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Will Harris’ Departure Reeks of Payroll Constraints

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The Astros are left with another vacancy to fill this offseason, thanks to a tight budget in player payroll.

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Astros haven’t done much this offseason to address the roster. And that was expected, to a degree. We’ve all known for a while that some hard decisions were incoming, especially in free agency. That is the reality of the situation when a young, inexpensive team reaches its potential to only become a contender, yet expensive. The actual tax penalties, however, should never act as a severe deterrent for first-time payees like the Astros.

In somewhat related news, Will Harris recently agreed to a three-year, $24 million contract with the Nationals. You know, the team that eliminated the Astros in the World Series last year, thanks in part to this cutter from Harris to Howie Kendrick that ultimately determined the outcome.

To be fair, it wasn’t exactly a bad pitch from the former Astros reliever. For the 2019 season, Harris held opposing hitters to a .072 wOBA when throwing a cutter in roughly that part of the zone. However, Kendrick had a .309 wOBA against cutters, or .411 against all pitch types, in that same area last season, albeit in small samples. Harris basically went to a pitch in a location that has generally worked quite well for him, but it just didn’t work that one time. Unfortunately, he will likely be remembered in Houston for that one pitch and not the impressive 2.36 ERA across five seasons with the Astros. While there were peaks and valleys during his tenure, Harris’ consistency in the bullpen will be dearly missed.

Will Harris with the Astros

Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% LOB%
Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% LOB%
2015 71.0 1.90 3.66 24.6% 8.0% 87.4%
2016 64.0 2.25 2.35 27.1% 5.9% 79.9%
2017 45.1 2.98 3.33 29.4% 4.0% 84.8%
2018 56.2 3.49 2.44 27.8% 6.1% 70.2%
2019 60.0 1.50 3.15 27.1% 6.1% 88.2%

Harris’ numbers are even comparable with Billy Wagner’s totals with the Astros, for crying out loud.

Frankly, it isn’t difficult to connect Harris’ departure to the current payroll constraints. This news kind of reeks of it as the second tax threshold, which invokes an additional surtax, of $228 million looms over any roster transactions. For example, the club has allocated just $8.1 million in total average annual value for 2020 salary purposes to free agents, two of which were their own. Harris will likely have an AAV of $8 million for each of the next three seasons. The Astros actually saved $450,000 this offseason based on projected arbitration figures by non-tendering Aaron Sanchez and trading Jake Marisnick to the Mets this winter. Cot’s Baseball Contracts projects Houston’s 2020 CB tax payroll to reach somewhere just north of $228 million while RosterResource at FanGraphs has the projected salaries to reach $216 million. In short, the Astros aren’t actively looking to spend money right now.

On one hand, Harris leaves the bullpen in worse shape for 2020. That much is undeniable, even when regression takes place as I’d doubt we’ll see the 35-year old post another .245 BABIP along with 88.2 percent left on base rate anytime soon, both of which were remarkably better than his career rates of .282 and 78.1 percent. But if Harris can retain a fair amount of that consistency he has shown in Houston, the Nationals will likely find themselves pleased with their investment. That said, there is some risk involved going forward as the right-hander’s velocity has steadily decrease during the couple of seasons, although he has compensated with more movement on the horizontal plane.

In addition, Harris’ age does invite a bit of doubt of how effective he might be when that third season comes around. The Astros are also probably a bit averse into absorbing additional risk in an older reliever, especially with Tony Sipp’s three-year, $18 million contract so fresh in their memory. For baseball reasons, I can understand why teams would hesitate about that third year for a reliever, especially with the position’s notorious volatility. The risk profile is there for Harris with a declining velocity, over performing based on peripherals, and age. If a team doesn’t want to sign a reliever with that profile to a three-year contract, then I find that reasoning more understandable.

But make no mistake that the decision to let Harris walk away for the Astros likely came down to the tax payment for 2020. I’ll give some credit to club ownership there by willing to exceed the tax threshold for the first time in franchise history. A lot of teams don’t do that much. By the way, if the payroll projection from Cot’s Baseball contracts holds, then Houston figures to pay slightly over $4.180 million, even with the additional 12 percent surtax included. For any baseball team in this age of rapidly growing revenues, the small amount of tax should never be a deterrent in roster construction. The draft pick penalties, on the other hand, is actually the more costly one to clubs, but the Astros are nowhere close to that threshold.