Depending on the site of your choice, the exact amount of 2023 payroll obligations varies by a few million in either direction. For example, RosterResource on FanGraphs currently projects the Astros to commit roughly $179 million in player payroll for 2023, including projected arbitration salaries from MLB Trade Rumors. Cot’s Baseball Contracts with Baseball Prospectus has an estimated $173 million figure for next season, with Spotrac coming in with about $176 million. The variation between all three sites is most likely due to arbitration projections and player benefits.
The difference between the three sites is not substantial and provides a helpful snapshot of how the payroll is set up for 2023. While it is beneficial to be as accurate as possible, these numbers are fluid until free-agent signings and trades, if any, along with arbitration raises, are finalized. As it concerns the Astros, these sites all indicate one key point: There is money to spend, especially coming off a World Series championship this year. With the initial tax threshold increasing to $232 million for next season, Houston has roughly $56 million to spend before incurring any player payroll penalties based on the projected $176 million figure from Spotrac, which also represents a reasonable average of the three sites mentioned above.
Overall, there are plenty of budgetary resources to add talent in the club’s quest to win back-to-back titles. As I mentioned, Houston is flush with cash from another World Series run and subsequent title. But will Jim Crane spend up to the initial threshold? It depends on the exact course of action the Astros take this winter. For example, if Justin Verlander is re-signed at a minimum annual value of $35 to $40 million per season, the majority of Houston’s available budget without penalties would be gone. This route could leave some room to add another bat to help lengthen the lineup, but not much else. Of course, it is worth noting that Crane has exceeded the tax threshold only once before (2020); however, due to the pandemic-induced shortened season, any clubs exceeding those thresholds didn’t actually pay out any penalties that year. There has been another instance or two where the Astros stayed close to the applicable threshold level but didn’t exceed it. History provides a valuable point that we’ll likely not see any threshold-exceeding payroll in 2023.
The recent departure of general manager James Click makes any offseason spending a bit more unpredictable. Without the former Tampa Bay exec in the fold, Crane could become more emboldened to increase payroll at a rate he deems fit, as we recently saw with Rafael Montero’s new three-year, $34.5 million contract last weekend. While I cannot speculate with any certainty, I feel Click would’ve pushed back against Montero’s new contract to some extent due to his payroll commitment for the next three seasons and the volatility associated with relievers.
The same speculation about negotiations with Verlander applies here, whose decision will significantly impact the Astros’ budget this offseason. If he does indeed leave Houston, I can envision a scenario where they seek out multiple hitters — first base, designated hitter, catcher, or center field — to bolster a lineup that periodically struggled in 2022. One could even argue that the preferred course of action is to let Verlander leave and allocate those resources to other positions, especially as most of this deep pitching staff is set to return next season. But with room in the budget, Crane will undoubtedly spend. The question is how many of those dollars will convert into wins on the field.