Astros shortstop Carlos Correa is slated to be a member of next year’s historic class of free-agent shortstops, although the former No. 1 overall pick and American League Rookie of the Year has made clear recently that he hopes to remain in Houston beyond the 2021 season.
That’s a feeling that is mutually shared by the organization, as general manager James Click made clear in an appearance on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (Twitter link, with audio).
“We want to have some conversations with [Correa] to see if we can line that up so that this is not the last year with the Houston Astros,” Click told hosts Casey Stern and Brad Lidge. “But, you also don’t have to look any further than a guy like J.T. Realmuto, who went into free agency and then eventually re-signed with the original team. So we’re going to put our best foot forward there, and hopefully we can find something that’s a risk-sharing proposition that keeps him here long-term.”
Correa has stated that he doesn’t want talks to continue into the season, and Click agreed with that general mindset, stating that once Opening Day rolls around, the organization needs to be “laser-focused” on winning a World Series.
While Correa’s case may get the most attention, he’s certainly not the only Astro of note who is slated to reach the open market next year. Houston has Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. all coming off the books next winter. All three, clearly, are in rather different situations.
The 37-year-old Greinke (38 in October), has been rock-solid with the ’Stros and will look to put together yet another strong showing in a potential Hall of Fame career. Verlander isn’t likely to pitch much, if at all, after undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer and will be reaching the market on the heels of that major injury. McCullers, meanwhile, will hit free agency for the first time at a much younger age (28) than most of his peers — if, of course, he doesn’t sign an extension himself.
Some may assume that as a Boras Corporation client who is on the cusp of reaching free agency at an atypically young age, it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll test the market. That, according to McCullers himself, isn’t necessarily the case though. Replying to a fan on Twitter who suggested McCullers would reach the market and jump to the highest bidder, the right-hander wrote:
“I actually would prefer to reach an agreement with the Astros before [free agency]. The entire organization knows I want to be there and I have not heard a word. Crazy how players are always the bad guys somehow… lots of times it is not how it seems.”
McCullers made a successful return from Tommy John surgery in 2020, pitching 55 innings of 3.93 ERA ball with solid strikeout (24.7) and walk (8.8) percentages to go along with a characteristically elite ground-ball rate (59.7 percent). He was clobbered for eight runs in his third start of the season but rebounded with a 2.18 ERA and a 45-to-13 K/BB ratio over his final 41 1/3 frames. He was then tagged for eight runs in 14 2/3 playoff innings (4.91 ERA) but encouragingly punched out 23 of the 65 batters he faced (35.4 percent) while walking only two of them (3.1 percent).
Potential contract extensions for impending free agents and perhaps young players will no doubt be on the to-do list for Click and the rest of the Houston front office in the weeks leading up to Opening Day, but the GM also suggested during that MLB Network Radio hit that it’s still possible there could be some work to do with regard to the Major League roster.
“I think tweaks are inevitable,” Click said in discussing the remainder of the offseason. “As guys tweak little injuries, that leads us to do little things here and there. We’re going to continue to be opportunistic. We do have some restrictions in terms of how much we can do at this point in the season, but the offseason is not over. We don’t view it as over until Opening Day, and even then, we stay focused on any possible way that we can continue to improve this roster.”
The Astros owe just shy of $181MM to the current roster, per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez, but their luxury-tax obligations sit a bit north of $201MM. That leaves under $9MM of breathing room between the current level and the $210MM luxury threshold.
The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently wrote that the club isn’t likely to exceed the luxury tax, although it’s not clear that there’s any sort of ownership mandate to dip below the line. It’s notable that this would mark a second consecutive season as an offender in the event that they did exceed that $210MM limit. Of course, even then they’d only be hit with a 30 percent tax on their first $20MM of overages. And with the possible departures of Verlander, Greinke, Correa, McCullers, Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith, Martin Maldonado and Brooks Raley, it’d be pretty easy to duck beneath the line in 2022. The current luxury obligations in 2022 plummet to $87MM. The financial penalty isn’t steep, but Rosenthal suggests the possibility of theoretical compensation picks for qualified free agents who sign elsewhere is a deterrent.
Click’s allusion to “restrictions” could be read as an acknowledgement of the depleted free-agent and trade markets or read as an indication that the Astros are near a budgetary limit set by ownership. And the GM also underlined that there are benefits to keeping some resources available for in-season maneuvering. Said Click:
“There’s also a lot of value to us keeping a little bit of dry powder so that when things go sideways on us — because in 162 games they will, especially in a pandemic — that we’re able to react and we don’t box ourselves into a situation where we can’t address a need that we just can’t predict right now.”