Seems like superstitions did work this time around: the Houston Astros are your 2022 WS Champions!
A postseason dominated on paper, two sweeps and a 11–2 record, but hardly fought in reality, with close games and crucial bombs, Houston prevailed on Seattle, New York and finally Philadelphia, a 4–2 series win with the clinching success at home, first since the 2013 Red Sox. It’s in all effect a dynasty: 6 ALCS bouts, 4 pennants and 2 titles are more than any other franchise achieved in the last 10 years…good times to be an Astros fan!
Time to think about next year though: Offseason is in full effect and while only a couple of days went by, we already know that Edwin Diaz is going to blare his trumpets for another 5 seasons in a Mets uniform; Clayton Kershaw ain’t going nowhere and being a great late inning reliever does in fact pay, ask Robert Suarez and his new SD contract.
On the Astros side of things there are 5 questions to be answered, a pair of glaring holes to cover and tough decisions to take. That doesn’t include the front office part of the question: while Dusty Baker decided to run it back, looking to win it all again in 2023 with Houston after his long deserved maiden title, James Click may or may not be still at GM helm come April.
Frictions between owner Jim Crane and Click are well known, particularly on botched trades, see Mancini, and nixed ones, a Urquidy-Willson Contreras swap stopped by Dusty and Crane on its way; problems arised on Crane’s hands-on approach through his advisors, a behavior driven by the 2017 cheating scandal, and on his individual initiative in bringing back both Verlander and Brantley.
My two cents would like to see more Click in the long run: he didn’t hurt the future for the present as much, and the Astros’ devastating bullpen is his creature, from the Hector Neris’ signing to the shrewd acquisition of Rafael Montero and the show of trust in Bryan Abreu’s stuff.
That said, let’s have a quick look at the 5 most pressing questions for Houston to answer on its way to a 2023 repeat.
#1: Do we dance again with JV?
Raise your hand if you had Justin Verlander coming back from TJ better than ever before: stuff being pristine, no walks to be seen, less strikeouts but also fewer HRs and a minuscule WHIP on road to a sub 2 ERA and an all but assured 3rd Cy Young Award, JV keeps on defying Mother Nature, forever young thanks to abundant sleep and the human fountain of youth called Kate Upton.
Brought back after his injury on a $25M pact with an option for the same amount, he obviously decided to opt out for a better deal: even at 40 he may not be looking for 5 years, but two seasons at a $35–40M AAV, rivaling Scherzer and DeGrom, is to be expected, and now it’s on Crane’s hands whether to jump on or let him go elsewhere.
The latter may be actually the better option: if there’s one thing the Astros have, that is SP depth. A true army of above average starters, Houston had to stash three of them in the pen, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy and Hunter Brown, for the Postseason, and even without JV they are in good hands, those of Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Lance McCullers Jr.
There’s no denying Verlander’s greatness: at 6 WAR he was the best Astros hurler by a mile, but truth to be told it makes more sense for Houston to add a depth piece or two, minor moves a la Drew Smyly, and use the huge payroll space in other positions and facets.
Where would JV go then? Watch out for the Yankees: pitching wins championships and if they are not able to bring Judge back, forming the 2018 Astros Aces duo with Gerrit Cole would make them a pitching powerhouse, one to be feared come October.
Decision #1: the dance stops here, but thanks for the memories JV!
#2: Is it time for a change at 1B?
This run of Astros dominance is all but entangled to what is a classic infield on Houston lore: Bregman, Correa (with Pena fitting in…well!), Altuve and Yuli Gurriel manning first base.
The latter may have played his last Astros game, and MLB one for that matters: even as his Postseason performance saw him turn back the clock ages, his regular season was putrid in all aspects, a well below average bat with no pop and also on defense, in the red and a clear nosedive from his batting champion, Gold Glove 2021. At 38 there’s not much to say if not being forever thankful for a guy who battled each of his ABs to death, a scoop machine at first and a silent leader in the clubhouse.
I’m not against bringing him back on a cheap 1 year pact, but his body is crumbling with his knee giving out on him in Game 5, and the bat speed to catch up heat is not there anymore. A platoon makes more sense, with a LHB 1B taking the brunt of the action and Yuli against lefties.
As Click already testified, first base defense is a big factor for Houston and that seemingly takes out Josh Bell from the equation, his bat and discipline so good but his glove dreadful, and a good option in Ji Man Choi, a walking machine and stretch enthusiast, was snatched away by Pittsburgh, whose infield is a KDrama cast.
The perfect fit would be paisà Anthony Rizzo, a pest at the plate with 30 HR pop and great defense, though he comes with a small caveat: after a solid season in the Bronx NY should keep him in fold, and he’d come costly, at $20M+ AAV, quite the ransom for a first baseman.
There are not that many 1B that fit the mold, even less LHB too: with no inside option Houston will have to either outbid for Rizzo, give up on defense for Bell or just reunite with Yuli and look for another bat that can also moonlight at first, either via trade or FA.
Decision #2: one last dance for Yuli, but with a LHB friend
#3: Is Brantley still part of the plan?
The Astros pitching devastation did all it could to mask a much too visible weakness in an otherwise tough lineup: no reliable DH, no professional Michael Brantley to fit in the second spot and work the opposing pitcher to death up to a surefire base hit.
A shoulder injury and a clock ticking 36 and counting, Brantley is a risky bet at this point of his career, even for such an accountable hitter. While Houston needs a lefty bat, better if it can also spell a bit of Yordan’s time in left field, Brantley is not the foregone conclusion, albeit he may come much cheaper than his past contract and at around $7–9 AAV for 2 years max I’d buy on a whim, and that’s because there’s a lot of offer in the FA market.
