How latest “curveball” in contract negotiations could impact Houston Astros

Will the Astros sign Framber Valdez and Kyle Tucker to extensions?Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Houston Astros general manager Dana Brown is off to a running start in his first few weeks on the job.

The Astros announced on Friday they reached an extension with pitcher Cristian Javier for five years worth $64 million with a $2 million signing bonus. The move was the first big domino for Houston under Brown and it could be a sign of things to come from the top.

One of the biggest knocks on former Astros GM James Click was the lack of big splash moves he made for the team, including when it came to the trade deadline and in free agency. Well, Brown’s first deal was certainly a big one. Javier played a key role in Houston’s 2022 World Series run.

At only 25 years old, Javier has the potential to be an important player in Houston’s future for the duration of his contract. As far as Brown goes, the signing could be an indicator of what his tenure will be like for the Astros. While Click’s first months with Houston were essentially hijacked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the former GM found himself in a bit of a similar position that Brown is in now.

Back in 2020 when Click first took over, the Astros knew two big pieces were soon going to hit the free agency market in George Springer and Carlos Correa. Ultimately, neither re-signed with the team. Houston’s success despite losing those two players made it a much easier pill to swallow.

Now, Houston has a few players that will need a big pay day to remain with the team long-term. Kyle Tucker and Framber Valdez are two big pieces that will need to have a long-term decision made sooner rather than later. Looking even further into the future, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are set to become free agents after the 2024 season as well.

On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that a previous report about Valdez and the Astros discussing a long-term deal was wrong. While that doesn’t mean those talks won’t begin eventually, it is worth noting in that same article Brown is quoted as wanting to prioritize keeping the team’s best talent with the Astros.

From a fan's viewpoint, being able to retain the team’s best talent will certainly make Brown a favorite. It ultimately comes down to executing those deals. If Brown can lock down long-term deals with Tucker and Valdez, it will signal a changing of the guard of how things were run for the past three years.

Of course re-signing top talent is only one piece of the puzzle. Brown’s ability to find new players and make in-season moves to help the Astros in the present will determine a lot, too.

Brown’s ability to close the deal with Javier is a step in the right direction when it comes to having a GM that will not be too conservative, which whether fair or not, was the reputation Click garnered. As of now, it looks like Brown is not shy to spend big to keep the Astros great.

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The Astros are utilizing a 6-man rotation. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros should schedule an Old-Timers Game, if not annually maybe every other year. Only the Yankees have regularly played Old Timers Games and it’s a highlight in the Bronx every season. The Astros have plenty enough history to welcome back an ample number of guys to make for a fabulous event. Maybe they could tie it into their now annual Hall of Fame Weekend. Anyway, don’t you feel that if Jose Altuve took part in an Old Timers Game in 2050 he’d bang out a couple of hits, and then if the Astros played him in the regular game he’d line one more hit somehow, at age 60?

After missing the first 43 games of the season while recovering from his broken thumb, Altuve went 0 for four in his first game back, but has since been generally fantastic with his OPS through nine games played at 1.013. It won’t stay that high, but Altuve is a direly needed upgrade to the Astros’ offense which has been utterly mediocre. Offense is the reason the Astros continue to look up at the Texas Rangers in the American League West. The Rangers’ offense has been fantastic, outscoring the Astros by a whopping 100 runs through the first third of the season.

As the regular season entered its middle third this week, the Astros are in the middle of playing a game in 17 consecutive days. It’s their longest stretch of the season without an off day. They are inserting Ronel Blanco as a sixth starting pitcher in the rotation for a couple of turns. The point of mixing in a sixth starter isn’t that the Astros are teeming with guys who belong in a big league rotation. The 29-year-old Blanco is not a notable prospect. This is about lightening the load a little on two guys: Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown.

In becoming a rotation mainstay last season, Javier blew past his previous biggest season workload by nearly 50 innings. He’s on pace to go another 25 innings beyond that this year without even accounting for the playoffs. Hunter Brown last year set his professional high with 130 innings pitched encompassing work with the Space Cowboys and Astros. Brown is on pace for about 170 innings this regular season. That’s a significant jump, and of course the Astros are hoping for another postseason of multiple rounds. Javier, Brown, and Framber Valdez are the three most critical pitchers on the staff, and the Astros hope they remain healthily so for several more years.

Lance McCullers’s latest recovery setback makes his plight increasingly sad. Well, except for him on payday. The odds now lopsidedly favor McCullers never again pitching a near fully healthy and effective season. His only one to date was 2021 (until he broke down in the playoffs), the year before his five year 85 million dollar contract kicked in. McCullers pulls down 17 mil this year (And again next year. And in 2025. And 2026), exactly two and a half times what Framber Valdez makes. I reckon Framber’s representation is aware of this, as it is of the five year 63 million dollar deal the Astros struck with Cristian Javier. Framber is more than three years older than Javier, but has been better, and can hit free agency after the 2025 season, the same time Javier could have gone to market.

Timing isn’t everything but it darn sure can matter. The Astros’ two best relief pitchers through May were Hector Neris and Phil Maton. Neris enters June with a 1.19 earned run average, Maton even better with a teeny-weeny 0.68 ERA. Maton has been especially amazing, given that last year while not pitching very well he posted his career best ERA at 3.84. His 2022 ended ignominiously when after giving up a hit to his brother Nick in the regular season finale, Phil took the ding-a-ling of the week award by breaking his pitching hand punching his locker, sidelining him for the postseason. The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. Now Maton is up for Best Pitcher (per inning worked). Both Neris and Maton were James Click acquisitions. Both become free agents after this season.

Up next

Four games with the Angels at Minute Maid Park through the weekend mean the amazing Shohei Ohtani is in town. It’s “Sho-time” on the mound Friday night in a doozy of a pitching matchup with Framber, with Ohtani batting in at least three of the four games. In one player the Angels have a pitcher as good as Cristian Javier and a hitter better than Kyle Tucker. And the Angels will probably miss the playoffs again anyway. And then lose Ohtani in free agency. After the Angels series the Astros are on the road next week. They start with four games at Toronto against the Blue Jays’ very potent lineup, then it’s three at Cleveland vs. the Guardians whose offense has been pathetic so far this season.

Walk this way

Geek Astro factoid of the week: Jeremy Pena drew two walks in Tuesday’s win over the Twins. In his rookie season, Pena had only one two walk game, also in May, also against the Twins. Tuesday’s bases on balls finally got Pena into double digits for the season. He has just 11 walks drawn (largely explaining his weak .307 on-base percentage) vs. 50 strikeouts.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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