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Windows, Rebuilding, and Reloading

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Where next for the Astros?

MLB: Houston Astros-Workouts Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2014, after the Giants won their third straight title and the Astros limped to a 70-92 record, I group-chatted my high school friends (I grew up in the Bay Area), and I told them that they had a great run, but the Giants wouldn’t have a better record than the Astros for at least another decade.

On the facts of it, I was wrong (2016 was a backslide year) but the basic idea was correct. The Astros’ window was open, and the Giants’ was closing, compounded by a GM who was behind the times and a fanbase that expected a winning team.

What struck me about Luhnow in the early years was a claim he liked to make: he didn’t want the Astros to be a “lightening in a bottle team” like the 2003 Marlins, but instead to compete for championships over multiple years. That’s what we’ve done, with the exception of 2016, for the past six years: either winning the World Series, or losing to the eventual winner (we’ll see if Tampa can continue the “if we get by the Astros we win it all” verity).

With 2020 in the books for the Astros, the entire starting OF headed to free-agency, and the Astros’ best starter and reliever out for 2021, it’s worth asking whether the Astros window is closed.

After 2016, Luhnow used the deep farm system and the cost-controlled core in order to sign for complementary pieces or trade for front-end guys in order to build a team that would win 100 games three years in a row. We know that story and those pieces.

We’ll get to that window, but first a brief detour is in order. The biggest failure of Luhnow’s developmental program was the development of a #1 or #2 starter. Keuchel was drafted by the previous regime, Aiken, Folty, and Appel didn’t work out, McCullers has helped the team during this window, but not to the extent they’d hoped for. In addition, promising, top 100 prospects from Frankie Montas and David Paulino to Michael Feliz, Josh James, and Forrest Whitley never yielded that guy. So they traded a raft of prospects for Cole, JV, and Greinke. These weren’t “deadline” deals even when they were; they were about building and sustaining a World Series-level team.

Many of us missed it in between the endless flow of relievers and the other drama of 2020, but this past season was a breakthrough in terms of the development of potential starting talent. The biggest breakthrough was Framber Valdez, who looks like he can throw 200 IP and front a rotation of a division-winning team. Equally notable was the bounce back of McCullers from surgery. We never quite know if the stuff is back, but except for a clunker or two, McCullers is back. In addition, Cristian Javier emerged as a potential starter. Urquidy, meanwhile, proved that 2019 was no fluke. Brandon Bielak struggled, but Luis Garcia literally came out of nowhere and flashed four potential plus pitches.

All of those guys, excepting McCullers, have one thing in common: they’re cheap. You know who else is cheap: Yordan Alvarez. Kyle Tucker. Every team has guys making minimum. The MVP of the ALCS is probably making minimum. But the injury and COVID emergency of 2020 forced the Astros hand, and a farm system ranked in the bottom 10 showed itself capable of still producing a yield of cheap, controllable talent.

The classic case of a “window closing” was the post-2015 Kansas City Royals. They had a group of players that gradually aged out of their peak, or were too expensive to keep, and they either lost them (Cain, Moustakas, Hosmer) or regretted overpaying them (Gordon). Meanwhile, years of drafting at the back end of the rounds, plus trading away talent to make deadline deals, made it harder to reload.

Big market teams can chart another course. For all of the crap Crane took at the beginning of his tenure, which writers like Evan Dreilich accented and highlighted repeatedly, he opened the checkbook big time. If neither Springer nor Correa stay around, it will be a huge loss. But it won’t be because Crane refused to make a serious offer to either of them.

The Astros are not the Cubs, Yankees, or Dodgers, all of whom are basically printing money in a normal year. But they can spend, and they have, in extending Altuve, JV, Pressly, and Bregman. They also have a core of players who figure to add a lot of wins at minimum salary cost (Tucker, Alvarez, Urquidy, Valdez, Javier, Paredes). What crushes teams is paying for past performance. The 2020 Astros paid Josh Reddick 13 million to produce negative 0.6 WAR according to Fangraphs. In 2021 they’ll pay a 38-year-old 33 million to rehab. But there is no Albert Pujols contract on the books. The biggest commitments post -2021 are to Altuve and Bregman. And Altuve’s postseason showed that he’s still in his prime (1.229 postseason OPS with 11BB and 8Ks).

The 2021 Astros are unlikely to produce a team that wins 108 games. But they can integrate younger talent into a team that, with the right offseason acquisitions, can win 95 games. And if James Click can continue to use the IFA market to find pitchers who can contribute to the MLB club, there is no reason this window cannot remain open.

The biggest misnomer to tanking is that drafting 1-1 ensures you the ability to get the top talent. This not the NBA, where 1-1 can turn a franchise around (Tim Duncan, Shaq O’Neil, Zion, etc...). Drafting high helps, but development and evaluation are names of the game.

The 2007-2009 Astros were an aging team locked into a cycle of 74-88-type seasons, with two All-Stars in their primes (Pence, Oswalt) and two aging out of their primes (Lee, Berkman). The 2021 Astros are nothing like that. They have a rotation of Greinke, McCullers, Valdez, and Urquidy. They have a top 6 lineup of Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Tucker, Alvarez, and Gurriel. That’s before either re-signing or replacing Springer and Brantley.

Besides Matt Chapman, the A’s have no player you can pencil in as an All-Star. They have an impressive array of pre-arb talent (Laureano, Luzardo, Murphy, Puk) but they’re losing Billy Beane and their owner won’t spend to keep Hendriks, Semien, and Grossman, especially given how many of their guys are are in line for large raises in arbitration. If you see another team in the AL West you think can win 90 games, let me know.

If you think the Astros should get out ahead of this and sell, my only answer is: to what end? To create another window? If that’s the goal, it may take awhile? In which case, you’d be wasting the cost-controlled talent you have now. And who wants to trade for minor league players after a year in which none of them played competitively?

2021 will tell us much more than 2020 did. Maybe Urquidy and Valdez disappoint, and Forrest Whitley quits baseball. Maybe Kyle Tucker looks more like an average regular than an All-Star. Maybe the team limps to an 83-79 record. Not even James Click knows the answer, but 2021 can be a banner year for the Astros.