Colby Rasmus: The Houston Astros Thank You But Hope You Don’t Return


In 2015, the Houston Astros had an opening day payroll of $69.1M. Following the additions of Carlos Gomez, Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers and Oliver Perez, as well as some internal contract purchases, they ended the season just north of $80M, leaping from 29th in baseball all the way to 27th.

On Friday, General Manager Jeff Luhnow extended a qualifying offer — valued at $15.8M — to outfielder Colby Rasmus. If he accepts, he will immediately become the highest paid player on the roster, earning almost twice as much as the next highest-paid player currently under team control (Gomez at $9M).

You know the only thing crazier than the idea of Rasmus soaking up 20% of the payroll? The fact that he’s almost certainly worth it.

Depending on the Wins Above Replacement calculation you prefer, Rasmus was worth between 2.6 and 2.8 wins to the 2015 Astros. He added at least another half-win of value in six playoff games. Giving him credit for a 3-win season, current valuations for the cost of a win on the open market suggest Rasmus would be worth at least $21M per season as a free agent.

In reality, Rasmus will not make that much. He has had difficulty assimilating to clubhouses in St. Louis and Toronto. In both cases, the awkward fit was coupled with on-field depreciation over time, which is how the Astros were able to land him on an affordable one-year, $8M deal in the first place. Still, he has posted 16.1 WAR in a seven-year career, and even projected at two wins per season for the next three, should fetch a 3-year, $39M contract in a fair, efficient market.

For this reason, I expect Rasmus to reject the qualifying offer and end up with one of several contenders who could use a left-handed power bat in the OF capable of playing multiple positions. The Cubs, Indians, Angels, Cardinals, Giants and Orioles all come to mind, and that’s the tip of the iceberg.

For the Astros, this will be a good thing. We should all be rooting for Colby Rasmus to reject the offer and move on. Let’s break down the reasons:

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1. Replacement level is relative to the actual replacements available.

There are plenty of teams, such as the Angels and Orioles from the above list, who would be choosing from replacement-level options if they tried to fill an open outfield position from within. To those teams, Rasmus’s 2-to-3 win projections are all profit.

For Houston, however, left field is not a black hole in a post-Rasmus world. The team gave a total of 695 plate appearances to Preston Tucker and Jake Marisnick, who combined for 2.5 WAR (most of it from Marisnick due to Tucker’s defense). As both a left-right and offense-defense platoon, the two make a perfectly acceptable pairing in left field entering their age-25 seasons. There is a upside to both, and a combined salary of just $1.1M, or $14.7M less than Rasmus would cost for roughly the same production.

Smart teams, particularly those on a mid-market budget like the Astros, avoid overpaying veterans when internal options are sufficient. This is clearly one of those cases.

2. There are better uses for the $15.8M Colby Rasmus would be opting into.

With few long-term commitments — expiring contracts for Gomez, Scott Feldman and Pat Neshek will take $25M off the 2017 payroll — the Astros can absolutely look to invest in a lengthy free agent contract near the top of the market. But, with the above contracts on the books and so many marginal arbitration-eligible veterans (Luis Valbuena, Evan Gattis, Chris Carter, Jason Castro, etc.), the short-term payroll is uncomfortably close to where you would expect the Astros to be self-capped. To retain everyone, minus Rasmus, will cost at least $80M, and close to $100M if Colby opts in.

That would take Houston out of play for major impact free agents who might otherwise fit into a long-term budget. Options include a much-needed high impact lefty bat to break up the righty-dominant top of the order, such as OFs Jason Heyward and Alex  Gordon, or 1B Chris Davis. The Astros could also chase another ace to pair with Keuchel, such as Zack Greinke or David Price. None of those options are remotely possible if Rasmus is back on his qualifying offer, and even mid-market alternatives will likely be priced out of Houston.

3. That compensation pick is valuable.

Should Rasmus reject the qualifying offer, the Astros will receive a compensation pick following the completion of the first round of the 2016 Amateur draft, likely falling somewhere between 25th and 45th (some teams will forfeit their mid-late first round picks for signing free agents tied to compensation).

Currently, the Astros are slated to pick 21st. a pick that had a slot value of $2,184,200 in 2015. Estimating that the compensation pick for Rasmus would fall 40th, which had a slot value of $1,545,600 in 2015, the Astros would receive a sizable bump to their available spending pool in the 2016 draft.

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Why is this so important? Well, it means that should an elite talent be sliding due to bonus demand concerns, the Astros could borrow against that 40th pick and overpay at #21. Or, as he’s done in the past, Luhnow could draft under slot at #21, giving him more firepower than other teams in the compensation round. This is a strategy that landed Houston Lance McCullers and Daz Cameron in recent years. Or the Astros could sign a qualified free agent, forfeit #21, and still have the #40 pick and associated slot money to land a future difference maker towards the top of the draft.

This flexibility is ultimately why a qualifying offer was made. Luhnow does not want to pay Rasmus at his market value for one year in left field. He knows the internal options are sufficient and the external options at a similar rate (for more years) are clearly superior. He is betting that Rasmus’s value to several other teams will assure a rejection, an off-season budget boost and an expanded set of options for the 2016 draft.

Next: Colby Rasmus: Does the Astros extending a qualifying offer mean he is staying?

Playoff memories aside, fans should hope Luhnow is right.