Creating Astros dynasty was only part of the battle, now Jim Crane prepares for next wave
With the whiff of champagne still fresh and the celebration of the champs still ongoing, the Astros (and 29 Astros-wannabes) are on to acquiring free agent talent. The green flag dropping at 4PM Houston time Thursday does not mean a huge initial flurry of activity a la NBA and NFL free agency. Baseball free agency used to not get rolling until 15 days after the end of the World Series. Players wanted the ability to get cracking on their futures more quickly. It’s not bad for teams to be able to make moves sooner than later. And for Major League Baseball as an industry, firing up the so-called Hot Stove League sooner keeps the sport in the news cycle longer. So, the move to open free agency moves five days after the end of the World Series was put into effect.
On the roster side of the Astros’ 2023 equation, Justin Verlander is issue one. He obviously was declining his 25 million dollar option. It will cost the Astros at least another 10 mil if JV is to be back (provided he wants to be back) and it will also take a multi-year guarantee. At least two years, maybe three. Three months shy of his 40th birthday Verlander is 56 wins shy of the 300 goal he has. It is a virtual certainty he needs to pitch at least four more seasons to get there. With whom other than the Astros could Verlander sign that would give him as good a chance at racking up wins at a rate helpful to closing in on 300? The Dodgers, cue Porky Pig: “Ibbity, ibbity, that’s all folks!” Maybe the Braves, but no chance the Braves put up three years 120 mil or anything in that neighborhood. The Dodgers sure can.
The Astros have Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and Jose Urquidy under team control for three more seasons, Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia for four, and top prospect Hunter Brown for six. Verlander was awesome in 2022, but the Astros would have won the American League West again if he threw as many pitches as he did in 2021. It’s an interesting call. The Astros cut payroll this year, so the budgetary room is there to give Verlander two years, 80 mil. Is that the choice to make, or is using a chunk of that money in other areas wiser? How does Jim Crane’s personal relationship with Verlander factor into negotiations? Amazing pitching depth can disappear in a hurry. It’s extremely unlikely McCullers is ever a full-season horse. Except for a short dead-arm stretch for Urquidy, he, Valdez, Garcia, and Javier were all healthy all season. Is that to be banked upon for multiple seasons going forward?
A low-risk bet on Michael Brantley off of shoulder surgery seems sensible. One year 10-12 mil (down from the 16 he made this year)? Brantley’s OPS has declined each season since his first with the Astros, but that’s a function of eroded power. His season on base percentage has never dipped below .362. Jeremy Peña had a legendary postseason, but it is not a given he’s now going to be an offensive monster. Peña’s OBP was a poor .289. Brantley would deepen the Astros’ lineup.
The Astros should be seeking a first base upgrade over Yuli Gurriel, who played at a washed up level this year before reviving in the postseason. 12 games of output shouldn’t outweigh 146. It’s clear that Trey Mancini won’t be that upgrade. A left-handed batting complement to Chas McCormick in center field would be nice. If you would like to absolutely destroy the Yankees and their fans, dream of an outfield of Yordan Alvarez, Aaron Judge, and Kyle Tucker! I said dream.
On the management side…
Jim Crane retaining Dusty Baker on a one-year contract is fine. Dusty turns 74 years old next June. Winning a World Series as a manager makes his baseball life complete, and likely ultimately gets Dusty the manager into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s back because he loves it. The retired Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells on more than one occasion referred to his future coaching outlook by saying, “I don’t buy green bananas,” meaning he had way more yesterdays in his rearview mirror than he had tomorrows in front of him. Going year-to-year works for both Baker and Crane.
Crane offering General Manager James Click a one-year contract plays as Crane ostensibly not wanting the soon to turn 45 years old Click back, but realizing that dumping the GM fresh off winning it all would not be great optically. So, putting a one-year deal on the table can reasonably be construed as letting Click know if he has a solid longer term opportunity elsewhere, take it. Business is business, and relationships are relationships. Crane does not owe it to Click to give him a long term commitment. You know the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. Well, here’s the alternate Golden Rule: he/she who has the most gold makes the rules. If Crane doesn’t like Click’s style or whatever else, regardless of the results, it is his prerogative to move on. Retaining Click on just a one-year contract sure comes across as tantamount to saying “Win the World Series again, or buh-bye.”