After being painfully quiet for most of the offseason, the Houston Astros blew everyone's minds when they signed Josh Hader to a massive five-year deal late last week. Everyone knew that the Astros were going to have to address their bullpen, especially in the wake of Kendall Graveman's injury. However, no one realistically thought that they were going to be willing to pony up and grab Hader, given all the chatter surrounding Houston's perceived payroll inflexibility.
That said, they did make the move with owner Jim Crane's blessing, thereby putting a ton of importance on the outcome of the 2024 season. Rather than play things safe and simply try to make what was already a good roster work this season, the Astros went all-in on 2024, and the ramifications in the not-so-distant future could be very significant ... especially if this coming season doesn't go according to plan.
Astros' Hader gamble could force their hand if 2024 goes sideways
Given that the Astros are now set to pay the luxury tax in 2024, which is not something that ownership typically likes to do, the stakes are high. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are set to become free agents after the season, with Framber Valdez and Kyle Tucker lined up to follow suit after 2025. While the team has expressed an interest in extending these guys, having the money to do so was already looking like a tall order before Houston gave Hader his massive contract.
Assuming the worst-case scenario with next season going poorly, things could escalate pretty quickly. Alex Bregman is all but a lock to walk after the season, and if the Astros are somehow out of it at the trade deadline, trading him away was always going to be on the table with or without Hader. Altuve also still seems just as likely to sign an extension so that he can finish his career in Houston, unless he suffers a significant injury or big-time regression.
Hader's deal could be more relevant when looking at the futures of Framber Valdez and Kyle Tucker. Hader's $19 million per year (at least) for the next five years represents a significant portion of the Astros' payroll. When you combine that deal with their other expected financial obligations (including Rafael Montero's horror show of a contract), you have a Houston payroll that doesn't have a ton of room to maneuver.
Letting Bregman walk certainly helps the books, but the Astros still have to pay Justin Verlander a bunch in 2025 and Jose Abreu, Lance McCullers Jr., Yordan Alvarez, and Ryan Pressly are all making real money that season. Factor in big raises in arbitration for both Valdez and Tucker, and keeping both guys long-term becomes a daunting prospect.
All of this means that, again assuming things don't go well, Houston may be forced to make some tough decisions. Their farm system is lacking depth due to trades and promotions, and the team's previous attempts to extend Valdez and Tucker resulted in big gaps during negotiations. If 2024 doesn't go well and the Astros don't think that they can come to an agreement on an extension, trading one or both of them to help restock the farm system and provide some financial wiggle room could end up being their best option.
This won't happen before the season, despite all the Framber trade chatter this offseason. Houston is clearly going for it this year. However, all bets are off after the season -- and potentially before that, if that bet doesn't pay off by the trade deadline this year.