With reports surfacing about Framber Valdez and the fractured ring finger on his pitching hand, the Astros are left in an unenviable position. Already faced with a lack of proven depth in the starting rotation, the loss of the club’s best starter in 2020 is a suboptimal development. James Click and the front office are going to have to get a bit creative to replace those innings, regardless of the duration of Valdez’s absence.
The initial recommendation for top young Astros SP Framber Valdez is for surgery to repair his fractured ring finger, and the early belief is that could mean he’d miss the 2021 season, as I just said on @MLBNetwork. But the team is getting 2nd opinions before commenting further.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 4, 2021
So, where do the Astros go from here? It’s a bit complicated whether they decide to stay internal or look to external options. On the internal side of things, there are options, albeit unproven. Luis Garcia is undoubtedly a name to watch. Brandon Bielak may get another chance to start at the major league level, especially if Valdez’s absence is more of a short-term issue in terms of duration. Forrest Whitley might even be in the mix, although I don’t see it happening at this time. But if he has a strong camp, who knows?
To be honest, I’d prefer to look outside the organization to fill Valdez’s role. A popular pick online (myself included) is Jake Odorizzi, who has obvious Tampa ties to Click (2013-17). With a 3.92 ERA/4.12 FIP across 1,042 1/3 innings, the age-30 right-hander would pencil in nicely in the middle of Houston’s rotation. Sure, that’s not fully replacing the 2020 version of Valdez — 3.57 ERA/2.85 FIP in 70 2/3 innings — but Odorizzi would soften the impact.
The complicating factor for this route, or any external option for that matter, is the tax component. Coming in roughly $13.5 million per Cot’s Baseball Contracts under the $210 million threshold for the 2021 season, the Astros have shown reluctance to spend right up to the tax line. For example, it is the primary reason why Jackie Bradley Jr. is now a Brewer instead of an Astro. And it also might be the reason why Odorizzi may not ultimately sign with Houston. As noted by Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors, the right-hander is “seeking a three-year deal that will pay him in the $13-$15 million range annually.” At this point, it is unclear if Odorizzi will drop his price tag any time soon.
Barring some creativity to address the average annual value in a hypothetical contract, I remain doubtful of a pairing with Odorizzi. Adding the former Ray does make sense for baseball reasons, obviously, but the financial aspect isn’t one to flat out ignore. After all, the Astros did in fact exceed the tax threshold last season ($208 million) in terms of average annual value for tax purposes. A repeat overage for a second consecutive season increases the surcharge from 20 percent to 30 percent along with potential penalties regarding draft picks and compensation for players with a qualifying offer (see: George Springer’s compensation pick). Interestingly enough, as noted by Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors, Major League Baseball didn’t force the three clubs who exceeded that threshold (Astros, Cubs, Yankees) to pay the tax they owed in 2020. But in terms of penalties for the 2021 season, last year’s overage still holds weight. Hence why Houston is trying to reset those penalties this season, regardless of the need on the active roster.
If I were to guess right now, I think the Astros will survey the market (free agents and trades) to find a possible fit that will keep the team below that tax threshold of $210 million. If they don’t, it isn’t farfetched to envision a scenario where Garcia or Bielak are forced into the rotation. As was the case in the offseason, the name of the game is ducking the tax and avoiding additional draft pick penalties. Yes, Jim Crane may give the OK to closely approach that tax line. If not, the Astros have put themselves into a corner.