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The Astros payroll can accommodate a Correa megacontract, even if it goes south

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The Houston Astros have a lot of options with how to manage their payroll in the coming years, but the best ones still involve Carlos Correa.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve still got a little over 24 hours before the ALCS starts, but we’re baseball fans, so instead of enjoying it in the post-game thread, we get into heated disputes about the payroll and the $350 million dollar question: will Carlos Correa get $350 million this offseason?

The Terms

Before that, here’s a refresher course on payrolls and terms (please skip ahead if you’re a payroll expert):

PAYROLL is the annual expense that ownership gives out in salary. We’re only concerned about player salary here, specifically about the amount that counts against the LUXURY TAX, which is a tax that teams must pay if they exceed the THRESHOLD, which is right around $210 million. This will change after the new CBA this offseason.

Players who are UNDER CONTROL are not yet free agents, meaning they cannot decide which team they play on. The length of team control is about 6 years. Currently, teams can manipulate a player’s SERVICE TIME by bringing him up past a certain point in the season, earning an extra year of control. Players under team control are either PRE-ARBITRATION or eligible for ARBITRATION. Pre-arb players are usually making close to the league minimum (right around $600,000), and players in the arb years (there are usually three of these) can either work out a deal or go through arbitration to determine their salary. Carlos Correa is currently making $11.7 million in his final pre-arb year.

Teams can LOCK UP a player by giving them a contract that exceeds the years under control. Players who opt for this choose guaranteed money over a potentially higher payout as a free agent. The Padres locked up Fernando Tatis, Jr. in the offseason, and the Astros did the same for Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and. . . Jon Singleton.

The Situation

Reviewing the details makes it possible for disagreement to at least be based on a common set of facts. According to Spotrac, the 2021 payroll is right around 209 million according to their accounting. Scroll to the bottom of the link and you’ll see this.

If nothing else is done, the following players, come off the books in 2022: Justin Verlander (33 mil), Zack Greinke ($24m) Correa ($11.7m ). In breaking news (sarcasm font) the Astros will exercise the team option and pick up Yuli Gurriel’s $8 million for 2022.

The 2022 payroll has some significant commitments: Altuve ($29m), Michael Brantley ($16m), Lance McCullers, Jr. ($15m) lead the way toward the 120 million in committed dollars.

There are four payroll questions facing Owner Jim Crane and General Manager James Click:

  1. Should they sign Correa to a long-term deal?
  2. Should they spread the money saved by not signing Correa to shore up the bullpen to get another starter, and/or sign a Correa replacement?
  3. Should they simply save the money and go cheap with internal options (hoping for rebounds from Bryan Abreu, Andre Scrubb, Enoli Paredes, and co.) and hand the reins to Jeremy Pena?
  4. Should they lock up their pre-arb talent?

I’m not going to answer all of these questions (and nothing would indicate that option 3 is serious, although who knows with a former Ray at the helm), but instead, think through a couple of scenarios.

Imaginative Exercises:

(1) Lock up Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez

Let’s say the team is ready to lock up Tucker and Alvarez. First of all, lock up isn’t the perfect metaphor. Bregman was “locked up” but he’ll be free after 2024 at age 30. That contract doesn’t scream Lifetime Astro. Still, let’s suppose they do for Tucker and Alvarez what they did for Bregman (5/100) and even add a little to it: 6 years/$120m each for Tucker and Alvarez, spread out the way Bregman’s is: Bregman gets ($12.6m in 2022, but it jumps to $30.1m in 2023). In this scenario, Tucker and Alvarez would start making $10-15 million for the next three years, and jump to $30 million for 2025-2027). It doesn’t bust the payroll. Here’s what those four would cost:

2022: Altuve + Bregman = $41.6m; Tucker + Alvarez = $20m: Total of $61.6m

2023: Altuve + Bregman = $59m; Tucker + Alvarez = $20m: Total of $79m

2024: Altuve + Bregman = $59m; Tucker + Alvarez = $20m: Total of $79m

2025: Altuve and Bregman off the books; Total of $60m.

So by the time the Astros are out from under the Altuve and Bregman contracts, the top AAV committed after this year, Tucker and Alvarez would come into theirs.

Why the focus on Altuve and Bregman though? A bunch of other players will also get paid, right? Not really. After 2023 the salary commitments drop to those two and McCullers ($17.6m). That’s it. And even after 2022, the only additional players on the books are Jake Odorizzi (a player option) and Pedro Baez ($7.5m club option). Let me break the news, while I’m at it, that the Astros turn that Baez option down.

(2) Sign Correa Long-term

This scenario does not exclude in any way the previous scenario. The Astros have a lot of freedom; they can sign Correa long-term and lock up Tucker and Alvarez. Commenters seemed confused about this very point in the post-game thread. The Astros have a lot of payroll now and next year, but not a lot of commitments. There’s no Tatis or Francisco Lindor deal here. They’re not bound to an injury-plagued Altuve at age 38, or a hobbled Bregman at age 34. Which is good and bad. The bad is that, barring a massive drop in production, they’ll face another Sophie’s Choice in the 2024 offseason when Altuve and Bregman are both slated to become free agents. But the good is that they don’t need to make that decision now.

They can also save some money around the edges in 2022 by trading or failing to pick up the likely arb costs on Aledmys Diaz and Rafael Montero (combined $7.1 million). They could say, let Pena take over as utility infielder, with the idea that he can learn from the best, get used to MLB pitching, and bank on somewhere around the 319 PAs that Diaz received in 2021 due to injuries and rest. They can see if someone wants to eat Baez’s $5.5 million and if they think Korey Lee is ready, trade Jason Castro ($4.25m) or say goodbye to Martin Maldonado (FA, $3.5m).

Let’s say they sign Correa for 8 year/$250m (Crane probably could have had him for 7/200 in March, but never mind). Add that to the most expensive year above (2023). You’re paying your six most expensive guys (the four above + Lance and Carlos) $125 million. You may be saying, That’s a lot for six guys. But is it? Go back to this year’s payroll and add the top six (JV, Altuve, Greinke, Brantley, Bregman, Correa). It’s $127 million, $2 million more than what the purportedly impossibly pricey 2023 would cost.

(3) A Zany 2023 scenario

Let’s say that Click signs Correa and gets Tucker and Alvarez on long-term deals. 2023 rolls around. Yuli and Brantley are gone. Altuve starts to decline. Bregman is still good but not back to elite levels. A few pitchers get injured. There’s no clear successor to Ryan Pressly, and the team limps into the All-Star game 9 games back of the Mariners and two games under .500. Altuve took a re-up for 4 years/$85m two days after repeating as WS champion and that contract now looks un-tradable. The Astros can unload the last 1.5 years of Bregman, trim payroll, and make Pena an everyday player. They can unload any number of guys like Odorizzi and whatever random relievers are under control for farm assets. One long-term deal does not lock them out of a mini-reset in a bad year.

Conclusion

One bad contract is not a death spell for a team like this. Nor are a few veteran drop-offs. The Astros are in the ALCS and won 95 games despite getting 1.2 bWAR for the $57 million they paid to Greinke and Verlander. If they keep Correa they’re a near-lock to win 90 games and make the playoffs. If they roll the dice with some combination of Pena and a 2nd-tier free agent, they immediately fall below the top echelon of the AL.

My feelings about Correa were laid out in March. I stand by every word and I want him back even more.