Crane Says He Will Pursue Cole
Astros Owner Considers Luxury Tax Cap

Crane: Not letting go yet
(c) Associated Press
Eight Houston Astros were able to file for free agency after the 2019 World Series. The headliner, of course, is 20-game winner Gerrit Cole, a finalist for the American League Cy Young Award. However, all eight are of some import. Catchers Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado both filed as well as lefthander Wade Miley and righthanders Cole, Will Harris, Collin McHugh, Joe Smith and Hector Rondon.

Cole is represented by top agent Scott Boras and made clear after Game 7 that he was available to the highest bidder. Currently, the Anaheim Angels and the New York Yankees are considered the favorites to land the A.L. strikeout king but Houston owner Jim Crane says he plans to "make a run" for the hurler even though there are doubts the Astros have enough payroll space to compete with other clubs.

The luxury tax cap, which punishes teams with stiff fines for exceeding the payroll amount, will be $208 million for next year. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Houston has a current cap obligation for 2020 of almost $163 million, leaving approximately $45 million below the cap. However, the Astros will need to sign two catchers and a few other pitchers with that cushion, making any pursuit of Cole to be unlikely more than $25 million.

The luxury tax factors the average annual value of a contract and it is expected that Boras and Cole will want a multi-year deal that averages between $35 to $40 million per year. For his part, Crane says he will consider going over the cap and paying the penalty if he can keep Cole in Houston but, realistically, it is a longshot.

It should be noted that surprises do happen. Nobody could have guessed at this time last year that Brian Harper, last year's top free agent prize, would sign with the Philadelphia Phillies so a darkhorse for Cole could emerge, particularly if the bottom-line-focused Boras controls the negotiations.

The Astros submitted a qualifying offer for Cole which amounts to a one-year offer around $18 million. Expect it to be quickly rejected but, what it does is entitles the Astros to a first-round compensation draft pick from the team that signs him. This is the same scenario that hamstrung Dallas Keuchel last winter although nobody expects Cole to have to wait until next June for someone to take him.

Catcher Chirinos and reliever Harris are expected to be pursued by the Astros as well. Chirinos became Justin Verlander's personal catcher while starting most of the year. Harris was arguably the best reliever the Astros had down the stretch and in the postseason before the fatal final two games of the World Series.

Rather than chasing Cole, the Astros might set their sights on some talented arms that won't cost even half what Cole would. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler, Cole Hamels, Kyle Gibson and Tanner Roark are among the pitchers available. Keuchel is back on the market plus there are other top dollar pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg and Jake Odorizzi who could be an attraction.

Since the Houston rotation currently looks like Verlander, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers, Jose Urquidy and an open audition, the Spacemen might be smarter to sign two starting pitchers instead of one big fish.

Verlander and Cole, to no surprise, were nominated as finalists for the 2019 A.L. Cy Young Award. Alex Bregman is up for the Most Valuable Player Award and Yordan Alvarez is a finalist for the Rookie of the Year Award. No team has ever swept the three awards in the same year but the Astros have at least a fighting chance in all three categories which will be awarded later this month.

While all the Astros' finalists for the Gold Glove awards fell short, Greinke won his sixth Gold Glove as the National League pitcher while a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Greinke will make a great trivia answer someday as the last Astros player to win a National League Gold Glove. It is as much a mindbender as the last University of Texas quarterback to beat both Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

In other news, the Astros promoted lefthanded reliever Kent Emanuel to the 40-man roster. The 27-year-old North Carolina graduate was 8-2 with a 3.90 ERA at AAA Round Rock this past year and would have been exposed to the Rule V Draft had he not been moved up.

In a corresponding move, the Astros declined the option for reliever Chris Devenski. The righthander still has arbitration years left so he may still stay with the organization. Devenski was 2-3 with a 4.83 ERA in 61 games as an Astro.

The general modus of the Astros is to wait out the free agency market and sign players who fall through the cracks. That's how guys like Miley and Charlie Morton came aboard. However, the Astros did strike quickly to sign Chirinos last November after Maldonado turned down their offer (he was later acquired at the trade deadline) and inked Michael Brantley to a contract in December.

- Bob Hulsey