Burning A Hole

added 11/30/2014 by Bob Hulsey

There's a commercial currently where a man unearths a magic genie and is granted one wish so he smugly asks for "a million bucks" and is rewarded with thousands of male deer. Should you ever find yourself in the situation where you are granted one wish by a genie, the smart play is to use your wish to ask for five additional wishes.

Jeff Luhnow has been granted a wish of sorts. He's been publicly granted the wish of adding $20 million to the Astros' big league payroll by owner Jim Crane. First of all, keep in mind that the Astros have had the tiniest payroll in the majors for the past two years. Adding $20 millions is like moving from a flop house to the low rent district. This won't be a Lexus lifestyle.

Secondly, that $20 million is deceptive because some key Astros will be getting raises through the arbitration process so signing a Robinson Cano is still out of reach.

However, spending $20 million has got to be a tremendous treat for a general manager who has had to work on such a threadbare budget up until now. The temptation must be enormous to rush right out and spend it.

Yet Luhnow has shown amazing restraint so far and the longer he waits, the better he will be rewarded. Up to this writing, Luhnow has added arbitration-eligible catcher Hank Conger which will likely be balanced out later (more on that below) and re-signed outfielder Alex Presley for an increase of half-a-million.

Impatient Astros fans, though, have watched hoped-for free agents like Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez disappear and still dream of other high-priced upgrades.

Or, perhaps, they'd prefer some sleek foreign import from Cuba or Japan but they can be quite expensive and difficult to project to a major league roster. Some, like Jose Abreu or Yu Darvish, flourish quickly. Others, like Hideki Irabu and Kosuke Fukudome, don't.

Remember the big name Luhnow pursued last year? Shin-Soo Choo ended up signing with the Rangers for seven years at $130 million and batting .242 with 13 homers during their disastrous season. How do you say "ouch" in Korean? Looks like the decision scientists dodged a very expensive bullet on that one.

The Astros made three pricey upgrades last year (well, pricey if you're the Astros, not the Yankees or Angels). They spent $30 million on a three-year deal for pitcher Scott Feldman who turned in an 8-12, 3.74 ERA season. They traded for outfielder Dexter Fowler who hit better than expected (.276 BA/.774 OPS) but missed his typical two months from injury. He was paid $7.3 million and will see a raise to near $10 million if retained for 2015.

The third upgrade was a bullpen where three veteran middle relievers were inked but two contributed little. Combined, they cost over $8 million and only Chad Qualls will be back next season.

Despite the payroll increases, expect a few subtractions. With the addition of Conger, either catcher Jason Castro or Carlos Corporan will likely be traded this winter. Castro will probably get a raise to $3-$4 million while Corporan, the backup, is likely to be paid $1 million. Conger will probably earn about the same as Corporan. Fowler may also be traded, particularly if the Astros pursue a slugger for left field and move Jake Marisnick or George Springer to center field.

Chris Carter will also take a bite out of the payroll now that he is eligible for arbitration. He could cost as much as $5 million this year.

So, whatever Luhnow does will probably look like less than $20 million of an upgrade but that's okay. Realistically, this roster is still two years away from being a real threat in the A.L. West so they can be patient as long as they are able to keep the expectations of their fan base in check.

Some of the upgrade talk centers around another starting pitcher but the Astros have several quality arms in the minors and I am ready for some of them to finally get their chance. I've seen enough of veteran stopgaps like Erik Bedard and Jerome Williams. There's no need for a Feldman 2.0 to clog the pipeline.

Some upgrade talk centers around the shortstop and third base positions but, with bright prospects on the farm a year or two away, they can't promise a free agent a long-term deal unless he's versatile enough to switch positions as needed.

Most everyone, though, points to the bullpen as a need for new blood. Perhaps Yankee closer David Robertson is an option but other less-expensive choices are out there.

Maybe the best plan is to not force anything and keep some of that spending cash for 2016. That's viable if Luhnow doesn't mind the money burning a hole in his proverbial pocket but it would be hard to blame him if he gives into the temptation to spend it all. It is not like it has always been there in the past for him to spend.