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Astros’ owner Jim Crane says payroll has room to increase

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 30: Houston Astros owner Jim Crane, right, and Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow chat during battting practice at Minute Maid Park on June 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 30: Houston Astros owner Jim Crane, right, and Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow chat during battting practice at Minute Maid Park on June 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /
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The Astros had a club record payroll in 2018, but that number could rise even higher in 2019.

Remember in the mid-2000s when the Astros‘ payroll was approaching $100 million, and it was a big deal? My how things change.

Astros owner Jim Crane told MLB.com that he’s prepared to raise the team’s payroll in 2019 if GM Jeff Luhnow believes it necessary. The team opened 2018 with a club-record $182 million payroll, and apparently there’s room for more.

Crane did say the Astros will not be exceeding the luxury tax threshold, and for good reason. Teams that exceed that mark pay a penalty based on the amount they go over. The threshold for 2019 is set at $206 million, so that’s the ceiling for Houston.

Flexibility Not Unlimited

The extra money is nice, but there are limits. Though some salaries are off the books in free agents Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Marwin Gonzalez, many remaining players will get raises. The Astros have 10 players eligible for arbitration, most notably Gerrit Cole. MLB Trade Rumors predicts Cole to end up with a $13.1 million salary, nearly doubling his 2018 paycheck.

Arbitration raises will cancel out most, if not all, of the extra room created by letting the free agents walk. So no matter how much fans would love to see Bryce Harper in the heart of the Astros lineup, it’s probably not going to happen.

Still Set Up for a Big Splash

Even though there may not be room for Harper or Manny Machado, the Astros are still set up to make a big move. The trade for Aledmys Diaz and signing of Robinson Chirinos have filled two holes at relatively inexpensive prices.

This leaves the door open for Luhnow to add an impact bat or a starting pitcher to slot in behind Cole — or both. Free agent signings and trades are both on the table, and Luhnow will leave no stone unturned. He might not make a big splash this week, but I would expect one before Spring Training begins.

Strike While the Window is Open

There’s certainly motivation for Luhnow to use that extra payroll space now. The Astros’ window of contention is still wide open for 2019. But Cole and Justin Verlander are free agents after next season, while other core players like George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman will get more expensive to keep.

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With so much uncertainty, it makes sense to push for another championship now, and the Astros know this. While Luhnow won’t spend money for the sake of spending money, I expect him to make one or two impactful additions before pitchers and catchers report. Stay tuned.

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