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The Astros’ Juggernaut Window Might Be Closing Sooner Than Expected

With key players injured or hitting free agency and little help coming from the minor leagues, Houston’s 2020 underperformance may not be a blip

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Astros are a late-playoff institution at this point. The last ALCS that didn’t feature America’s most reviled baseball club came so long ago that not one of the 19 pitchers involved still throws for either participant, Cleveland or Toronto. Even in 2020, when the injury-riddled Astros stumbled to a 29-31 regular-season record, they received a reprieve with the expanded playoff bracket. Then they upset a pair of division winners to reach the ALCS, where they nearly upset a third division winner despite a 3-0 series deficit.

But there might be more signal in a sub-.500 season—even an abbreviated one—than the Astros would like. And that pressure should only build this winter, as the club contends with the growing challenge of keeping its championship core intact.

In the half-decade from 2010-14, the Astros won the fewest games of any team—38 fewer than the 29th-place Cubs. In the next half-decade, from 2015-19, they won the second-most games of any team, just four behind the Dodgers. The Astros will never be so bad as they were in the first part of the decade again—but they might never be so good as they were in the second half, either. On their current trajectory, they might find themselves stuck in the middle.

That discouraged outlook starts with a depleted offense. As measured by wRC+, an advanced stat that adjusts offensive performance for park and league context, the 2019 Astros had the second-best lineup ever while the 2017 Astros rank fifth. (Cue the sign-stealing caveats.) Every other team in the top five featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

But that historically great lineup is breaking apart. This chart shows the Astros’ top dozen position players in fWAR since 2015, their first season back in the playoffs after the rebuild. With outfielders George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick now free agents, fewer than half of these dozen players remain with the team.

Best Astros Position Players, 2015-20

Player 2015-20 WAR Still on Astros?
Player 2015-20 WAR Still on Astros?
José Altuve 27.4 Yes
George Springer 24.7 No
Alex Bregman 21.5 Yes
Carlos Correa 19.4 Yes
Marwin González 7.4 No
Yuli Gurriel 6.1 Yes
Jake Marisnick 5.7 No
Michael Brantley 5.5 No
Jason Castro 5.4 No
Josh Reddick 4.9 No
Evan Gattis 4.6 No
Colby Rasmus 4.0 No

Not all of these departures register as crushing blows; nobody particularly associates Castro or Rasmus with the juggernaut. But they add up, especially now that core contributors like Springer and Brantley, the team’s two best hitters in 2020, are reaching free agency, and GM James Click hasn’t sounded invested in re-signing the former. Correa and Gurriel will both be free agents, too, after one more season, leaving only Altuve and Bregman signed long term.

The resulting problems at the plate won’t wait for Correa to leave; they’re here now. Sans Springer, Brantley, and Reddick, the Astros’ current depth chart, as estimated by FanGraphs, features Myles Straw as the starting center fielder, Chas McCormick as the starting left fielder, and Aledmys Díaz as the lone backup outfielder. None of the three should occupy those positions for a team with an eye on 100-plus wins. Taken in turn:

  • Straw is a career .246/.327/.322 hitter who has played more games as a reserve (50) than a starter (48). He’s never had a postseason at-bat.
  • McCormick has never played in the majors. FanGraphs’s Eric Longenhagen ranked McCormick 31st on the club’s prospect list last winter.
  • Díaz has played eight career games as an outfielder (all in left), versus 274 at shortstop, 64 at third base, 37 at second base, and 28 at first base. He played four total innings in the outfield in 2020.

Yet there’s a reason the lightly heralded Straw and McCormick are the Astros’ best chances for internal outfield replacements, and that’s a broader problem for Houston’s near-term future: The club’s highest-touted prospects are all either pitchers or position players far away from the majors, like Single-A infielder Freudis Nova.

Nor are those prospects especially touted relative to the league as a whole. The most recent farm system rankings from various outlets are pessimistic about the club’s current crop. Baseball Prospectus ranks the Astros 26th, The Athletic has them 27th, MLB.com 28th, and FanGraphs 29th—and all of those rankings save FanGraphs’s still account for starter José Urquidy, who graduated from prospect lists in 2020. This is the system’s worst outlook since before the 2012 season, when the rebuild was just beginning. (The Astros took Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. in the first round in that season’s draft, precipitating the first big jump in their ranking.)

To some extent, this is a normal trajectory for any team: It picks at the top of the draft—Houston had the no. 1 pick three years in a row—and trades its best veterans for prospects, thus bolstering the farm system; then those players all reach the majors together or leave in exchange for established stars, aiming to return the club to contention, and the cycle begins anew.

But Houston’s cupboard is particularly bare. FanGraphs rates Forrest Whitley as the only above-average prospect in the whole system, and he is far from a sure thing after a medley of injuries, control problems, and a drug suspension. The 6-foot-7 right-hander has thrown all of 86 innings since 2017 and amassed a 6.70 ERA in that time.

