The Astros are among the teams “looking at” free agent right-hander Jake Odorizzi, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network (Twitter link). Houston recently lost Framber Valdéz to a broken finger. There’s been no definitive word on how long Valdéz will be out, but Heyman reported yesterday the initial evaluation suggested he’ll require surgery, which could prove to be season-ending.
Odorizzi is the top starter remaining in free agency, so it’s natural the Astros would check in with his representatives. Adding him would undoubtedly help the current roster; as Ben Clemens of FanGraphs explored yesterday, Houston’s projected rotation now consists of Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., José Urquidy, Cristian Javier and Luis García. That’s a talented group but one light on major league track record at the back end. Beyond that quintet, Brandon Bielak and Forrest Whitley look like the top depth options. (Justin Verlander likely won’t pitch in 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery last September).
Teams often already have to rely on seven or eight starters over the course of a typical season. This year, they’ll be faced with unprecedented challenges managing workloads coming off a shortened campaign. Greinke’s 67 innings in 2020 led the current projected rotation, so it’d be difficult to count on all (or perhaps any) of the group to go 160-plus innings in 2021.
Odorizzi himself is coming off an injury-ruined year. Three injured list stints (for an intercostal strain, a chest contusion, and blisters, respectively) kept him to just 13.2 innings across four starts for the Twins. That diminished workload probably limits Odorizzi’s innings total this year as well, but he’d add a usually-durable, productive starter to the mix. The 30-year-old averaged 165-plus innings per season from 2014-19 with a cumulative 3.88 ERA and solid strikeout (23%) and walk (8.2%) rates. A few of those years were spent with the Rays, where current Astros general manager James Click worked in the Tampa Bay front office.
That all makes for a logical match on paper, but it’s questionable whether the organization is willing to meet his asking price. Odorizzi was reportedly seeking a three-year deal in the $13MM – $15MM range annually earlier this offseason; he apparently remains content to wait out the market rather than move off that price point. That’s not an outlandish ask for a mid-rotation starter, but concerns about the luxury tax could keep the Astros from spending at that level.
Houston’s current $181MM payroll, as projected by Roster Resource, seems more than manageable for an organization that was set to spend over $210MM on players last season before prorating salaries. However, Heyman notes that the Astros’ luxury tax ledger, which uses contracts’ average annual values rather than current year salaries, sits about $13MM shy of the first tax threshold ($210MM). It’s possible Houston could look into a longer-term deal with Odorizzi that lowers the AAV for tax purposes. Even that type of arrangement, though, would likely push the Astros right up to or over the tax barrier, perhaps necessitating other payroll-shedding moves to stay beneath the threshold and leave room for any in-season acquisitions.
It’s arguable the win-now Astros should be willing to pay the marginal taxes in order to take their best shot at a World Series in 2021. That doesn’t seem especially likely, though. Houston reportedly wasn’t particularly active in the bidding for free agent center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., another obvious roster fit, because of luxury tax concerns. As Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic noted last month, exceeding the threshold would reduce the draft pick compensation Houston could receive for their slate of potential qualifying offer recipients (Carlos Correa, McCullers and Greinke among them) next winter. Houston management apparently found that a significant deterrent, particularly with the organization being dealt significant draft penalties in 2020-21 due to the sign-stealing scandal. An Odorizzi signing would likely raise the same concerns.