It’s been two weeks since the Astros tabbed now-former Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown as their new general manager, but Brown has wasted little time in embarking on extension talks with Houston’s core players. The GM acknowledged earlier this week that he’s had talks with Kyle Tucker’s camp in the run-up to Tucker’s arbitration hearing, but there are far more players under consideration, it seems.
Brown told reporters today that he’s held discussions not only with Tucker and his reps but also with the agents for right-hander Cristian Javier. Furthermore, the newly minted GM publicly expressed interest in extending third baseman Alex Bregman and second baseman Jose Altuve (Twitter links, with video, via Mark Berman of Houston’s FOX 26). Both Bregman and Altuve are currently signed through 2024. Bregman told the media today that Brown and agent Scott Boras have already had conversations.
The Astros haven’t necessarily been shy about extensions under prior front office regimes, but it’s a change of pace to hear the team’s top baseball operations executive so candidly discuss such matters. Houston has, in recent years, brokered long-term deals with Bregman (five years, $100MM), Altuve (five years, $151MM), Yordan Alvarez (six years, $115MM) and Lance McCullers Jr. (five years, $85MM) before each reached free agency.
That said, the team hasn’t been quite so aggressive with players early in their pre-arbitration years — a recent hallmark of the Braves organization which Brown just departed. Outside of Altuve’s original four-year, $12.5MM extension, the Astros have generally waited until their players have accrued three or more years of service time, hence the heftier nature of the annual salaries on those previously mentioned long-term pacts. That, it seems, is something Brown endeavors to change (Twitter links via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle).
“I think [owner Jim Crane] and I are going to meet somewhere in the middle,” said Brown. “I’m more on the aggressive side of signing them, he may be more on the conservative side, but he’s very open to getting these players signed.” Brown also added that he’s told Crane to “fasten his seatbelt — it’s time.”
It’s likely music to the ears of Astros fans, who saw substantial roster turnover from the 2017 World Series team to the 2022 World Championship club. Bregman, Altuve, McCullers and Justin Verlander — who’s since departed via free agency — were the only four players on both rosters. While all four of those eventually signed new contracts (Verlander opted out of his most recent deal to again test free agency), none of the team’s newly emerged core has put pen to paper on a long-term arrangement just yet.
Brown spoke with particular optimism regarding the progress made on a potential long-term deal with Javier, the 25-year-old right-hander who has emerged as one of the team’s best starting pitchers. Javier logged a career-high 148 2/3 innings this past season, notching an outstanding 2.54 ERA and fanning a massive 33.2% of his opponents against a respectable 8.9% walk rate. He’s controlled for another three seasons and, like Tucker, is working to avoid a looming arbitration hearing. Javier filed for a $3.5MM salary to the Astros’ counter of $3MM, but it seems there’s a decent chance the two parties work out a lengthier arrangement. “We feel really good about that one,” Brown stated.
Contract extensions for arbitration-eligible players like Javier tend to be based heavily on precedent, which at least provides some potential clues to where the numbers could eventually fall. Recent examples of long-term deals for pitchers with between three and four years of service time (Javier has three exactly), include Aaron Nola’s four-year, $45MM deal from 2019 (which contained a club option for a fifth season) and, more recently, Sandy Alcantara’s five-year, $56MM extension (with an option for a sixth season).
On a rate basis, Javier stacks up favorably to both Alcantara and Nola at the time of their respective extensions; he’s arguably been even better, with a lower ERA (3.05 to Nola’s 3.35 and Alcantara’s 3.49) and a considerably better strikeout rate (30.9% for Javier, 25.7% for Nola, 21.2% for Alcantara). However, both Nola and Alcantara had amassed vastly higher innings totals heading into their first arbitration seasons. Javier has just 304 1/3 career innings (partly due to ample time in the bullpen before a more permanent move to the rotation in 2022), whereas Alcantara had 487 1/3 innings and Nola had piled up a massive 569 frames.
That workload discrepancy is the primary reason that Javier’s projected $3.3MM salary (via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz) falls well shy of the $4.5MM at which Alcantara was projected prior to his extension and the $6.6MM at which Nola was projected. That’s not to say Javier can’t find a way to top the guarantees on either deal, but his camp would need to secure a larger AAV on the free-agent years or perhaps agree to a sixth guaranteed year in order to do so, as his arbitration seasons are inherently going to be valued at lesser rates than those recent comps.
Turning back to a broader look at today’s press conference, Brown didn’t tip his hand on every player with whom he plans to pursue a contract extension, though it’s easy enough to look up and down the roster and identify a few speculative candidates. Shortstop Jeremy Pena has just one year of MLB service under his belt. He’s two years from reaching arbitration and another five years from free agency. Lefty Framber Valdez and righty Luis Garcia, meanwhile, are three and four seasons away from reaching the open market, respectively. Looking to how the Braves operated, it also wouldn’t be a shock to see top prospects like Hunter Brown (0.89 ERA in a 20 1/3 inning MLB debut last year) approached about long-term arrangements fairly early on in their MLB tenures.
Not every overture to sign a player will be successful, of course, but Brown made clear that one of his philosophical beliefs about the job is to correctly identify core players early on and aggressively present scenarios intended to keep them with the club beyond their base six years of control.
“I want you guys to know if a guy walks out of here, it’s not going to be because we didn’t go after him aggressively,” said Brown. “We’re trying to sign players.”