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Astros are lowly; payroll even lower
INDIAN WELLS, Calif.
In fact, as of this moment, the Astros do not have a single dollar committed — not one — to anyone on their 25-man roster.
That will change in the coming weeks as the team signs its arbitration-eligible players, their players with zero to three years of major league service and, yes, a free agent or two.
But how this club will compete in its first season in the American League West, I have no earthly idea.
The Astros’ only obligations for ’13 are to two pitchers they traded last season — left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, to whom they owe $5 million, and righty Brett Myers, to whom they owe an unspecified portion of his $3 million buyout.
The team has five players eligible for salary arbitration — shortstop Jed Lowrie, who is entering his second year in the process, and pitchers Wilton Lopez, Wesley Wright, Bud Norris and Edgar Gonzalez, all of whom are entering their first. Those players should receive about $8 million combined, according to projections by Matt Swartz for MLBTradeRumors.com.
The rest of the Astros’ current players are 0-to-3 youngsters who will be at the team’s financial mercy, and likely earn close to the minimum salary of $490,000.
This, from a franchise that, according to Forbes, will collect an average of $80 million annually in its new deal with Comcast SportsNet Houston, a regional television network in which the club holds a 46.3 percent stake.
The Astros, along with every other major league franchise, also will see their national television revenue increase from $23.72 million annually to $50 million, starting in 2014.
So, what will the team’s payroll be next season?
“I don’t know,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “We’re still in the middle of season-ticket renewals, still in the middle of understanding the economics of our cable deal. There are still enough moving parts where I don’t have a number that I’ve been given. I do know we’re going to look at all opportunities to get better.”
When I suggested to Luhnow that the payroll could be $30 million — or just more than half of the San Diego Padres’ major-league-low $55.2 million payroll last Opening Day – he said, “There are scenarios where that could happen, but intentionally, not because we’re restraining, but because we feel that is the best way to go.”
No one with the commissioner’s office or players’ union is likely to object to the Astros’ cutbacks. The team is under new ownership, embarking upon a new plan. And according to the new labor agreement, the Astros — as a team playing in one of baseball’s 15 largest markets — no longer will be eligible for revenue sharing by 2014. That essentially would eliminate any say that the union might have in the matter.
Besides, the union generally does not frown upon clubs dramatically reducing their payrolls for strategic purposes, provided that those teams demonstrate a long-term intention to increase spending.
The real question with the Astros is how they will avoid a third straight season of 106 or more losses as they move from the National League Central, a division of moderate spenders, to the intensely competitive AL West.
Luhnow acknowledged that the team needs to sign free agents to improve its run production and pitching, but added: “The goal is not to hamper the development and progress of the players we have coming. You look around, how many spots do we realistically have?”
Luhnow cited Jason Castro as the Astros’ long-term catcher, and said the team’s projected infield next season will consist of Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, Lowrie at short and Matt Dominguez at third, with Tyler Greene and Marwin Gonzalez as likely reserves.
The outfield is more open — Justin Maxwell looks like a keeper, but J.D. Martinez and Fernando Martinez remain questions. So, the Astros likely will look at outfielders and designated hitters, in addition to trying to add at least one more starter and one more reliever.
“In the AL West, you’ve got to be able to produce runs,” Luhnow said. “Right now, on paper, we’re not going to be able to produce the type of runs we need to stay up with the rest of the (clubs). We’ve got to get better somehow.”
The Astros also need to demonstrate a commitment if they intend to sign veterans such as free agent Lance Berkman, who plans to consider a comeback depending upon the condition of his right knee.
Yes, Berkman is a Houston native and former Astro, but that alone would not draw him back to his original team; he almost certainly would want to play with other adults.
Luhnow does not dispute that contention, recalling how during his tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team signed outfielder Matt Holliday in part because it wanted to entice first baseman Albert Pujols to remain with the club.
The Astros, in theory, are in a flexible enough position to sign a collection of free agents — say, a starter such as right-hander Kyle Lohse, a reliever such as Jonathan Broxton and an outfielder such as Ryan Ludwick, in addition to Berkman.
Of course, Luhnow and new manager Bo Porter would need to do a significant selling job to attract any of those players. Maybe they could pull it off, but Luhnow doesn’t appear in any rush to spend big, and probably shouldn’t be, not it if it only means the difference between 60 and 75 wins, at best.
Still, I shudder to think of what the Astros might look like in 2013. Neither ‘11 nor ’12 was pretty, and with the team investing so little in talent, things will not get better anytime soon. Not in a division that includes Oakland, Texas and the Los Angeles Angels.