MLBTR is publishing Offseason Outlooks for all 30 teams. Click here to read the other entries in this series.
A month ago, the Astros came within a game of winning their second World Series in three seasons. Now? They’re the subject of an investigation by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s office and could lose one of the game’s best pitchers to free agency.
- Jose Altuve, 2B: $130MM through 2024
- Alex Bregman, 3B/SS: $100MM through 2024
- Zack Greinke, RHP: $70MM through 2021 ($22MM deferred, D-backs paying $10.33MM annually)
- Justin Verlander, RHP: $66MM through 2021
- Ryan Pressly, RHP: $17.5MM through 2021
- Michael Brantley, OF: $16MM through 2020
- Josh Reddick, OF: $13MM through 2020
- Yuli Gurriel, 1B/3B: $8.3MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (contract projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- George Springer – $21.4MM
- Brad Peacock – $4.6MM
- Jake Marisnick – $3.0MM
- Aaron Sanchez – $5.6MM
- Lance McCullers Jr. – $4.1MM
- Carlos Correa – $7.4MM
- Roberto Osuna – $10.2MM
- Chris Devenski – $2.0MM
- Joe Biagini – $1.5MM
- Aledmys Diaz – $2.4MM
- Non-tender candidates: Sanchez, Devenski, Biagini
- Wade Miley, Robinson Chirinos, Martin Maldonado, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith, Will Harris, Collin McHugh
We’ll get this out of the way up front: while the Astros have plenty of roster needs to address this offseason, the primary storyline right now is the league’s investigation into the electronic sign-stealing accusations brought forth against them, which stem back to the 2017 season. There are potentially severe ramifications for the Houston organization if sufficient evidence arises to prove their guilt, but at this point the extent of those still-theoretical sanctions can’t be known. This outlook will focus purely on the team’s roster and payroll outlook, as there’s no means of determining exactly when, how or even if the Astros will be penalized by the commissioner’s office.
With that out of the way, the biggest needs facing the Astros organization come in the rotation and behind the plate. Houston picked up Zack Greinke in a last-minute trade-deadline blockbuster, but Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley both reached free agency at season’s end. Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado are both free agents, too, leaving 26-year-old Garrett Stubbs as the only catcher on Houston’s 40-man roster. Clearly, that leaves president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and his staff with some work to do.
To what extent is ownership willing to spend to address those needs, though? Owner Jim Crane said in early October that the Astros “prefer not to” cross the $208MM luxury tax barrier, though he cautioned that the team’s postseason showing could influence that decision. A run to Game 7 of the World Series surely put some extra cash in the pipeline, but the strongest comments Crane has made with regard to spending this winter came earlier this month when discussing Cole’s free agency: “We’re going to take a run at it. We don’t know if we can get to where they want to get. [Agent Scott] Boras is tough to deal with.” A resounding cry of aggression, it was not, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The likelihood that Cole has become too large a piece to fit into this puzzle has been apparent for some time now.
The biggest obstacle for the Astros is that even assuming a non-tender of July acquisition Aaron Sanchez, whose 2020 status is up in the air after shoulder surgery, Houston’s payroll will top $200MM in 2020. The exact projections will vary, as the specific number is dependent on arbitration-eligible players and on determining exactly what they owe Greinke. The D-backs are paying a reported $10.33MM of the $35MM owed to Greinke in 2020 and 2021 ($32MM base salary plus a $3MM payment of his pro-rated signing bonus), and $11MM of that yearly sum is deferred to 2022-26.
None of those payroll gymnastics matter for luxury-tax purposes, though, as that calculation is more straightforward and based on the average annual value of the team’s contractual obligations. Between guaranteed contracts, arbitration projections, pre-arbitration players and money set aside for player benefits, Jason Martinez of Roster Resource has their current luxury obligations at a whopping $238MM. Non-tendering Sanchez would trim $5.6MM of that, but it’s clear that the team’s offseason level of activity will be heavily dependent on whether Crane and his group can indeed stomach what looks like a potentially notable luxury hit.
