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Nailed It: Off-Season Ramblings

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Hebrew Hammer offers his take on the state of the Houston Astros and what he would do if he were GM.

Miami Marlins v Houston Astros Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With the CBA looming, there’s no certainty when it comes to what’s next. I don’t just mean for the Astros, but for baseball in general. Normally, my articles are about a specific topic, well researched, and look to assist in showing the data in a way that allows the readers to draw a conclusion of their own. This article isn’t that. It’s purely my off-season observations, opinions and ramblings, with a focus on the payroll and sketch down some of my plan if I was the General Manager.

Payroll

(Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the announcement that the Astros had signed relief pitcher Hector Neris for 2 years, $17 million. As a result, all 2022 and 2023 payroll estimates should be adjusted by $8.5 million each.)

The Astros have become perennial contenders and there are those who argue that their competitive window may be drawing to an end, and that the best way to proceed ranges from rebuilding to going all-in and mortgaging the future. For the Astros, one of the largest challenges comes down to payroll.

In 2021, the Astros sported a hefty ~$200 Million dollar payroll, and danced along the edge of the luxury threshold at the trade deadline, severely limiting their options as they looked to reinforce the team. They did at least publicly state that they’d be willing to blow past the threshold for the right player. Flash forward, and while the Astros season was a massive success, ultimately they fell just short of bringing home another World Series trophy.

For those not familiar, the Luxury Tax or Competitive Balance Threshold is calculated using Annual Average Value (average salary per year across the contract), so exactly when the team pays out the money doesn’t matter, and there are quite a bit of salary related costs that are somewhat “unseen” such as player benefits, minor leaguers that are called up, etc. There are a lot of resources that have players’ salaries (Spotrac, Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, etc), and you’ll find minor deviations because not all of the information is public and often there are best guesses (or simple mistakes). Still, they are all generally within the same range.

Departures

From Sportstrac, the Astros currently predict to have a $179 million dollar payroll ($210 million potentially as the cap)

As we head into 2022, the Astros return with most of the team intact, but faced some potential key departures (2021 WAR numbers in parentheses):

  • Justin Verlander – 0 WAR – (As he was re-signed, his 2022 salary is included in 2022 Payroll already.) Hall of Fame pitcher, 0 contributions in 2021. Comparatively year over year, it’s like we added an ace depending how confident you are in a 39 year old coming off surgery who hasn’t pitched in 2 years.
  • Carlos Correa – 5.8 fWAR / 7.2 bWAR – The All-Star, the Gold Glove, 5th in MVP voting, and being the face and leader of the Astros. Carlos Correa finally showed the player he could be. Losing one of the most valuable players in the game will hurt any club.
  • Zack Greinke – 1.3 fWAR / 1.2 bWAR – Greinke’s career will likely be highlighted in the Hall of Fame. But at 37, he is not the same ace he once was. What Greinke did provide the Astros with was 171 solid innings (4.16 ERA), providing excellent results particularly during times when the Astros were in a pinch and short on pitchers.
  • Kendall Graveman – 1.1 fWAR – 5-1, 1.77 ERA, 56 IP, 3.19 FIP, 3.71 xERA, 9.80 K/9, 3.27 BB/9 – The Astros acquired Graveman mid-season as they scrambled to fill their bullpen needs.
  • Yimi Garcia - 0.4 WAR – 4-9, 4.21 ERA, 57.2 IP, 3.88 FIP, 4.41 xERA, 9.36 K/9, 2.81 BB/9

An off-season where you potentially lose 2 Hall of Fame caliber pitchers, your star Short Stop who was 5th in MVP voting, and one of your strongest relief options is a difficult challenge for any front office.

The Astros have cut down the number of Hall of Fame pitchers lost to one, as they announced re-signing Justin Verlander to a 1 year $25 million contract with a player option for a 2nd year at $25 million.

Addressing the rest of the anticipated losses, as most front offices would do, I’d assume their initial evaluation will look at the performance last year (and areas of regression).

In 2021, The Astros offensively were the best team in baseball by a wide margin. Fangraphs put their offensive WAR at 33.9, with places 2-5 all coming in between 30.5 and 29.5). From a pitching perspective, they ranked #9 overall from a WAR perspective, still above average but closer to middle of the pack.

The takeaway here is that the Astros are in a really good place. If Jim Crane decided not to make a single other change, the Astros are still a phenomenal team. This is obviously not the strategy I’m recommending, but my personal feeling is people are overreacting or have insanely unrealistic expectations.