Since selecting both Bregman and outfielder Kyle Tucker—who should supplant Reddick as the everyday right fielder in 2021—in the top five in the 2015 draft, Houston hasn’t reaped any production from its first-rounders, which have recently sat at the back of the round instead of the front. And because of the club’s sign-stealing penalty, which stripped two first- and second-round picks, help isn’t coming from that route in the near future.

Recent (and Future) Astros First-Round Picks

Year Player What Happened?
Year Player What Happened?
2016 Forrest Whitley Top prospect, but struggling in minors
2017 J.B. Bukauskas Traded to Arizona for Zack Greinke
2018 Seth Beer Traded to Arizona for Zack Greinke
2019 Korey Lee In minors
2020 n/a Lost as sign-stealing penalty
2021 n/a Lost as sign-stealing penalty

The first round of the draft is not the only place to find future stars, and to the Astros’ credit, they rank among the best franchises in player development at both the minor and major league levels. They wouldn’t have won any pennants if Altuve, a lightly regarded international signee, hadn’t turned into an MVP or trade acquisitions like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Ryan Pressly hadn’t been rejuvenated in Houston.

In 2020, rookie pitchers like Urquidy, Cristian Javier, and Enoli Paredes impressed despite scant experience or prospect pedigree. Framber Valdéz took great bounds forward, throwing well enough to earn downballot Cy Young consideration, and then recording a 1.88 ERA in 24 playoff innings. So even with Verlander out for all of the 2021 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the rotation looks to be in decent shape with Zack Greinke, Valdéz, McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier penciled into the five starting spots.

But attrition still limits this group’s upside, in no small part because of the absence of their presumptive ace. This chart shows the top Astros pitchers in fWAR since 2015; not counting Verlander, only three of the dozen remain. Most striking is that the top three finishers in 2019 AL Cy Young voting were all recent Astros, but none of the three will pitch for the club in 2021.

Best Astros Pitchers, 2015-20

Player 2015-20 WAR Still on Astros?
Player 2015-20 WAR Still on Astros?
Justin Verlander 14.0 Yes (but hurt)
Dallas Keuchel 13.6 No
Gerrit Cole 13.4 No
Lance McCullers Jr. 10.9 Yes
Collin McHugh 9.3 No
Charlie Morton 6.0 No
Will Harris 5.2 No
Brad Peacock 4.9 No
Chris Devenski 4.2 No
Ken Giles 3.9 No
Zack Greinke 3.8 Yes
Ryan Pressly 3.2 Yes

Without much in the way of minor league help, the Astros must rely on free agency to fill these roster holes. Bullpen help should be plentiful with talented relievers like Brad Hand let go onto the open market. For the lineup, they could try to reunite with Brantley on a short-term deal and/or reach out to the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr., an ace defender who’s worlds away from Springer and Brantley at the plate.

Yet even with a batter of Bradley’s ilk in one of these vacant outfield spots, Houston’s presumed lineup is far from the terrifying force that overran opposing pitching staffs in recent (post)seasons.

FanGraphs

The Astros’ chances at returning to the 100-win range—a mark they eclipsed in 2017, 2018, and 2019, as they became the sixth team ever to accomplish the feat three years in a row—rest on a few key pillars. A year after finishing with average teamwide production at the plate, they’ll need 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez to mash in the middle of the order, after he missed all but two games in 2020 due to a COVID-19 diagnosis and knee surgery; they’ll need Tucker to prove his 2020 gains were real, after his erratic early results at the MLB level; and they’ll need Altuve to look like his playoff rather than regular-season self. A return to form here could help offset the loss of Springer: Altuve hit .219/.286/.344 in the 2020 regular season—23 percent worse than the league average—but rebounded to slash .375/.500/.729—an outrageous 134 percent better than average—in the playoffs.

The path back to that level isn’t easily traversed, however, especially with so many important players gone or more expensive than before. Billionaire owner Jim Crane said last year that he was reluctant to try to re-sign Cole because of the luxury tax implications, and one imagines the same concerns would apply to the team’s position players, too, however misguided said concerns may be.

The Astros look a lot like the Cubs, their NL counterpart, who also tore down and rebuilt en route to a title and a bunch of consecutive appearances in the league championship series. But the Cubs haven’t won a playoff game in three years; they’ve already lost crucial pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester; and now they face the impending departures of lineup cornerstones Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber—all set to reach free agency next winter.

The contract end dates in Houston are a bit more staggered, but the roster’s reorganization has already begun. Only five Houston players who appeared in the 2017 World Series will play for the team next season; this isn’t nearly the same group that brought initial triumph—and, later, related disgrace—to the city. And unless the front office plans to extend long-term contracts to everyone left, which seems most unlikely, that attrition will continue through this winter to the next.

The Astros already packed a succession of different eras into a short span. The 2020 season might have signaled the start of yet another, when they’re no more talented or productive or intelligent than any of the other playoff hopefuls they so recently bested. They should still be a good team in 2020, but greatness is a much trickier ask. That particular window of opportunity might already be closed.