MLB: Houston Astros-Photo Day

The Houston Astros are on to something. They are not so much exploiting the current baseball systems as much as making the most of a bad situation. As must be qualified any time an article is written about the living lab in Houston, they hired smart people and seem innovative – it appears from the outside to be a club with a vision of how they intend to win.

That doesn’t make it right, however. The Astros operated with the lowest payroll in baseball last season. In their own division, the next lowest payroll was nearly double what the Astros pay their players. You don’t need to spend to win (the fourth-lowest payroll in the AL West is, of course, the Oakland A’s, the two-time division champs). But the Astros are not extracting a great deal of value from their roster. They’re getting what they pay for, which is surely by design.

The Astros enter the 2014 season looking to get over a dubious hump – stop their consecutive 100-loss season streak at three. Of course, there isn’t any real difference in losing 100 games or 95 games – a bad team is bad no matter what. And with that futility comes reward in the form of draft picks. The Astros are ready to make their third consecutive first overall pick in the June amateur draft.

That is a fine way to acquire high end talent. Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and the assumed first pick in their year’s draft (Carlos Rodon?) could well be reward enough for the endless losing in Houston. Assuming no undue damage to the franchise in the eyes of its fans and consumers, of course.

It is with that brand damage in mind that the next phase of the Astros plan takes shape. The talent acquisition part is well under way but now the Astros are looking for value – trying to lock up their young players at below-market deals that keep them in Houston longer and for less than the standard six years of team control.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports broke the news of a contract offer between the Astros and their top prospect, George Springer. Sources familiar with the negotiations told Rosenthal that Houston offered the triple-A outfielder, 24-years old without a single big league plate appearance, a seven-year deal worth $23 million. A deal like this gives Springer incredible financial security and allows the Astros to start his big league career with no fear of Super Twos or service time.

But Springer rebuffed the Astros advances, which brings his service time back into play and leaves him to rot in the minor leagues. There could be an argument made that Springer, he of the sky-high strikeout rate at triple-A, needs more seasoning. But if the kid is good enough to earn a seven-year contract, he has to be good enough to play in the big leagues, right?

Maybe ethics aren’t really at issue here. It’s only baseball, and the Astros are trying to build a winner and whet their beak where they can. As well, giving this kind of deal to Springer is risky. One could make an intelligent argument that George Springer should put his name on any guaranteed deal with the quickness. He gets overpaid in the short term, potentially underpaid in the long term — provided he defies the odds ands puts enough great seasons together to earn significant arbitration paydays. Especially for a player who figures to be in his late twenties as he passes through his arbitration years.

It isn’t about ethics, it’s about optics. It feels wrong when a Major League team offers to trade playing time for financial security, when a big league team sold for more than $600 million three years ago squeezes every last cent from a guy who can consider a ten year playing career nothing short of a miracle. It feels wrong because, in a word, it is wrong. It blows.

But jumping down the Astros throat for offering a kid with zero innings in the show more than $20 million is easy. Too easy. So easy that it misses the point – the Astros feel like they’ll have enough talent coming together at the same time that grabbing this savings where they can is important. Limiting the earnings of George Springer matters only because you’re concerned he’s good enough to put a dent in your payroll.

Not a bad problem to have, as far as hypotheticals go. It is also the most charitable reading possible. The cynic might see a team that is all but losing on purpose trying to wring extra dollars by delaying the big league debut of a player who won’t become a free agent until he’s 31, while collecting TV money they earn by putting out a dreadful product.

Like most things, it’s complex. Too complex to distill in 800 words without all the key details. As far as baseball questions go, the only one that needs answering is “does George Springer’s development benefit most from time in the minors or time in the big leagues?” All Astros fans (or any baseball fan) can hope is the astute Astros front office doesn’t let anything other than fundamental development inform their decision – naive as that might be.