While Major League Baseball operates without a salary floor, it's not like there are no restrictions on the frugal. The baseline for fielding a major-league team is found right there in the rule book.
4.17 A game shall be forfeited to the opposing team when a team is unable or refuses to place nine players on the field.
Combine that with the minimum salary set forth in the latest collective bargaining agreement, and you're on the road to a minimum payroll around $12 million when you consider that those nine players might get tired without a full roster.
As much grief as the Marlins have taken for their self-destruction this offseason in gutting payroll, the Astros were in an even stingier situation. They made their two major-league free agent signings of the offseason this week, bringing in DH Carlos Pena for a reported base salary of $2.9 million and Jose Veras for a reported $1.85 million.
They certainly didn't have to. They had enough bodies to get 650 plate appearances out of the DH spot. They had enough arms to fill 500 relief innings. They weren't very good bodies. They weren't very good arms. But they were never going to be reported to Commissioner Selig for any Rule 4.17 violations.
For instance, here's a lineup of people still on the team who could have been the Astros' first American League 25.
C Jason Castro – ~500K
1B Brett Wallace – ~500K
2B Jose Altuve – ~500K
3B Matt Dominguez – ~500K
SS Jed Lowrie – Arb2
LF/DH J.D. Martinez – ~500K
CF Justin Maxwell – ~500K
RF/DH Fernando Martinez – ~500K
RF/DH Jimmy Paredes – ~500K
That's 21 pre-arbitration players, one already salaried in the six figures, two in their first year of eligibility and one in his second, bringing the total payroll for those 25 players to maybe $19 million. That's less than 10 percent of the Dodgers’ projected payroll but again, it's totally within the rules in a year when the Astros have no plans to compete for anything.
Okay, so that roster is awful. But their current roster is pretty bad too, substituting Veras for Demel or Cruz and Pena for a trickle-down that might boot Freiman or a Martinez. (You can't boot the glove-only Barnes without another at least viable center fielder, and outfield defense is already an issue.)
Moving from what has lately been among the game's weakest divisions to a stacked quintet featuring the Angels, Rangers and Athletics, the Astros spent $4.75 million dollars plus incentives to upgrade a roster that won't compete to another roster that won't compete. And that's what makes the analysis of their moves so difficult. We all love the convenience of figuring a worth of $4 million or $5 million for each additional win above replacement in the free agent market, but these are wins that have so little marginal value in the larger competitive picture.
So even if Pena, whose WARP basically dropped in a straight line during his first stint in Tampa, somehow recovers some value from an average of 0.8 wins the last three seasons, what's it for? And even if Jose Veras is still not close but the closest thing they have to a Proven Closer, what is the purpose of his innings? Sort of a defeatist attitude, but then again, so is trading every non-zero-to-three player of current value at last year's trade deadline and reportedly engaging on Bud Norris too.
This is absolutely not a shot at what Jeff Luhnow is doing, adhering to a long-term goal and spending based on ownership's whims. It's about the frustration of trying to analyze these moves. Trades can be analyzed. We can attempt to answer the question of whether Alex White and Alex Gillingham was a suitable package for Wilton Lopez compared to his value. (His value in this case being in the market, rather than to the Astros because their standings position drowns every player's marginal value.) Unlike the trades for future components of the Astros' plan, though, every bit of value in these signings is basically tied up in an externality—that it makes the team look good.
It would be foolish to spend big money to patch together this team with the prospects that are on the way. Low-spending years in 2012 and '13 were part of the demolition plan, and of Jason Parks' Top 10 Astros prospects, seven joined the organization in the last 17 months.
Yet, realistically, they can't spend no money. Technically, they could have gone into the year with a $19 million payroll, plus the $5 million going to Pittsburgh for Wandy Rodriguez. But the Astros are in somewhat of a jam in their market. Paid attendance has dropped from 37,289 per game to 19,849, and there could be a bigger battle looming on the television end.
Their new station, Comcast SportsNet Houston, is set to begin showing games in 2013 and is only distributed in 40 percent of Houston homes. While this may be resolved during the current NBA season—the Rockets are facing this predicament now on the same channel, co-owned by the teams and Comcast—the standoff with some non-Comcast providers may continue. For both this purpose and attendance, the Astros have to give the impression of trying, which is a hard thing to do when they're even trading guys like Lopez entering their first arbitration year.
So owner Jim Crane set a budget, which will likely be the league's lowest and perhaps somewhere in the 30s, and Luhnow has do spend it on the Penas and Verases of the market. They just have to stay out of their own way and not obscure the plan. Veras certainly doesn't get in anybody's way. If Jarred Cosart is really set to close, he'll close on his timetable, not on anything having to do with Veras. Pena is a little bit more intrusive with Jonathan Singleton perhaps major-league ready by year's end, but if having that problem means that Wallace has proven himself an everyday big leaguer, they'll take it and trade one of them.
These moves don't give the Astros even a one-percent boost in their playoff chances, and for $5 million (actually $4 million above having two minimum-salary guys), that can be tough to take if you're looking at it like an ordinary team would. But the Astros are playing their 2013 schedule, like they played 2012, because Major League Baseball has told them they have to, and they're not about to further embarrass themselves with a $19 million payroll as much as that might help the new ownership group pay off debt.
So my reaction when the Astros signed Pena and Veras this week: okay.