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Max Scherzer and the Astros: Why Jeff Lunhow should have rolled the dice

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Max Scherzer may not have seemed like the most likely candidate to join the Astros. But it might have made sense. Let's dig deeper.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

[Editor's note: This is the site's first piece by new contributor Nicolas Stellini! Welcome him aboard.]

The Nationals are apparently very close to landing Max Scherzer, a move that will give Washington an ungodly amount of talent in their starting rotation. The signing could result in a trade of Jordan Zimmermann or Stephen Strasburg and therefore a sizable haul of talent, making this a double-win of sorts for GM Mike Rizzo. Among the teams reported to be out on Scherzer at the 11th hour were the Houston Astros.

The Astros were the unexpected winners of the Evan Gattis trade sweepstakes, as you may have heard. The hulking catcher DH left fielder’s considerable right-handed pop should provide some vastly entertaining returns at Minute Maid Park, and gives the Astros another big bat to compliment George Springer and Chris Carter in the middle of the order. Gattis projected for about 2 fWAR in Atlanta, and that figure may increase a bit, considering the 35-homer potential his right-handed swing has in Houston, and the smaller left field for him to patrol. With 3B prospect Colin Moran projecting to knock on the door sooner rather than later, the Astros could soon be the proud owners of a fascinating lineup.

Houston will also trot out a fascinating rotation, boasting 2014 breakouts Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, along with Brett Oberholtzer and veteran Scott Feldman. Brad Peacock could step into the fifth spot when he’s fully recovered from his hip surgery, but GM Jeff Lunhow and his sidekicks in Ground Control are said to be looking for another starter. Ken Rosenthal tells us that their eyes are set more on the Ryan Vogelsongs of the world. What if they weren’t? What if the Astros had decided to be plucky and give a call to Scott Boras and Max Scherzer?

The Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections aren’t out just yet (Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the Astros are, sans Gattis), but we can safely say that the Astros figure to be a somewhat middling team. They’re a group that strikes out quite a bit (23.8 K% in 2014, highest in the AL), and their rotation doesn’t project to be anything truly special beyond Keuchel and McHugh. The relief corps has been upgraded with the additions of Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, but still has little depth, and those two could likely be flipped for spare parts at the trade deadline. So why in the world would the Astros have wanted to sign Max Scherzer?

It’s not as insane as it seems. If there’s one thing Scherzer is, it’s a bona fide ace. He’s accumulated 12 fWAR over the last two years, 16.5 in the last three, and earned a Cy Young Award in that span. That’s not a bad deal, except that it makes Scherzer insanely expensive. Being a Scott Boras client drives up the price even more. Scherzer’s contract demands, and the fact that he’s tied to draft pick compensation, are why he’s still out on the market. Because the usual suspects didn't seem eager to pounce, it was good opportunity for a team like Houston to swoop in.

First and foremost, adding Scherzer would have drastically improved the rotation. Not only is Scherzer really good at throwing baseballs, but his presence also forces out a less-than-ideal presence at the back end. That means instead of Jake Buchanan or Asher Wojciehowski (or a low-grade free agent) grabbing the fifth starter’s job until Peacock is healthy, Olberholtzer is the fifth man. A Scherzer/Keuchel/McHugh first three is nothing to sneeze at, and would have pushed the Astros into relevancy. The draft pick issue isn’t one that concerns Jeff Lunhow, as the Astros have two protected picks this year as a result of their failure to sign Brady Aiken. It’s money that serves as the factor that could have made or broken this possible deal.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Astros had a nearly impossibly low $50.5 million opening day payroll in 2014, which right off the bat should raise some red flags. While Houston rolled out a roster that consisted largely of cheap cost-controlled players, it’s a remarkably small total for a team hosted by the fourth-most populous city in the country. However, Jeff Lunhow has shown this winter that he’s ready to start spending by dolling out $54 million in total salary obligations to free agents.

Between those additions, arbitration raises, and contracts already on the books, Cot’s currently has the Houston payroll at $50,812,500. Dexter Fowler and Marwin Gonzalez have not settled with the club yet, and those two salaries could raise the total by about $10 million or so. When the salaries of pre-arbitration players are settled, I estimate that could add about $6.5 million to the figure. In total, I estimate that as the roster currently stands, Houston is looking at a payroll of $67,312,500. That’s a relatively substantial jump from last year. Is there more room to spend?

