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Off-Season Plans: Salaries, Contracts, and Player Control (Part II of III)

MLB: World Series-Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Salary structures and team control in MLB are so different from other sports that casual fans often don’t understand what it means when teams offer extensions and why teams pass on expensive players.

Most of this can be skimmed over by longtime readers, but here’s a refresher on a few terms. Also, if contract numbers are slight off or service years presented wrongly, I wrote this quickly and please correct in the comments. We want to be factual around here.

CONTROL: players cannot be free agents until they’ve played (roughly) six season with a team. This time is called “service years” and it used to be you could manipulate it by bringing up a player in May or June and getting an extra year (see George Springer in 2014). The new CBA nixed this. While under team control, players are “pre-arb” for the first three years, and then arbitration-eligible. There is some salary scaling in pre-arb, but it’s this distinction in labor rights that explains why Kyle Tucker (pre-arb) made 749K last year and Aledmys Diaz (Arb 3) made 4.4 million. The latter could negotiate a higher salary on the basis of being arbitration-eligible.

PAYROLL SALARY: This is the salary that counts on the ledger for 2023. Things like signing bonuses are spread out. Payroll salary is what matters because it determines the LUXURY TAX, which is the tax a team pays for going over the salary THRESHOLD. This tax purportedly preserves equality except when teams don’t care about having an embarrassingly low payroll, and rich teams don’t mind paying because they’re so rich. The threshold for 2023 is $233 million. Crane does not like paying the luxury tax.

For a veteran-laden team, it’s astonishing that the Astros have zero bad contracts. Not a one. They declined 8 figure options on Trey Mancini and Will Smith and got rid of Jake Odorizzi so they won’t have to may him 12.5 million to be their 8th best starter.

The 2023 payroll at the top looks like this:

Bregman 30.16 million

Altuve: 29

McCullers 15.25

Pressly: 14

Neris: 8

Alvarez: 7.8

Maldy 4.

That’s it, of the players who are past arbitration or whose arb years have been bought out. Framber, Tucker, Stanek, Urquidy, Maton, Javier, Dubon, and Blake Taylor are all arbitration eligible. I imagine the first three will see a huge spike, maybe 25 million total in salary between the three of them. Throw in the minimum salaries and there’s about 80 million in distance between 2023 payroll obligations and the luxury tax threshold.

One way to think of it is like this: let’s spend 80 million AAV on free agents to get right to that threshold. We’re WS champs, let’s spend like it!

I want to suggest, instead, a layered approach, one that looks to lock players up and one that also adds via free agency. Part III (coming next week) will outline potential free agent additions.

The player most in need of locking up, in my opinion, is Kyle Tucker, who’s under control for three more years. According to Spotrac, he’s slated to make 6 million in arb in ‘23, let’s say that goes up to 9 million in ‘24 and 12 million in ‘25. His current “contract” is basically 3/27, and on the open market, assuming no injuries, he’s set to make 30-35 million AAV. The Astros could “buy out” the first three arb. years and lock him up for an additional 3-4 years.

When the Astros bought out Bregman, he had one pre-arb year left, and it was 5/110 (two FA years). When they bought out Alvarez, it was also pre-arb and 6/115. I think they should offer Tucker 6/150. He’s the #1 priority. Go 7/175 if he wants another year.

The risk, on the team side, is that the players get injured or under-perform. You want a sure bet (remember when Matt Dominguez was offered a deal and turned it down? Remember Jon Singleton?). You likely don’t have another Kyle Tucker or Jeremy Pena in your system to replace that loss. You probably have a Blake Taylor, so you can afford to lose guys that can realistically be replaced.

Pitchers have a habit of getting injured, and not just in a “miss 20 games way” but in a “miss an entire season” way. They’re risky. Framber seems an exception due to his build and throwing motion, and he’s probably getting 40 million (barring injury) in arb over the next three years (estimated to make 9 million next year). I’d offer something similar to Tucker, maybe 6/120, to make the guy with the biggest smile in baseball even happier. If you do this, you have Alvarez, Tucker and Framber taken care of through 2028. That’s your core (+ Pena, who’s not a free agent until after 2027) for the late 2020s if Bregman or Altuve bolt after their contracts expire after 2024.

Speaking of Pena, I wonder about a long-term deal, something along the lines of a Tatis-light contract (8/180). The other player worth thinking about locking up would be Christian Javier. He’s just that good. He made two pressure starts on the road in the playoffs and gave up 1 hit in 11.1 innings. He’s estimated to make 3.1 million in 2023, and he’s eligible for free agency after 2025. Would 6/100 be a consolation if Framber doesn’t get extended?

Players can sign contracts during the season, but a successful off-season for the Astros would mean, among other things, locking up at least two of those four players. Also, Alex Bregman is only 28. They could wait another year, but given how good he was in 2022, especially in the playoffs (wRC+ 170; .569 SLG) I wonder about an extension of 3/100.

In conclusion, due to the lack of bad contracts they’re carrying, the Astros have the salary flexibility not only to add in free agency, but also to take the financial steps necessary to extend their window and ensure an elite core through the second half of what is shaping up to be a historic decade of dominance. The Braves have set the pace in extensions. The Astros don’t need to be the Braves, but they need to do more than sign free agents this winter.