clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Addressing The Payroll Elephant In The Room

Championship Series - Texas Rangers v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

You know content is slow to come by in baseball when posts like this are making the rounds online.

At first glance, the speculation about trading Alex Bregman, who is entering the last year of his contract, feels incredulous. I mean, Bregman remains one of the best third basemen in baseball, although his performance during the past three full seasons falls short of that 2018-19 offensive peak. For a club built to contend in 2024, the idea of trading him is akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Could the Astros bolster their thin farm system by trading Bregman? Yes. Should they be at the expense of their contention window for 2024? Probably not.

Let’s be honest for a minute, though: Brown ought to entertain the notion of gauging the trade interest in Bregman, or any of the players. It is smart business to at least ascertain the interest level of your players. We’ve all known for a while that the industry does this kind of thing. Does that mean a club is truly serious about trading away your favorite player? Heavens, no. But, again, it is smart business to at least know. After all, if a season goes sideways quickly, then it at least provides a starting point to recoup some value, especially for a club about to reach an organizational crossroads by the end of 2025 like Houston.

From a payroll perspective, the Astros are quickly approaching a financial dilemma of sorts. Not even a real dilemma, more like ownership doesn’t feel like paying a meager tax and possibly incurring a penalty on draft pick compensation from qualifying offers. Depending on your source of this information, the organization has roughly $2 million up to $10 million to spend before reaching the first tax threshold of $237 million. For a roster with a couple of holes, it doesn’t leave much to work with, at least in free agency. This is where the idea of trading Bregman — and his $20 million in AAV — offers some allure. A course of action that I would recommend? Nope. With that being said, it isn’t my money, so my opinion doesn’t mean much. I’ll still give it because why not?

But say if Jim Crane insists upon not exceeding that first tax threshold, then there are two options available for Brown to pursue. The first is by trying to improve on the margins and banking on improvement from within. It is one thing when the roster and farm system are brimming with talent, as the Astros experienced at the beginning of this contention window. But it is another when that pipeline starts producing less and less. Brown has already done so for the bullpen by claiming Bennett Sousa from waivers in early September and taking a flyer on Oliver Ortega. There is hope about a couple of corner infield prospects, but those are far from certain. The idea of banking on waiver claims to materially improve your roster feels a bit short-sighted, especially for an organization that has raked in notable postseason revenues in each of the past six full seasons. Don’t be mistaken as I think the Astros should always look to improve on the margins. But to make it the focal point of your offseason acquisitions feels disappointing.

The second option is to reallocate existing resources. In theory, by trading Bregman, the Astros could obtain a couple of cost-controlled players and divert those financial savings into other needs on the roster. Of course, there are pitfalls to this plan, as with only trying to improve on the margins. For one, would the value coming into the organization outweigh the losses, at least in 2024? Probably not. Bregman, by fWAR, has been one of the most valuable third basemen in baseball, accounting for about 12 wins since 2021. With a roster already designed to contend, it doesn’t make sense to trade someone like Bregman for minor leaguers who won’t help the cause next season.

Another potential pitfall is whether there is a free agent worth spending money on this offseason. On the pitching side, possibly, yes. There are multiple intriguing arms. On the position side, especially at third base, the pickings are slim. Matt Chapman is a name that would garner attention, but like Bregman, his next contract would coincide with some decline. Jeimer Candelario was non-tendered by the Tigers only a year ago and is already 30 with some regression risk. If the Astros are intent on reallocating their existing resources, then they would almost certainly need to acquire another third baseman via trade, not through free agency. Mauricio Dubón isn’t a long-term solution at third base and I wouldn’t move Jeremy Peña away from shortstop for defensive purposes. Plus, there is the question about the market value for Bregman’s services and what teams are willing to surrender in a trade with only one season of control at most.

Ultimately, the Astros have a payroll elephant in the room to address. Trading Bregman is certainly one option to avoid paying the tax and possibly more efficiently distributing financial resources across the roster. However, with a contention window still open in 2024, is it the best course of action? I’d argue no, especially with the payroll having a chance to reset following next season and 2025. Trading away one of your best four hitters to simply restock a thin farm system is a move that a club in decline makes, not when you have the opportunity to compete for another World Series. While some sort of decline is probably on the horizon for the Astros in the coming years, it isn’t here. Or, at least, quite yet. In other words, never spurn an opportunity to win.