The Astros and right fielder Kyle Tucker discussed a long-term contract in the offseason and into spring training, but no deal was reached by the time the season got underway, and general manager Dana Brown noted at the time that negotiations were “paused” for the time being. Brown piqued the fan base’s interest in his weekly appearance on 790 AM’s Sean Salisbury Show that he’s optimistic the two sides will work out a deal and that Tucker will spend his career with the Astros. He later clarified, however, that talks have yet to resume since being put on hold (link via Matt Kawahara of the Houston Chronicle).
The 26-year-old Tucker has delivered in spades both on his lofty draft status (No. 5 overall in 2015) and his top-prospect billing. Already a two-time All-Star and a 2022 Gold Glove winner, he’s in the midst of perhaps the finest season of his exceptional young career. In 113 games and 481 plate appearances, Tucker has slashed .296/.377/.517 with 21 home runs, 28 doubles and 24 stolen bases (in 27 attempts). He’s just one steal shy of last year’s career-high mark, and he’s on pace for his third consecutive 30-homer season. This year’s 11.6% walk rate is easily a career-high mark, while his 12.9% strikeout rate is both a personal low and the ninth-lowest mark among all qualified big league hitters.
Tucker entered the 2023 season with 3.079 years of big league service and will finish at 4.079, leaving him arbitration-eligible for another two seasons. Given his age, draft/prospect pedigree and general excellence to date, there’s little reason to expect any sort of downturn in the near future. Were Tucker to naturally reach free agency by accruing six years of MLB service, he’d do so heading into his age-29 season — and likely in position to command a contract in excess of $200MM.
The Astros haven’t necessarily shied away from large payroll commitments, but they’ve typically preferred to mitigate the length of any high-priced deals. Jose Altuve’s extension promised him five years and $151MM on top of the remaining two years and $12.5MM on his prior contract. Yordan Alvarez’s six-year, $115MM contract is the longest handed out under owner Jim Crane. That deal covered all three of Alvarez’s arbitration seasons and three would-be free agent years. Tucker is already playing his first arb year on a $5MM salary and will be due a substantial raise this offseason.
Any extension for Tucker would presumably need to top Alvarez’s deal by a good margin — not only in terms of overall guarantee but in terms of length. The six-year term Alvarez landed would cover Tucker’s age-27 through age-32 seasons and set him up for free agency in advance of his age-33 season. It stands to reason that a player of his caliber would more likely be seeking a deal of eight-plus years in length, particularly now that he’s only two seasons removed from hitting the open market in prime position for a mega-deal.
For now, Brown stressed that the focus is squarely on attempting to overtake the Rangers for the lead in the American League West and to engineer another deep postseason run. Tucker will play a focal part of those efforts, of course, but the ’Stros were dealt some potentially difficult news regarding another key contributor following last night’s game. Manager Dusty Baker told reporters this morning that first baseman Jose Abreu reported discomfort in his lower back following yesterday’s game (Twitter link via Joe Trezza of MLB.com). He’ll be evaluated further this weekend.
Abreu’s first season in Houston has been a forgettable one overall, but the former Rookie of the Year and MVP looked to be rediscovering his form earlier in the summer. After floundering to a .211/.276/.260 slash through his first two months, Abreu came roaring back with a .288/.330/.484 output over his next 200 plate appearances. While not quite his peak form, that was 22% better than league-average, by measure of wRC+, and Abreu looked well on his way to quieting concerns brought about by his sluggish start to the season.
Unfortunately, his production has cratered once again. Abreu has just three hits in his past 39 trips to the plate and has fanned at an uncharacteristic 28.2% clip in that time. It’s unclear how long his back has been ailing, but the recent downturn after an impressive performance in June and July could well be related to the apparent injury with which he’s dealing. The season-long numbers are still ugly (.234/.291/.343), but losing the June/July version of Abreu is a notable hit to any lineup.
Of course, for as many potent bats as the Houston lineup has featured in recent years, elite starting pitching has been a hallmark of Astros clubs throughout their recent peak. The trade deadline return of Justin Verlander should only help to continue that legacy, but the reacquisition of Verlander won’t necessarily cost someone his spot on the starting staff.
Trezza writes that the Astros are likely to move to a six-man rotation, at least for the time being, keeping rookie right-hander J.P. France in the mix. Calling baseball an “earn-it business,” Baker emphasized that France has indeed earned his spot and will stay on turn moving forward.
It’s hard to argue with that characterization. The 28-year-old France has turned in 95 innings of 2.75 ERA ball since making his big league debut earlier this season, emerging as a godsend in the wake of season-ending injuries to Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia. France has had some modest fortune on balls in play (.277 BABIP) and probably can’t continue stranding 81% of his baserunners — league average is 72% — but he’s looked the part of a solid big league starter even when accounting for some potential regression.
Keeping France in the rotation will have other benefits beyond his own performance. Hunter Brown is nearing last year’s total workload with seven weeks of the season yet to play out. Jose Urquidy just returned from a months-long absence due to a shoulder injury. Cristian Javier has been pitching better of late, but he hit a wall midsummer and had his spot in the rotation skipped heading into the All-Star break. Keeping France on the starting staff alongside Verlander, Brown, Javier, Urquidy and Framber Valdez will help the Astros to manage Brown’s workload and exercise caution, as necessary, with Urquidy and Javier.