The good news: Jeff Luhnow has a plan.
The bad news: Everything may not follow his plan.
As news begins to leak about the Astros’ efforts to tie up some of their younger players, questions, concerns and criticisms are all sure to increase. And, since Luhnow doesn’t talk about his business openly, it leaves a lot to the imagination.
In other words, the unknown creates a fertile ground for rabbit trails, wild speculation and crazy conspiracy theories. One need look no further than Malaysia flight 370 to see that.
What Luhnow is searching for, however, can be boiled down to two words: cost certainty.
And here’s why.
With such a young base, including three #1 draft picks, Luhnow well knows that the chickens will come home to roost sooner than later. Like the old Fram oil filter commercial: You can pay me now or you can pay me later.
Fact is, later this decade, those proverbial chickens will come home to roost. Depending on how the Astros stack their roster in 2014-16, many of the younger players will hit arbitration in 2016-17 and free agency in 2019-20. For staggering reasons, the Astros want to delay George Springer‘s free agent season until after the 2020 season. Or cushion the blow with a team-friendly deal.
That’s exactly what Luhnow did with Jose Altuve, who signed a team friendly four-year/$12.5 million deal with two option seasons (2018-19) that could make the deal worth $25 million. Altuve would have been eligible for arbitration next season and free agency in 2017. Cost certainty at second base.
Just at a quick glance, here’s a list of players and their arbitration and free agent paydays.
- Jason Castro: 2014/2017.
- Jarred Cosart: 2017/2020.
- Brett Oberholtzer: 2017/2020.
- Springer: 2017/2020.
- Matt Dominguez: 2015/2018.
- Max Stassi: 2017/2020.
- Dallas Keuchel: 2016/2019.
- Chris Carter: 2015/2019.
- Brad Peacock: 2017/2020.
- Chia-Jen Lo: 2017/2020.
- Paul Clemens: 2017/2020.
- Robbie Grossman: 2017/2020.
- Jonathan Villar: 2017/2020.
- Josh Fields: 2016/2019.
Imagine a handful of other players whose clock could start later this year or in 2015: Mike Foltynewicz, Carlos Correa, Jonathan Singleton, Mark Appel, Domingo Santana, Delino DeShields and others. Suddenly, you see the bottleneck that awaits.
Luhnow is looking ahead and sees the traffic jam. He can wait until then to address it, but fans will complain loudly when the payroll reaches $100-$110 million and the Astros still have to trade players away because of budget.
By locking up only a few of the players perceived as core to avoid the bottleneck, the Astros can afford to spend more on free agents or future stars like Cosart, Springer, Correa et al.
It’s all about cost certainty. And, yes, it’s all about the business side in many cases.
But who would have thought Dominguez and Grossman would have been perceived as the core? Then again, who says there is that perception?
The Astros can reach cost certainty by locking up even non-star players, those who are solid producers or just above average. And, those who fit the makeup and locker room mentality, a huge part of the equation. Think about it: Often, it’s those players whose salaries are out of control. Is Michael Bourn really worth $13.5 million? Would you prefer to have Bud Norris at $5.3 million? Not that those are average players, but they aren’t the stars you build the team around either.
By giving Dominguez and Grossman 5-6 year deals worth, say, $12 million, the Astros provide those players some security and give the organization that cost certainty that will allow them to make major offers to the eventual stars (read: Correa, Appel, Springer, etc.).
Quite obviously, some players may be insulted at the offers, but Luhnow has to make the overtures and plan for the future. The future is not now, but the Astros could find themselves in a heap of trouble if they don’t plan for the future…now.
Since no one knows which of the players will be stars and which ones will simply be serviceable (or busts), it’s hard to nail down specific offers for specific players. The Astros could keep their payroll in the $50-$75 million range for the new 2-3 years, but if this group hits arbitration in 2017 and free agency in 2019-20, payroll will skyrocket to the point Houston could not keep everyone around.
Pick any two pitchers from the list above and any two of the position players. Imagine if they become top of the rotation guys or middle-of-the-order hitters. And, then they all hit arbitration in 2017 after being regulars for 3-4 years.
The payday could be huge and wreck the Astros’ budget. And, don’t give me that argument about Crane won’t spend. Frankly, the big payday is closer than you think. So is the $100 million payroll.
So, yes, the Luhnow plan is being rolled out behind closed doors. And the plan is to avoid the inevitable bottleneck.