (WHO IS NOT BEING TRADED BY THE RAYS FOR ANYTHING) would be $7.5 million.

Sure in this fictitious scenario you let McHugh walk because your rotation of Keuchel/McCullers/Archer is the envy of all. But you still have a huge money problem.

And you can’t spend on free agents anymore because your budget is tapped out. Bregman, Musgrove, Devenski, Giles, Feliz are all being paid arbitration dollars. Gurriel is still owed $10 million

Your 2020 payroll sits at around $180 million after adding in all those players and filling the remainder with guys making the minimum. And that payroll isn’t sustainable in this market for very long.

Ah, but it’s that “filling the remainder” part that’s the problem. See, the thing is, in 2019, the Astros don’t have any quality guys making the minimum if they have traded away the Tuckers and Marteses and Musgroves and Fishers and Bregmans of the world. There is a tremendous gap of cheap MLB-quality talent in the system.

The next wave from the farm, including top picks Forrest Whitley and J.B. Bukauskas have only just reached the majors and are struggling just the way Musgrove and Martest struggled way back in 2017 before adjusting to the league.

You’re left with a Top-heavy roster and no way to fill it with quality depth. It is a shallow lineup with big boppers from two to five and not much else. It is a rotation with three studs and a couple really shaky guys at the back end. It is a bullpen that struggles to throw strikes because aside from those arb guys, the Astros just can’t afford anybody else.

Know what club that is? It’s the 2006 Astros. It’s the 2017 Angels. Weak farm. A couple All-World players who are entering their 30’s. A couple other solid contributers. And then zilch.

Because the Astros traded away the kitchen sink for Jose Quintana or Gerrit Cole back in 2017, for just one shot at the World Series.

No thanks.

I’ve seen this story before, as masterminded by Drayton McLane. I lived through those years. Berkman. Oswalt. Lee. Biggio. Pettitte. Clemens. Every bit as good as the core that I mentioned above for the 2020 Astros. And that club was the beginning of a decade of utter futility. Why? Because of short-sighted trade and free agency policies that decimated the long-term viability of the franchise.

No thanks, again.

The whole idea of choosing between “winning one world series or making the playoffs every year and not winning one” is a farce. If the Astros make the playoffs every year for the next ten, the odds are that they will win a world series, or multiple. Regardless if they trade the farm for a pitcher that they don’t strictly need.

Count me out. The Astros should add an arm. An insurance policy. A solid innings-eater in the mold of the mid-rotation starters they already have. They can afford it. They cannot afford to trade for an ace.

Do the Royals wish now that they hadn’t traded a load of young riches for James Shields? Probably. He didn’t make a dent on their World Series aspirations. How did David Price do for the Tigers? How does the Tigers’ long-term outlook seem now? Not so rosy. Bet they wish they had that one back. Did Jeff Samardzjia and Jason Hammel turn out so successful that the A’s are happy they dealt away Addison Russell for him?

The historical lesson shouldn’t be that the Astros need a starting pitcher to bolster their playoff rotation.

The historical lesson should be that the Astros shouldn’t mortgage their future for something they don’t strictly need.

Because no matter what anybody says now...when the Astros are unable to compete in 2020 and 2021 because of decisions made in 2017, not a one will say, “Well at least we won the world series in 2017. I really don’t mind that we suck now, because of that.”