A little over a year ago, the Houston Texans decided it would be a good idea to trade All Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Forget about what they got in return — believe me, I've been trying to forget about it for a year now — the mere fact that a star player of Hopkins' ilk was on his way out, in his prime, was disconcerting. Little did we know, it would be the trigger mechanism for a depressing trend several months later.
By December, James Harden wanted out from the Houston Rockets, and he would eventually be traded to the Brooklyn Nets. George Springer would leave for Toronto in free agency. J.J. Watt would request, and successfully get, his release from the Houston Texans. Meanwhile, the bizarre Deshaun Watson situation hangs over Houston, and in turn, about a third of the NFL, given as many teams as there are who would logically be in on Watson trade talks.
Lance McCullers' inking a five-year contract extension on Wednesday finally gave us a bit of good news, and made us feel a little better about our city. No, all those star athletes wanting to leave was not an impugning of our fair city, it was just situational angst caused by the business of sports. Houston is awesome! Lance McCullers concurs!
As we dissect McCullers' mildly surprising deal less than 48 hours later, here are my four big thoughts....
Jim Crane is an awesome owner
This is my first thought with any big deal that gets done with the Astros, whether it's a trade deadline deal for Justin Verlander or Zack Greinke, or a big contract extension for Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, or now, Lance McCullers. Can you think of one time during his ownership where Crane has not stepped up and come up big with resources, when it's been justifiable and warranted? Sure, Dallas Kuechel, Gerrit Cole, and George Springer all left in free agency, but Keuchel's slow market proved Crane was right about that, and I don't expect the Astros to pay top of market prices for top ticket free agents, like Cole and Springer were. When it's made sense to cut large eight figure checks, Crane has done so. Now, let's hope that, since McCullers' deal is done....
Hopefully, Carlos Correa is next
Reportedly, the two sides are talking. Like McCullers was before Wednesday, Correa is heading into the final year of his deal with the Astros. Also, like McCullers, Correa has expressed a sincere desire to remain an Astros for his career. Also, like McCullers, Correa has spent large chunks of his career, thus far, on the injured list with various maladies. Reportedly, the Astros have offered Correa a six-year, $120 million contract extension. Based on his elite traits and killer postseason stats, that won't get the deal done. Correa has expressed a desire to get a deal done before the regular season begins next Thursday, April 1. If somehow Crane can make that happen, the Astros will be set up with a core nucleus of Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Kyle Tucker. Yordan Alvarez, McCullers, Framber Valdez, and some other young pitchers through 2024, at least.
They are paying McCullers to be their ace starting next season
Back to McCullers. The deal he got is fascinating, because he has never won more than 10 games in a season, nor has he pitched more than 129 innings in a season. However, at $17 million per year starting in 2022, they are clearly paying him to be, if not their ace, then something close to it. Certainly, they are paying him like he is going to be a healthy, All-Star caliber starting pitcher over the next five seasons. This is where trust comes in — trust in the Astros' medical experts to say "Yes, the surgically repaired elbow looks great," and trust in James Click's analytics department to say "Yes, Lance's performance in spurts can translate over 162 games consistently, assuming he stays healthy."
That said, what might the Astros' rotation look like in 2022?
One of the reasons why the Astros are able to spend this kind of money on McCullers, beginning in 2022, is because Verlander's and Greinke's $30 million-plus salaries both come off the books. (Hopefully, this is what allows them to sign Correa, too. I feel strongly that one of the reasons they let Springer walk was because they wanted to have enough dry powder for Correa.) Assuming Greinke doesn't re-sign with the Astros, what might the 2022 rotation look like? McCullers is obviously now a core piece of that plan. They are paying newly signed Jake Odorizzi a tidy sum, as well. Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier all provide low cost, high ceiling options that are under team control for several more years. One wild card — Verlander becomes a free agent after this season. I'm sure the Astros will make the qualifying offer of one year, and around $19 million, to ensure they get draft compensation for Velrander, should he sign elsewhere. But what if Verlander came back to Houston on the qualifying offer? A year of Verlander, with a surgically repaired elbow, at just under $20 million could be a boom or bust wild card that keeps the Astros in that 100 win club (if the decision was more boom than bust). Something to think about.
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