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Jim Crane: Astros Can’t Go Full Free Agent, “Because We’re Middle Market”

Author: Matt Hammond

Houston is “middle market,” apparently.

That’s not coming from some national media member, or from a transplant. No, that’s straight from the owner of the Astros.

Jim Crane, who bought the team back in 2011, fielded some questions before tonight’s Opening Day game against the Mariners, and offered this bit of insight about the team’s ability to spend on payroll.

“Our plan is pretty similar to the Cardinals,” Crane said. “Staying consistent with the farm team, adding the players you need when you need them. You can’t go full-free agent, because we’re middle market. And execute on the plan.”

To be clear, Houston is not “middle market.” It’s the fourth-most populous city in the country, and is soon to be the third. It’s the sixth-biggest radio market, ahead of, among others, Philadelphia and Boston. It boasts some of the nation’s best hospitals, plus a vibrant downtown.

So objectively, the city is not middle market.

What Crane may be referring to is the team’s financial picture.

To that end: according to Forbes, the Astros were MLB’s 15th most valuable franchise last season, with a $1.1 billion valuation. In 2015, they generated only $270 million in revenue, which ranked 13th.

Then there’s operating income. That same year, the Astros took home $66.6 million, the second most in the sport. Only the Giants ($72.6 million) pocketed more. Three teams (Dodgers, -$73.2 million; Phillies -$8.9 million; Rangers, -$4.7 million) operated at a loss two seasons ago.

To be fair, the Astros don’t create as much revenue as teams like the Yankees ($516 million), Dodgers ($438 million) and Red Sox ($398 million), your typical “big market” clubs. And at the time, their payroll — only $98 million — included a number of young and up-and-coming players on team-friendly contracts, such as Jose Altuve ($2.5 million) and Carlos Correa, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers (less than $525,000 each), some of whom could be retained at market value for a sizable portion of that $66.6 million figure.

But, some context.

First of all, from the time Crane hired GM Jeff Luhnow until 2015, the Astros were tanking. As in, actively trying to lose games. Let’s not forget, this is Houston. People have options. Dining. Nightlife. Tourism. Other sports teams in town. A tack like that, while the right baseball move, isn’t making you money, short-term. Now that the team is competitive, you’d expect more people to go to games, and spend money on all kinds of Astros swag. But it’s not happening overnight.

Their TV deal may not stack up with the big boys, and it may not be what they originally hoped for, but Crane has already made up for most of that, by trimming the operation from Comcast SportsNet Houston (a full-fledged regional sports network) to Root Sports Southwest (which syndicates national radio shows or infomercials for every minute of air time that’s not a game or pre/postgame). It may put less money in their pocket, but it also costs them less money. So no, not an excuse, either.

So if Crane is referring to the way the team makes and spends money, he’s underselling their earnings and overselling their expenditures.

In the end, no, the Astros aren’t the Dodgers. Money is an object. Even the Yankees have in recent years tried to cut their spending, get under the luxury tax and prioritize smart, baseball moves as opposed to spending money for the sake of money, like they did under the late George Steinbrenner. That’s the reality for every in every sport.

But the idea that they’re “middle market” — when you put it that way, it sounds like a hedge. It makes it sound like Crane doesn’t have a real interest in doing what it takes to win championships, and maybe even at some point expects to lose a major core player that most other “big market” teams would retain. Then, when it happens, he wants to be able to say, “Well, I told you what to expect.” If so, that’s not gonna cut it.

It’s fine for Crane to view the Astros as a money-making entity. After all, he bought the team, and assumed all the risks therein.

But it’s also fine for the fan base to want more.

It’s worth noting, most owners don’t buy teams to make money. They’ve already made their money, in any one of a number of different ventures. (That’s what allows them to, you know, buy the team). So, they view their teams as art. It becomes part of a collection. Their legacy. Something they can be proud of, and brag about to other owners and billionaires at black tie events and country clubs.

So let’s put it this way: if the Astros lose Altuve (who, it’s worth noting, is a Scott Boras client), Correa or any other major player because of money, and Crane drops a line about being “middle market” or following “the Cardinals plan,” he’ll have nothing to be proud of.

Matt hosts Saturdays from 1-4 pm on SportsRadio 610. You can, and totally should, follow him on Twitter.com.

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