In the division right now, the Angels are the closest to the Astros in projected WAR. Even if you added Correa to their team (and they couldn’t fit him alone under the luxury threshold either), they’d still be projected lower than the Astros by 2.2. (And that’s after adding Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Loup as well).

I think we have become spoiled as Astros fans, and while I know the recent World Series loss hurts and there is a desire for more parades, we’ve had a historically good team for a stretch of time, and a chance to extend this franchise into a true dynasty.

Signing Carlos Correa

We never know the true conversations happening behind closed doors or if the information being reported is true, but from everything being reported, it doesn’t seem like Correa and the Astros are close on a potential deal.

According to Spotrac, we have ~$30 Million remaining in payroll room. In fairness, they do show the Astros picking up Rafael Montero’s option at $3.1 Million, which I’m not thinking is guaranteed for a career 5.18 ERA pitcher.

Essentially, for the Astros to re-sign Correa one of a few things would need to happen:

  1. The CBA increases the threshold.
  2. Correa reduces his price.
  3. The Astros decide to blow past the limit and take the penalties
  4. The Astros trade away other players to reduce salaries.

If the Astros did pursue some salary reductions, it could range from getting lucky to find a taker (Jake Odorizzi, Pedro Baez, or one of our catchers) or a player that would be a bit more painful to lose like Aledmys Diaz or Michael Brantley.

Carlos Correa has been such a core player for this team and in some ways, his arrival marked the beginning of the new era. He’s been a face of the team and shows himself as a leader on and off the field. He’s a player who could win multiple MVP’s in his career and at the end of it, it’s easy to imagine him hanging it up as a Hall of Famer.

With all that said, I’m just not sure the Astros can pull the trigger on anything close to the rumored contract. While Correa has all the potential in the world, he does come with a significant injury risk. And while some of it is overstated due to fluke injuries, there have been some scary injuries particularly for a player of his age. Maybe the changes in the CBA will change my view on this, but a player like this is difficult to gamble such a huge portion of your allotted payroll to.

For those of you who play GM Modes in baseball games, this is usually a super easy decision, you obviously trade away older expensive talent, bring in prospects and keep renewing the cycle. As fans though, it’s different. There’s an emotional attachment to the game. I grew up in the north east surrounded by Yankees fans. I became an Astros because of Craig Biggio. In honesty, I was more of a fan of Biggio than the team. Had the Astros not kept him on the team, who knows, maybe I wouldn’t be writing for this site. There’s such an attachment to players, and there should be. It’s one of the reasons I think the Rays don’t have the same type of fans despite having the 4th highest winning percentage from 2010-2021.

With all of that said, as much as I hate to say it, if Correa is looking for a 300+ million dollar contract, I will gladly root for him on whichever team he lands on except for when they’re playing the Astros. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve it, or even that I won’t regret these words. Correa could be the perennial MVP for the next half decade, but the risk and cost are simply too high for me.

If the cap stays the same, or has a mild increase, the Astros are going to feel the crunch to stay under the cap not only in 2022, but in the following years. As of right now, in 2023 the Astros are projected to have $114 million in players salaries across 4 players (Bregman, Altuve, Verlander, McCullers).

They have options to renew Odorizzi and Baez but are more likely to absorb the $5.25 Mil to buy them out than renew.

Additionally, Maldonado has a vesting option, which if met would add another $5 million.

Arbitration numbers are difficult to estimate, particularly multiple years in advance, Baseball-Reference has an estimated $24.65 million for all arbitration eligible players including Alvarez, Tucker, Urquidy, Valdez, Stanek, Javier, etc).

Additionally there are other costs of player benefits which run roughly $16 million, and 40-man minor leaguers (~$2.25 million) .

2023 Quick Glance:

  • Guaranteed Contracts (Bregman, Verlander, Altuve, McCullers) …………….. $114m
  • Buy-outs (Baez, Odorizzi)………………………………………………………………………….. $5.25m
  • Maldonado Vesting Option ………………………………………………………………………. $5m
  • B-R Arb Estimate (Tucker, Alvarez, Urquidy, Valdez, Stanek, etc) ……………….$24.65m
  • Player Benefits …………………………………………………………………………………………...$16m
  • 40-Man Minor League Salaries ……………………………………………………………………$2.25m

Total $ 167 Million

If the Astros also had Carlos Correa, on the team, the total would already be over $200 million. Even if we go with the cap expanding at $2 million a year like it had in the previous CBA, there would still be less than $10 million to fill the void by Gurriel, Brantley, Pressly and other’s departures. (Not to mention others like Diaz and Castro that we’d likely be able to fill somewhat more easily through internal back-ups).