I certainly think there is. As I mentioned earlier, Houston is far from a small market. The Astros are also looking forward to having a beneficial TV deal this year. Until now, the Astros were shown on CSN Houston, a network that reached a very small number of households. Between the low level of play on the field and a simple lack of viable viewers, some Astros games were actually receiving 0.0 Nielson ratings. With the launch of Root Sports Southwest, however, the Astros (and Houston Rockets, for all you basketball fans) will reach a much wider audience, and take in $107 million of television rights fees. It’s also worth noting that it’s pretty likely that the Astros are through with unofficially tanking for draft picks. It’s decently safe to say that if the Astros had made a serious push at Scherzer, they could have done it.

Why should a middling team like Houston splurge on an ace now, and not wait until next winter when Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Hisashi Iwakuma, David Price, and Doug Fister (and perhaps even Zack Greinke, who has an opt-out in his current deal) are all hitting the market? The answer is rather simple. It’s because Scherzer was available now, and more importantly, he was still available.

There’s no guarantee that all of those arms will even reach the open market. The Nationals may extend one of Zimmermann or Fister (barring a trade of Zimmermann), and there have been rumblings of Price talking to the Tigers about a long-term deal. And barring a mid-season trade, all of them are almost certainly going to be tied to draft picks. The Astros are in a unique position at this very moment, given their two protected picks in this year’s draft. Why not sign Scherzer now, forfeit a second-round pick, and still take home two of the top ten players in the draft?

An ace is largely a win-now move, but for the Astros it could have been a massive warning shot over the bow of the baseball world. A Scherzer signing would have told next year’s free agents, their own players, and most importantly the fans, "We’re done messing around. We’re going to try to win." Remember that owner Jim Crane has a shiny new TV deal, and now he would have had a shiny new ace. Think of the jersey sales, the fans that would suddenly appear in the seats at Minute Maid Park to watch their new ace and their new slugging left fielder take the field alongside the reigning batting champ (Jose Altuve) and all the fresh-faced prospects graduating into The Show.

The Astros could have been the Cubs of the AL: the exciting young team run by a rock-star brain trust with a brand new ace, ready to break a long drought of losing. Think of the buzz. Think of the profits. Think of the metaphorical billboard shoved into the face of every impending free agent that says, "We’re worth serious consideration as your possible next employer." Signing Scherzer likely doesn’t net Houston a wild card this year, but Jeff Lunhow’s promise of an over-.500 finish is suddenly a much more likely scenario. Let’s inspect the rest of the division and discuss the upward mobility I mentioned earlier.

The Rangers should get healthy years out of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, but they’re still a bit of a mess at a few different positions, and lack depth in the event the injury bug returns for seconds. Their rumored acquisition of Yovani Gallardo strengthens a rotation that had been a source of concern, but Texas is far from being a complete team. It’s difficult to ever count Billy Beane’s A’s out, but it’s hard to get excited about a lineup where Billy Butler, Ike Davis, and Josh Reddick will be looked to as main cogs in the machine. A strong return from Tommy John surgery by Jarrod Parker could make or break this team.

Seattle made a splash by signing Nelson Cruz and trading for Seth Smith (so that Cruz wouldn’t have to "play" the outfield). It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Cruz even comes close to matching last year’s power surge while playing at Safeco, though, and Smith’s blistering start to 2014 may have largely been smoke and mirrors. And finally, the Angels are undoubtedly a good club, and the presumptive winners of this division. They’ll be without one Howie Kendrick, however, and Garret Richards may not return for some time. Tyler Skaggs will be gone nearly the entire year while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Angels desperately need one more good year from Jered Weaver, a strong full season debut from Andrew Heaney, and rebounds by Josh Hamilton (1.1 fWAR in 2014) and C.J. Wilson (0.6 fWAR) to stay safe as the kings of the hill. If the dice don’t fall the right way, the Angels are suddenly a much more beatable team. It’s also worth looking to see if Mike Trout continues to strike out at a prodigious rate.

Basically, the AL West is much more up for grabs than it seems. A stronger, Scherzer-infused Astros could have quite easily played the role of spoiler in this division, and grabbed the much-coveted over-.500 record. With a ton of talent (Mark Appel, Carlos Correa, Moran) still kicking around in the minors, the Astros are only going to get better as time goes on. Scherzer likely still has a few years of dominance left in him, and even after that should be a reliable presence in the rotation. Not only could the Astros have signed Max Scherzer, but they absolutely should have. He's likely going elsewhere, but it wouldn't have been crazy for them to dig in on the erstwhile Tigers ace.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.

Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, and a member of the IBWAA. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets or email him at stellinin1@gmail.com.