Tightening the wad

added 12/3/2000 by Ray Kerby

With the team now officially out of the running for Mike Hampton, this seems like as good of a time as any to start pondering how the roster is going to shake out considering the $60 million salary cap enacted by Drayton McLane. Fortunately, the club has made it clear that extending Jeff Bagwell’s contract is the team’s #1 priority for the off-season. This is, of course, right after the signing of Jose Vizcaino reminded everyone how ugly last winter’s Carl Everett trade could turn out if Adam Everett continues to hit .250 in the minors.

First, let’s examine the 10 contracts already in place for the 2001 season:

Player

2001 Salary

Final Year of Club Control

Jeff Bagwell

$6.5M

2001

Shane Reynolds

$6.0M+ $1.17M bonus

2003

Craig Biggio

$6.0M + $1.0M bonus

2003

Jose Lima

$5.75M + incentives

2002

Moises Alou

$5.25M

2001

Billy Wagner

$5.0M

2002

Bill Spiers

$1.7M + incentives

2001

Jay Powell

$1.6M

2001

Jose Vizcaino

$1.5M + 600K incentives

2001

Tony Eusebio

$1.3M

2001

Two things stand out in this list. First, six of the ten players under contract are going to be playing out the final year of their contract next season! If the team struggles or continues its penny-pinching ways, then perhaps only Bagwell can be expected to remain from those six. Secondly, these ten contracts amount to almost $43 million in guaranteed salaries, leaving only $17 million for the remaining 15 players needed to fill out a 25-man roster on Opening Day.

Of those 15 players, the following four will go to arbitration:

Player

MLB Service

2000 salary

Guesstimated 2001 salary

Richard Hidalgo

3 yrs, 29 days

$330K

$6.0M

Roger Cedeno

5 yrs, 4 days

$2.4M

$2.5M

Chris Holt

4 yrs, 29 days

$1.025M

$2.0M

Scott Elarton

2 yrs, 100 days

$300K

$3.5M

Any player with at least three years of major-league service is entitled to arbitration, and the top two-year players (the "Super Twos") are also entitled to arbitration. My guess is that Scott Elarton’s 17 wins will easily qualify him as a top two-year player. Even so, being a two-year player should help keep his salary from skyrocketing. It’s also very possible that Mitch Meluskey (listed below) may qualify as a "Super Two" and receive a significant raise in arbitration. Chris Holt’s salary can be expected to double merely from market forces: several middle relievers have recently signed multi-year contracts in excess of $3 million per year. There is ample reason to think that Holt, as a full-time starter, will earn a significant raise despite his mediocre performance last season.

Assuming these 2001 salary estimates are accurate, the $14 million allocated to these four players pushes the payroll to $57 million, leaving only $3 million available for the remaining 11 players. Barring any additional free agent signings, these players should all be firmly under club control, giving them little leverage with regards to the salary. Although some of these players on Opening Day will be youngsters that have forced their way onto the roster, here are ten likely candidates:

Player

2000 Salary

Guesstimated 2001 salary

Glen Barker

$255K

$255K

Jose Cabrera

$252.5K

$275K

Octavio Dotel

$240K

$275K

Daryle Ward

$237.5K

$275K

Mitch Meluskey

$215K

$250K

Tony McKnight

$200K

$215K

Wade Miller

$200K

$215K

Julio Lugo

$200K

$215K

Chris Truby

$200K

$250K

Lance Berkman

$200K

$275K

I don’t know if my guesstimates are conservative, but they do reflect an increase that can be expected to come as a result of increased playing time. Those ten salaries total $2.5 million, and an additional minimum-salary of $200K can be assigned to some lucky youngster in the final roster spot, bringing the total to $2.7 million. Adding up the salaries of these three groups of players leaves us with around $59.5 million, or just a hair under the profit-maximizing $60 million target set by Drayton McLane.

