The big story this offseason for the Houston Astros has, unfortunately, been the ongoing investigation into the allegations of a coordinated, technology-laden effort to steal signs back in 2017 (and possibly, subsequent seasons), so when general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch took center stage at the winter meetings on Tuesday, we held our collective breath to see if anything substantial would be said by either guy.
Alas, boredom ensued, as both understandably pled the figurative Fifth Amendment on any discussion of baseball's investigation, the allegations themselves, or any of the players or Astro employees who may have been involved. Both men were polite, both men were cordial, and both men were completely uninformative. So, on that front, we wait.
Fortunately, for those of us in the content regeneration business, Astro-related news did bubble up later in the evening, as the inevitable departure of co-ace pitcher Gerrit Cole was made official, with Cole signing a mind-boggling nine year, $324 million deal with the New York Yankees. This news came down as rumors began to swirl that the Astros could move on from shortstop Carlos Correa. So, bottom line, even with the collective "no comment" on sign stealing, there are plenty of Astro items to dig into for a few paragraphs.
Here we go....
Gerrit Cole earned his generational wealth
Man, we all knew Gerrit Cole was gonna get paid, but NINE years... and $324 MILLION... I mean, wow. I guess when someone has the greatest contract year in recent memory, of any sport really, then it would stand to reason, especially still in the beginning of his prime at age 29, that he gets the mountain of money. The Yankees side of this deal is pretty simple — they were a game away from beating the Astros to get to the World Series this past postseason, and thus signing Cole means not only adding the best pitcher in the league, but also taking him from the team that beat you. The Yankees, I would imagine, will be prohibitive favorites to win the American League. Yet, waking up this morning, I don't feel terrible as an Astros fan. Look, the Astros will never, ever be in the "nine year contract" sweepstakes, when it comes to free agency. It doesn't fit their business nor analytics model. I've accepted that. Put differently, if the Astros had given this same deal to Cole, my action would have been (a) to wonder what other business Jim Crane has gotten himself into, and/or (b) how soon till the roster is seven guys making over $20 million and all minimum salaries filling out the rest. For now, the Astros will have to do the things that led them to Cole in the first place — find distressed pitching assets and rehabilitate them. That brings us to....
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How valuable is Brent Strom?
Look, I have no idea how to quantify the various aspects of the Astros' pitching operation. I know there is a ton of data, a lot of high definition video study, and I know there is pitching coach Brent Strom. He is the only human being that I know definitively has a tangible impact on the team's process that has seen average pitchers become very, very good (see: Morton, Charlie), and even great pitchers become super human (see: Verlander, Justin). I don't know if Strom is 10 percent responsible for this phenomenon or 80 percent responsible. I just know that he is the only component that could be stolen by another team. Put another way, I would rank Altuve, Springer, Bregman, Verlander, Alvarez, and maybe Gurriel (Correa, I'll get to in a second) as the only players where the pit in my stomach from them being traded or leaving would exceed the pit on my stomach from Strom leaving, retiring, or whatever. Maybe I'm overreacting, but it seems like this Strom Car Wash that the Astros put pitchers through will become more crucial now than ever before, because.....
This is the first offseason in a long time where we can't buy nice things
As of today, the Astros have one of the biggest payrolls in MLB, and will almost assuredly live the 2020 season above the $208 million luxury tax threshold. That is before they've signed a starting catcher, another starting pitcher, and a couple arms in the bullpen. In short, there is still a lot of work to do, and little money with which to do it. For the first time since this championship window opened in, say, 2015, this is an offseason where the Astros feel like they're cutting back, and trimming things to make budget. In 2017, the Astros signed Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, and Carlos Beltran, and eventually traded for Verlander. In 2018, they traded for Cole, and extended Jose Altuve for $30 million per year. In 2019, they signed Michael Brantley, extended Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander, and eventually traded for Zack Greinke. This offseason, they've already watched Cole leave, and they're probably not done making moves to keep the team's salary expenses in line with its resources. Which brings us to our final bullet point....
Carlos Correa trade rumors make sense
The lead Astros story on my show Wednesday morning was going to be the rumors of the Astros shopping Carlos Correa in possible trade talks, a notion that sounds more like a passive investigation into the possibilities than actively putting him on MLB eBay. So, I will assume, for now, the chalk is that Correa will be with the Astros when spring training arrives in February. However, it does make sense to float Correa out there, IF the Astros are concerned about any or all of three things. First, the Astros farm system needs some replenishing, and presumably, Correa might fetch a few big time farmhands from an organization that views him as a missing piece to a playoff run, AND a bigger piece of the future. Second, the Astros might see Correa as a guy where, if he does get healthy and does start to hit his potential, might command one fo these "eight or nine year deals" on the market, so better to eject now, since there are only so many $20 million-plus deals to go around in Houston. Finally, in the short term, trading Correa might be an avenue to get out from under the final year of Josh Reddick's $13 million per year deal, which would presumably open the door for the Astros to extend George Springer, who undoubtedly IS the type of player to whom the Astros would like to commit over $20 million per year.