We’re all aware by now that the Astros aren’t exactly flush with cash this offseason, at least according to the reports. It wasn’t an unexpected development as the club’s payroll is already projected to exceed the first tax threshold — $237 million — following the signing of Victor Caratini. Only once has Jim Crane exceeded the first threshold and paid the tax, well, he was until MLB didn’t collect on those payments due to the pandemic-shortened season in 2020. Otherwise, Crane has shied away from exceeding any of the thresholds laid out in the CBA. Combine this historical reluctance along with lessened revenue from broadcast rights fees, it ought not to have been a surprise that the Astros have operated with more financial restraint than the organization did last offseason.
Honestly, I’d be shocked to see the Astros trade any of its star players to duck the first tax threshold, at least right now. A lot could change by the trade deadline, but not before the season. It is easier to envision a trade of someone like José Urquidy and his projected $3.5 million AAV figure between now and Opening Day, albeit even that scenario appears unlikely. Regardless, the Astros are intent on competing in 2024 until further notice, as they should with its current roster. With that said, Dana Brown has the flexibility to explore notable change if the upcoming season goes sideways. Framber Valdez, Kyle Tucker, and Alex Bregman are all names to watch in the event the front office begins to explore its options. Perhaps Justin Verlander? Do I dare say, Ryan Pressly?
The Astros’ bullpen, in particular, is currently in an intriguing state. High-usage relievers, Héctor Neris and Phil Maton, are most likely gone, with Ryne Stanek also a free agent. There are possibly multiple openings to fill out the bullpen, with only Pressly, Bryan Abreu, Kendall Graveman, and Rafael Montero guaranteed spots. RosterResource gives the final four relief openings to Ronel Blanco, Bennett Sousa, Brandon Bielak, and Urquidy. To be frank, those last four spots are in flux, as I don’t find it likely that Blanco, Bielak, and Urquidy will all start the season in the bullpen. But at its core, the bullpen’s success likely continues to hinge on Pressly and Abreu.
How that success, or lack thereof, occurs in 2024, could dictate the long-term plans for the bullpen. Pressly is, after all, scheduled to enter free agency following the upcoming season, unless his mutual option is realized. That option is vested if the veteran right-hander has 50 appearances in both 2023 and 2024. 65 appearances in 2023, check. All that remains now is reaching 50 appearances this year, which, based on each full season since 2016, appears to be a near-lock. If so, then that mutual option is worth $14 million in 2025, with a $2 million buyout.
But the mutual option is exactly that, mutual. There isn’t a guarantee that both the Astros and Pressly will want to exercise the option for a variety of reasons. On the club side, it’ll likely come down to cost, especially for a reliever entering his age-35 season. On Pressly’s side, it is also related to his age, especially if he can cash in on one more multi-year contract. Whether another extension with the Astros happens is unknown, although we already have that precedent. But complicating any potential exercising of the option for 2025 or an extension is the mere existence of Abreu, who looks more like the heir apparent to assume the main role in late-inning situations. The kicker: He is noticeably cheaper than Pressly for at least two more seasons, projected to only earn $1.750 million in 2024 through his first round of arbitration.
Again, Pressly is entering his age-35 season. While his velocity didn’t deviate too much from 2022 to 2023, the results were increasingly mixed. Strikeouts, for example, were down by 8.1%, to its lowest level since 2017 with the Twins. ERA, xERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all increased by varying margins. Pressly’s hard-hit rate was also up. But by pitch modeling (Stuff+), the right-hander had arguably better stuff than he did in 2022 on the whole. Perhaps the shift not being present hurt Pressly more, especially as his groundball rate also climbed by 8.7%. Less strikeouts and more balls in play along with a doubling of home runs allowed (4 to 8) played a role in his numbers taking a dip. After all, his BABIP did rise, albeit slightly from .260 to .272.
But considering Pressly’s age, and the fact that Abreu also occupies the same bullpen, I don’t think we can simply discount the idea that the Astros look to utilize its resources currently earmarked for the long-time closer in a different manner starting in 2025. There is hardly anything more valuable to baseball front offices than controllable arms, often cost-controlled arms for relatively cheap. Abreu will only make a fraction of what Pressly is likely to earn in the next two to three seasons. Plus, there was an argument to make last year that Abreu was the better reliever. Again, for last year, not talking about the whole body of work.
Even for a club that has operated with a renewed sense of frugality, I find the odds of trading Pressly remarkably low, unless the upcoming season goes south. But how he and Abreu perform this year may help determine the course of action from a roster construction point of view, especially as the organization navigates some trickier waters with other players. Unfortunately, with an in-house replacement already present, it isn’t farfetched to imagine a situation where the Astros choose to reallocate those dollars into other areas. 2024 is a likely final hurrah for Bregman, and possibly even Jose Altuve. Could it also become one for Pressly?