In what feels like a repeat of 2 years ago, crews are cleaning up the confetti from the end of another World Series at Minute Maid Park. Just like 2 years ago, the confetti was not for the home team. Another NL East team, who struggled for a good part of the regular season, but then got hot in the playoffs, managed to overcome the favored Astros and add to the litany of championship heartbreak for the Houston professional sports scene. This time, it would be the Atlanta Braves, playing their historic role of Astros playoff vanquisher, leaving no doubt about their final victory with a 7-0 blasting of the home squad.
Thus, the Houston Astros must face another off-season where the season did not end with a championship. Of course, since the revelations of the 2017-18 sign-stealing scheme, many outside of Houston, particularly in New York and Los Angeles, revel in this defeat, engaging in a form of schadenfreude that has few parallels in the sporting world. Only one team gets to end the season with a championship, meaning 29 other franchises all face disappointment and heartbreak. Perhaps the pain is harshest for the team that comes up on the losing end of the championship.
Certainly the off-season will be spent second-guessing and what-iffing the actions of the past 6 games. Why did the Astros’ bats go cold? Why couldn’t the team take advantage of their chances in Game 4? Even Game 3 offered the team the chance to score, for there were few hits, but a number of walks. What happened to Valdez and his pitching control in the post-season, save his Game 5 ALCS gem? What if McCullers hadn’t been lost after the ALDS? While the Braves had a lot to do with the Astros’ struggles, the team and its fanbase will be chewing on those questions over the next few months.
Yet, the off-season starts now, and the Astros faces some serious questions about their future. Perhaps the biggest will be the fate of SS Carlos Correa. Coming off arguably his best season since his ROY campaign and managing to avoid the injuries that have plagued most of his recent years, he is primed to cash-in big in free agency. The Astros tried to sign him to a deal before the season, but the years and money were not even close to Correa’s liking. That the Astros will make a qualifying offer is a given. However, will the team try to continue negotiations, and will they open up their pocketbooks for a franchise cornerstone?
If Correa goes, not only is a talented bat and defender gone, but arguably, the vocal leader for the squad goes as well. What impact will that have on the team as a whole? The team already lost Springer to free agency before the 2021 season. While the squad will be far from bereft of talent, a player like Correa does not come along all the time. Will the team sign him, and if not, who can replace him in the lineup? Who replaces him in the team leader role?
Along with Correa, players like Verlander and Greinke are also slated to come off the books. This will free up considerable financial resources, but who takes their places? For Verlander, he has only given the team 6 innings the past two seasons due to injury. If the team makes a qualifying offer, does he take it, and can he even remotely return to form? What of the trade deadline acquisitions? Do the Astros keep Graveman, who did so much to turn the bullpen (oh, sorry, I guess I should say “arm barn”?) from a regular season weakness into a playoff strength? There is a lot of roster churn ahead for the squad.
The roster churn can also include the managerial and assistant positions. Dusty Baker is not under contract after this game. Do the Astros bring him back, and does he even want to come back? Clearly he wants that World Series ring as a manager. Yet, even if this was his last ride, he should have a strong enough resume as is to make into the Hall of Fame, World Series championship or no. The team will also have to replace perhaps the unreplaceable. Brent Strom indicated that he will retire after this World Series. The impact he had on the team’s pitchers cannot be overstated. His loss will be a major one for the 2022 Astros. Jim Click has himself quite the off-season to manage.
In the way-too-early projections, most have the Astros as favorites to return to the Fall Classic. Even with the fates of the aforementioned free agents, the team should return a strong core of players that, if they all can avoid major injury and play to form, should keep the Astros among MLB’s best. Yet, a return to a World Series after a loss is no guarantee. Since 2000, only the 2011 Rangers, the 2015 Royals and the 2018 Dodgers made a repeat trip after a loss, and only the 2015 Royals avenged their previous defeat. The Astros did not return in 2006 nor 2020. Will 2022 be any different?
And what of those who remain? Gurriel led the league in batting average. Can he even hope to repeat that at 38? Altuve is still the face of the franchise, and he is still among the league’s best infielders, but he not quite the hitting machine of old. What of Bregman and Valdez? Two of the younger stars on the team who had less-than-stellar post-season performances. Will the 2021 post-season have any lasting impacts on their psyches and future performances? The Astros did sort of experience a WS runner-up hangover in 2020, but given that it was in the height of the COVID pandemic before the vaccines came available, it can be hard to judge the full impacts. Yet, will 2022 see another drop-off in the Astros’ performance? TBD.
All of this in the shadow of what promises to be a brutal labor fight between players and owners. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire in early December, and with little indication that the respective sides will hope to come to a deal before then, this could have major ramifications for how the off-season plays out. What of the luxury tax, player service times, universal DHs, etc? If there is a labor stoppage, how long does that last, and what impact might that have in the upcoming season? Perhaps the ancient curse “May you live in interesting times” will apply here.
Until then, the Astros can only just sit back, take stock of what they achieved, and what they didn’t. This was a team build for the World Series, and they almost got there. In the bigger picture, there is much to look back upon with pride. Yet, for this squad, if there was no championship, there was no full success. Close only counts in horseshoes and nukes. While they have a good a chance as any to get back in 2022, that is far from a sure thing. So congrats to Atlanta, who slayed some of their own post-season demons. As for what comes next? Stay tuned. If nothing else, it won’t be boring.