On April 6, 2015, George Springer made his first Opening Day start for the Houston Astros. The second-year right fielder went 1-for-3 and drove in a run in Houston’s 2-0 victory over Cleveland. That win, and the 85 that followed, led to the Astros’ first winning season since 2008 and first playoff berth since 2005. It also touched off a half-decade in which the hottest club in the American League played in the most air-conditioned city on Earth.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Astros had five winning seasons and made the playoffs five times. They reached the ALCS in each of their last four appearances, winning two pennants and one World Series. Springer, the MVP of that World Series, ranked third among Astros position players in OPS+ over that five-year span (minimum 500 plate appearances), as well as third in WAR, second in games played, and first in home runs. And now, after signing a six-year deal with the Blue Jays, he’s traded in his tequila sunrise uniform for Toronto blues.
Throughout Springer’s tenure, the Astros served as the counterbalance to the Los Angeles Dodgers in baseball’s see-sawing balance of power. Both built sustainably dominant teams through drafting and player development, marrying big-market star quality with a successful underdog’s guile and creativity. (And in the Astros’ case, a little something extra.) But while the Dodgers look like they’re just getting started after winning an eighth straight division title and a World Series, the Astros are experiencing a quiet talent drain.
Springer is the second top-end free agent to leave Houston in as many winters, after Gerrit Cole fled to New York in December 2019. Next winter, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Carlos Correa, and Lance McCullers could be the next members to leave town. Both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have the Astros as odds-on favorites to repeat as AL West champions this season, which seems about right, given that the A’s continue not to spend, the Rangers are in a full-on rebuild, the Angels are the Angels, and Seattle is still another year or two away from full-on competence. But unless something changes, the rest of the division will catch up to Houston—and perhaps sooner than one might think.
The Astros have dominated the AL West since 2015, and while I don’t want to say the word “dynasty” for fear of some member of the 1950s Yankees rising from the grave and slapping me across the face, in a 30-team league with a chaotic playoff structure, it’s been close enough. We’re entering Year 7 of the Astros pretty much running that division, and it’s very difficult to stretch a championship window out much longer than that.
The problem is that any team that’s been good for more than seven years (really, any team that’s good for more than two or three years) has to undergo a rebuild on the fly. Players age out of their primes, or hit free agency, and must be replaced. For example: the Red Sox won four World Series, made the playoffs 10 times, and won at least 95 games seven times between 2003 and 2018. Obviously, nobody from the 2003 roster was still around in 2018. But in that time, the team had also gone through three front-office regimes and five managers, and rebuilt the roster more or less from scratch between each of its four titles.
Only five Red Sox players who took part in the 2004 World Series were on the 2007 World Series roster. Four players carried over from 2007 to 2013, and only Xander Bogaerts took part in both the 2013 and 2018 World Series. Similarly in Los Angeles, only Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw have been around for all eight consecutive Dodgers division titles. And when the Yankees made the playoffs 17 times in 18 years between 1995 and 2012, the only constants were Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. A Kershaw, or Jeter, or David Ortiz can give the illusion of stability, but every team—good or bad—undergoes a complete roster overhaul every couple of years.
The Astros have definitely followed this pattern. After a revolutionary hard rebuild that laid waste to the organization for the first half of the 2010s, Houston used its considerable draft resources to pick up Springer, Correa, McCullers, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker between 2011 and 2015. The draft benefits of a tanking project aren’t as important in baseball as in other sports, but in the early half of the last decade, the Astros managed to use their big league team as a development and testing ground for unfancied prospects or castoffs from other teams. Most didn’t pan out, but several—José Altuve, Marwin González, Dallas Keuchel, and Collin McHugh—turned into impact players on one or more of those pennant-winning teams.
But only three members of the current roster—Correa, Altuve, and McCullers—have remained with the team since 2015. (Catcher Jason Castro returns this year after a four-year absence.) And the ongoing process of roster turnover has been a little more complicated than building the roster the first time.
In recent years, the Astros have had success developing pitchers like Cristian Javier, José Urquidy, and Framber Valdéz. Yordan Álvarez has been a positive contributor as well. But for the most part, that talent pipeline has dried up. There are good reasons for this: First, it’s unreasonable to expect a farm system to churn out a Springer, a Correa, or a Bregman every year in perpetuity, particularly on a team that’s drafting in the late 20s year in and year out.