For me, unless Correa’s annual value comes way down, I just simply can’t see him fitting within the existing threshold.

2022

I mentioned before that even if the Astros do absolutely nothing, they would be strong contenders going into 2022. I don’t foresee this occurring unless something crazy occurs with the CBA.

The Astros were quick to re-sign Verlander. At 39, with 6 IP for the past 2 years, there’s a definitre risk to Verlander. That said, when he last pitched he was Cy Young caliber and has done nothing but dominate since joining the Astros. Early reports were good in regards to velocity which is a positive indicator and Verlander’s arsenal is a perfect fit with the Astros Effective Velocity methodology.

The Astros will likely look to reinforce their bullpen with the departures of Graveman and Garcia. Personally, I believe Graveman was slightly overrated. He was pitching above what the peripherals predicted at the time of acquisition and the anticipated regression occurred. This is not in any way to say he was or is a poor pitcher, but potentially a reality check.

A lot of fans are looking at the big name shortstops with the potential departure of Correa. This year’s free agent shortstop class is phenomenal. With Correa, Seager, Semien, Story, Baez, Taylor, etc all providing star caliber play with different levels of cost, injury risk, age, etc.

Most people I’ve seen have settled on either Trevor Story or Chris Taylor due to the cost for Correa/Seager, age and defense for Semien, and the high strikeout rate for Baez -

Neither Story nor Taylor are without their challenges. Story will likely command a contract that while not equal to Correa, will still put the Astros in a similar struggle with the luxury cap. And Taylor, may not be the ideal shortstop and the qualified offer is particularly painful for the Astros, especially for a player that wouldn’t be at the elite level to offset it.

The Astros haven’t limited their searches to shortstop, with an interest in Starling Marte. Marte is a solidly above average center fielder throughout his career but had a break-out year in 2021 for 5.5 WAR. Coming into his age 33 season, MLBTradeRumors predicts a 4 year / $80 Million dollar contract. He is not tied to a Qualifying Offer, which removes the penalty of a pick from him, and he fits extremely well into the Astros model of solid defense, low strike-out (18.8%), and solid walk rates (8.2% -though this was well above his normal). His age 33-37 seasons would likely spell some decline. (Editor’s Note: Marte has since been annoucned as signing with the New York Mets for 4 years, $82 million)

It may be surprising that we’d have a “strong pursuit” of Marte considering that while none of McCormick, Siri, or Meyers were perfect, they did not seem to struggle. Meyers hit for a 111 wRC+, rated positively in offense and defense for 1.1 WAR in 49 Games. Chas McCormick hit for a 109 wRC+ and rated positively offensively and defensively for a 1.9 WAR in 108 games. And Siri demolished it with the bat to the tune of 160 wRC+ but not quite getting a positive defensive rating earning him a total of 0.3 WAR in 21 games. All of that would seem to point to the Astros having an heir apparent in their mix already, but the K% of 34.7%, 32.5%, and 30.7% don’t fit with a team philosophy when that team lead the league at a K% of 19.4 as their average. With that said, all of the above are very small sample sizes to judge on.

As of right now, we have not heard of them “tied” to many other players, but it’s still very early in the off-season and I believe things will basically be stalled, with a quick burst of signings right before everything freezes with the CBA negotiations.

If I Were GM

I don’t think anyone knows, including the Astros what the plan is at this point, but if I was the General Manager, here’s where my thoughts are for the plan assuming that the Luxury Threshold stays the same, and that we’re not blowing past it.

FA Relief Support: Sign Collin McHugh – $2 years/18 million

Most predictions I’ve seen have been low, but I’ll use Knebel’s 2/18 as a baseline, with Knebel as a potential alternative. Both outperformed Graveman significantly last year, and through-out their careers. Both do carry injury risk, but a shorter deal seems likely for both limiting the risk profile. I do think the estimated value here is slightly higher than what will be signed for, but I’d rather estimate on the high side.

In relief from Free Agency, my #1 Choice would be Collin McHugh with Corey Knebel as an alternative option.

