The highest-paid Astro is Wandy Rodriguez, who is a Pirate. The second-highest-paid Astro is Bud Norris, who will soon be on another team. The third-highest-paid Astro is Carlos Pena, who was designated for assignment. The fourth-highest paid Astro was closer Jose Veras, who was just traded to the Tigers. On August 1, it's quite possible that Erik Bedard is the highest-paid Astro still on the team. He makes $1.15 million, which isn't much more than the minimum salary.
The collective salary of the Astros was something of a thing in the offseason, with even the AP getting in on the joke:
Alex Rodriguez will make more this year than all the Houston Astros combined -- a lot more.
Some folks were actually angry about this, as if spending millions on Shane Victorino or Joe Blanton was going to make the Astros presentable. The Astros didn't want to spend just to spend. And rightfully so. Getting the top 25 free agents on the market probably wouldn't have been enough to make the Astros a .500 team.
They did make one move, though, and that was to sign Veras to a one-year, $2 million deal. It seemed odd, spending that much for a reliever who was okay, at best. That was their big move of the offseason.
That move turned out to be a perfectly executed play in the Bad Team Playbook. I have a copy of the Bad Team Playbook. Let's go through the first page together:
Step #1: Make sure that you don't have a name-brand closer
Why? Why do you need a real closer? You are awful. Winning 60 games instead of 58 might be the difference between Donovan Tate and Stephen Strasburg, not to mention the team doesn't get the prospects they could have traded the closer in for. I'm not saying that there isn't some sort of public relations value in "trying to win." But proven closers on bad teams help more when they're exchanged for goods and services, not when they're saving a game a week.
Step #2: Get a pretty okay guy, make him the closer
Don't spend for another proven closer. And don't just throw any Double-A prospect with a 95-m.p.h. fastball and lalooshian control into the role, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle. Get a guy like Jose Veras. Maybe the actual Jose Veras.
Step #3: Trade him
The reliever was a raffle ticket coming in, and you can exchange him for two raffle tickets now. Solid economics, right there.
Step #4: Repeat until good
It seems so simple, so intuitive. But it happens so rarely, so perfectly. Sometimes the raffle ticket doesn't work out (i.e., the veteran on a one-year deal is ineffective/hurt). Maybe even most of the time, it doesn't work out. But the Astros didn't sign Veras to win more games. They signed him to gussy him up and put him back on the market. Think of the shiny saves total as a new kitchen and some hardwood floors.
The last team do do this -- or something close to it -- was the 2012 Royals, who took a gamble on a possibly broken Jonathan Broxton, installed him as their closer, and traded him off for a couple of prospects. One of them is a reliever who's struck out 35 percent of the batters he's faced in Triple-A (that's really, really good). Just about any team would rather have Donnie Joseph than Broxton and the $19 million or so left on his contract.
The problem was that the Royals skipped straight to Step #2, which means they got nothing for Joakim Soria. Next time, Royals. Next time.
Here's what the Astros got, according to Baseball Prospectus:
Vazquez's best tool is his natural hitting ability that stands out the moment he steps on the field. He has a fluid left-handed stroke with excellent bat-to-ball skills and a very confident demeanor. His bat speed is impressive and he shows an ability to turn on the ball and drive it out of the park.
The odds are that he'll never help the Astros. But there's a chance for something big.
The Astros didn't spend a lot of money in the offseason, but when they did, it was to find a closer-in-waiting who could help them in the future. That's a pretty nifty trick, and the successful reliever-to-closer transmutation was straight out of the Bad Team Playbook. It rarely works that well.