It’s dark in a cellar. Are the Astros heading into twilight?
Every Astros fan is familiar with the demise of the Astros after their World Series appearance in 2005. Mediocrity for the rest of the decade, and a unique level of terrible from about 2010 to 2014. From 2011 to 2013 they lost 100 or more games every year and won the dubious right to pick first in the draft in each of the following years. It was the dark night of the Astros’ soul. But this led to their renaissance, which, if there were games right now, would be ongoing.
But next year the whole outfield is eligible for free agency: George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick. I’m sure the Astros would like to re-sign Springer, but that will probably cost at least $25 million per year...on a team friendly contract.
To potentially replace these three players are two young outfielders, Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker. Straw, a speedster with a tad of shortstop experience, is a pure contact hitter at best with no power. Tucker, a 24-year-old former 5th round overall pick, still leaves analysts wondering whether he will produce adequately at the big league level.
For 2021, the best case scenario is Springer re-signs, Straw can replace the production of Reddick, and (unlikely in my opinion) Tucker produces at Brantley’s All-Star level.
Another potential loss for 2021 is Yuli Gurriel, who is in the last year of his contract. The Astros have an option to re-sign him, although he will be 38 years-old and likely far into the decline of his career by then.
The Astros have shown almost no interest in converting Yordan Alvarez to first base, which leaves the now 26-year-old Taylor Jones as the main internal option to replace Gurriel. Never considered a top prospect and drafted in the 19th round, he showed potential last year in AAA, hitting 22 home runs with an .889 OPS at Round Rock. However, any projection of him as a major leaguer who can replace the current production of Yuli Gurriel is wishful thinking in my opinion.
Among pitchers, a mainstay of the rebuild/championship era Astros, Brad Peacock, is also set to depart after 2020. That, after losing Gerrit Cole, Will Harris and Collin McHugh this year.
2022 and beyond
But 2022 is the year the Astros hemorrhage. Let’s start with pitching.
The Astros have only three proven starters on the staff currently, and that only if you consider Lance McCullers, coming off Tommy John surgery, as a proven starter. They are, of course, McCullers, and future Hall of Famers Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. All three are free agents starting in 2022. Verlander and Greinke will be 40 and 39-years old, respectively by 2022, so whether they are even ace quality by then ( or this year for that matter) is highly doubtful.
Can anyone imagine that any of the young players on the current 40-man roster, say Josh James, Jose Urquidy, Brandon Bielak, Bryan Abreu, Christian Javier, etc, can fill even half the shoes of the Hall of Famers? Some still hold out for Forrest Whitley. His odds are looking longer and longer every year he fails in the minors.
Then there are the ace relievers, Joe Smith, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna, also free to go in 2022.
The big loss in the infield of course, the former savior of the franchise, is Carlos Correa. The best projection for his replacement, if he is not re-signed, is Alex Bregman from third to short, and Abraham Toro to third. Who believes that Toro, who is only a year younger than Correa at 24, can come close to replacing the production of Correa, even with Correa’s tendencies to be injured?
In summary, these are the pieces the Astros need to replace by opening day 2022: George Springer, Josh Reddick, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, Brad Peacock, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers, Joe Smith, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna. Together, including Gerrit Cole, these players represent 42 Wins above Replacement lost. (Baseball Reference)
The only stars or valuable proven veterans who will remain committed to that roster are: Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Aledmys Diaz, and an aging Jose Altuve.
Currently, the Astros farm system is rated near the bottom of MLB, with only one prospect, the erratic Forrest Whitley, rated in the MLB Top 100.
To get Zack Greinke, the Astros surrendered their 2017 first and second round draft picks, and their 2018 first round pick. Because of the cheating scandal, the Astros have also forfeited their 2020 and 2021 first and second round picks.
Are the Astros after 2020 (if there is a 2020 season) doomed to the fate of the post-2005 Astros? Between 2005 and 2010 the only two players drafted by the Astros who eventually made substantial contributions to the Astros were Jason Castro and Dallas Keuchel. With so little new, inexpensive young talent feeding into the team, the Astros had to stay competitive by re-signing over-priced free agents, or signing new ones like Carlos Lee.
From 2006 to 2009 the Astros were generally a below .500 team, but not the worst in the league. Eventually the internal rot within the system led to the debacle of the years 2010-2014.
How did the Astros break the cycle? They traded the few star holdovers from the earlier era; Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and others for prospects. If the Astros don’t look competitive in 2021, will the Astros lease away Verlander, Greinke, Correa? After 2022 are Bregman, even Altuve, sacrosanct?
The Astros from 2022 and beyond will probably look like the post-2005 Astros. They will re-sign a few expensive stars, George Springer for example, perhaps go heavily into the free agent market and stay somewhat competitive, but will not be able to afford the kind of deep roster that you need to compete for a championship. For that you need great players in their inexpensive arbitration or pre-arbitration years of service. The Astros farm does not appear to be producing enough above average talent at this time to fill that need.
In the glow of a championship, the Astros have generated enough revenue to be able to afford a high payroll. Will any team be able to spend like the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox in a Covid and post-Covid world? And with the cheating scandal as well, will the Astros fan base continue to give the same support they have for the last few years? If not, the free agency approach to competitiveness, which seems the only way open to the Astros in the mid-term, may be even less practical than in the past.
Perhaps the Astros player development program will miraculously turn some watery prospects into fine wine. Coming from the Tampa Bay organization, perhaps new GM James Click will bring to Houston the same resourcefulness that has made the Rays competitive year after year with such a small payroll.
But it looks like 2020 was the last best chance for the Luhnow era Astros to repeat for a championship, a season that may not happen. By 2022 the Astros are looking like a .500 team...maybe. And staying that way for a long time.
Such is life. “Everything changes.” Tracy Lawrence