Known comedian Scott Boras has two clients at his disposal that could fit the Astros script: Michael Conforto lost a year to injury but he has huge upside in a disciplined bat with pop and good defense plus he could come at an affordable 1 year deal to prove himself; if Crane wants to spend big bucks then Brandon Nimmo is a good one, a walk magician and solid defender who would be at home in the Houston way of hitting, but we are talking about 4–5 years at around $25M AAV.
What I’d love to see though is a bit of a gamble, but one that makes sense in a lineup and economical sense. After their Nippon Series win, the Orix Buffaloes seem to be keen on posting Macho Man, none other than the best pure hitter in Japan: Masataka Yoshida.
An on-base wizard, with less than 100 Ks in the last two seasons COMBINED and twice as many walks as strikeouts, he would also bring a 20+ HR bat from the left side, a beautiful roundhouse windmill swing reminding of the Kid that he unleashes on hitter counts, to then protect in 2 strike counts and look for the oppo knock. No shift does help him, Crawford Boxes would mask his barely average LF defense and he doesn’t run at all, but the bat is glorious and he looks the part an Astro, another slugger below 6 ft together with Altuve and Bregman.
It’s no mystery I love the guy, seeing him exasperating PL pitchers is an art, his homers majestic more often than not and his ABs always full count battles, he strikes me as someone who wouldn’t be fazed by high velocity nor dirty breaking balls.
This is also an occasion for the Astros brand to gain ground in Asia, and that makes an expense that would still be less than that of Nimmo in signing bonus+contract, suspecting a $12–15M AAV, a steal of a deal considering merchandise and reputation returns.
Decision #3: bring Macho Man to Houston!
#4: What to do at C?
Martin Maldonado is an Astro favorite, his body of work and game knowledge all but making him a legend in Houston confines, but at this point he needs to catch less and breathe more, even more so as his offensive contribution relies on the occasional bomb and usual strikeout.
Christian Vazquez was a savvy move at the deadline and he was crucial in the Postseason, from catching a no-hitter(!) to all too important knocks and ABs, but he deserves to be a starter somewhere, and I’m not sure Houston is the place.
Same to say for Willson Contreras, so close being an Astro but not the profile for the job: his defense grades below average and while his bat alone makes him worth those $16–20M AAV he’s going to sign for, Houston seems to put a ton of importance in game calling, blocking and guiding a pitcher through his start, not what Contreras is lauded for.
With Maldy still in for another year, not doing anything seems not that bad if you stop and think about a non-trivial fact: two of the top 10 Astros prospects are catchers!
Ok, maybe Yainer Diaz won’t wear ignorance tools for long but his bat works, even on a too aggressive approach at the plate he could also factor in the 1B/DH considerations; more of a true catcher is Korey Lee, whose cup of coffee in the big leagues didn’t spark joy but don’t forget his AAA domination, particularly his second stint after MLB demotion where his plus power stood out. Both are valid options for the C future, and won’t cost a penny.
Decision #4: Maldy forever, Lee/Diaz in the future
#5: Should we extend a couple core pieces?
We saved on 1B and C, we let JV go and still have around $50M of payroll space after arbitration and signings: it’s time to lock up more Astros for a future of persistent AL West reign!
First in the list should be Kyle Tucker: how he can be still so underrated, a top 10 MVP option each damn season with 5 above average tools in the most disciplined bat after Bregman, LHB pop, Gold Glove defense at RF and elite baserunning?!
He would command the Yordan Alvarez package, those $25M AAV for 6 years we can not give Nimmo, and I’d do it in a heartbeat: locking up two of the best lefty bats in the game for a long while would make the Astros lineup a juggernaut for years to come, allowing for more flexibility in other positions.
Then those rotation stalwarts deserve their long term deals: Framber Valdez is a unique story and a unique look, the ultimate lefty groundballer with a devastating curveball, I’d jump and entice him with a 6–7 year deal to a $18–20M AAV, backloaded and with an option maybe. While we’re at it let’s lock his best friend too: Cristian Javier may not have the track record of Framber but he’s about to and he deserves to finally be a full-time SP in the long run, paying him $12–16M for the Valdez length would make perfect sense.
That doesn’t leave much space for bullpen additions, albeit only Montero hits FA and he’ll close somewhere 100%, and in that case I’d really want to see if Enoli Paredes can be Bryan Abreu 2.0, his stuff elite but his control evading him all too often.
Decision #5: Tucker, Framber and Javier should no go anywhere for 6 years at least
Without, thankfully, a lockout and other shenanigans, it’s going to be the same old, slow Offseason: scattered deals and trades with a sputter of action as Spring Training gets closer, don’t expect fireworks in the upcoming days, unless Aaron Judge decides to be a Giant and let the dominoes fall.
Houston is living the dream, still and forever WS champions, but the objective must be the same: persevering in greatness, year in and year out. With an owner that is far from perfect but ready to spend $200M+ in payroll, a team that lost few but important pieces and a Division that looks to be harder to win with Seattle much better and Texas with money to burn, the Astros can’t sit and wait around.
There are holes in the ship to shore, protagonists that must be kept part of this long stretch of Astros history and new faces to bring in and help Houston’s legacy grow ever so bigger, a dynasty to be envied by the whole baseball world.
There’s work to do, and time to do it, starting from now.