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The Astros Should Remain Contenders With or Without Gerrit Cole—for Now

Houston narrowly missed out on its second World Series title in three years, but the near term still looks bright. Projecting the team's long-term outlook, however, isn’t so simple.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday night, the Astros came about as close to winning a World Series as a team can without getting to touch the trophy. Leading Game 7 after six innings is nothing like leading after nine, but when the discouragement of coming up short wears off enough for Astros fans to turn their attention to 2020, they’ll like a lot of what they see. Most of the players who propelled the Astros to within three innings of a second championship will be back in Houston next year, and the year after that.

The Astros probably peaked in 2019, if only because it’s hard to be better than a 107-win team that was one of the most talented of all time. But even after a stretch of five consecutive winning seasons—which featured four postseason appearances, two pennants, more wins than any other team but the Dodgers and, from 2017 to 2019, one of the winningest three-season stretches ever—the Astros seem far from done. So how likely is it that they’ll get another shot at a second championship?

The Astros were every bit as good as their record this year: Their run differential perfectly predicted their win-loss totals, and more advanced performance gauges such as BaseRuns and third-order record suggest that, if anything, the Astros should have won more than 107 games during the regular season. Normally, it takes some amount of good fortune to climb well above the 100-win mark; for example, based on the same metrics, last year’s 108-win Red Sox played a bit above their heads. It’s tough to stay at that altitude long term, as the Sox, who brought back virtually the same roster, showed in 2019. But the Astros weren’t big beneficiaries of fortuitous timing that they would have trouble repeating. Nor was their win total a large leap from the 101-win and 103-win campaigns that preceded it, so they aren’t a classic candidate to be bitten by the plexiglass principle. The Astros aren’t regression-proof, but if they suffer a steep decline, it’ll be because their players stop producing as well, not because luck or clutchness stopped propping them up.

The Astros are returning almost the entirety of their near–Murderers' Row lineup, but a few of the players who helped propel them to the title may be about to depart. There are five free agents on the Astros’ World Series roster: Gerrit Cole, both catchers (Robinson Chirinos and Martín Maldonado), and two late-inning relievers (Will Harris and Joe Smith). The Astros are also losing control of Collin McHugh, Wade Miley, and Héctor Rondón, who were inactive at points this October because of injuries or ineffectiveness.

The Astros’ 2019 catching corps collectively ranked 14th in WAR and provided only average framing, so it won’t be difficult for the Astros to replace that performance. And while Harris and Smith have been among baseball’s most consistent setup men—Harris, his game 6 and 7 gopheritis notwithstanding, has the third-lowest ERA among relievers with at least 200 innings pitched over the past five seasons—it would take more than the departure of a pair of 50-to-60-inning arms to jeopardize a juggernaut like the Astros. Cole, of course, was probably baseball’s best pitcher in 2019, so losing him would be a big blow.

Last time the Astros won the World Series, I wrote, “According to Neifi, a player evaluation and projection system that’s licensed to major league teams, the combined value of the Astros’ players under team control, at both the major- and minor-league levels, dwarfs that of any other team.” Neifi now says that the Astros rank third in overall player value—but still first by far in the majors. In other words, the Astros’ talent base at the big league level projects to be the best in baseball in 2020, and that’s not including Cole.

The Astros shape up so well without Cole in part because they’ve put insurance plans in place. Houston signed Justin Verlander to an extension in March 2019 and traded for Zack Greinke this July. Both of those pitchers, whom most teams would be happy to have as the top two in their rotation, are signed through 2021. Their 36-year-old arms carry more downside risk than the 29-year-old Cole’s, but they’ve both been durable thus far. Lance McCullers Jr., who’s rehabbing from November 2018 Tommy John surgery, is already throwing off a mound and should be back to full strength by spring training. José Urquidy’s fine performance down the stretch and in his first three postseason appearances has made him look like a capable fourth starter, and swingman Brad Peacock could claim a rotation spot.

The list of possible starters goes on. Aaron Sanchez, who had shoulder surgery in September, will likely miss most of next season, but he could reinforce the rotation late in the year if the Astros tender him a contract or non-tender him and re-sign him to an incentive-based deal. Forrest Whitley, who’s pitched well in the Arizona Fall League following an ineffective and injury-plagued minor league season, remains one of the game’s top pitching prospects and could force his way into the 2020 rotation. Then there’s the legion of other young pitchers who saw some time in the majors in 2019: Josh James, Framber Valdéz, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Abreu, Rogelio Armenteros. Houston has options.

That’s not to say that the Astros wouldn’t be better with Cole, or that they couldn’t afford him. They would, and they can. But it will be pretty pricey, and the Astros roster is already expensive. Let’s examine what the Astros’ payroll might look like with and without Cole, because there’s no faster way to lower one’s heart rate after watching Game 7 of the World Series than to read about baseball accounting. Surtaxes!

The Astros’ payroll right now, not counting any moves they make on the free-agent market, projects to be $219 million, which trails only Boston’s (for now, although the Red Sox are looking to lower their bill). Adding estimated benefits and other costs brings their total to $238 million for tax purposes. Next year’s competitive balance tax threshold is $208 million, which means that in the absence of major salary-saving moves, the Astros are about to blow by it for the first time, subjecting them to a 20 percent tax on the overage. If they were to add $10 million or more to their current projected total, they would go $40 million over the threshold and trigger the most severe penalty for a first-timer, which would impose a 42.5 percent surtax and drop their top draft pick down 10 spots. Cole is likely headed for a long-term deal with a record average annual value of at least $35 million, which would effectively translate to $42 million at minimum for the Astros in 2020.

