The offseason isn’t over yet, but the Houston Astros have been relatively inactive this year compared to past seasons and rest of the league this season. Why?
The Astros have spent a total of $19.75 million so far this offseason. Minus the $4.1 million that went to Lance McCullers Jr. to avoid arbitration, only $15.65 million has actually been spent on free agents. That’s the lowest amount they’ve invested in players in years and quite far down the list of what other Major League teams have shelled out this offseason.
Yes, there’s still a month remaining before pitchers and catchers report to FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and the start of Spring Training, but the front office has been eerily quiet.
Sixteen teams have outspent the Astros in the free-agent market to date. Two of Houston’s rivals, the World Champion Washington Nationals and in-league nemesis New York Yankees have made what the Astros spent look like a mere pittance. Both teams have topped the $300 million mark, and are snatching up former Astros in the process, a.k.a. Gerrit Cole and Will Harris.
Are they pinching pennies to limit the penalties incurred for surpassing the Luxury Tax Threshold? Could it be that free agents are shunning the Astros due to the uncertainty of the ramifications from the MLB investigation? Or maybe the powers to be are simply satisfied with the current roster.
Per spotrac.com, the current projected Competitive Balance Tax Payroll for the Astros is sitting at $229,074,976. That puts them a little over $21 million above the $208 million threshold set for 2020. With a 20% tax on the excess payroll over the $208 million and an extra 12% surcharge on any amount topping $228 million, they are looking at an estimated tax bill of $4.3 million.
Owner Jim Crane has stated that he has accepted the fact that they’re going to be over the threshold. It’s pretty much unavoidable unless they unload a chunk of salary, and I don’t see that happening. But is $4.3 million in extra taxes really something to sweat about when looking at the big picture and the ultimate goal? With the total revenues of the MLB, including the Astros, hitting record levels the last couple of seasons, I say go for it, spend the money.
Then, there is the MLB investigation of the sign-stealing allegations being held over their heads. Rumors indicate that the measures of discipline will be handed out within the next couple of weeks. Many speculate that members of the front office and coaching staff could be levied suspensions. These could be significant if Commissioner Rob Manfred wants to make a statement at the cost of the Astros. Would a possible free agent have second thoughts of coming to a team in such turmoil?
Finally, maybe Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch are happy with what they have. Is there really much of a drop off in talent of this current roster compared to what Houston had at the beginning of last season?
They still have the same corp of position players this season that they had last year. The only difference is that they’ll start the season with Martin Maldonado replacing Robinson Chirinos behind the plate and Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will be with the team from the beginning. If anything, that crew may be a more talented bunch.
The pitching staff on hand may even rate up there with the 2019 starting rotation and bullpen. Justin Verlander is still the ace and he’ll be followed up by Zack Greinke instead of Cole, still an enviable one-two punch.
McCullers will essentially be the replacement of Collin McHugh, and they still have Brad Peacock with starting experience, along with some promising prospects in Jose Urquidy, Bryan Abreu, Forrest Whitley, to name a few. The bullpen will essentially be the same, minus Harris. Yes, he’ll be missed, but Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, and Joe Smith will still head up a formidable relief corp.
It is hard to watch a lot of these teams open up their wallets and load up on free agents while the Astros essentially sit idly by. But, the Astros may just be right where they need to be to kick off the 2020 season. It’s an extremely talented bunch, and if needed down the stretch, Luhnow can pull off another one of his late-season trades to save the day.