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Gerrit Cole Has Competition in Stephen Strasburg for Top SP Free Agent

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Do the Astros Even Have the Room to Add Gerrit Cole?

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MLB: World Series-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals just celebrated their World Series win over the Houston Astros this morning with a parade. As Astros fans, you probably did not pay too much attention to the parade, but some breaking news later in the day could have upped the price for Gerrit Cole. If nothing else, it would set a bottom floor for Cole who looked to be the top free-agent starter this offseason.

World Series MVP, Stephen Strasburg announced that he would opt out of his current contract with the Nationals. He had four years remaining at $25 million AAV (average annual value). After years of struggling to stay healthy, Strasburg’s 18 wins in 2019 helped bring Washington home the Commissioner’s Trophy. Like Cole, Strasburg is hitting the market at the right time. Both of their playoff performances should be the icing on the cake.

The fact that Strasburg turned down $100 million for four years, he’s looking to get more. Max Scherzer currently has the highest AAV of starting pitchers at $35,920,616 for 2020. The Astros employ the next two with Zack Greinke ($35 million) and Justin Verlander ($33 million). The Diamondbacks are still on the hook for $10.3 million if Greinke’s salary and 2020 will be the first time the Astros will pay all of Verlander’s salary.

With the way Cole and Strasburg pitched this year, they will probably be looking to exceed Scherzer’s AAV. In 2019. Strasburg had the highest AAV at $39,333,334 according to Sportrac so it would have been a big step down to $25 million in 2020. Wait, there’s more, most of Strasburg’s money would have been deferred. For example, he would have had $10 million deferred in 2020 of the $25 million. I could fully detail out his whole life of that contract, but it is null and void now.

Looking ahead to the offseason

Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million dollar extension during the 2016 season. The Nationals will likely offer him a qualifying offer, which he will likely reject. Let’s say both of pitchers are looking for five-plus years, the Astros are likely out on either. Seeing how much Cole helped them in the playoffs, the Astros will make an attempt to re-sign him. However, they have made it clear that they don’t want to go over the luxury tax threshold which is around $208 million. If they exceed the threshold, there is a stiff price.

With all the likely raises for the arbitration-eligible players, Sportrac has the Astros payroll around $225 million. This is including all the players they have under contract, not the free agents walking out of the door. Before even thinking of bringing Cole back, they would have to do multiple salary dumps. Players like Josh Reddick and Aaron Sanchez could offer some relief, not enough to sign Cole and bring Robinson Chirinos back to catch Verlander.

It will be tough for Jeff Luhnow to find room to add some complementary pieces, not to mention Cole or Strasburg. Assuming the Astros are not involved, one may wonder who would get the biggest contract?

  • Cole: 20-5, 2.50 ERA, 13.82 K/9
  • Strasburg: 18-6, 3.32 ERA, 10.81 K/9

Strasburg is 31 and Cole is 29, so the age difference could factor in the length of the contract. As well saw the last offseason, teams are a bit gun shy on long-term deals for starting pitchers. But these two are a different breed. Many people were hesitant for long-term deals after Clayton Kershaw signed his big extension, then struggled to stay healthy. In 2019, he bounced back to the ace he is, despite his postseason failures.

Looking at the projected AAV

According to Sportrac, Cole’s market value is six years with a $32.9 million AAV. That would push his salary close to $200 million. Would the Astros even be able to do that for three years? With the rising salary costs, I’m not sure they could. I feared once they trade for Greinke that meant that likely Cole would leave via free agency. Greinke did offer good insurance though if he does.

Strasburg will likely make more than his $25 million AAV in his new deal, but it’s also a risky move with the stagnant market last offseason. Sportrac has market value at three years, $25.2 million AAV. It will likely take more than that or it has not been updated since the news broke. Astros fans have to temper expectations for the offseason, but they should have an elite team again in 2020.

The Astros are reaching the point fans have been dreading, where they had to pay everyone. This is why they waited as much as they could with Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Players with their pedigree on the cheap are desired right now. Listen to the Locked On Astros and Talking Stros Podcast all offseason for Astros talk.