It's hard to believe, but it's been only two years since the trajectory of the Astros franchise was altered forever, thanks to the sign-stealing scandal punishment. In summary, Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch were suspended by MLB then promptly fired by Jim Crane. $5 million in fines and the loss of four draft picks (2 first round, 2 second round) also followed. No players were suspended, and the 2017 title — now tainted — remained in Houston. Whether you believed it was enough or not, the punishment was handed down, and the organization was left in a dark place.
Fast forward two years and Houston hasn't suffered from an on-field perspective. The losses of Gerrit Cole, George Springer, and presumably Carlos Correa will inflict more harm than the actual punishment ever did, at least in the short term. No, the boos on the road don't count. But the club's winning ways continued, although the small sample nature of the 2020 season mistakenly led people to believe that these Astros were ultimately a product of sign-stealing. Nope, they weren't, as this team appeared to regain its mojo in that subsequent postseason. While the season concluded with a seven-game ALCS against the Rays, it established the thought that these Astros could still compete.
But if there was any doubt remaining about this roster in 2021, specifically the lineup, it was promptly erased on the heels of fifth-consecutive ALCS and a third World Series in five years. One can argue that the boos made them better if you believe in that sort of thing. It also made the sign-stealing even more annoying as it's clear that this team didn't need it, as evidenced by their MLB-best 116 wRC+ last season.
But enough about the past, let's talk about the future. The Astros still have a bright outlook considering the players under contract in addition to the prospects on the way to the majors. While the prospect pipeline doesn't run quite as rich as before, this organization has proven in recent years that the rankings don't necessarily matter when developing competent major league-caliber players (see: centerfield, pitching staff). Below are some of my thoughts as we inch further into 2022, with the presumption that the lockout ends sooner rather than later. A tall ask at this point, I know.
For the first time in two years, the Astros will not be hampered by the draft pick portion of their sign-stealing punishment. In fact, for the first time in James Click's tenure, he will have all of his draft picks available to use. That's a massive development, and we're now entering the period where we can begin to evaluate Click as a general manager properly. Considering the rather tumultuous circumstances of his arrival, it was always tricky to gauge certain areas of his decisions regarding the draft.
Thankfully for the Astros, MLB never included the club's ability to spend in the international market as part of the sign-stealing penalties. That would've genuinely hampered the franchise in a more meaningful way. Starting in 2022, the new front office led by Click can now use its total resources for the first time. That development is kind of a big deal.
While it isn't over until it's over, the probability of Correa returning to the Astros looked bleak before the lockout, and I don't anticipate that changing once it is lifted. In theory, the team's ownership led by Crane could decide to blow past any new threshold level to keep the All-Star shortstop in town, but that is a pipe dream. As recently mentioned by Crane himself, Houston has their formula, and they hope Correa's demands fit within it. In other words, the organization's price point is set, and it is up to the former first overall draft pick to offer concessions, which isn't likely at this juncture.
In turn, the Astros are likely pinning their shortstop hopes on Jeremy Peña, one of their top prospects. While his 2021 season was cut short due to injury, the 24-year-old demonstrated improved power with a .579 SLG and an above-average on-base percentage of .363. Again, he was limited to only 37 games, so the sample is small; however, the promise is apparent with both the bat and glove.
Of course, the primary concern with Peña lies if he underperforms and the shortstop position becomes even more of a question mark. Aledmys Díaz would likely fill in as the regular, but his injury history doesn't inspire much confidence that he could handle the position full-time throughout an entire season. Could the Astros use a veteran stopgap as insurance? Yes. But will they sign one? I have my doubts.
Dusty Baker will be the Astros manager in 2022, and he deserves it. The ultimate hope for him and the club is returning to the Fall Classic, where they can hopefully win it all. That would be the crowning achievement of a Hall of Fame-worthy career for the longtime skipper. But the long-term question for Baker and Houston is his status beyond 2022 with an already heir apparent with Joe Espada on staff, who also was a finalist for both the A's and Mets managerial openings this offseason. It only is a matter of time before Espada is hired as a manager in MLB and the Astros already know that much. Baker's extension was only through the 2022 season, and the transition to Espada would be smooth. A situation to keep an eye on.
The Astros now possess some flexibility, with three pitchers possibly competing for the final starting assignment. The return of Justin Verlander further solidifies the top of Houston's rotation for the 2022 season, with Lance McCullers and Framber Valdez likely rounding out the top three. The final two spots on the staff will probably be filled by Luis García and some combination of Jose Urquidy/Jake Odorizzi/Cristian Javier. The question is how management plans to use it and whether they decide to trade from a position of depth to address a position of need (shortstop, centerfield?). However, I would caution against the latter as one can never have enough pitching.