added 6/3/2014 by Bob Hulsey
A recent article in the Houston Chronicle included complaints from some players and agents that the Astros use inclusion on the major league roster as leverage for signing multi-year contracts at likely team-friendly costs. The accusers may have their point proven by this week's promotion of first baseman Jonathan Singleton.
Flashback to last March when George Springer's camp revealed that the Astros had offered him a large multi-year contract to play for Houston before he had even appeared in an official big league game. While the offer was generous, many observers thought it was a low-ball offer by Jeff Luhnow to tie up some of Springer's arbitration years at a lower salary than if Springer were available on the open market.
Springer declined last September's overtures and began the season at AAA Oklahoma City. He was promoted only because the Houston offense was so abysmal back in April that Springer was needed to give the lineup a shot in the arm.
Now news of Singleton's agreeing on Monday to such a five-year contract with team options and his immediate promotion to the parent club seem to be a sign that Luhnow is willing to hold back top prospects if they don't agree to such deals before joining the majors.
For those who don't know, the team that gives a player their first major league job has a certain number of years at "club control", where the team can restrict a player's negotiating ability for a better salary. During the first three seasons, that control is absolute and the team often pays the player at or close to the major league minimum salary regardless how productive that player is.
Teams argue that the only way to balance competition for small market teams is to allow them a few years of paying young players the minimum before they can file to be free agents, becoming future Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox.
So small-market teams try to cheat the rules sometimes by keeping their top prospects from breaking camp with the parent club and calling them up around June when another half-year of club control can be milked from them before they are eligible to become free agents.
Singleton, who had an awful year in 2013, including a 50-game suspension due to marijuana use, was said to be held in AAA for the entire year because he needed to gain maturity and prove he could withstand the temptations of marijuana and alcohol before he would be handed the considerable pay increase of a major league minimum salary.
It turns out, two months later, that all he needed to do was agree to one of Luhnow's long-term deals and he'd get his ticket to big leagues punched overnight.
It certainly didn't hurt matters any that Singleton was batting .267 with 14 homers in 54 games at Oklahoma City and that first base has been an offensive black hole in the Houston lineup (Marc Krauss, the player demoted to make room for Singleton, has batted .173 with four homers in a platoon role).
On the one hand, if 22-year-old Singleton can't handle big league pressures, Luhnow just wasted $10 million dollars. On the other hand, if Singleton can hit as well in the majors as most people think he can, that contract is going to look like a steal for the Astros. It used to be that prospects had to prove their worth in the majors before getting offered a multi-year contract, especially because of club control. Now, the Astros are venturing into uncharted waters signing a player who has yet to see a major league pitch.
Although, to be fair, Luhnow has been doing just that for months, whether it was with Springer or Jose Abreu or Masahiro Tanaka. At long last, the Astros found a fish to bite.
It's no crime that the Astros would hold back talent in the minors to try to get an extra year of club control. Some would call it, as they do almost everything this unorthodox front office does, "smart". But the Astros, in the Chronicle article, scoffed at the notion they were doing exactly that. Now, here's proof the allegations were true.
One side of the coin asks if the Astros might have won a few more games this season with a full year of Springer and Singleton on the big league roster instead of playing hardball with them over salary discussions and service time. How seriously should we take Luhnow's "we want to win" comments when his best players don't break camp with the big league club while we suffer through months of stopgap help?
If it makes short-term sense, the strategy could also create long-term animosity. If Singleton turns into another Mike Trout, he will seem grossly underpaid and may hold that against the Astros when he eventually does become a free agent. If the Astros develop a reputation for cheapness, they may find it harder to sign top free agents when they are close to returning to playoff contention.
Houston is a great location for a free agent. There's no state income tax, the home field is modestly climate controlled (unlike Arlington), the winters are temperate, there are sizeable ethnic populations for many an Hispanic, African-American or Asian free agent to feel right at home among and, to hear tell, Houston will also be getting unisex bathrooms in the near future.
Houston is a modern metropolis - a place where $10 million can be dropped on a kid with substance abuse problems and zero big league experience just for signing a below-market contract. As Yakoff Smirnov used to say, "what a country!"