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At 37-28, the Houston Astros are two games behind the Oakland Athletics in the AL West despite owning the third best run differential in baseball (plus-86). Only the Chicago White Sox (plus-106) and Los Angeles Dodgers (plus-91) are better. 

The Astros have a powerhouse offense -- they lead baseball with 5.51 runs per game, well ahead of the second place Dodgers (5.29) -- and their rotation has been solid even with Justin Verlander out for the season, and Framber Valdez and Jake Odorizzi missing time with injuries. The bullpen, however, has been a mess, especially lately. It figures to be a priority at the trade deadline.

Here's where Houston's bullpen ranks among the 30 teams:

  • ERA: 4.36 (18th in MLB)
  • WHIP: 1.34 (19th)
  • Strikeout rate: 23.2 percent (22nd)
  • Walk rate: 10.4 percent (19th)
  • WAR: minus-0.3 (29th)
  • Shutdowns: 40 (2nd fewest)
  • Meltdowns: 43 (6th most)

Shutdowns are relief appearances that improve the team's win probability at least six percent. Meltdowns are the opposite. They're relief appearances that decrease the team's win probability at least six percent. The Astros and free-falling Diamondbacks are the only teams in baseball with more meltdowns than shutdowns. Houston's bullpen has been a real issue.

When the time comes, expect the Astros to aggressively pursue bullpen help, be it a big name reliever like Nationals lefty Brad Hand or an under the radar type like Pirates righty Richard Rodriguez. When the time does come though, the luxury tax will be a factor in the team's decision making, GM James Click confirmed, according to Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle.

"It is a factor, but it is not a hard cap," Click said during a recent pregame radio interview, according to Rome.

The luxury tax threshold is $210 million this season and Cot's Baseball Contracts has Houston's payroll at $207.0 million. Roster Resource gives them even less breathing room at $208.8 million. As a reminder, whatever wiggle room the Astros have must cover not only the trade deadline, but also injury and September callups. Every new player added to the roster ups the luxury tax payroll.

Houston could move players to unload salary, but unless they do something unexpected like trade a core player, their options are limited. Relievers like Brooks Raley ($2 million) and Ryne Stanek ($1.1 million) aren't making significant money and moving them wouldn't improve the luxury tax situation all that much. Click and his staff will have to get creative, financially.

The Astros paid luxury tax last season, and as a repeat offender, they would be taxed 30 percent on every dollar between $210 million and $230 million this year. That's a maximum $6 million tax if they spend right up to the $230 million threshold. Owner Jim Crane has been hesitant to pay luxury tax in the past, so Click getting approval to go over is not guaranteed.

There's also a draft pick component to the luxury tax. Teams that pay luxury tax give up higher draft picks to sign a qualified free agent and receiver lower draft picks if they lose a qualified free agent. As things stands, the Astros will undoubtedly make Carlos Correa the qualifying offer, and would likely extend it to Verlander and Zack Greinke as well.

Here's what the Astros would receive as compensation should Correa sign a monster contract elsewhere as a free agent this offseason:

  • Astros stay under luxury tax threshold: Compensation pick immediately after the first round.
  • Astros pay luxury tax: Compensation pick immediately after the fourth round.

Now here's what the Astros would surrender to sign a qualified free agent this offseason (teams don't give up anything to re-sign their own players, so Houston would keep their picks should they re-sign Correa):

  • Astros stay under luxury tax threshold: Second highest pick in 2022 draft, plus $500,000 in international bonus money.
  • Astros pay luxury tax: Second and fifth highest picks in 2022 draft, plus $1 million in international bonus money.

Houston forfeited their first and second round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts as part of their sign-stealing scandal punishment, and Baseball America ranked their farm system 26th in the game before the season. Their system is hurting in a big way right now, and settling for a dinky post-fourth round pick should Correa leave would be a tough pill to swallow.

That said, flags fly forever, and this season might be Houston's last best chance to win a World Series with this core. Correa and Yuli Gurriel will be free agents, Verlander and Greinke will be free agents, Jose Altuve turns 32 next year, and Michael Brantley turns 35 next year. It's not unreasonable to say winning will only get more difficult after 2021.

The Astros have a dynamite offense and good rotation. The bullpen is a potential fatal flaw, however, and with their core positioned to win right now, Crane should allow Click to exceed the $210 million luxury tax threshold at the deadline. The draft pick penalties aren't that harsh. They would be a weak excuse to avoid giving a great team the best chance to win a championship.