Astros will use assets to add impact bats

GM Luhnow has prospects, financial flexibility to address needs at 1B, DH

November 9th, 2016

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In 2009, the Astros' Opening Day payroll was a little over $100 million. It hasn't been that high again since.

There are a variety of reasons for that: The team was sold in 2011, general manager Jeff Luhnow was hired to preside over a rebuilding effort, well-paid veterans cycled off the roster and turbulence from a new local television rights agreement lasted longer than expected.

Now, the Astros are ready to spend again, coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons in a decade. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., and team officials are preparing to bring their spending more in line with their market size. Eventually, that could mean a payroll of $140 million or more, up from around $97 million on Opening Day 2016.

Luhnow has managed his payroll effectively, with infielder Yulieski Gurriel and reliever the only players signed to guaranteed contracts beyond 2017. At the moment, the Astros have less than $40 million committed to five players for the coming season; although that doesn't include arbitration raises for , , and others.

Luhnow has an abundance of flexibility. And he intends to use it.

Along with the rotation, first base/designated hitter is a natural place for the Astros to invest. In 2016, they had the second-worst OPS of any American League team at first base (.680) and the lowest at DH (.696).

Fortunately, there's a future Hall of Famer (, via trade) and perennial All-Star (, via free agency) available at those positions. And Luhnow has hinted that he's willing to explore big names.

"The reality is, we need to add somebody to our lineup," Luhnow told MLB Network on Tuesday. "We're losing a couple good players through free agency. We've got the wherewithal -- with the prospects and money -- to potentially add an impact piece. We're certainly going to be looking at it."

Luhnow added: "We've always said we're ready to make an investment when the time is right. We've been increasing our payroll every year, and I think it'll increase this year. We need to be smart about what we do. We don't want to mortgage the future to put it all in for this year. But we do feel like we have a chance to win, so we're going to make the investment we need to."

CBA unknowns could delay megadeals

• One reason we shouldn't expect a flurry of big-dollar free-agent signings early in the offseason: Without a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires Dec. 1, high-payroll clubs don't know the competitive balance tax threshold and the penalties for exceeding it. Last year, the figure was set at $189 million, with an initial penalty of 17.5 percent on any excess.

Of course, agents want big-spending clubs involved in the bidding for their clients. And without clarity as to the consequences of each contract, those teams are likely to hold off on major decisions -- or focus their efforts on the cost-certain trade market.

"For our perspective, it affects me quite a bit," said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. "You don't know what rules you're playing under. We're a club that was over the CBT last year. I think there were six clubs that did that.

"It's hard to say what you're going to do when you don't know what the penalties may be to go over. So I have no idea at this point. It will affect us a great deal, because I don't want to put us in a position of great risk when you don't know what penalty you have to pay."

Red Sox like outfield makeup

Dombrowski said he "wouldn't be surprised" if a team made a compelling trade offer to him for center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., but he added that he'd be more surprised if a deal actually occurred, because of how highly the Red Sox value Bradley. Dombrowski likes the idea of having "three center fielders" across the outfield -- in left, Bradley in center and in right.

"That's one of the pluses we have," Dombrowski said. "We're really not looking to change that. That's a real good core for us -- not only for next year, but a number of years going forward."

Alderson talks center field, Harvey

• If doesn't return to the Mets, will general manager Sandy Alderson look to add someone capable of playing center field? "I think what we need to be is a little more balanced in the outfield -- not so much who can play what position, but from an offensive standpoint, being balanced right and left," Alderson said. "Center field is an area where we're going to have to mix and match, in all probability, but I think we were encouraged by the play of some of our younger guys in center field -- [Michael] Conforto, [Brandon] Nimmo. [Juan] Lagares certainly is a very good defensive outfielder."

• Alderson said he's optimistic that will be ready for the start of Spring Training after undergoing season-ending surgery to alleviate symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome.

"He's playing catch now, lengthening things out," Alderson said. "He'll be into a normal offseason throwing program by December, so we expect he'll be ready to go."