The Astros are going to lose a lot of games next year, that is undeniable. Teams simply do not go from three straight 105+ loss seasons to contention, or even mediocrity, in one offseason. Nevertheless, it is certainly more respectable to lose 85 games than 100, which is why Houston owner Jim Crane came out at the beginning of the offseason and announced that his team might raise their payroll to up to 60 million dollars going into 2014, a nearly fivefold increase from their league-low 13 million dollar payroll last season.
This was neither unreasonable nor controversial until reports started coming out (primarily from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports) linking the Astros to free agent outfielder Shin Soo Choo, who could merit a contract worth over 100 million dollars and would force whichever team that signs him to forfeit a draft pick. The question is not whether or not Houston can afford Choo – they are a mid-market team that has been pocketing revenue sharing money for years, of course they can – but whether its worth it for a team so far out of contention to give up a draft pick in exchange for a 31 year old outfielder?
Under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the answer would have been an almost unequivocal “yes.” Since they had the first overall pick in the draft, their first round selection would be protected and they would only be forced to forfeit their second rounder. The same is true – with only one caveat: under the new CBA, a second round pick is worth a lot more.
In the olden days of pre-2011, the sandwich round was clogged up with compensatory picks for type B free agents and low level Type A’s – your closers, 8th inning relievers, half-decent regular position players, and back-end starters. This meant that the first pick of the second round was generally only the 50th-60th pick in the draft. The unlikelihood of any 60th overall pick ever becoming a productive big leaguer made the trade-off of a second round selection for a veteran star almost laughable.
Now though, with only the handful of free agents deemed worthy of qualifying offers (1 year, 14.1 million dollars) by their former teams garnering draft pick compensation, the number of sandwich picks is much lower and the second round selections appearing much higher in the draft. Thirteen free agents received qualifying offers this year, and assuming all but Robinson Cano sign with another team (not an unreasonable assumption), the Astros second round pick will be the 44th overall. Although listing the past players taken with that pick has an air of triviality, it’s worth noting that in recent years MVP Joey Votto, top Tigers prospect Nick Castellanos, and Rangers bullpen ace Tanner Scheppers have been taken at that spot. Assuming Cano does in fact sign with a team other than the Yankees, then the Astros would get the 43rd overall pick, the former draft home of brief ace Mark Prior, top Mariners pitching prospect, Taijuan Walker, and the Diamondbacks starter Wade Miley.
Realistically, the Astros are not in a position to contend until 2016, at which point Shin Soo Choo will be a 34 year old outfielder likely declining production. Sure, whomever they draft will likely be far worse than him, but he has the potential to be better and regardless of his production, he’ll be a lot cheaper. With a limited long term budget and a barren franchise, GM Jeff Lunhow should stay the rebuilding course. They’ve already made it through three consecutive 100 loss seasons, Astros fans can stomach one more if it means a ring down the line.