WILL ASTROS INCREASED PAYROLL BUY THEM THE 2017 PENNANT?

For The Record- Kaz Kazmar

It’s hard to believe that New England’s unbelievable comeback to win Super Bowl 51 has barely sunk in (it probably hasn’t yet around the Atlanta area) and major league baseball’s spring training already is beginning this week at the various sites in Florida and Arizona.
After spending decades training at their site at Kissimmee, Fla. the Houston Astros have moved their entire caravan to their brand new location at West Palm Beach with their most potentially potent roster of General Manager Jeff Luhnow’s six-year tenure.
And with the upward surge in talent level comes the increase in the cost of this new talent as the Astros 2017 opening-day payroll is expected to surpass the franchise record-setting mark of $120 million, according to data analysis provided by the Houston Chronicle.
The Astros opened the 2016 season with a $95.1 million payroll–which was the eighth-lowest in the major leagues—and haven’t surpassed the $100 million since 2009 when Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada and Roy Oswalt were still on their payroll.
A $120 million payroll would have ranked 16th in Major League Baseball last season and should be in that same vicinity for 2017.
This is the most stacked and loaded the Astros have been in Luhnow’s five-plus years. The next stage of his vision has arrived. Now the Astros must deliver on what they promised during the thrill of 2015, but only teased last year.
“We’re probably going to have roughly a league-average payroll this year for the first time in a while, and I think that’s going to increase,” Luhnow told a media gathering last week at Minute Maid Park. “You need fuel to fuel the fire, and we’ve got plenty of resources right now.”
What the general manager was referring to was the fact the four highest-paid players on the Astros’ 2017 roster were acquired by the team in the last seven months.
Luhnow went on a buying spree during the late fall and early winter and picked up in the free-agent marketplace outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran ($16 million), infielder Yuli Gurriel ($14.4 million), outfielder Josh Reddick ($13 million) and catcher Brian McCann ($11.5 million), which accounts for nearly $55 million on the Astros’ payroll. Outfielder Nori Aoki was claimed off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in November.
Beltran, who played with the Astros back in 2004, not only is the highest-paid member of the Astros this season, but he also is the oldest. His 40th birthday is coming up in April. But he was very productive last season, belting 29 home runs, driving in 93 runs and hitting for a very respectable .295.
The catching position could very well be the major league’s most productive home run hitters this year with the left-handed hitting McCann hitting at least 20 homers in nine consecutive seasons and right-handed slugger Evan Gattis knocking them out of the park even more consistently.
Outfielder Josh Reddick signed a four-year, $52 million deal in November and should provide additional pop to the Astros’ lineup. He’s a career .255 hitter.
Luhnow took a chance at inking right-handed pitcher Charlie Morton to a two-year, $14 million deal in November. Morton has had health problems and worked only 17 innings last season, going 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA. He could be Houston’s No. 3 starting pitcher behind Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers.
Gurriel has played every infield position except first base. And Manager A.J. Hinch plans to give him a full spring training at the new position, which has been as unproductive as catcher in previous years.
Although the Astros should be one of the favorites to win the American League West Division, there must be a few good things happen for this to come to fruition.
Keuchel and McCullers must report to training camp 100 per cent healthy for Houston to be considered legitimate World Series contenders.
And if McCann is expected to provide the pitching staff a new primary catcher for the first time in six seasons, he will have to take a crash course to learn the ins and outs of every member of the Astros pitching staff.
The Astros batting order should have a few less automatic outs than in previous seasons and the defense should be as solid as ever this season
KWICKIES…Jordan Spieth appears to be at the top of his game after his resounding four-stroke victory last weekend in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Tournament. The 23-year-old Texan fired rounds of 68-65-65-70—268 to pocket the first-place check of $1,296,000.
The New York Giants look like they are trying to fix their sluggish offense much like they did their defense last season. ESPN reported Monday afternoon the Giants released seven-year veteran wide receiver Victor Cruz and running back Rashad Jennings, who has been a starter for the Giants for the past three seasons.
One of the biggest steals in major league baseball has to be how little the Houston Astros are paying All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. The diminutive sparkplug will make $4.5 million this season, which is a lot of money, but there are many players in the league making more than that for hitting their weight or less.
The NCAA Tournament Committee, which many college basketball fans swear they don’t know beans about picking brackets, has snubbed undefeated Gonzaga when they released their preliminary seeds last weekend. The committee chose Villanova as the top overall seed, picked Kansas as the second seed and Baylor No. 3. Gonzaga was still the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, but was fourth overall. There were no Big Ten teams listed in the top 16 preliminary picks.
JUST BETWEEN US…There’s been a lot of discussion and complaining (especially from Atlanta Falcons fans) about how the New England Patriots won the coin flip for the overtime period in Super Bowl LI and proceeded downfield for the game-winning touchdown WITHOUT Atlanta even smelling the football. The NFL recently made a gigantic stride when it declared that a team couldn’t win an overtime game on a first-possession field goal. The league needs to figure out a way to give both teams a possession before some sort of score, without copying the high school and college method of breaking ties at the end of regulation play.