Jim Crane needs your butt in a seat at Minute Maid Park. Jeff Luhnow a bigger checkbook.
Yes, it is about the money and the Astros may not be far from a $100 million payroll. Houston had a $72.4 million payroll as of opening day. That has increased somewhat with the additions of Scott Kazmir, Carlos Gomez and a few others (Lance McCullers Jr., Vincent Velasquez, etc.).
But that’s not the problem. Remember that bottleneck I predicted two years ago? At the time, I projected it would arrive later this decade, perhaps during the 2018-19 seasons. Friends, the bottleneck is here, the bottleneck is now. It could be a painful off-season, if not this winter, then perhaps in 2016.
It won’t affect players like Dallas Keuchel or Carlos Correa, or even Jose Altuve, who may even get a re-worked deal before his team-friendly contract runs out in 2018. Those guys will get their money. But players like Tony Sipp, Chris Carter or even Jason Castro and others will get squeezed out because the budget is squeezed.
Colby Rasmus is playing for his QO.
Most scratched their heads at the Rasmus signing earlier this year. To be sure, some thought he should have been cut during spring training and the 29-year-old did struggle throughout the season. But he’s hit his stride down the stretch and finished with 25 HRs and 61 RBI despite a .238 average and 154 Ks. Here’s the call Luhnow has to make: Does he give Rasmus a qualifying offer? If he does, and Rasmus accepts, it’ll tie up $15.8 million of next year’s budget. If he makes the offer and Rasmus turns it down for a longer term deal elsewhere, Houston will get a compensation pick.
Here’s the important news you need to know: No player — read NO ONE — has ever accepted a QO. Everyone who has received an offer has rejected it and gone on for a longer, bigger payday, so history is on Luhnow’s side. But it is a risk for Luhnow, unless he and Rasmus has some sort of under-the-table, behind-the-scenes understanding.
THE CALL: Luhnow will make the offer, but may try to work out a longer-term deal first that saves the team money.
Keuchel is the real Money Man.
I’ve been a Keuchel man since his early days in the organization. I called him a sleeper in 2012. He’s no longer a sleeper, and he’s no longer a second-tier pitcher. He’s an elite pitcher who will likely be one of the next $100 million players. Yes, the two sides have discussed a long-term deal and Keuchel is one of the handful of players the organization wants to build around. The question for Luhnow is when to pull the trigger. Since Keuchel hits arbitration this winter (can you imagine what that number will be?) and he’s literally at the top of his game, Keuchel could virtually write his ticket.
The question, though, for Luhnow is this: How long and how much? Since he won’t be a free agent until after 2018, do you wait another season and simply give him his arb deal in 2016? He could likely hit a record number in arbitration, but it’s more likely Luhnow and the Astros’ ace will agree to a short-term two-to-three-year deal that buys out some or all of his arbitration years. That would be a team-friendly deal and set up a showdown later.
THE CALL: Three years and somewhere in the $30-$40 million range.
And, it doesn’t stop with Keuchel and Rasmus and Correa…
It doesn’t stop with Rasmus and Keuchel. Collin McHugh, George Springer, Will Harris, Evan Gattis and Josh Fields are all in the queue. And Carlos Gomez. The bottleneck will make calls on players like Luis Valbuena and Chris Carter easier, but Marwin Gonzalez and Sipp may be examples of those who get the squeeze.
Gattis, Harris and Fields enter arbitration for the first time this winter. Gonzalez is in year 2 and Castro year 3. And we haven’t even mentioned Scott Kazmir, who isn’t eligible for a qualifying offer since he was traded in the middle of his contract.
The Astros could get a little space by getting rid of players like Jonathan Singleton ($2 million annually through 2018), Scott Feldman (if Houston can move his $8 million while he’s injured) and even Hank Conger, who heads into arb year 2.
The bottleneck is also the reason Luhnow didn’t flinch at moving players like Domingo Santana this summer. He has to clear the clog somehow. And it may get more painful sooner than later as Houston has to make the call on players earlier than they may like.
The end-of-season payroll may well end up above $80 million. The 2016 payroll could easily hit $100 million.
And that’s why Jim Crane needs your butt in the Minute Maid Park seat. Today.