Second, the Astros have had to trade away a ton of prospects in order to acquire veterans to fill holes on the roster or supplement the core. Verlander cost two top-100 prospects, Greinke cost two first-rounders and then some, while Cole cost Joe Musgrove, whom the Padres just gave up four players to acquire this winter. Every single one of those trades was a smashing success, and every one of those pitchers would’ve been a steal at five times the price. (The 2015 trade that sent Josh Hader and Adrian Houser to Milwaukee for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers smarts a little, but no GM is perfect.) Those moves, on balance, dramatically increased Houston’s chances of winning a title. But they also depleted the crop of players they’d like to be able to draw on in 2022. It’s a trade-off the team would make again, but it comes with a cost.
Third, the Astros have had a lot of high-profile scouting and developmental misses since 2015. Brady Aiken, the no. 1 pick in 2014, was an all-timer of a mistake that scuttled an entire year’s bonus-laundering plan—though landing Bregman with a compensation pick a year later softened the blow. Mark Appel, the no. 1 pick in 2013, was just a straight-up bust. Some highly touted prospects—Josh James, Derek Fisher, Francis Martes—shone in the majors only briefly before fizzling out. Others didn’t even make it that far.
Forrest Whitley, the 2016 first-rounder once considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, was slated to break through as early as 2019 before injuries sidetracked him. Whitley is currently in line for Tommy John surgery, and this spring, MLB.com prospect guru Jim Callis elegantly (if devastatingly) summarized Houston’s situation by writing: “When your lone Top 100 Prospect may need TJ surgery, that’s not a good sign for your rebuilding system.”
None of these trends represent negligence or failure on the Astros’ part; they’re just the natural course of evolution for a contending team.
Well, a contending team that isn’t the contemporary Los Angeles Dodgers, who represent an instructive counterexample.
The Dodgers played to a 116-win pace last year and won the World Series. They won 106 games the year before that, 92 games and the pennant in 2018, 104 and the pennant in 2017, and so on and so forth. Since 2015, they’ve promoted six top-25 global prospects onto their big league roster—Julio Urías, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Dustin May, and Gavin Lux—plus numerous others rated in the top 50 or top 75. It’s fair to say the Dodgers are just better at developing talent internally than the Astros.
But they’ve also spent way more money. The Astros have been willing to pay handsomely—in cash and in prospects—for superstar talent over the years, particularly on the mound. They’ve also spent freely in free agency, though mostly on supporting players, not superstars. Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Yuli Gurriel, and Jake Odorizzi were all good signings, but all for relatively short terms and in the range of $10 million to $16 million a year. The Astros have run top-10 payrolls each of the past three years, but they’ve given out only one free-agent contract in history worth more than $52 million total: to Carlos Lee, back in 2007. The team record for AAV on a free-agent contract belongs to Roger Clemens, who signed an $18 million, one-year deal in 2005.
And it’s not like they’re devoting all their money toward keeping their own free agents in house. Keuchel, Cole, Springer, Charlie Morton, and Will Harris all walked via free agency, while only Altuve and Verlander got extensions. Altuve’s contract was a make-good extension after he won an MVP award as maybe the most underpaid player in baseball, and Verlander’s extension will end up netting the Astros all of six innings of work as the two-time Cy Young winner recovers from Tommy John surgery. Bregman is the only other member of the Astros’ core who’s currently signed beyond 2022.
Contrast that to what the Dodgers have done. They Tom Sawyered Boston into thinking that taking on David Price’s salary was worth throwing in Mookie Betts for a pittance; then they signed Betts to a $365 million extension that will run until the seas rise and Los Angeles is underwater. This offseason, the Dodgers made Trevor Bauer the highest-paid pitcher ever, based on annual salary. And while they’ve pursued midlevel supporting players in free agency (AJ Pollock, Blake Treinen, Joe Kelly) just as the Astros have, they’ve also managed to keep the likes of Kershaw, Jansen, and Justin Turner from leaving via free agency.
The Dodgers have let their share of big-name free agents walk—Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Yu Darvish, Manny Machado, Yasmani Grandal—but they tend to have an obvious in-house replacement waiting in the wings when they make that choice. By contrast, Springer’s likely replacement, Myles Straw, is a 26-year-old pinch-running specialist with a career slugging percentage of .322.
It’s possible that the Dodgers’ success is so intertwined with their ability to develop talent that their model isn’t replicable for other teams. Even if it is, it’s incredibly expensive. The Astros have run a top-10 payroll every year since 2018, but the Dodgers have outspent them by $154.6 million over that time, an average of more than $38 million a year.
Just like rich people can stave off the appearance of aging through plastic surgery, personal trainers, and expensive medical treatments, sufficiently rich baseball teams can also push back the tides of time. If the Astros won’t spend to that level, their run will come to an end. Perhaps quite soon.