Scary as MLB owners try to make these penalties sound, they don’t actually matter that much, and they’re far from an obstacle to continued competitiveness. The Red Sox have repeatedly exceeded the CBT threshold, and last year, when they won the World Series with baseball’s biggest payroll, they triggered the most severe penalty. All that cost them was their top draft pick falling from 33 to 43, and about $12 million. Even so, owners would rather win without spending as much, if possible—hence the Red Sox replacing high-roller Dave Dombrowski with cost-effective Rays executive Chaim Bloom.

Early this month, Astros owner Jim Crane—who has shelled out for Verlander, Greinke, Michael Brantley, and other upgrades—acknowledged that he’d prefer to remain under the CBT threshold, although he included the caveat, “but we may win the World Series, so you never know.” If Crane is determined to stay under the CBT threshold, the Astros almost certainly won’t keep Cole, but the extra postseason revenue they accrued, and the expectation of a post-pennant boost from ticket sales and other income sources may convince Crane to raise Jeff Luhnow’s allowance.

The problem for the Astros—if you consider Crane having to spend a few more of his millions a problem—is that the team isn’t young. The 2019 Astros featured MLB’s second-oldest batters and fifth-oldest pitchers, and while they were the best batters and arguably the best pitchers, they didn’t come cheap. Yordan Álvarez, who’ll help offset any free-agent losses by being on the roster all year (although he’d be hard-pressed to hit as well as he did this season), is the only member of the Astros’ core who isn’t signed to a high-dollar deal or well into his arbitration years. Players in the latter category, including Carlos Correa, Roberto Osuna, and George Springer, are in line for large raises. The 30-year-old Springer, who’s coming off a career year and has propelled himself into 13th all time in postseason championship win probability added, is projected to earn more than $21 million in arbitration this winter.

Springer, José Altuve, Verlander, and Greinke could combine to make almost $120 million next season, although the Diamondbacks will pay $10.3 million of Greinke’s salary. Springer, Brantley, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel will all be free agents after 2020, but if Crane is serious about avoiding stiff surtaxes and/or trying to re-sign Cole, the team could try to economize this offseason by, for instance, trading Springer or replacing Reddick with Kyle Tucker, who would otherwise have to wait a year for an opening or possibly become trade bait himself.

As the difference between their 2017 and 2019 Neifi evaluations makes clear, the Astros’ major league excellence has come at a cost to their minor league system. Prior to this season, FanGraphs ranked the Astros’ system fourth overall. Thanks to the Greinke trade and the graduations of Tucker and Álvarez, though, it’s plummeted all the way to 24th. Granted, FanGraphs’ valuations reward top-heavy systems, so that ranking may underrate the minor league depth of an organization that has a history of unlocking latent talent.

However, this is also an organization in flux. The Astros have lost a lot of front-office and coaching talent over the past year or more, partly because competitors poach people from innovative teams and partly because of cultural dysfunction that was exacerbated by the Osuna trade and its aftermath. Even if MLB’s investigation into the Brandon Taubman debacle doesn’t lead to additional dismissals, increased scrutiny of the Astros’ unfriendly front-office culture may make it harder for the team to combat brain drain by bringing in new blood. Couple that off-the-field exodus with other organizations’ efforts to shrink the Astros’ lead in the player development realm, and the Astros’ early-adopter days of drastically outsmarting other teams may be winding down.

That said, they can still outspend most teams, and they’re still at the top of the talent totem pole. The Astros aren’t in quite as enviable a position, perhaps, as the Dodgers, who played in the same stratosphere this season, still boast the third-ranked farm system, and could spend even more money if they were so inclined, but almost every other team would gladly exchange its own situation for how Houston is set up—and that’s after the Astros’ two pennants in three years. It’s hard to imagine the Angels or the Rangers getting good enough to mount a credible run at an AL West title in the short term, which leaves the perennially payroll-limited A’s as the only division rival capable of putting pressure on Houston. Seconds after the Series ended, with the Nationals still celebrating on the field at Minute Maid Park, an online sportsbook sent me “way too early odds” (I’ll say) for the 2020 season. The Astros were the way-too-early favorites, at 13/2.

After the 2017 World Series, I wrote, “Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton—one of the few BP authors whom the Astros haven’t yet hired—found that from 2000–15, the correlation between teams’ current-year records and their records the following year was .526, where zero would represent no relationship and 1 would mean a perfect repeat; two years out, that fell to .394, and three years out, it dropped to .196, barely better than random.”

That research by Carleton (who’s since been hired by the Mets) confirmed what a glance at the year-by-year standings would suggest: It’s tough to predict baseball more than a year or two in advance. Factoring in payroll, market size, and minor league talent might improve our projections, but only by so much. Mostly, we just can’t see that far into the future: Álvarez, Altuve, and Bregman are the only Astros stars beholden to the club beyond 2022. In a few years, age, self-imposed parsimony, and self-destructive front-office behavior may combine to take down the powerhouse that Houston’s extreme rebuild built. But for the foreseeable future, brief as it may be, the Astros aren’t going away.