Disclaimer: To all determined to celebrate the Astros’ world championship through opening day and not consider future payrolls, trade possibilities or other downsides, this blog entry may be hazardous to your sanity or mental health. Proceed to read and interact with the blog community at your own risk.
The payroll may get reach calamitous proportions until next off-season, potentially after a second straight World Series appearance. Without significant adjustments, it’s not unreasonable to presume the Astros will finish 2018 with a $150-$160 million (as of today, they’ll start with approximately $142 million) if they add pieces during the year.
With continually increasing arbitration for key players, that number could rise dramatically after 2018 without a dramatic adjustment.
Yes, Charlie Morton, Evan Gattis, Tony Sipp and Marwin Gonzalez will roll off the books after next season, but so will Dallas Keuchel. Brian McCann may be gone too if the Astros don’t pick up his option.
In other words, Jeff Luhnow faces some major decisions between now and the start of the 2019 season. Standing pat may be an option for 2018, but you can only hold the fort for so long. Here are a couple of options he may consider.
Option #1. Trade Dallas Keuchel.
Yes, that would take a big gulp, especially since Keuchel was so vocal last summer about adding another piece. He’s two years removed from a Cy Young, but he hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since then. Yes, Keuchel can go on a tear as he did at the beginning of last season and he certainly will be a Terrible 2 behind Verlander next season. But consider this: He will be 30 at the start of the 2018 season and he has had injury issues. Moreover, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, David Price and Chris Sale (among others possibly) could lead a strong free agent market for pitchers this time next year.
Now, considering the Astros won’t be drafting high for the next few years with picks like Correa, Kyle Tucker, Bregman or even Springer, and a trade makes sense from the “haul” perspective. Couple Keuchel with a prospect or two such as Colin Moran or others who may be blocked and the Astros could bring back 6-8 players, some international leverage or competitive balance picks.
Keuchel’s value may never be higher, especially if he endures another season of nagging injuries. Trading him now or trading him at next year’s deadline may give the Astros an advantage without the competition of the above set of quality starters this time next year. Let him play out his contract and Houston could be left with nothing more than a draft pick when he leaves.
Option #2. Lock up Bregman and Correa, Altuve-style.
Correa has already signaled he would consider a deal that would buy out many of his arbitration and even his free agent years. Making team-friendly deals with Correa and Bregman would give the Astros some cost-certainty into the 2020s and would also provide Houston some extra $ to lock up Altuve and Springer with six-or-seven year deals before they hit free agency.
For example, if you could spread $12-$15 million/season between Correa and Bregman for the next several years starting in 2018 through 2024, Luhnow could then afford $20 million/season paydays for Altuve and Springer. At the very least, that pushes the bottleneck back a few years.
Option #3. Bring in a 1-2-3 punch for the rotation.
Yes, this option could shore up your 2018 rotation while hedging all bets for next off season and into 2019. Keuchel is a free agent after next season and the aging Verlander is signed through 2020. Eventually, Houston will need another #1. That is, if Lance McCullers Jr. or Brad Peacock or one of the young guns becomes the ace. So, why not spend the money on one of the free agents or pull off another unexpected Verlander-like trade and go for broke in 2018? Verlander, Keuchel and fill-in-the-blank followed by Charlie Morton and McCullers/Peacock would be daunting.
While none of these options may be optimal, guaranteed or come without queasiness for fans, they are all likely on the table for Luhnow. With no options going forward to bolster your lineup immediately with a top draft choice, Luhnow and his team will be forced to hone their skills even further in the trade and free agent arenas.
To be sure, Luhnow will be forced to zero in on his nucleus — whoever that is — sooner than later. Only Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick are signed for 2020 (Verlander has a vesting option), but McCann, Morton and a slew of others will likely be gone.
There is no clear path forward, but expect some clarity between now and spring training. Or at least between now and July 31, 2018.
Other than standing pat, what say you?