How will Astros survive AL West?
The trade makes sense. All of the trades do, more or less. But then you look at the Houston Astros’ roster, and you look at their payroll, and you say, “Holy smokes, how are they going to survive in the American League?”
Easy answer: They won’t, at least not in 2013. And as the Astros continue their teardown, it’s certainly fair to ask how low can they go, how many games can they lose before they become an embarrassment to Major League Baseball.
They lost 107 games last season and 106 the season before that, and now they’re moving from one of the game’s weaker divisions, the NL Central, to arguably its best, the AL West. As recently pointed out by ESPN’s Buster Olney, the last team to lose 106 games in three or more consecutive seasons was an expansion club, the 1962 to ’65 New York Mets.
I frequently criticize franchises that lack direction, that get caught between trying to rebuild and trying to remain competitive. The Astros certainly aren’t guilty of such wavering. But not even the team they traded with on Monday, the low-revenue Oakland Athletics, ever resorted to this blatant a scorched-earth policy.
The Astros are not a low-revenue team — or at least, they shouldn’t be. Yet, their payroll currently projects to be in the low $30 million range, according to general manager Jeff Luhnow — and $5 million of that will go to a pitcher they traded last season, left-hander Wandy Rodriguez.
Actually, the Astros’ payroll looks like it will be closer to $25 million, judging from the figures compiled by Cot’s Baseball Contracts, but teams use different methodologies to calculate their figures.
No matter which math the Astros use, their Opening Day number could be the lowest since the Florida Marlins put together a $21.8 million collection in 2008 — and actually finished 84-77 with Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Josh Willingham playing for near the minimum salary.
“We want to win as many games as we can in 2013,” Luhnow said Monday night. “But our primary objective is putting together a team that will consistently compete. Whether that’s ’14, ’15, ’16, we don’t know. But that’s what we’re working toward. So, any move we make has to be seen in that light.”
Monday’s trade — shortstop Jed Lowrie and right-hander Fernando Rodriguez for first baseman Chris Carter, right-hander Brad Peacock and catcher Max Stassi — actually could prove to be one of Luhnow’s bigger coups.
Lowrie, who is under club control for two more seasons, is an oft-injured infielder who has yet to play 100 games in a season. Rodriguez is a hard thrower whose performance has yet to match his potential; such relievers are not exactly in short supply.
To Luhnow, Carter immediately becomes the Astros’ top power hitter. Peacock, though he struggled last season, projects as a No. 2 to No. 4 starter. And Stassi, though oft-injured and perhaps short of arm strength, is a catcher with power.
Nice deal for the Astros (and remember, Luhnow initially acquired Lowrie and right-hander Kyle Wieland for reliever Mark Melancon). Some of Luhnow’s previous trades — for Rodriguez, reliever Wilton Lopez, first baseman Carlos Lee — also could turn out well.
And don’t forget the moves of Luhnow’s predecessor, Ed Wade, whose returns for right-hander Roy Oswalt and outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn helped the Astros rise from No. 19 in the Baseball America organization rankings in 2012 to No. 9 in ’13.
OK, but how many fans will pay to watch this team play, even under a new, energetic manager, Bo Porter? As things currently stand, here are your five highest-paid Astros, according to Cot’s — and trust me, there isn’t a future Biggio or Bagwell among ‘em:
Bud Norris: $3 million.
Carlos Pena: $2.9 million.
Jose Veras: $1.85 million.
Wesley Wright: $1.025 million.
Philip Humber: $800,000.
In Jan. 2010, the Marlins staved off a grievance by the players’ union by announcing — in conjunction with the union and MLB — that they were committed to spending any proceeds from revenue sharing on player development and salaries.
The Astros certainly bear similar monitoring. The union, however, generally opposes salary floors as well as salary caps, reasoning that teams should be permitted to raise or lower payroll however they see fit.
In other words, if a franchise wants to completely rebuild, so be it.
The team’s strategy, Luhnow said, will include an investment of about $20 million for domestic and international amateurs — the largest of any club in ‘13. The Astros, after finishing with the worst record in the majors last season, will be assigned the largest spending pools in both markets.
Baseball America praised Luhnow’s 2012 draft as “masterful” — the Astros signed the No. 1 overall pick, Carlos Correa, for well below his assigned value, giving them the flexibility to grab two other premium talents, right-hander Lance McCullers and third baseman Rio Ruiz — above their suggested slots.
The Astros again will select first this season, and almost certainly will make it three straight No. 1 choices overall in 2014 — “There aren’t many years where you can say one team will definitely have the No. 1 pick,” one rival GM cracked. “But they will definitely have the No. 1.”
Luhnow also pointed out that the team carries seven minor-league clubs rather than the usual six, and four coaches with each full-season club rather than the usual three. Ownership, he said, is not dictating the reduction in payroll. No, this is simply all part of the plan.
“We’re really investing in our strategy,” Luhnow said. “I know it’s frustrating for fans that want immediate results at the big-league level. But this is the best chance we have to accomplish our result as soon as possible. We have to be consistent about that message.”
So, the Astros will talk about pairing Carter’s right-handed power long-term with the left-handed thump of their top offensive prospect, first baseman Jonathan Singleton. They will talk about other promising youngsters — shortstops Correa and Jonathan Villar, outfielder George Springer. And they will talk about a rotation that now includes eight or nine possibilities thanks to some of Luhnow’s recent acquisitions — Peacock, Philip Humber, John Ely, Alex White.
It all sounds reasonable, particularly when you consider that the Astros also will get the first crack at any players who are put on waivers in spring training, a position that helped them land outfielder Justin Maxwell last April.
But then you think about the Astros playing the A’s, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels — and even the Seattle Mariners, who could win between 75 and 80 games this season and will at least pitch Felix Hernandez every fifth day.
It’s going to get ugly. Maybe real ugly. Maybe indefensibly ugly.