The Burden of money

added 11/14/2004 by Scott Barzilla

It has certainly been an eventful off-season so far for the Astros. We’ve seen a change on top of the organization. We’ve seen Phil Garner retained with two new coaches in tow. We’ve seen Craig Biggio’s option picked up and Jeff Kent’s option declined. We’ve seen Lance Berkman tear his ACL and get surgery. This brings us to the present negotiations with Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent. These are all compelling stories, but they are not the most important story this off-season.

Last week, the Astros, Rockets, and Fox Sports Net ironed out an agreement that will take all three into the next decade. Reportedly, the deal is worth a total of 600 million dollars over at least ten seasons. According to the details that have leaked, the Astros will get more than half of that money. Furthermore, reports show that the Astros will go from nine million per season to around 25 million per season from FSN’s contract alone. It’s difficult to say whether KNWS 51 will be broadcasting anymore games. Supposedly, FSN will pick up the vast majority of the games for both clubs, but there will still be a few left over for KNWS 51. It is unclear whether KNWS 51 (or “the quiet channel” as we say at our house) will pay for those games.

As most of you know, the Astros and Rockets were planning on moving to their own station before the courts intervened and forced them to negotiate with FSN. Whether or not it was intended or not, the Astros and Rockets actually come out wealthier with this deal than they would have on their own station. Certainly, avoiding the risk of starting up their own station is a huge plus.

So, how is this a bigger story than any of the other major stories mentioned earlier? If the Astros are going to sign any of the players that are on their slate they will need money to do it. In addition to Beltran, the Astros have decisions to make on Kent, Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, Jose Vizcaino, Orlando Palmeiro, and the looming question of Roger Clemens’ retirement/non-retirement. If the Astros were still saddled with a 70-75 million dollar payroll these decision would be easy. They would have to tell most of them that they couldn’t afford them.

In many ways, the “plight” of the small market teams is a simpler one. They can’t afford anyone. When you throw a little money into the equation you start to create more decisions for yourself. The first question we have to ask is how much of the extra money will actually be spent on the field? If you listen to the murmurs coming out of Minute Maid Park we can expect about half of the extra money to spent on the players. If that is the case, we might actually hear silence from Drayton when his lackeys in the press ask him if he’s still losing money.

So, if we assume that we’re working with a payroll in the range of 90 million we can assume that the Astros have a little bit of money to throw around. Getting the likes of Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and Carlos Beltran created the allusion that there was a huge bump in the payroll last season. Yet, with the trade of Billy Wagner to the Phillies and with the way the Astros backload contracts, their payroll actually only increased by about five million. That means that the 2005 payroll will represent the biggest increase in payroll since Drayton signed Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell in 1993.

Indeed, with big money comes big responsibility. The biggest question the Astros face is the question of whether to re-sign Carlos Beltran. When Jon Hart was with the Indians, he released a report that showed that no team in big league history had won a World Championship with one player making more than fifteen percent of the team’s overall budget. Of course, he hasn’t been in Cleveland in several years and a couple of teams have shot through that theory since then (most notably the Red Sox with Manny Ramirez and his 20 million a year salary).

So, the Astros have to decide if they want to put all of their eggs in Carlos Beltran’s basket. Now, there are advantages to bringing in Beltran. The first is obviously a bottom line advantage. Signing Beltran will bring more fans to the ballpark. In fact, Beltran would be the 2005 version of Roger Clemens. Whether the club would surpass three million fans again is debatable, but you certainly can’t envision them drawing that much without him.

On the field, the Astros haven’t seen a player that combines the same skills as Beltran since the days when Cesar Cedeno roamed centerfield. Bill Gilbert (the president of the Larry Dierker chapter of SABR) has a statistic where he combines the total number of bases a player has achieved in a season (total bases + walks + hit by pitch) and then divides that by the number of plate appearances the player had. Carlos Beltran finished sixth in the game in that statistic this season. His value is clear.

Even if we all agree that Carlos Beltran is one of the top five position players in the game (certainly not a given) we still have to question the wisdom of paying any player fifteen, seventeen, or twenty million dollars. Houston fans need not look any further than Jeff Bagwell to see the negatives that come from a contract that large. Beltran is in the prime of his career now, but if you give him more than five years you risk seeing a less than stellar Beltran at the end of the contract.

If this were football or basketball this would be an easy decision. In those sports, the team with the best player usually finds themselves in the playoffs every year and often find themselves competing for the championship. Barry Bonds is inarguably the best player in baseball today, and his Giants have been to one World Series since he joined them in 1993. Baseball executives must be more creative to acquire the depth they need to make it through the grueling 162 game schedule. Tim Purpura has the opportunity to show his creativity.

Even during the improbable 2004 run, the weaknesses of this team could clearly be seen. The lineup was punchless after the fifth spot in the order on most nights. Fans, coaches, and the bullpen kept their fingers crossed every time someone other than Oswalt or Clemens took the mound. Countless fans turned to smoking and liquor when someone other than Brad Lidge came out of the bullpen. Now, Purpura, McClane, and Tal Smith have the money to fill those holes. They can if they resist the urge to give into Scott Boras’ demands.

The team could pay big bucks for Carlos Beltran to come back and for Jeff Kent to take one last tour of duty. Those two may even entice Roger Clemens to postpone retirement. Yet, if you allow Chris Burke to take over at second you could afford the likes of Steve Finley, Troy Glaus, Woody Williams, Scott Williamson, and maybe even a Matt Clement if the club chooses to let Wade Miller go. With a little creativity the Astros could take the field in 2005 with virtually no holes or they could bring back the exact same club and keep their fingers crossed.