Believe it or not, but the Astros could survive taking on Justin Verlander’s rather large remaining contract dollars.
The Astros are one of baseball’s best teams. No, this is not some sort of bias or looking at the team with rose-colored glasses. This is quite simple and easy to understand if you check the standings.
Remember, the standings do not lie.
However, the Houston organization currently have a less than league average player payroll.
That’s right; the Astros’ combined player payroll is currently ranked 16th in baseball at $141,465,333. This includes the 25-man active roster, the disabled list, retained salaries, buried salaries and suspended players.
Interesting fact of note: the Astros are currently the only team paying a suspended player’s salary at the major league level. Thank you, David Paulino.
Back to business, now.
One key reason behind the Astros lower than the league average payroll is due to one major factor: Good, cheap talent under club control for multiple years.
As one could decipher from the chart above, the Astros core talent is either locked up in team-friendly deals (Jose Altuve, Will Harris) or have yet to go through the arbitration process (Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman). This is how you play “Smart Baseball” if you can’t spend like the Dodgers, Yankees or Red Sox.
Partially due to the lack of large salaries today, in theory, the Astros could acquire Verlander while tolerating his high annual salary from 2018 through 2020.
Insert usual response from my fellow fan: How about the long-term outlook of the organization? Aren’t they paying a handful of players rather large salaries? They may need this money to resign all of their guys in 2020 and 2021!
In terms of the long-term outlook, a potential Verlander acquisition does little to change that aspect. Sure, he may cost Houston a notable prospect or two. He also costs a lot of money. But the Astros’ system is deep and they should be capable of spending more money. Remember that.
Yes, Houston is paying Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel a combined $102.2 million for the remaining duration of their contracts. But all three will be off the books by no later than 2021. This is roughly the same time Verlander’s contract would end if his vesting option is guaranteed for 2020. Keep in mind, though, this would increase the potential monetary commitment to $180.2 million for just four players in the next three or so seasons. General manager Jeff Luhnow may not want to tie up more payroll flexibility into another aging veteran.
Correa and Bregman would still be in their arbitration seasons by this point in 2020. Springer will be an unrestricted free-agent in 2021. Altuve will be one season removed from his team-friendly contract. By the time Houston needs to pay for the majority of their young stars, they should have the flexibility to do so. Whether they can keep them all is another question entirely.
The only issue with the future salary commitments is the arbitration and free-agent processes with other players on the roster. Odds are Houston will not be able to keep everyone once they near or enter the free-agent market. For example, the possibility of a contract extension for Dallas Keuchel and Evan Gattis.
And the price in arbitration per player can vary. This the downside to young players: Once they reach arbitration, the price can increase rather quickly and dramatically.
Contrary to popular belief, the Astros are not a cheap organization. They just know how to use the “system” to their advantage.
Honestly, I would be shocked if Verlander ever becomes an Astro. Even Jeff Luhnow came out earlier in August to state that a notable deal is unlikely before the waiver deadline. But the fit still makes sense even when you consider the large financial commitment.
Basically, Verlander is under contract through the 2019 season for a total of $56 million. Kate Upton’s boyfriend also has a vesting option for the 2020 season, which is valued at $22 million. There is no denying that this is a significant chunk of change to pick up for a age-34 pitcher with 2,498 major league innings on his arm. The risk is apparent and obvious to any team, including teams with larger wallets (see, Dodgers).
Life is just giant risk itself, no?
Regardless of the long-term future, Verlander has been a solid pitcher since July 8th. Do I dare say he has performed like a postseason pitcher?
61 IP, 2.36 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 3.88 xFIP, 27.7% K%, 7.0% BB%
This is the type of pitcher the Astros have needed as of late in 2017. While Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have been pitching better in the last week to ten days, it is understandable why the Astros need another starting pitcher. Depth in baseball, especially postseason baseball, is key.
And if he pitches relatively well from 2018 through 2020, then you have one less rotation spot to fill for a while. Yes, I know this is a highly optimistic take of a 34-year old pitcher, but just roll with it.
The key argument about acquiring Verlander, though, has always circled back to two issues: The remaining salary and prospect compensation to Detroit. The money could work out for the Astros, but the prospects required in return could keep a trade from happening right now. Or at all.
**Statistics and graphs courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference and Spotrac**