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The Astros may regret waiting to extend Kyle Tucker

Despite speculation that the Astros might attempt to extend their star right fielder before the new season, nothing came to fruition.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker is no longer viewed as merely a talented youngster who has All-Star potential. After a breakout year of sorts in the shortened 2020 season, the Astros right fielder not only became one of MLB’s top outfielders in 2021, but one of the game’s best overall players, slashing .294/.359/.557 with 30 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 16 attempts, all while striking out just 15.9 percent of the time and playing quality defense. Tucker finished the year 7th in wRC+ and 23rd in fWAR. Naturally, speculation of a possible extension commenced when the season concluded.

But now, on the eve of Opening Day, it’s all but certain that the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 draft will enter the 2022 season without a long-term contract in place, and it could eventually prove problematic for the Astros, who purportedly did not engage Tucker in extension talks despite him being open to the notion, per Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle:

“The thing is with an extension, it’s just a for-sure guarantee,” Tucker said. “You don’t really have to worry about it if you go through with it. But at the same time, like if I win the next three MVPs, market value could be (high) and I could be playing under value. At that point, you just have to deal with it. I don’t see any harm in at least talking about it, if it even gets brought up.”

The 25-year-old Tucker, who was widely considered an elite prospect as a minor leaguer, figures to be just getting started, as many believe him to be a preseason candidate for AL MVP. The Astros are not at risk of losing Tucker in the immediate future — he isn’t slated to become a free agent until after the 2025 season — but the Astros’ inaction this offseason could have ramifications.

It might seem like a fairly meaningless concern since there are four seasons between now and then, but given his age, pedigree and especially his production of the last two seasons — including a 2021 postseason slash line of .279/.333/.541 in 66 plate appearances — extending Tucker ahead of the 2022 campaign would’ve already been an expensive endeavor for the Astros. Doing so in a year or two could be even more costly.

While the Astros and Jim Crane have maintained one of the highest payrolls in baseball in recent years, they’ve also displayed an unwillingness to pay top dollar for premium bats unless the terms are favorable, hence George Springer and Carlos Correa’s departures in free agency.

José Altuve and Alex Bregman are the only foundational position players who have signed significant long-term deals during Crane’s tenure — Altuve signed a 7-year, $163.5 million extension in March 2018 while Bregman got $100 million across 5 years in March 2019. They have an AAV of $23.4 million and $20 million, respectively.

Utilizing the $/WAR method (1 WAR is considered to be worth around $8 million) as well as research compiled by former FanGraphs writer Craig Edwards, who is now a senior analyst for the Players Association, it’s fair to say that in hindsight, both players signed relatively below-market contracts.

Based on the PA’s heightened awareness of clubs trying to extend young star players early in their careers so as to secure team-friendly deals, it’s unlikely that Tucker would settle for a marginal extension that would consequently delay his free agency, which is perhaps why the Astros ostensibly did not broach the subject.

In the wake of Correa’s move to Minnesota two weeks ago, the timing of a subsequent Tucker extension would’ve helped elucidate why the club was seemingly so ready to move on from their now-ex superstar shortstop.

Fitting an extension with a marked AAV increase into the Astros’ 2022 payroll could have been possible, as the club has about $32 million in “cap space,” according to FanGraphs’ RosterResource.

One of the most distinguished labels in baseball is the term ‘five-tool player.’ Few legitimately embody it. Following his spectacular 2021, Tucker now appears to be on that shortlist. He impacts the game in virtually every aspect and looks to be the most complete player on the Astros roster.

Going forward, it’s possible, if not probable, that he’ll warrant more money in any future negotiations, and as a result, it may not be long before his value reaches a level that exceeds the Astros’ self-imposed spending limit on a single player.