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Is the 2022 season championship-or-bust for the Astros?

A question that has become more topical each year for the defending AL champs.

Houston Astros v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The Astros are projected to win over 100 games, according to FanGraphs. Also per FG, their World Series odds are far and away the best in the American League.

Coming into the 2022 season, expectations were high for the Astros. They were projected to win the AL West again and challenge for another pennant. But it wasn’t easy to have an outlook that was wholly optimistic.

Carlos Correa no longer called Houston home, and it seemed overall that the roster was less talented than the 2021 troop. The biggest “acquisition” of the winter was the re-signing of Justin Verlander, who would be entering his age-39 season after having effectively missed the last two seasons due to an arm injury that eventually resulted in Tommy John surgery.

Reaching the playoffs wasn’t necessarily a concern — especially with an additional wild-card spot up for grabs — but there were questions as to how far this seemingly downgraded roster could go.

There were.

Now, with a division title secured and the AL’s No. 1 seed likely to be captured as well, the cautious optimism that fans such as myself employed early in the season is very much a thing of the past.

The primary question isn’t how deep this team can play into October; it’s how big of a failure would it be if they didn’t.

With expectations no longer tempered as they were several months ago, it’s fair to wonder if the 2022 campaign would be a flop for the Astros if they exited it without any hardware — specifically the last piece given out on the final day of the season.

Making five straight appearances in the ALCS and winning three of them naturally generates high expectations, to the point where it almost seems reasonable to think that anything shy of a World Series berth would be a wasted season, and that another loss in the Fall Classic would be an utter disappointment.

The Astros have made it abundantly clear that those expectations should have been in place in April. Now it’s time to reckon with what it means with the postseason drawing near.

Aside from factoring in past success, there’s also the future that warrants significant consideration, if not the lion’s share of it: Another offseason of uncertainty is but a few months away, and if things were to not work out for the Astros, it’s possible they’d enter next season on the heels of yet another winter where they let an All-Star walk in free agency.

The ageless Verlander is a favorite for the AL Cy Young. Because of his performance this season — headlined by a remarkable 1.78 ERA across 157 innings — he figures to decline his 2023 player option. Given how much money he’d likely be offered as a free agent, exercising his $25 million option seems improbable. Mets ace Max Scherzer, who is roughly one year younger than Verlander, is the obvious comparison from a contract standpoint. Perhaps JV would not be offered terms that would match Scherzer’s enormous $43.3 million AAV over three years, but he’s expected to seriously cash in nonetheless.

Delving into the Astros’ 2023 payroll and projected starting rotation is another article for another day, but suffice it to say that it’s possible, if not probable that Verlander will be pitching in a different uniform next year. If he does indeed sign elsewhere, it would be ideal to have made the most of his incredible comeback season by winning a title.

2021 saw the inverse scenario play out, as the Astros did not quite make the most out of Carlos Correa’s MVP-caliber season, which was widely presumed to be his last in Houston following failed extension talks in spring training.

Considering the organization’s level of success over the last five years and its somewhat murky future beyond 2022, it does feel like anything short of another parade would be an inadequate final result.

The upside to supporting a consistent, wildly successful club such as the Astros is that each October typically delivers some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences available in sports fandom. The downside, though merely an insignificant side effect in comparison, is that there is little to no consolation in the event of failure.