Given the team’s cloudy fiscal outlook, it’s perhaps not surprising that Luhnow has already gone on record as stating that right-hander Jose Urquidy will “likely” be in the team’s rotation next year. He’ll be joined by a returning Lance McCullers Jr., and the club has some upper-level depth in Rogelio Armenteros, Cionel Perez, Bryan Abreu and Forrest Whitley. But Whitley’s stock is down after a miserable 2019 season, McCullers is something of a wild card in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, and the team traded righties Corban Martin and J.B. Bukauskas to the D-backs in the Greinke swap. At the very least, one veteran stabilizer or would seem to be a prudent addition — even if it’s a low-cost add in the Brett Anderson or Homer Bailey mold. If the Astros want more of an upside play, they could roll the dice on Josh Lindblom, Kwang-hyun Kim or Shun Yamaguchi as they look to jump from the KBO (Lindblom, Kim) and NPB (Yamaguchi) to the Majors.
Behind the plate, a reunion with any number of old friends would be logical: Chirinos, Maldonado and Jason Castro are all available in free agency. The Mariners are reportedly exploring the market for Omar Narvaez, who’s only projected to receive a modest $2.9MM salary in his first year of arbitration. On the pricier side of things, the Cubs could listen to offers for Willson Contreras. Ultimately, whether it’s via trade or free agency, the Astros have to add a catcher or two; Stubbs hit just .240/.332/.397 (79 wRC+) last year in Triple-A while the rest of the league exploded with historic levels of offensive output.
Around the rest of the roster, things look largely set. Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman will comprise the infield, while the outfield has Michael Brantley, George Springer, Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick and Kyle Tucker in the mix. Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez will return to DH and could see some occasional reps in left or at first base. It’s a stacked lineup.
There’s a scenario where the Astros stick primarily in house for the starting staff, pick up a cheap catcher and hope their core can stay healthy enough to carry them to yet another AL West championship. They could even look to shed some of Reddick’s remaining $13MM and go with the younger, more affordable Tucker in right field. There’s enough talent there, but relying on McCullers and a pair of young arms to round out the starting staff would leave the team with little depth, especially in the event of an injury to Verlander or Greinke.
Frankly, however, it’s hard to see just how this Astros roster could possibly be constructed to drop below the luxury tax without severely compromising its core. Barring a shocking trade — e.g. Springer, Greinke — there just aren’t many natural means to reducing payroll. As such, the best course of action is probably to just bite the bullet and wade deep into luxury-tax waters. After all, the Astros will see Reddick, Brantley, Springer, Gurriel and Peacock all come off the books for the 2021 season. Greinke and Verlander will both be free agents the following winter. That’s not to say Houston’s window is “closing,” but the current roster presents an excellent shot at returning to postseason play (particularly with a few additions). A one-year dalliance into luxury territory isn’t likely to come with especially lengthy or concerning ramifications.
And if Houston is willing to pay the luxury tax, the market offers plenty of intriguing mid-rotation arms that won’t require a $30MM+ annual salary like Cole or Stephen Strasburg ultimately will. A reunion with Dallas Keuchel or a pursuit of a mid-tier option like Rick Porcello, Tanner Roark, Kyle Gibson or Michael Pineda would make plenty of sense. Alternatively, the Astros could look to the trade market to find a less pricey option. Jon Gray or Chris Archer have high-end raw stuff, and Houston has successfully coaxed better performances out of pitchers in similar scenarios. The team had interest in Matthew Boyd at the trade deadline and could look into him again.
The flexibility they have on the position-player side bodes well for creative additions, too. If the Astros have grown weary of Correa’s injury troubles, could they even utilize him to acquire starting pitching help and make a separate run at a high-end trade target? Francisco Lindor and Kris Bryant have already seen their names pop up in rumors, and the free-agent market isn’t short on quality third basemen if the team is comfortable with Bregman playing shortstop on a full-time basis.
At this point, a legitimate run at signing any of Cole, Strasburg or Anthony Rendon seems hard to fathom, as it’d truly put the Astros into unprecedented luxury tax territory. But there’s room for the team to shed some salary (Sanchez, Reddick, Chris Devenski, Jake Marisnick, perhaps Roberto Osuna), still make a few additions and simply be OK with living in the second tier of penalization. (The max penalty any first-time CBT offender would pay for going right up to the cusp of the top penalty tier would be $10.4MM.) It’ll be a fine line to walk, but this Houston front office should be creative enough to successfully thread that needle.