The Astros sent out some mixed messages about how much the club was willing to spend this offseason, though newly-hired general manager James Click told the Houston Chronicle’s Brian T. Smith (Twitter link) and other reporters that Astros owner Jim Crane didn’t put any restrictions on future expenditures, and gave the front office the go-ahead to spend if necessary.
Houston’s projected Competitive Balance Tax payroll sits at roughly $231.5MM (as per Roster Resource), a number that is already over the second penalty level of $228MM. Since the Astros have never before exceeded even the first luxury tax threshold, they will be taxed at the “first-timer” rate of 20% on every dollar spent above the $208MM threshold, as well as an additional 12% surtax for everything spent between the $228MM and $248MM. Using Roster Resource’s $231.5MM projection, the Astros currently face a tax bill of $5.1MM.
Such a relatively small sum should hardly be a major impediment to roster-building, as Crane said last fall that while he would ideally “prefer not to” pay any luxury tax bills, “we may win the World Series, so you never know.” A one-time overage might not be too much to swallow, especially since a lot of salary could come off the books after the 2020 season since George Springer, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, and Josh Reddick are all free agents. Looking even further ahead, Houston has only $42MM in committed payroll beyond the 2021 season
Of course, the major x-factor here is how the emotional calculus has changed for Crane now that his franchise has been implicated in one of the biggest controversies in baseball history. Given how Crane so clearly wishes to turn the page on the sign-stealing scandal, he might figure the best way to do so is by fielding another World Series contender in 2020, to “prove” that the Astros can win in an untainted fashion (though it will surely take more than a single year for the Astros to regain trust around the game).
With all of this in mind, it is somewhat difficult to view any potential Astros moves from a pure baseball perspective, not to mention the fact that Click might wait until he has actually settled into his new job before making any big transactions. In the short term, however, discussing contract extensions with Springer or any of the other pending free agents would seem like a logical step to take now that Spring Training is underway. In terms of new additions, Click could wait to spend until closer to the trade deadline, when he could more clearly access what final pieces might be required to put Houston over the top in a pennant race.