HOUSTON – Jim Crane approached the intersection and came to a place he had never been to. His tendencies toward financial restraint and free agency avoidance have disappeared in favor of another World Series pursuit with a core that may not be intact for much longer. A team that was one win away from the American League pennant needed another piece.
Crane paid more than ever to get it. Houston's five-year, $95 million deal with free-agent closer Josh Hader shook up every part of Crane's previous standard operating procedure but reflected the win-now mentality he maintained during the team's golden era.
Rarely in this decade of dominance have the Astros shopped at the top of the free-agent market, a byproduct of baseball's best farm system waiting to replenish a core held together by a series of contract extensions. Its independence led the club to seven consecutive American League Championship Series appearances, four pennants and two World Series championships – a sustained success that this city had never enjoyed.
Extension is Crane's ultimate goal, but the crossroads his franchise faces are unmistakable. What was once baseball's best farm system is now one of its worst. The aforementioned core is either aging or approaching free agency, demanding the kind of action that Crane had long avoided.
Crane had not given any free agent more than a four-year contract, nor had he had more than $58.5 million guaranteed in a free agent contract. Signing Hader all but guarantees that the team will pay the competitive balance tax for the first time during Crane's tenure as owner (the team exceeded it in 2020, but the tax was eliminated as part of the pandemic-shortened season).
Adding Hader gives the Astros the best bullpen in baseball and could once again assert the club as the favorite in the American League, crucial in a season that could be the last in Houston for Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.
Both are entering their final season under club control. Kyle Tucker and Framber Valdez will enter free agency after next season. Justin Verlander and Ryan Pressly both contain performance-based options for the 2025 season, so there's at least the possibility that one or both could be gone after 2024 as well.
This looming attrition has always added to the 2024 season. On Friday, Crane responded accordingly, even if the contract caused a stir.
Helpers are unpredictable by nature. Spending $95 million and taking five years to do so represents significant risk, although Hader's stellar career mitigates that risk. Houston has living proof in Rafael Montero, whose three-year, $34.5 million contract – given to Crane last winter – aged poorly last season and in some ways forced the team to boldly approach the bullpen this winter.
Doing this with Hader gives the 2024 team its best chance of pursuing a championship, something Crane and general manager Dana Brown should be fully focused on. Changes after this season are almost certain. Tucker, Valdez and Bregman will all be asking for the kind of massive contracts that Crane has been reluctant to hand out.
Next season could be the last in Houston for players like Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman. (Joe Camporeale/USA Today)
In March, Crane said, “Our goal here is pretty simple: We’re trying to get 26 people together. You can't do that with a big contract.
“I’m not saying we would never do that,” he continued. “But we did well by building the team the way we did.”
Friday offered the most blatant departure from “doing it the way we did it.” Only time will tell whether Hader's contract is the start of a philosophical shift or an overreaction to Houston's barren bullpen. The team lost Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek and Hector Neris to free agency and announced Tuesday that Kendall Graveman will miss the 2024 season due to right shoulder surgery.
Whether the Astros would have even pursued Hader before Graveman's surgery is a fair question. At the winter meetings last month, general manager Dana Brown said without prompting, “I'm not interested in overpaying in the replacement market.” On Tuesday, after the team announced Graveman's projection, Brown spoke to The Athletic about finding someone , pitching the sixth and seventh innings.
No, Hader doesn't make $95 million to pitch the sixth or seventh inning. Something changed in those three days, although this has become common during Brown's short tenure. Before last season's trade deadline, Brown reiterated for weeks that the Astros were not keeping an eye on the starter pitching market, even as injuries and ineffectiveness plagued their staff.
A day before the deadline, Brown changed his tune and the team brought Verlander back from the New York Mets. Verlander then praised Crane for helping close the deal – understandable given the close relationship between them and the complex financial details the deal involved.
Crane's involvement in the team's baseball operations decisions is well known and has only increased following the electronic sign theft scandal. However, agreeing the deal for Verlander was consistent with precedent. The team's first trade for Verlander in 2017 and the Zack Greinke blockbuster in 2019 both required Crane to provide the final push before completion.
Getting to the top of the free agent market and making a headline-grabbing deal isn't what Crane did. Perhaps he has realized that his club can no longer afford to deny new prospects to an agricultural system that cannot afford it. Acquiring Verlander from the Mets last season cost two of Houston's top prospects: Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford, both of whom were listed on Baseball America's recently released Top 100 list. The Astros only had one candidate on the roster: outfielder Jacob Melton.
Crane hired Brown in part for his scouting skills and his ability to replenish the team's farm system through the draft. This winter, Crane allowed Brown to bolster and restructure the amateur scouting staff to replenish the prospect pipeline.
Relying solely on trade deadline deals can undermine this goal, especially in a system with only a few top-end prospects. Brown and his growing scouting team can't rebuild the farm in one go. It is essential to give them time to do this.
Perhaps Crane will continue this change in the meantime. If he does, Friday must be seen as the beginning of it.
(Top photo by Jim Crane: Samuel Corum / Sipa USA via Associated Press)