Looking Ahead To 2016

added 8/7/2015 by Bob Hulsey

Astros fans are enjoying the 2015 season immensely. For the first time since 2008, their games are relevant. But a good general manager has to keep an eye on the future while making moves in the present. Putting together a contending roster is a new frontier for Jeff Luhnow but, overall, I believe he has done well crafting the Astros for both this season's pennant race and next season's continued improvement.

Acquiring pitcher Scott Kazmir for two prospects then adding outfielder Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers for four prospects situates the Astros to be a stronger team next season while holding down payroll.

To prove this, I am using information provided by Cot's Baseball Contracts which does an excellent job of tracking the contractual terms of every big league player.

The Opening Day payroll in 2015 was $72,464,200. Luhnow added roughly $22 million in payroll from 2014, notably with the signings of relievers Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, infielder Jed Lowrie and outfielder Colby Rasmus as well as arbitration increases for Chris Carter and Jason Castro.

With the television contract now a settled issue and attendance on the upswing, another $20 million payroll increase would not be out of the ordinary. Keeping it below $100 million still puts them below everyone else in the AL West except for Oakland.

The two major wild cards for the 2016 payroll are the two lefthanded aces in the starting rotation - Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir. I'll discuss each individually further down in the column.

Let's start with the Astros who are already under contract for 2016. There are seven players:

Carlos Gomez       $9.000 mil
Scott Feldman      $8.000 mil
Jed Lowrie         $7.500 mil
Pat Neshek         $6.500 mil
Luke Gregerson     $6.250 mil
Jose Altuve        $3.688 mil
Jon Singleton      $2.000 mil

Note that closer Gregerson will actually earn slightly less than set-up man Neshek and that Feldman and Lowrie are taking pay cuts for next year, factored in when they signed their contracts. The sub-total for these players is $43.938 million.

One player, reliever Chad Qualls, has a club option where the Astros can bring him back for $3.5 million or pay Qualls $250,000 to become a free agent. Qualls will be 37-years-old next year.

Now, we'll look at guys completely under club control and are likely to be paid approximately $530,000 next season:

Collin McHugh
Carlos Correa
George Springer
Michael Friers
Preston Tucker
Lance McCullers Jr.
Brett Oberholtzer
Brad Peacock
Vince Velasquez
Jake Marisnick
Asher Wojciechowski
Kevin Chapman
Jake Buchanan
Robbie Grossman
Jonathan Villar
L.J. Hoes
Dan Straily
Michael Feliz 

I am projecting 11 of these will be on the Opening Day roster next season, costing the Astros $5.830 million. Add this and Qualls' option, puts Houston at $47.968 million.

Houston has three free agents coming up this winter. Here they are with their 2015 salaries:

Scott Kazmir      $11.000 million
Colby Rasmus        8.000 million
Tony Sipp           2.400 million

For the moment, I won't pursue these three but I'll be coming back later to Kazmir.

Now, we get to arbitration. This is tricky because the Astros and the player can agree to any salary they can both accept. There is also no assurance what an arbitrator might decide, particularly if the player was very good in one area (say, home runs) but poor elsewhere (say, batting average).

Here are the ten arbitration-eligible players and where I project their salary figures might land:

Dallas Keuchel    $10.000 mil
Jason Castro       $7.500 mil
Luis Valbuena      $7.000 mil
Chris Carter       $7.000 mil
Evan Gattis        $4.000 mil
Marwin Gonzalez    $2.500 mil
Hank Conger        $2.000 mil
Josh Fields        $1.250 mil
Will Harris        $1.000 mil
Sam Deduno         $0.800 mil

Combined their salaries add up to $43.050 million which, added to what we have so far, puts Houston at $91.018 million.

Keuchel, of course, will be the biggest salary. Even though he is arb-eligible for the first time, it would not be outrageous to think he could command $8-$14 million. Keuchel will be 28 next season and will have two years as the established ace; one of the best pitchers in the league. Luhnow would be wise to buy up the three remaining arbitration years and a few more if he can get it done.

Opinions differ broadly on Valbuena and Carter but I don't believe either are worth the $7 million they could command in arbitration. Carter has been losing playing time steadily and you can't pay that much to someone who isn't playing every day. I can see Valbuena returning but only if he is signed at a reduced cost. Luhnow would probably be wise to deal them both this winter, possibly for prospects.

There's probably no point to keeping Valbuena, Lowrie and Marwin Gonzalez to largely split time at third base. Of these, Valbuena makes the best sense to let go although arguments can be made about all three. Valbuena is the only one of the three who cannot back up Correa at shortstop.

There's also a case of "odd man out" at the bottom of this list. In this case, it seems obvious that person is Deduno who has been injured all year while Harris and Fields have been quite successful.

As for the free agents, subtracting Rasmus' $8 million salary pays for Gomez' $9 million in 2016, so it's rather easy to let him walk. The Astros might even get a draft pick out of the situation. I've been a Tony Sipp fan since he arrived in Houston but his effectiveness has slumped in the second half of this year and lefty relief specialists are easy to find for less money. I would let him walk as well although it leaves the left side of the bullpen quite barren so I would not be against bringing him back if needed.

Finally, I think the Astros will make a serious run at re-signing Kazmir. The former Sugar Land Skeeter was once a top draft pick and saw his career crater from 2010-12. He bounced back and is again one of the best lefthanded starters in the game. He will have other pursuers and they may throw outrageous money at him. The Astros will have the advantage of Kazmir growing up in the Houston area as an Astros fan and getting him caught up in the excitement of a pennant race in his hometown. I think they can sign him but it might take $17-19 million per year to keep the hurler, who will be 32 next season.

How can the Astros afford that?

Here we go:
Trading Valbuena and Carter saves us $14 million. Not picking up Qualls' option saves another $3.25 million. Releasing Deduno saves $800K. If Kazmir is signed, Feldman becomes expendable so he can be traded for a lefty reliever, a 1B-OF and/or a prospect.

When the dust settles, I have an Opening Day payroll of $88.329 million which, depending on Keuchel and Kazmir, might be a couple of million higher or lower.

That 25-man on Opening Day could look like this:

SP: Keuchel, Kazmir, McHugh, McCullers, Fiers, Velasquez
RP: Gregerson, Neshek, Fields, Harris, Oberholtzer, Chapman
C: Castro, Conger
IF: Altuve, Correa, Lowrie, Singleton, Gonzalez
OF: Springer, Gomez, Tucker, Marisnick, Hoes
DH: Gattis

Obviously, this takes a conservative approach and Luhnow could see the priorities entirely differently. He'll have a better idea of who is ready from the farm system to step up and join the majors. There's also the unpredictable factor of injuries.

However, I think this leaves the Astros in a very competitive spot to make another run next year and elevate the payroll along the lines Luhnow and Jim Crane anticipate for the coming year.