Let’s talk about George Springer and his future with the Astros.
I think, no fear, he’ll be a casualty in the pending financial bloodbath the Astros face, and, believe me – that murders large parts of my soul even to contemplate, let alone write 1,200 words about it. I love George Springer. You love George Springer. Everybody loves George Springer.
And with good reason: he’s a terrific baseball player who can hit, hit for power and is a breathtakingly spectacular defensive player who does insane stuff.
And he was the guy on that infamous 2014 Sports Illustrated cover who made it a reality by winning the World Series Most Value Player award. That’s just otherworldly clutch and awesome and, look, I’m going to run out of superlatives for Springer because I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this yet, but I love Springer.
So the idea of Springer leaving the Astros is a sobering one and understandably leaves many Astros fans feeling like they’d rather stop reading – DON’T! This has a happy ending! (I lied – it doesn’t; sorry.)
The core four.
- Carlos Correa – He’s 23 and already ranks among some of the greatest shortstops of all-time. And it’s highly likely he hasn’t yet peaked. Correa is already a perennial MVP candidate and one of the few who could conceivably unseat Mike Trout as the best player in baseball.
- Jose Altuve – Ditto, for the most part, with one obvious exception**: Altuve is four years older than Correa. When all (most) things are equal, you should always favor age.
(* I’m not including Alex Bregman because he can’t conceivably hit the market until 2023 so there’s less urgency with him.)
(** Another possible exception is Altuve’s standing within the Houston sports community, which could ultimately push him to untouchable. I don’t like to play sports Mount Rushmore, either – but as a means to quickly convey a player’s popularity and lasting impact, it’s an easy crutch. And let’s just say I wouldn’t feel terribly secure if I were Jeff Bagwell, Earl Campbell, Hakeem Olajuwon or J.J. Watt. Letting players like Altuve walk, whatever the baseball rationale, are difficult decisions for franchises to swallow.)
- Dallas Keuchel – Of the four, I would place the odds of Keuchel being here beyond his current deal (which expires after this upcoming season) at as close to 0% as mathematically possible. He’ll be 31, and he’s struggled with his health the past two seasons, totaling just 49 starts. (Compare that to Justin Verlander, who has made 67.) (For an idea of what Keucehl might cost, keep a close eye on Jake Arrieta this winter; like Keuchel he’s a 31-year old Scott Boras client who’s won a Cy Young, as well as a ring but has also struggled to stay healthy.)
Who’s likely to leave?
I sense most Astros fans have mentally wrapped their brains around Keuchel’s likely departure; it makes sound baseball sense because there’s a degree of the tangible reasoning behind it.
There are, of course, sound reasons for moving on from Springer, too – but they’re usually buried beneath a Hoarder-like pile of emotion: he’s the heart and soul of this line-up; the purveyor of Club Astro; the infectiously fun teammate; the fuel that makes this team go…
I think there’s some merit to a lot of that and, as I said earlier: I love George Springer. But let’s put aside the emotion for a moment and take a cold, hard look at the situation.
The first, most pressing question is just how much George Springer will cost. There are not many 5+ WAR outfielders in baseball, and the majority of them are either significantly better than Springer (Mike Trout), grossly overpaid (Giancarlo Stanton) or, like Springer, still on their first contract and insanely cheap.
The closest comp is probably Justin Upton, who, at age 31, signed a 5-year, $106MM deal this past month with Anaheim. Springer will hit free agency when he’s 32. If we account for a modest salary increase (15%), that would put Springer in the 5/$120MM range, or about $24MM a season.
Can the Astros afford that?
Maybe; it depends on where Altuve is playing and what they plan to do with Correa, who will be hitting the open market two years after Springer. Again, if it were my money, Correa would be my priority, followed by Altuve. I’m not sure the Astros can or will want to, pay three players $94MM/season (if we assume Altuve + Correa costs $70MM/season, which I think they will).
The Astros do have some financial flexibility – but much of it is tied up in prospects realizing at least a good chunk of their potential, and that’s always risky. Right now, Keuchel and CHARLIEMORTON! are due after this season; Colin McHugh the year after and then Verlander the year after that. Your rotation could lose two aces and an effective innings eater plus the greatest pitcher in Astros history (CHARLIEMORTON!) all within the next few years.
The more pressing question: do the Astros WANT to pay Springer that much money? That’s where, I think, this becomes interesting.
There is no book on aging; every player does it differently. But, generally, once a player hits 30, all bets are off. There may be a sustained plateau of valuable baseball for two, three, maybe four or five years but eventually, at some point, the player will begin to regress, which forces teams to ask, Do we want to pay a player to get worse?
Would age be a factor?
That’s the risk of signing 30+-year old players to long-term deals; at some point, the team is upside down on the contract, and they’re paying for past performance. The Astros’ front office knows this, and it’ll be fascinating to see how they approach it as the core ages.
Remember, Jeff Luhnow came to us from an organization that let Albert Pujols, the greatest hitter of this generation, a franchise icon and a man who will forever stalk my nightmares, walk after his age-31 season. That’s cold, man.
Also, Springer is almost certainly a corner outfielder waiting to happen, which reduces his value further. And while he hits the ball very hard and doesn’t pad his BAbip (so his inevitable speed decline shouldn’t cut too deeply into his production), he does strike out a lot already, and that’s unlikely to get better as he ages and begins to lose bat speed and reaction time.
Look, if I haven’t made myself clear, I love George Springer.
But there are going to be casualties as the Astros try to figure out how to best allocate what are not unlimited financial resources. There’s a reason the team is reluctant to part with uber-outfield prospect Kyle Tucker: they almost certainly see him as the heir apparent to Springer.
Wild things can and do happen; I’d love to see the Astros offer to buy out Springer’s three remaining arbitration years with a 5-year/$75MM offer that would keep him here through his age 34 season (and let him walk before Correa comes due). But, unfortunately, Springer is probably too good to accept an offer like that, and he undoubtedly knows it.
And that’s tough to accept because, well, in case you didn’t know this already: I love George Springer.
***Stats from Baseball-Reference***