The term “window” has become ubiquitous in sports reporting and commentary. It is often used to determine a team’s course of action. The term window is especially relevant in baseball, where the differences in payrolls are astounding, as is the range in pay for players based on experience (imagine Zion Williamson or Joe Burrows making league minimum). Closer to home, several posters and commenters have talked about the closing of the window as something inevitable. I’m here to challenge that by definition, and then by question.
Definition: a team’s window refers to a period when a team with some budget restraints (basically, everyone besides the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox) has enough of their core players under control to compete for pennants. A team’s window “closes” when it can no longer afford to pay that core of players, and cannot replace the players it loses with players of similar quality. The classic example is the Kansas City Royals, whose young core came up together, and either got too expensive through arbitration and/or became free agents, around the same time. Due to trades and drafting later on account of their success, the window closed because the farm system grew weaker.
The question: do the Astros have a window, and when will it close? A time-window becomes shortened due to a couple of factors: the first is avoiding bad contracts. Locking up a player past his prime, either due to injury or due to decreased production, can hamstring a team. The Astros are paying Verlander, who will be 38 next month, 33 million dollars in 2021, 7 million more than the next most expensive player, and he will not throw a pitch for the team this year. Had they not extended him, they would have more choices. The next most expensive player, Jose Altuve, had a bad regular season in 2020. Will he be a league-average 2b baseman, or will he continue to be elite? He and Bregman represent the biggest salary commitments beyond 2021.
Unlike the Royals, the Astros’ production of elite-level talent has come in waves, and unlike the Royals, they have operated as a big-market team since 2016. Although Springer was the first departure of their core, and Altuve is now expensive, Bregman and Correa are still in their mid-20s, and Tucker and Alvarez are pre-arb, meaning they’re on minimum salaries. They have vets past their prime, like Smith, Greinke, and Gurriel (both 37), but they are not making a lot of money, and thus don’t cost a lot, with the exception of Greinke, whose post-prime is pretty darn near most good pitchers’ prime.
To win a division or to make the playoffs, a team normally needs a number of solid players who produce positive WAR, and a few elite, MVP, or Cy-Young type players. The Astros have had the latter in droves, both in the field (Altuve in 2017, then Bregman in ‘18 & ‘19) and on the mound (Keuchel in 2015, then JV and Cole in ‘18 and ‘19). One way for the window to stay open is for Altuve and Bregman to continue to be All-Stars or MVP candidates. Another way, if the production of either slip is for someone to replace that production. Tucker and Alvarez have shown the ability to do that.
No team, not even the Yankees, can afford to pay middle-range salaries for middling performances for roster spots 10-25. Teams’ windows close because they’re top-heavy, but also middle-heavy, paying a reliever 8 million who ends up as a mop-up guy. Will the window close? It depends not just on Alvarez and Tucker, but on whether guys like Straw and Toro can provide 2 WAR seasons before they get expensive.
2020 proved that the Astros, despite having a farm now ranked in the bottom 10 across the board, can still produce big-time arms. Two of the highest-rated arms, Whitley and Bryan Abreu, gave them nothing last year. Instead, it was Javier, Paredes, and even Garcia stepping up, along with unheralded relievers like Taylor, Raley, and Scrubb.
What will 2021 show us? Like any season, it will show us whether the Astros can continue to compete for rings. And it will be an organizational effort. Can Click find bargains in the basement bin? Between the trio of Altuve, Bregman, and Correa, can one of them produce an MVP season? Can Tucker give us a 4 WAR season? Can something like a Big 3 emerge from the promising rotation?
And in the long term, will the unjust and disproportionate punishment of the Astros by MLB cripple the farm? Or can smart international signings and a new development strategy under Click lead to a farm system that can still produce MLB regulars after the 2nd round (JD Davis, JD Martinez, Laureano, Toro?).
With the exception of Hunter Pence, the post-2005 Astros were not able to produce the elite talent that they were practically giving away in the peak-Hunsicker years. And they kept trying to strike gold with the “wily veterans” who were past their prime and unlikely to be much better than replacement-level. James Click is too smart to repeat that strategy. He knows better than to press reset with Alex Bregman in his prime and on a team-friendly deal, and Tucker, Alvarez, and Valdez looking like future stars.
The Brantley deal buys Click time. 2020 was a rough season and a miserable year on almost every level. But the 2020 postseason, when Correa, Altuve, and co. came alive, shows that ABSOLUTELY NOBODY wants to meet this core in the playoffs. Let’s make Correa an Astro-for-life and make rebuilding something restricted to Dallas-Fort Worth.