If Jim Crane was willing and able to go full Steve Cohen this winter, and blow through the luxury cap, I wouldn’t be writing this article. However, the Houston Astros have payroll constraints that preclude any big splashes in the free agent market. Concurrently, the Astros have a very thin farm system and they do not have the prospects to safely trade for an impact major leaguer. This may be hard for fans to accept, but there is no way to significantly improve the 2024 roster without seriously jeopardizing the future of the team.
Otto Von Bismarck once opined that “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable-the art of the next best”. This statement could be said for pro baseball too.
Dana Brown has already stated that the Astros do not have much payroll flexibility going into the 2024 season. Although Houston has about $10 million in cap space, this money should be used to extend either Altuve, Bregman, or Tucker. Many fans will argue that this money should be spent on a decent reliever, but this would be a waste of resources.
Every fantasy baseball player has heard the term, “never pay for saves”. This term exists for good reason. Outside of rare circumstances, relievers are incredibly volatile.
According a study done by Keith Law, a reliever who pitches two consecutive “good” seasons, defined as a reliever who pitches 50+ innings with a sub 3 ERA, has less than a 50% chance of repeating it in a third season. This should make sense to anyone who has been following the Stros over the past 30 years. For every Ryan Presley, there are a bunch of pitchers like Brad Lidge, Ken Giles, and Rafael Montero. Replacing middle relievers like Phil Maton or Ryne Stanek can be done via the waiver wire or the farm system. No need to exchange valuable resources for volatile assets.
The Astros will likely seek to trade Jake Meyers this off-season, but this would be a mistake. As we saw last season, injuries are apart of the game and it is likely that some combination of Alvarez, McCormick, and Tucker will spend time on the IL this season. Having a competent 4th outfielder is vital to sustaining a high level of play over a full season. Plus, there is a good chance that Tucker leaves after the 2025 season, and it is important to have major league depth to replace him.
It is a valid argument to suggest that having Dubon makes Meyers superfluous, but having two WAR producing bench players is necessary to win a tight division race. Unlike in seasons past, when the Astros could easily project to win the division with ease, it is easy to predict a close division race this season. If the Astros trade either Dubon or Meyers, who can be relied on to be an above replacement level player on the bench? Certainly not Julks or Kessinger.
Considering that Dubon and Meyers combined for 3.6 war last season, in limited playing time, it is obvious that there contributions would be missed. Injuries are apart of the game, and it is important to have depth.
Earlier this off-season, I advocated for trading top prospects for Pete Alonso. While I still think there would be value in a deal like this, it would undoubtedly hurt the team’s future. I have criticized the team’s recent approach to baseball operations, but Dana Brown needs to be given the opportunity to repeat the success he had running the draft in Atlanta. He was hired as the GM to rebuild the farm system through the draft. How can he do this if the Crane forces him to trade away his best prospects?
Remember that for all the emphasis fans put on big trades and free agent signings, the core of the Astros dynasty has been developing minor leaguers who will add surplus value. Trading Brice Matthews may add a few wins in the short term, but has the possibility of costing the team upwards of $100 million in value.
Lastly, there are many players who, in my opinion, are due for some positive regression. Luis Garcia and LMJ may never throw 200 innings, or even 150, but they should be able to pitch enough to push Blanco and Bielak out of the rotation. It is reasonable to want to trade Dubon or Meyers for a back of the rotation pitcher, more more reasonable than trading for a mid reliever, but as previously stated that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Astros should have enough depth at the back of the rotation to be competitive.
As previously stated, I argued for trading Alonso; however, this is probably unrealistic and not practical. (The rules against judicial estoppel do not apply to sports blogs). For one, it is doubtful that the Mets will trade their most popular player. I live in Long Island, I don’t think fans would tolerate him being traded. Secondly, Jose Abreu has a decent chance at having a bounce back season. If he still sucks in July, they can always trade for another bat. Besides, upgrading at first base will require the Astros giving up a significant amount of prospect capital.
The Astros are in a familiar spot this off-season. They do not have a highly rated farm system, and they do not have a lot of money to spend. While it is easy to think of big moves to marginally improve the team, the road less traveled is to stay put and improve the team internally. Ultimately, the latter method will set the team up for more future success without costing the team too many wins in 2024.