added 11/10/2009 by Bob Hulsey
How do you upgrade a 74-win team while also reducing their payroll? If you know the answer, don't tell me. Call General Manager Ed Wade who, after hiring a new manager and coaching staff, is stuck trying to figure out how to trim the budget and yet get more competitive while hoping to please an owner impatient with losing seasons.
The biggest problem is the money already tied up in contracts. Carlos Lee ($18.5 million), Roy Oswalt ($15 mil) and Lance Berkman ($14.5 million) make up roughly half the $90-95 million projected payroll just amongst themselves. All three have no-trade clauses and are not eager to leave Houston.
Kaz Matsui ($5 mil) is considered overpriced for the market. Brian Moehler ($3 mil) probably is too. Geoff Blum ($1.5 mil) was recently signed and, while he's not pricey, his role for next season is still murky.
While the team won't be paying for Doug Brocail or Mike Hampton next year, Wandy Rodriguez, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn will be entering that phase of arbitration where they should be getting big pay raises.
Several of last year's players are filing for free agency, most notably LaTroy Hawkins, Jose Valverde and Miguel Tejada. Reserve outfielders Darin Erstad and Jason Michaels are also unsigned. The first three are classified as "Type A" free agents where the Astros can get a top draft choice next June if these players are offered arbitration but eventually sign elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Astros may let them walk away for nothing for fear the players may agree to arbitration and jack up the payroll.
So as Wade goes off the general managers' meeting, here are his options:
* Let the three Type A free agents leave without offering arbitration.
That would disappoint me as the farm system really needs the infusion of draft picks those three could bring. Of the three, Wade is most likely to re-sign Hawkins for around $4 million although Hawk, who turns 39 next month, was cut loose by the Yankees just 16 months ago. He's done everything the Astros could have hoped for since then but would any other team bid that much for him?
Valverde and Tejada are likely to command salaries of $10 million or more. I'd be tempted to offer arbitration to both, sign them to one-year deals and then trade them next July for prospects rather than see them leave for nothing but, then, it's not my money.
* Trade Oswalt or Berkman for a young starting pitcher and prospects.
Dealing either would leave a huge hole and create fan backlash but could be the wisest long-term course. A young starting pitcher under club control would provide payroll relief, allow a replacement to be signed in free agency, give the farm system a needed boost and give Wade the flexibility to offer arbitration to his Type A's knowing he can afford to pay them if it comes to that.
The big problem, of course, would be convincing either to waive their no-trade clauses and then find a partner that would agree to the deal. For Berkman, the best bet would be the upstate Texas Rangers who could use a slugger at first base and have what we'd want in return. For Oswalt, it could happen with the Braves, Phillies or White Sox but it would take some steely-eyed negotiating to get it done.
Owner Drayton McLane is on record that he won't trade either one and you can forget about trading Lee who still has half of his six-year contract to go. Berkman and Oswalt are near the end of their contracts and both have made noises about hanging up the spikes when those contracts are done. Would they rather endure rebuilding years as their careers fade or would they prefer a final shot at a title elsewhere?
* Trade Rodriguez or Pence to fill holes elsewhere.
It's doubtful that either would go as they are both relatively inexpensive, productive and in their peak years but this may be an option if the right offer comes back. Personally, I have my doubts that Wandy will become anything more than a "number two" starter or that Pence will amount to more than a solid .280-hitting, 20-homer right fielder so if a GM were to dangle a pair of stud prospects at Wade, I could see the "buy low, sell high" principle being employed. No doubt, these will be the two players other teams will request most this winter.
* Unload Matsui to anyone who'll take him.
Find that team and you'll get your own spot on the post-game show. Realistically, Kaz is in the final year of his contract, serves as our poster boy for recruitment in the Asian Rim and is not a problem in the clubhouse so he'll likely stay for 2010. Trading him provides only modest relief to the payroll and could create another hole in the infield that might be tough to fill.
No matter how you approach it, squeezing the payroll will seem like squeezing blood from a turnip. There just isn't much talent waiting in the wings to replace any of the players we'd lose and it is hard to see the Astros getting better with a thinner roster.
That, of course, is why some lobby for a full-scale overhaul. Go cheap and lose big for a few years then bounce back with a lot of inexpensive young talent peaking all at the same time. Good luck getting McLane to sign off on that.