HOUSTON -- Astros owner Jim Crane said last week the team would be in position to increase its payroll next year, and on Tuesday he provided the first indication of just how much money could be spent on players in 2014.
Crane said the Astros' payroll, which was at about $13 million to end the season, could be between $50-60 million next year regardless of whether the club is able to settle its dispute with television partner Comcast. The Astros contend Comcast/NBC improperly filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition in an attempt to prevent the team from terminating the media rights agreement between the Astros and Houston Regional Sports Network.
The Astros on Monday filed a motion to dismiss an involuntary Chapter 11 filed by four Comcast affiliates against Houston Regional Sports Network, the parent company of Comcast SportsNet Houston. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 28.
"If this gets resolved, we could go a little bit deeper," Crane said.
The only long-term contract obligation the Astros have on the books for next year is second baseman Jose Altuve, who will make $1.25 million. All-Star catcher and team Most Valuable Player Jason Castro is eligible for arbitration and could make twice as much as Altuve.
The Astros are encouraged by some of the young talent that hit Houston last season and are even more enthused about the prospects that are now sitting at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues and could make an impact next year. Still, the Astros will be in the market this winter for a closer, an outfielder with some pop and a veteran starting pitcher.
That means the Astros could have about $30 million to spread among three or four players on the open market, but don't expect general manager Jeff Luhnow to make a run at any of the higher-end free agents just yet.
"I would say [the payroll] could go to $50-60 [million] very quickly, and if this [TV situation] gets resolved, it could go higher," Crane said. "We're not going to make a move unless it fits into the plan, and we're not going to rush the plan. Jeff's got a very systematic formula and we do have some good players coming up. [If] you add three or four key positions and bring in a couple of guys that are ready, this team is pretty competitive pretty quickly with the starting pitching we've got. We're deep in pitching."
By the end of last season, the Astros' rotation featured promising youngsters like Dallas Keuchel, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock, while prospects like Mike Foltynewicz and Asher Wojciechowski are on the way, and Alex White could return from Tommy John surgery next year.
What's more, the team took Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the No. 1 overall pick in this year's First-Year Player Draft and could target North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon with the top pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft.
Crane said the Astros will continue to spend as much money as they can in player development to keep the Minor League system among baseball's best.
"It will always be one of the premier Minor League systems, so we're always going to be like the Cardinals, like the Braves -- always have the feeder system coming in, and then we'll complement with some key players," Crane said. "That formula worked extremely well, and those teams are productive and profitable and have great records. I think the stage is set for that. Next year we'll start filling in the pieces."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.