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James Click must have a contingency plan in place for 2021

The Astros are likely to be the favorites to win the AL West next year, but should they falter in the first half of the season, tough decisions will need to be made

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

Imagine that the 2021 trade deadline is approaching and the Astros are on the outside looking in. There is a distinct possibility that they will fail to make the playoffs. What’s to be done? How should general manager James Click act?

Barring injuries, this is the worst-cast scenario for next year.

As unlikely as it is for this to be reality next summer, it’s not entirely improbable, and thus must be taken into consideration. The implications alone render it highly consequential. The implications, of course, are the impending free agencies of shortstop Carlos Correa and starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr.

In this scenario, Click would have to make hugely significant decisions, ones that could end up defining his Astros tenure.

If Click chooses not to alter the team’s course in the face of questionable playoff odds and decides to mush on, he’d be taking an enormous risk. Should the gamble pay off and the Astros rally late in the season and earn the right to play in October, no harm, no foul. But if they were to fall short, the result would be an abject disaster.

Failing to secure a playoff spot in a weak division is a catastrophe by itself. The fallout, however, would be even worse.

The Astros would not only have missed the playoffs, but would have let three key players reach free agency. The complexities of any ensuing qualifying offers notwithstanding, the bottom line is that the Astros would have missed out on trading Correa, Greinke and McCullers for substantially more value than the club would receive via compensatory draft picks.

This leads us to the other side of the coin.

Come the trade deadline, if Click is unsure of the Astros reaching the playoffs, it could be prudent to trade Correa, Greinke and McCullers. Essentially waiving the white flag in what was supposed to be this core’s last playoff hurrah would be disheartening, but ultimately necessary.

Exactly how much value the trio could yield in trades at the deadline is something that cannot yet be known, but suffice it to say that their respective returns would better position the Astros to retool their roster than one or two compensatory draft picks would.

This whole context is purely abstract for now, and for a multitude of reasons, the chances are low that the Astros will find themselves in this conundrum. If it were to transpire, however, the significance of next year’s trade deadline cannot be overstated.

At this point, Correa, Greinke and McCullers are not on the brink of free agency as they would be many months from now, but the notion of something getting done this winter is an impractical one, especially given the current circumstances.

Heading into this offseason, a Correa extension was seemingly a top priority, but it now looks as though the Astros will begin next year’s season without a Correa extension being completed, which would all but guarantee that he’d become a free agent next winter.

There have been reports that the Astros are looking to trade Correa this winter, and Click did not issue a denial when asked about them. In fact, he seemed to subtly confirm the rumors.

Unless the unexpected should happen, Greinke will reach free agency, and though there is a case to be made for extending McCullers, there’s been no indication that the club will even attempt to ink him to a long-term deal.

To be clear, this is a self-imposed crossroads that the organization is facing. While the Astros and Correa may come to an agreement on an extension later this offseason, there’s currently no reason to suspect that it will happen.

If it doesn’t, then the club will be primed to have lost superstar talents in three consecutive offseasons — starting pitcher Gerrit Cole in 2019, outfielder George Springer in 2020 and Correa in 2021. It’s remarkable how that’s possible, given that hardly any money is committed beyond next year.

Regardless of that possibility, 2021 will be an interesting year for the Astros. There’s a good chance they open the season as the favorites to win the AL West, and there’s now talk of ace Justin Verlander hoping to pitch in 2021 despite undergoing Tommy John surgery less than three months ago.

Verlander is also a free agent after next season, but because of his recovery window extending to at least next September, he’ll possess no trade value, should the Astros be sellers at the deadline.

If the rest of this offseason plays out the way it’s expected to, the Astros will not extend any of their core players who are set to be free agents a year from now. By doing this, they make the scenario I’ve described a potential reality. Should it come to pass, there will be only one person to blame for it, and it won’t be the general manager.