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Stagnant CBA negotiations could delay the Astros’ next big move

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There are several high-quality position players available in free agency, and the Astros are expected to sign at least one... eventually.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros are expected to be suitors for some of the free-agent market’s top bats. Among them are outfielder Starling Marte and shortstops Trevor Story, Javier Báez and Marcus Semien, all of whom are projected to receive four or five-year deals, which aligns with the Astros’ philosophy regarding high-priced contracts—no more than five years in length. While many of the market’s pitchers have already signed, not one notable position player has come off the board. It’s not a trend that’s unlike recent offseasons, but this winter has something at the forefront that the others did not: a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Or more accurately, an unsettled CBA.

The current five-year labor deal is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on December 1, and there is little optimism that a new one will be hashed out beforehand. Reinforcing that sentiment is commissioner Rob Manfred recently voicing the possibility of a lockout so as to supposedly move labor talks forward, which is a peculiar notion at best and a cynical one at worst.

What could be a key aspect of CBA negotiations is the luxury-tax threshold. In 2021, it was $210 million. MLB made an offer to the Players Association in August that entailed a luxury tax of $185 million, but it was swiftly rejected. According to The Athletic’s Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal ($), the PA’s counter to the owners featured “raises to the CBT thresholds.” That was nearly a month ago, and there has been no formal offer from either side since.

Evidently, the standstill did not deter the Astros from re-signing Justin Verlander to what is effectively a 2-year, $50 million contract. Although the total sum was surprising, the organization had tens of millions coming off the books entering this offseason, enabling them to employ a relatively aggressive approach in free agency. Should things go according to plan, the two-time Cy Young winner will not be the Astros’ last major signing.

But he could be for some time.

The question of when the Astros make another substantial move might hinge on when a labor agreement is struck, or, more specifically, when it’s revealed what the CBT threshold is.

Accounting for Verlander’s $25 million AAV, FanGraphs’ Roster Resource currently estimates the Astros’ luxury-tax payroll to be at roughly $184 million, which, under the current rules, gives James Click about $26 million to spend.

Jim Crane has stated that he will spend as he has in the past in 2022, and given that commitment, it’s safe to assume the Astros will again accumulate a payroll that resides just below the tax.

For what it’s worth, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, whose Twitter account is the stuff of legend, tweeted on November 18 that after retaining Verlander, the Astros have been “ultra aggressive” in their pursuit of Marte. There are no similar reports attaching the club to Story, Báez or Semien, but since Carlos Correa’s departure has left a massive hole at the position, there’s reason to believe one of the three may wind up replacing the former No. 1 overall pick.

ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel correctly predicted the contracts that free-agent starters Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood would sign, and based on what he predicts ($) Marte, Story, Báez and Semien to nab, it may not be realistic to expect the Astros to net both Marte and one of the three shortstops.

But again, that is likely dependent on what the new luxury-tax threshold is. It’s problematic not just for Houston’s deliberate front office and their prudent boss, but for the industry in general. Barring a speedy resolution, the league’s labor dispute threatens a winter of inactivity. Ultimately, it could be months before the Astros make another significant addition to their roster.