The patient, calculated approach that general manager James Click and the Astros have employed is one that has been widely utilized throughout the league this winter. Of course, not every team has done so with the intent of improving their respective rosters in a savvy, cost-effective manner.
By all accounts and reports, the Astros are not one of these teams primarily looking to just save money this offseason. For whatever it’s worth, they were one of the finalists in the Liam Hendriks sweepstakes. Hendriks, arguably the top reliever on the free-agent market, signed a three-year, $54 million contract last week with the Chicago White Sox.
Instead of giving a record-breaking contract to Hendriks, Click opted to sign a pair of veteran relievers in Pedro Báez and Ryne Stanek, spending a combined $7.35 million on both in terms of Average Annual Value (AAV). Báez had been a remarkably consistent stalwart in the Dodgers’ bullpen since he debuted in 2014 and Stanek was a quality multi-inning reliever for the Rays in 2018 and 2019.
In a perfect world, owner Jim Crane would lean into the luxury tax and spend more money on a contending team that will be faced with uncertainty after the season. He was all but guaranteed to do so last spring before the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold for several months. Because of the effects of the pandemic, Crane is assuredly going to duck the tax this year.
According to Cot’s, the Astros are currently $32.2 million below the luxury tax threshold. The club still has considerable gaps on the roster that must be addressed, so allocating $18 million to a single reliever — even one as great as Hendriks — would not have been prudent, especially with shortstop Carlos Correa’s arbitration hearing looming in the coming weeks.
Correa filed at $12.5 million and the Astros at $9.75 million, so regardless of the outcome of Correa’s case, Click effectively has no more than roughly $20 million left to spend (Edit: the Astros are in fact $32.2 million below the luxury tax threshold when accounting for Correa’s midpoint arbitration salary of $11,125,000 million — the $20 million figure is inaccurate). While there’s a possibility that Click will look to sign another notable reliever, the additions of Báez and Stanek — as well as the return of Joe Smith — should be sufficient. Coming into this offseason, the bullpen wasn’t the top priority — it was the outfield.
In November, MLB Trade Rumors predicted that the Astros would sign center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to a two-year, $16 million deal. Given how the outfield market has played out thus far, with Kyle Schwarber receiving $10 million from the Nationals, Adam Eaton getting $7 million from the White Sox and the Tigers inking Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract, an AAV of $8 million seems light for Bradley, the top center field option on the free-agent market aside from George Springer.
It would be reasonable to expect that Bradley will now want an AAV in the double digits, if he wasn’t already seeking that weeks ago. And based on Grossman and Eaton’s contracts, signing a competent corner outfielder should require at least $5 million.
There are other various scenarios that warrant speculation. Moving Kyle Tucker to center field and signing two corner outfielders is one, and another is a trade for Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who has experience playing center field and could possibly provide passable defense there, his unspectacular speed notwithstanding. Benintendi’s due to make $5 million this year, and that relatively low number would offer the Astros more financial flexibility in regard to free agency, though acquiring him would come at the cost of prospects.
Ideally, the question isn’t if Crane’s authorized Click to spend up to the edge of the luxury tax threshold, but instead, which players can be acquired via the allotment of that money. It’ll be known either way within a month’s time.