Of course, that is before we get to the business of the club’s first priority, extending Jeff Bagwell’s contract. Now I’ll be the first to admit that, given our strength at 1B, it doesn’t make financial sense for the team to commit 20% of the the budget to keeping Bagwell. But, of course, he is not just a first baseman for this organization. Arguably the best hitter in the history of the franchise, Bagwell has shown a loyalty to the organization that is not often seen in today’s players. Trading him would send a clear message to the rest of the team, and the available free-agents, that the Astros are more interested in cutting costs than staying competitive. In addition, while it is difficult to estimate the fan backlash a Bagwell trade would create, it’s probably fair to suggest it would be similar to the debacle caused by the departure of Nolan Ryan. Jeff Bagwell also represents the organization’s best chance to get a Houston Astro into the Hall of Fame, and that means a lot to many fans.

Although Bagwell might accept a contract extension without enjoying a raise next season, I think that it is unlikely unless he is firmly convinced that the team plans to remain competitive. Any increase in Bagwell’s 2001 salary would require the jettisoning of other veteran players to accommodate. Two likely suspects are Chris Holt and Roger Cedeno, neither of whom would be greatly missed. Holt’s continued employment seems less likely with the improvement of young pitchers Wade Miller and Tony McKnight. Even Octavio Dotel should get a shot to win back a spot in the starting rotation. Cedeno’s role as a CF ended prematurely, with Richard Hidalgo re-assuming his minor-league position. As a corner outfielder, Cedeno’s offensive skills are much less impressive, giving ground to Lance Berkman and his lower salary.

Another way to save money would be to trade Moises Alou, freeing up his salary to pay for Bagwell. His offensive power would make him attractive to other teams, and it is unlikely that the Astros will be able to afford him when he becomes a free agent after 2001. It is telling that, with regards to signing priorities, Alou has yet to show up in the team’s plans. And if the team has no plans to extend Alou’s contract, then trading him is the best way to receive compensation for his impending loss. Still, if Drayton McLane honestly believes that the team can be competitive with a $60 million payroll, Alou will play out his final season under contract.

The last viable way to squeeze blood out of this turnip would involve Billy Wagner. The flame-throwing closer fell upon hard times last season, but would still be attractive to teams willing to pick up his $5 million salary next season. Closers and middle-relievers are not a dime-a-dozen, but they are certainly easier to find (and groom) that starting pitchers. As such, I cannot see how the team can justify paying $5 million to any reliever, even Wagner, given the imposed payroll constraints. Other high-paid players such as Reynolds, Biggio and Lima would have very little trade value because of age or performance issues, not that I would ever suggest trading Craig Biggio.

So how much could the team save? The projected salaries of Holt, Cedeno, and Wagner add up to almost $10 million. With Mike Hampton, Mike Mussina and Denny Neagle no longer available on the market, one of the best candidates for shoring up the rotation is Darren Dreifort from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his contract would soak up most of that $10 million, leaving little behind for Bagwell’s extension. Looking for a quality, free-agent starting pitcher for $5 million a year is just not practical in today’s market, especially with some of the talented arms coming up in the farm system (don’t we say that every year?). Unless Billy Wagner is dealt, there is no way financially for the team to acquire an impact player to fill the holes at SS, 3B or the starting rotation without raising the payroll significantly over $60 million.

So the prognosis for next season is not much different than what we saw last year: same payroll, same basic players. Chris Holt’s spot in the rotation should be filled by a younger arm, and the team would not miss a beat even if that youngster struggles. Cedeno is no longer necessary, especially since Hidalgo has outplayed him in CF. Any playoff hopes we have will ride on the continued improvement of young players like Meluskey, Berkman, and McKnight, while hoping that the breakout seasons for Hidalgo and Elarton can be duplicated. The much-denied rebuilding process becomes more pronounced as the acquisition of younger, cheaper prospects increases in likelihood over proven free-agent veterans.

The Winter Meetings (Dec. 8-12) are almost here, and we will have a better idea of the club’s direction at that point.