2021 Results:

Graveman – 1.1 WAR - 5-1, 1.77 ERA in 56 IP - 3.71 xERA, 3.19 FIP, 9.8 K/9, 3.27 BB/9

McHugh – 1.8 WAR- 6-1, 1.55 ERA in 64 IP – 2.26 xERA, 2.12 FIP, 10.41 K/9, 1.69 B/9

Knebel – 0.6 WAR – 4-0, 2.45 ERA in 25.2 IP – 2.90 xERA, 2.90 FIP, 10.52 K/9, 3.16 BB/9

Graveman ended up signing with the White Sox for 3/24. (I had assumed 3/27) – For me Graveman is a great player and would be a solid addition to our bullpen but I believe that both McHugh and Knebel provide better alternatives at a lesser cost. I’m a huge McHugh fan, but he continues to dominate proving to be one of the most effective relievers in baseball again last year. McHugh does have the ability to be stretched out and cover multiple innings or provide a shut down reliever. Knebel is a player who has produced results in line of expectations of an elite reliever. His Fastball Velocity (96.3 - 88th percentile), Fastball Spin (2,403 – 87th percentile), and Curve spin (2,792 - 87th percentile) fit extremely well with the Effective Velocity approach the Astros utilize. Knebel is predicted for a 2 year/$18 Mil contract at #38/50, Collin McHugh was listed in Honorable mentions, but notably not in the top 50.

(Editor’s Note: Between this piece’s writing and its publication, it has been announced that the Astros have signed Hector Neris for 2 years at $17 million)

Trade Bullpen Support: Acquire Seth Lugo – 1 year/$3.7 million + Trade Asset

From a trade perspective, I’d love to see the Astros look at a player such as Seth Lugo. Although the 4-3, 3.50 ERA reliever who tossed 46.1 IP for 0.4 WAR may not seem like an ideal target, he has the arsenal to become a strong late inning level reliever with an EV approach. With 1 year of control remaining, and a projected $3.7 Million salary, I wouldn’t suspect the cost of acquiring him to be high. I went to look at baseballtradevalues to see their valuation, which came in at exactly 0.

Shortstop - Sign Andrelton Simmons

Personally, I would stay far away from the top end of the Free Agent Shortstop market. I love Correa, and absolutely hate losing him, but I think for the long term competitive health of the team, I have to pass.

I just can’t see the Astros playing at the deep end of the pool given the current payroll and luxury tax threshold. Story, Semien, Baez, etc all hold intrigue but I just feel that a 20+ million dollar player will create a similar payroll challenge and contain other risk factors. I do like Chris Taylor but the QO is especially painful as we look to extend the window. I think that the Astros offense could easily carry a cheap defense first shortstop if they want to delay the service clock or refine certain skillsets before calling up Pena. Although there does seem to be some indications that the Astros believe Pena is ready now, and while not ideal Bregman and Diaz both can play short if needed.

Outfield - No moves.

I actually believe that Marte fits really well within the Astros methodology. Even if there’s concerns for aging, he could slide over at the end of Brantley’s contract. To me, he makes a lot more sense than signing one of the big name FA SS, the proposed contract is within their general model, is not associated to a QO so no loss of pick, and his K%. With that said, it’s still $20 Mil of a maximum of 30 that they can spend, which leaves little room for other additions, nevermind any extensions for existing players or room at the deadline for trades covering a rash of injuries or weakness at a position. The Astros believed enough in their group of prospects to trade Myles Straw last year. And while the strike-outs are concerning, a cast of McCormick, Siri, and Meyers are not a guarantee, there is also Leon coming up shortly behind them.

Finishing Nail

I know this plan probably sounds like the least exciting route ever. The Astros, if they do absolutely nothing, are still a playoff caliber team. I would love to see the Astros be able to pull off some salary shedding moves or if the threshold is changed, obviously all of this changes drastically. I’d rather the Astros be looking to utilize future payroll room to lock down a player like Tucker.

When Bregman (24) signed his deal, it was for 5 years / $100-Million while between 2 and 3 years of service time after his breakout season in 2018 where he hit .286/.394/.532 with a 7.6 WAR. Tucker (24) is currently just over 2 years of service according to Fangraphs, and last year broke out to the tune of .294/.359/.557 for 4.8 WAR. Bregman’s deal was definitely team friendly, and their creative way of paying out the sign-on bonus helped front load the value for Bregman. Interestingly, the Rays recently signed Wander Franco to a 12 year, $185 million dollar contract with escalators that could bring the value all the way up to $223 Million. Notably, Franco is 4 years younger than Tucker but Tucker is proven and also a lot closer to his pay day and thus is giving up less of his “free” years.

Like the last few years, the Astros are likely going to be dancing around the threshold again this year unless they decide to blow past it or there are some radical changes with the CBA. Last year, we felt a bit of the pinch as we targeted players that could fit within the threshold. In my personal opinion, we have a team that does not need the biggest free agent acquisition to continue to challenge for games late in the post-season. I could see the Astros targeting players via a trade, gaining control of cost controlled talent as well.

Let me know what you think. What would you do as the General Manager? What deals are you looking for?