Monday, May 13, 2013

The Case for Extending Jose Altuve

Perhaps you heard yesterday, but somewhere in the Astros latest loss to the Rangers, the Cubs locked up Anthony Rizzo to a 7-year/$41m deal. There are two club options in Years Eight and Nine that could take the contract to $73m, which - all told - would make for an average annual value of $8.1m.

Rizzo will be 24 years old in August, and he has accrued 680 PAs in the Majors, hitting .253/.331/.454 in those PAs, but is hitting .280/.352/.538 in 37 games for the Cubs at 1B. Yet that is enough to lock up Rizzo to a long-term deal.

Tampa Bay signed Evan Longoria to a 6yr/$17.5m deal on April 18, 2008 (this contract has since been extended to 15yrs/$144.5m). He had been in the Majors for six days. Now, Altuve is obviously not Evan Longoria, but we're in an era in baseball where, if you have young talent, you lock that talent up

Jose Altuve, on the other hand, just turned 23 years old. He has played in 241 games, logging 1030 PAs, and is hitting .294/.336/.397 at second base, a more premium position than first base. Altuve is about the only player anyone on a national scale knows. Well, in a positive light, anyway.

Looking at Altuve's similarity scores on his Baseball-Reference page, the player most similar to Altuve through their Age 22 season is Rod Carew. Hall of Famer Rod Carew. Rod Carew. Carew. Also on the list of similar batters through their Age 22 season is Steve Sax, Pete Rose, and Lou Whitaker. But...Rod Carew.

Altuve debuted in 2011 and hit .276/.297/.357 in 57 games. He walked five times in 234 plate appearances - a 2.1% walk rate. In 2012 Altuve was the Astros' lone All-Star (a feat likely to be repeated in 2013 - but that's a rant for two months from now), hitting .290/.340/.399 and walking 40 times in 576 plate appearances - a 6.9% walk rate. This isn't great, but it's better. So far in 2013, Altuve is tied for 3rd in the Majors in hits, with 51.

Last year, Altuve hit .264/.317/.360 off RHPs. This year he's hitting .318/.350/.402. (He's pretty much always killed LHPs). He is chasing - right now, anyway - more pitches out of the zone: 32.3% in 2013 compared to 29.4%, but fewer pitches are being thrown in the strike zone to him. Point is, Altuve is only getting better.

Signing Altuve to a long-term deal would appeal to the fanbase. Crane and Luhnow have been saying that they'll spend money when the time is right. The Astros have a 23-year old among the best second basemen in the game. There are five 2Bs with a higher OPS than Altuve in 2013: Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, Chase Utley, Kelly Johnson, and Dustin Pedroia. Dustin Pedroia is 29. Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler are 30. Kelly Johnson is 31. Chase Utley is 34, and his knees are at least twice that old. Altuve is hanging with the game's best at his position, and just turned 23.

You could make a strong case (and we have before) that Altuve is exactly what the Astros are looking for: Young, cheap, and under team-control for a long time. He won't be arbitration-eligible until the 2015 season and won't be a free agent until following the 2017 season. But if he continues to get better, he'll be coming off his 25-year old season going into arbitration, and those can be some expensive one-year contracts.

So if the Astros let it play out, they'll get the 2014 season for around $500,000, and then three years of arbitration starts. At that point, the Astros could be looking at buying out a multi-year All-Star, potential Silver Slugger, potential MVP candidate (not that I think he'll be an MVP on a 65-win team, but I could see him getting votes), one year at a time. If the Astros give Altuve, say, a 6-year deal at $40m, they buy out his prime years, and he'd only be 29 when he became a free agent, at which point they could let him walk, or wait a couple of years and renegotiate his contract a la Evan Longoria.

Making a long-term commitment, and putting to bed the whispers (they don't even qualify as rumors) that they might move Altuve at some point would settle down not only the fans - because at least it shows they're willing to commit to something at the Major League level - but the national media, as well. I think the National Media, when it comes to the Astros, is lazy and just looking for the Easy Joke. But, like it or not, they dictate how a lot of fans view the Astros. Signing Altuve to a long-term deal would ease the fast/furious criticisms of the direction of the organization. And who knows, it might just save them some money.