Outfielder George Springer, the Astros’ top prospect, has yet to play an inning in the major leagues. The team demoted him Thursday, ending any chance he will make the Opening Day roster.
Yet last September, the Astros offered Springer a seven-year, $23 million contract, according to major-league sources.
Springer, 24, rejected the offer, sources said, declining to give up three years of arbitration and one year of free agency.
The obvious question:
If Springer was good enough to be offered $23 million, why isn’t he good enough to crack the 25-man roster of a team that has finished with the worst record in the majors in each of the past three seasons?
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow declined comment, adhering to his policy of discussing contracts only after they are completed.
Springer, represented by the Legacy Sports Group, batted a combined .303 at Double-A and Triple-A last season with a .411 on-base percentage, .600 slugging percentage, 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases.
A rival agent estimated that if Springer fulfills his potential, he will earn more than $30 million in his three arbitration years alone.
In that sense, the Astros’ offer of an unprecedented long-term deal was shrewd; they were gambling that Springer would sacrifice future earning power for an immediate life-changing guarantee.
The Rays took a similar approach with third baseman Evan Longoria in April 2008, signing him to a six-year, $17.5 million contract after he had appeared in only six major-league games.
Several player representatives believe the Astros’ attempt to sign Springer will not be the last such effort by a team to lock up an elite prospect before he is established.
The benefit to the player, besides financial security, is that he could head straight to the majors rather than face a delay as his team waits to start his service clock.
A team that holds off promoting a player can gain an extra year of control over him before free agency and also prevent him from gaining an extra year of arbitration.
"We have always believed that the game suffers when teams make roster decisions based on factors other than player performance," union chief Tony Clark told FOX Sports. "The 25 players who give each team the best chance to win should be on the Opening Day roster."
The current system, however, discourages budget-conscious teams, in particular, from advancing their best young talent. The Astros, by delaying Springer’s arrival, are acting no differently than most clubs do.
If Springer had signed long term, the Astros might not have hesitated to promote him. His countdown to arbitration and free agency no longer would have been a concern.
While some might interpret the Astros’ reluctance to accelerate Springer’s arrival as punishment for him not accepting their offer, the team sees it differently, sources said.
Springer, in the club’s view, is much like a draft pick who received a major league contract before such deals were forbidden under the collective-bargaining agreement — as a player who might require additional time in the minors.
That argument is not unreasonable based upon Springer’s offensive performance this spring; he is batting only .167 with a .542 OPS in 38 plate appearances.
Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg is an example of a draft pick who did not go straight to the majors despite being under a major league contract. Strasburg still holds the record for the biggest deal for an amateur — a four year, $15.1 million major league contract after the Nats made him the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.
The difference is that Strasburg had leverage — he could have opted not to sign with the Nationals. Springer, on the other hand, already is in the Astros’ organization, and will be under team control for at least six seasons once he reaches the majors.
Which goes back to the original question:
Why would the Astros offer a major league contract to a player who lacks any semblance of leverage if they do not believe he is capable of playing in the majors?
Some on the players’ side have long felt that clubs act in bad faith when they keep major-league-ready players in the minors for financial reasons. Fans, too, often grow frustrated when teams do not put their best players on the field.
Again, the Astros hardly are alone in this regard; the Mets, to cite just one example, held back right-hander Matt Harvey in 2012 and righty Zach Wheeler in ’13, and will do the same with righty Noah Syndergaard in ’14.
Springer was good enough to merit a $23 million offer, but he’s not good enough to play in the majors.