Astros GM talks big on Kyle Tucker extension, but is a massive deal realistic?

HOUSTON — Dana Brown’s candor is refreshing, if not at times curious. He is a baseball lifer who stayed out of the public spotlight during a decorated scouting career. In Houston, he is navigating a new role: A conduit from the front office to fans while serving as the face of a disciplined baseball operations department.

Most general managers strike a balance between confidence and caution, but bullishness is becoming Brown’s hallmark. The first-year general manager continued it on Wednesday, after one of the Astros’ most stirring wins of the season catalyzed by one of baseball’s most underrated players.

“Let’s say this: Kyle Tucker will be a Houston Astro for his career,” Brown said during his weekly appearance on the flagship radio station. “I think he really wants to stay here. I think we’ll get something done. We are focused on getting to the postseason, winning the division and getting deep into the postseason right now. But at the end of the day, we feel strongly that we’ll get something done.”

Considering the audience listening to Wednesday morning’s interview, and the events that preceded it on Tuesday night, Brown’s boldness is understandable. Talking on a radio station geared toward a team’s fanbase — and one that broadcasts every game — requires exuding some form of optimism, however far-fetched it may seem. All of the Astros’ past actions indicate Tucker will be the next in a long line of homegrown superstars to leave Houston, but Brown answered this question as he had to, even doubling down when host Sean Salisbury pressed the issue.

“I really feel like this is the place for (Tucker),” Brown said. “I think he loves playing here, no doubt about it. He’s a joy in the clubhouse to be around. At the end of the day, we feel strongly that this guy is going to be around. We’ll deal with the agent and let’s get this done.”

Thirteen hours earlier, Tucker took perhaps the best at-bat of the Astros’ season, one Brown had to still be reliving. Tucker fell behind Baltimore closer Félix Bautista 0-2 and fouled off four two-strike pitches, two of which arrived at 101 mph. On the ninth pitch he threw, Bautista left a 100.7 mph fastball at Tucker’s belt. The lanky right fielder launched it for a game-winning grand slam.

Tucker’s team-leading 48th extra-base hit left him slashing .297/.377/.512 after 476 plate appearances. After being shifted in 90.9 percent of his plate appearances last season, Tucker’s batting average is up 40 points in the first season sans defensive shifts. He leads the club in wins above replacement according to both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. Since June 1, only Shohei Ohtani and Corey Seager have higher fWARs among American League position players.

Tucker finished 2022 with 30 home runs and a career-high 25 stolen bases. He stole his 24th base of this season in Tuesday’s win against the Orioles and struck his 21st home run on Wednesday. With 47 games remaining, Tucker could challenge for the third 30/30 season in franchise history. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell authored the only other two. As it stands now, though, Tucker is ensured two straight 20/20 seasons.

Even if he can’t crack the 30/30 club, Tucker has already placed himself in premier company. He is one of just five players with at least 20 home runs, 80 RBIs and an .800 OPS across each of the past three seasons. Freddie Freeman, Manny Machado, José Ramírez and Tucker’s high school teammate, Pete Alonso, are the other four.

Tucker is the youngest member of that formidable fivesome. He turns 27 in January and, presuming he does not sign a long-term extension, will enter free agency after his age-28 season. Provided he stays healthy, Tucker has positioned himself to earn generational wealth and a type of contract the Astros never construct.

In March, The Athletic’s Tim Britton estimated a possible contract extension for Tucker at nine years, $211 million. Now that he’s delivering perhaps the best offensive season of his career, Tucker could flirt with a decade-long deal. Based only on age and accomplishments, Boston third baseman Rafael Devers is an apt — albeit incomplete — comparison for Tucker.

At the time Devers signed his 11-year, $331 million contract extension last winter, he was Tucker’s age, had made two All-Star teams and boasted a career .854 OPS. Tucker has made two All-Star teams, has an .849 career OPS and, according to Baseball-Reference, is worth a career 16.3 wins above replacement. Devers — who debuted a year before Tucker — is worth 17.5.

Astros owner Jim Crane. (Elsa / Getty Images)

Houston owner Jim Crane has never given anything longer than a six-year contract extension. Two years ago, he listened to 26-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa go on the same radio station Brown did on Wednesday and say he wanted to be “an Astro for life.” Crane offered him one five-year contract and one six-year contract in response. Crane has never guaranteed a player $200 million in one deal, either, though Brown has intimated the owner is willing to extend himself.

“I think Jim is willing to (go) further, I just don’t know that I have the comfort of going as long as, say, maybe I’ll have to to get Tucker done,” Brown said in spring training. “I just don’t like big deals. If they’re open for something a little more than five, maybe I would be open to doing that. I’m sure Jim would be, too. I think Jim is very open. But doing 10-year deals, I don’t know if we’ll ever get to that point.”

“I don’t mind doing 10 if you get a guy to the big leagues in the early 20s, really feel like he’s a big piece of the franchise, face of the franchise, and get him done for 10 and he finishes it out at 32-33,” Brown said in that spring interview. “I’m OK with that. These deals that go beyond 33, for me, I’m uncomfortable. The analytics on that is not good.”

Juxtaposing that statement with what Brown said on Wednesday is important. Brown is nothing if not honest, so it stands to reason that his wariness to give Tucker, 26, a long-term deal is legitimate. He distanced himself from the long-term deals Matt Olson and Austin Riley received from his previous employer — the Atlanta Braves — claiming, “I don’t know if I would have done those deals because I’m just not a 10-year guy.”

Tucker has only furthered his case for one this season — his value now is higher than it was in March when Brown projected that skepticism. The team took him to an arbitration hearing last winter over a $2.5 million filing difference. Houston won the hearing, so Tucker is making $5 million this season. Extension talks are almost always a byproduct of arbitration negotiations, so some should manifest this December, when Tucker is scheduled to go through the process a second time.

If Crane is involved — and with a deal like this, he will be — it only furthers doubt about how well Brown’s proclamation on Wednesday will age. On Opening Day, Crane didn’t completely rule out reversing his longtime aversion to long contracts, but claimed that “we try to assemble 26 guys (and) you can’t do it with one big contract.” Only a shift in that thinking would accelerate a deal for Tucker.

“The back end of those contracts can be difficult — they don’t all work out,” Crane said then. “I think we try to plan out pretty far, but nobody can tell you what’s going to happen in eight, nine or 10 years, or even five years.”

It should be noted that Crane bemoaned the “back-end” of long-term deals during the same winter he signed 36-year-old first baseman José Abreu to a three-year contract worth $58.5 million — essentially the back-end of a big deal. Seeing how swiftly Abreu has declined must exacerbate some of Crane’s concerns.

Crane’s influence in baseball operations decisions, especially of this magnitude, is immense. Brown saw that firsthand during the trade deadline, when the team shifted from “not in the market for a starting pitcher,” according to Brown, to acquiring Justin Verlander — with whom Crane is extremely close.

Upon his arrival in February, Brown promised aggression on a plethora of possible contract extensions, including one with Tucker. “Fasten your seat belt, because it’s time,’” Brown said he told Crane.

He responded by engineering one extension: a five-year, $64 million pact with starter Cristian Javier. Spring training negotiations with Tucker and Framber Valdez never materialized into anything substantive.

Brown, for some reason, set March 9 as a soft deadline to finish spring training deals. He never came close, but Brown recounted the talks in great detail, acknowledging the club was “further away particularly on Tucker than Valdez.”

Five months later, how is it to be believed that such a gap has closed?

(Top photo of Tucker: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

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