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Where do the Astros go from here?

This offseason is going to be a long one, I’m afraid.

MLB: ALDS-Workouts Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros, for as great as their season was, fell short again in the title round. Bats went cold at the wrong time. The pitching staff finally reached its breaking point. It is fair to wonder how this series would’ve panned out if Alex Bregman was playing closer to his full strength or if Yordan Alvarez never lost his ALCS swing. Or, if Lance McCullers was healthy? But it is what it is, and Houston has now witnessed two opponents in three seasons celebrate a title on the grass of Minute Maid Park at their expense.

That’s about as much of a post mortem I have in me for the World Series. We’re now more than 36 hours removed from that last out. The offseason is already here, whether we like it or not. While it’s helpful to remain aware of the past, it’s best not to fixate on it. So, in keeping with that spirit, where do the Astros go next as this rather unusual offseason begins to take shape?

First, one cannot write about the offseason without noting the status of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The current iteration is set to expire in less than a month and a new one appears far off in the distance at this juncture. Both the players and club owners remain divided on an assortment of issues. This separation between the two sides could possibly lead to a work stoppage, which will have a direct impact on the offseason. For that reason, it is more difficult than usual to foresee how this winter unfolds. It’ll likely suppress the market for a lengthy amount of time as teams will probably wait for the next agreement to be in place before initiating any transactions of great consequence.

In other words, the Astros are more than likely to stand pat for the remainder of the calendar year. With multiple free agents this offseason, it leaves room for some uncomfortable waiting times, especially in the case of Carlos Correa. Don’t expect quick resolutions unless an unexpected development arises.

Of course, Houston is faced with a third consecutive offseason that might become turbulent. In what has become an annual winter tradition, this franchise could lose another MVP-level talent in Correa, following the departure of Gerrit Cole in 2019 and George Springer in 2020. Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are both free agents in addition to Yimi Garcia and Kendall Graveman. Not to mention that beloved pitching coach Brent Strom is also leaving the organization. Change is in the air.

But as it pertains to player payroll, the Astros have room to spend to help mitigate any pending departures. For one, if we use 2021’s base tax threshold of $210 million, general manager James Click roughly has a $53 million budget, including estimated arbitration values, if recent seasons are any guide to Jim Crane’s willingness to spend. Only three players have contracts guaranteed through 2024: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and McCullers. In fact, McCullers’ contract is the only one guaranteed through 2026. From a short- and long-term budget standpoint, there is little in the way that should hamper the Astros’ efforts in assembling a competitive roster.

The focal point of the offseason will obviously center around Correa’s free agency. The payroll flexibility is present to re-sign him at an average annual value of $25-$30 million, and possibly address another position or two this offseason. Based on the rumored offers from the Astros in Spring Training, it appears as if the average annual value wasn’t a primary issue in negotiations, rather it was the proposed term of the contract. For the club, it appears as if the five- to six-year range is the max while Correa may prefer an eight- to ten-year commitment. There has been a reluctance in the past from Jeff Luhnow and now Click to hand out contracts/extensions longer than the five- to six-year range, but if there is ever a time to break this internal measure, it’s arguably for Correa. Yes, even with the risks that are normally associated with long-term “mega” contracts.

In the event of Correa’s departure, which feels more like a likely possibility based on his postgame comments on Tuesday, the front office will have ample room to address multiple areas of the roster. It is fair to speculate whether Click would explore adding a shortstop on a short-term contract while top infield prospect Jeremy Peña ascends the minor league ladder. Another starting pitcher or two who could eat some innings would make sense considering how Houston’s depth in this department was tested regularly in 2021. For example, Greinke led the club in innings pitched (168 2/3) and is most likely signing elsewhere. While it is possible for Framber Valdez, Luis García, and Jose Urquidy to absorb more innings next season, it always pay to have one pitcher too many than to finish too short. The bullpen is another area that could stand to improve, especially with Graveman’s potential departure considered.

If there is one distinct difference in this upcoming offseason compared to the previous two, it is the general feeling of hope that Correa could ultimately stay in Houston. To what I recall, there wasn’t this same feeling in the air when discussing Cole or even Springer’s free agency. Both sides have expressed their fondness for the other all year long. But money talks. To lose Correa, though, would be a blow to the Astros, but recoverable to some degree. It all hinges on what Click decides to do and how much of a budget he receives from Crane. That said, we should probably expect a long winter with little in terms of immediate answers as the battle over the CBA now quickly approaches.