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How much longer can the Astros prolong their contention window?

Another offseason, another premium player at risk of departing Houston.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros have been on a historic run — five consecutive appearances in the American League Championship Series, with three pennants and one World Series title to show for it. It’s awfully impressive on the surface and fairly remarkable when considering it’s all been achieved despite the loss of All-Star talent in each of the past three offseasons.

It’s seemingly become an annual winter tradition for the Astros to let high-end talent walk in free agency. Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton left following the 2018 season, Gerrit Cole quickly made it known after Game 7 of the 2019 World Series that his tenure in Houston was done, and George Springer followed suit after the shortened 2020 campaign.

Now, Carlos Correa could soon be added to the list.

The ongoing lockout prevents Correa from choosing his next destination, but barring the standstill between the owners and players bleeding into the beginning of the 2022 season, it could only be a matter of weeks until it’s known which team the former No. 1 overall pick will sign with.

Owner Jim Crane’s reported disinclination to offer Correa a contract of more than six years makes a reunion unlikely, and it begs the question that’s posed in the headline.

If the Astros lose their franchise shortstop, it could prove to be the most consequential departure of this era. Correa plays a premium position and had been the vocal leader in the clubhouse. It would be extremely difficult to replace what he brought to the table, perhaps even impossible. But it seems the Astros brass is prepared to try anyway, knowing that they’d remain the team to beat in the AL West even in the event of Correa’s exit.

Shortstop Jeremy Peña is universally regarded as the organization’s best prospect and is naturally viewed as Correa’s heir. Moreover, the 24-year-old is expected to make his big-league debut in 2022, which would somewhat soften the blow for the Astros if Correa does leave. While Peña possesses an exciting combination of physical tools and skills, it would be unrealistic to expect him to immediately make an impact as a two-way player.

The shortstop conundrum aside, the long and the short of it is this: it’s really hard to replace elite talent. Granted, the Astros have had some success in doing so, but continually needing to is not a winning formula, especially when armed with what is viewed as an unremarkable farm system.

At the same time, the Astros are perceived by many in the industry to have one of the best player development systems in baseball, which not only helped mitigate the losses of Keuchel, Morton, Cole and Springer, but enabled the club to maintain its contender status.

Should Correa in fact sign elsewhere when transactions resume, the Astros’ effective system could face its greatest challenge. The floor isn’t that they’ll cease to be a playoff contender, it’s that they won’t be good enough to play deep into October. Considering the kind of postseason success the organization and fan base are used to and now frankly expect, the former and latter might well be the same.