Why this could be Gerrit Cole's last season with the Astros

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Gerrit Cole's masterful 15-strikeout performance in Game 2 of the AL Division Series on Saturday is a bittersweet proposition for Houston Astros fans.

On one hand, the 29-year-old right-hander is making a genius out of general manager Jeff Luhnow, who gave up four players to acquire the flame-thrower from Pittsburgh before the 2018 season.

On the other hand, his 2019 season that included 20 wins and an astounding 2.50 ERA is one that typically belongs to big arms with big contracts.

The Astros are paying Cole $13.5 million, a bargain in the final year of his contract in Houston.

In the offseason, Cole is expected to attract suitors who will most definitely offer more than $13.5 million per year.

A day before the Astros began postseason play, owner Jim Crane was asked about Cole's impending free agency and whether the team can keep him.

"We haven't gotten there yet," Crane said on the timing of negotiations. "We'll see where the year ends up. I mean, it's too early to say right now."

At issue is the Astros' bloated payroll and their flirtation with the MLB's Competitive Balance Tax. According to MLB, "clubs that exceed the threshold by $20 million to $40 million are also subject to a 12 percent surtax. Meanwhile, those who exceed it by more than $40 million are taxed at a 42.5 percent rate the first time and a 45 percent rate if they exceed it by more than $40 million again the following year(s)."

In 2019, the salary threshold for teams is $206 million. Next year, it's expected to go up slightly by $2 million.

In the last couple of years, the Astros, after collecting three straight 100-loss seasons, offered contracts to their homegrown superstars, as well as free agents, to keep an over-achieving core together.

For example, the Astros signed Alex Bregman to a five-year extension worth $100 million that will kick in next year at $11 million. Cole's platoon-mate and ace of the rotation, Justin Verlander, is due $33 million next year. Jose Altuve will be paid $29 million. Mid-season acquisition Zack Greinke remains in Houston for $35 million.

For context, Greinke's contract is the third-highest for MLB pitchers this year. The top annual salary belongs to Washington's Stephen Strasburg at $38.3 million.

All told, the Astros already have more than half of their salary spoken for in 2020.

So, with that, Cole, who is in the money-making prime of his career, could command a yearly salary surpassing Greinke and Verlander's paychecks. If he's inclined to seek the payday that this Cy Young Award-caliber year has made for him, the Astros may more than likely be unable to keep him while staying under the luxury tax threshold.

The Astros have expressed wanting to stay under the tax limit.

So, 'Stros fans, embrace Gerrit Cole while you can. And if anything, his potential parting gift is a World Series trophy.

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