What was and what’s next for the Astros

Hello old friend, and here we are, at the last page…

Borrowing Amelia Pond’s final words for her Doctor, another baseball season has come to an end, a bitter throwback of an end personally.

If in 2019 it was Howie Kendrick barely sending a Will Harris cutter to the RF stands late in the game, this time it all came early, a first inning blast by Jorge Soler on a ill-advised Luis Garcia curveball.

And here I stand again, watching a team that’s not Houston partying at Minute Maid, another World Series loss at home, a brief moment to take it all in, close the laptop and then, 4.30 AM here in Italy, one last short night of sleep for what could be quite a long time.

Congratulations to the Atlanta Braves, your 2021 WS Champions! They fully deserved it: it’s a trophy they won, not one the Astros gave away. Atlanta was simply better in every aspect of the game: hitting, hitting for power, hitting with RISP, starting and relief pitching, defense and managing, all of them went the Braves favor. Hats off to them, an unbelievable run after Acuña and Soroka went down with grueling injuries.

It’s another heartbreak for Houston, one that extends far beyond this WS and on to the next season: we might have seen the last of the Astros as we know them, with one if not the face of the franchise set for a historical payday in the FA market, a painful habit for Houston fans after the departures of Gerrit Cole and George Springer.

In what’s the last entry about the 2021 season, I’ll analyze what went wrong in this 3rd shot at the title for Houston and what will the team have to deal with in the upcoming months, without relying on the deluge of numbers you’re accustomed to, just a baseball fan as you are having to say goodbye to a great team a couple of games too soon and looking at what the future could look like come Spring Training 2022.

What was: a dollar short, a minute late

There’s not much to think about when comparing the Astros and Braves performances in this WS: Atlanta bested Houston in pretty much everything, on varying degrees.

Let’s start from the good: both bullpens were amazing throughout the whole Postseason. Atlanta relied on a LH heavy pen, with the Night Shift of Minter/Matzek/Smith to cover the most important innings, as early as the third up to the ninth. An ovation to Matzek: from a 1st round pick in Colorado, to the yips and abandoning the game, finally giving it another try, sticking in ATL and ending up being the best reliever in the 2021 Postseason by a wide margin, he deserved to be the WS MVP on count of both volume and quality of innings he pitched, dishelving Alvarez, Tucker and others by painting corners with 100mph gas and a disgusting slider. His story is one of perseverance and he has all my respect for not giving the game up until it gave up on him, and turns out the game still loves him.

Houston’s bullpen was nothing short of amazing too: it’s hard to find a bad piece in there, maybe Cristian Javier gave up a couple bombs too much but he soaked big innings and K’d galore; Phil Maton became an everyday fireman with ice in his veins; Yimi Garcia dispatched RHB constantly and so did Brooks Raley with lefties. The 7–9 brigade of Stanek/Graveman/Pressly was called upon almost daily, each one for 1+ innings and boy did they deliver, a couple of solo shots their only blemishes. Before Game 6 the Astros pen had a sub 2 ERA and more innings than the starting rotation, quite good if you ask me.

Quite bad too though: the incompetence of Houston’s starters is what hurt the most all throughout the run, a couple of masterpieces and a gallery of horrors.

It’s not like Atlanta fared much better, moreso after Morton broke his leg and hearts abound in Game 1, but they had two shutdown starters when they needed them: Ian Anderson is a certified Postseason killer at this point, his ERA under 1.5 and 5 no-hit innings in Game 3 big time insurance in Atlanta’s road to the victory. Max Fried was no slouch either: even in his bad Game 2 start, 6 ER, he got through 5 and ousted 10 consecutive Astros hitters after a terrible second inning, a preview of his utter dominance in a 6 innings shutdown Game 6.

Houston, also without their best starter in Lance McCullers Jr after the ALDS, lacked both consistency and efficacy: Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia kept tiptoeing the line between horrible and great starts, with the former more than the latter, and when the stakes were at their highest they drew blanks. Their future is bright: they have premium stuff, Framber an elite GB pitcher with a 80 curve and Garcia a FB inducer with 3 if not 4 above average breaking balls, their poise is already good and experience doesn’t hurt, but this time the moment was too big for them and you can’t always count on your offense to bridge a 4 run gap.

It was all a question of first pitch strikes and trusting their fastballs: when that happened greatness ensued, it’s hard to forget Framber’s 8 innings work of art against Boston, one that was fueled by 70% sinkers and a high Zone%, to that Garcia followed with 5 shutdown frames on a revamped 97 mph heater. On the other hand, when they started to deviate to a breaking-heavy approach and battle through 3–2 count weeds, things went downhill fast in the form of walks and bombs on hanging pitches, Soler making his best Pujols impression in Game 6.

There was a lot to like too: after shaking off some rust Jose Urquidy proved once again to be one of the best starters no one talks about, a strike-throwing machine with a nasty changeup he’s poised to be a luxury #3 in the Houston ranks; Zack Greinke…well if that was it for his Astros career, what a ride it has been! Quietly above average both in 2019 (that Game 7 hook still haunts me) and 2020, he started well in 2021 but plummeted after injuries to a series of bad starts and a bullpen spot in the Playoffs. When called upon though, he showed shades of the old Zack: 4 scoreless in Game 4 and two hits, the last for a pitcher in the upcoming all-DH era Shohei notwithstanding. I don’t know if he’ll put his cleats on again but whatever he wants to do, he merits serious consideration for a spot in Cooperstown.

The biggest difference between Atlanta and Houston was the offensive profile, coming in and going out: while the Braves got the most out of a HR-happy lineup, paying in Swing and Misses but cashing in on solo shots, 3-run bombs and a Grand Slam, Houston saw the limits of a pure “pass the baton” onslaught catching them when facing a great hurler in both Fried and Anderson. When hits are hard to come by, you’d rather have them count.

That’s not to say the Astros lineup lacks in power, not with Altuve Tucker Yordan and Correa easily over 20 HR, they simply didn’t find their stroke in late October/early November, save for a couple of Altuve solo shots. Everyone struggled to even get a hit, outside of professional hitter Michael Brantley and batting champ Yuli Gurriel: Alvarez and Bregman, the latter lingering on an injury that sapped his bat and made him look clunky, were non-factors; Correa had few bright lights with his bat but many on defense; Altuve and Tucker went on and off and you can’t ask more from Siri/McCormick nor Maldonado, who won Game 5 on his own. It was the best offense in baseball, putting the ball in play and not striking out, but in 2021 there’s no winning without a HR or two, even for such a deep and disciplined lineup.

Finally, an appreciation for both GMs: Alex Anthopolous was spot on in seeing his Division as open, so that even after all those injuries he still went for it adding the outfield corps of Soler/Rosario/Duvall/Peterson, a group of mashers that carried the team, Rosario the NLCS MVP and Soler the WS one, not too shabby for guys who costed all of lottery tickets and a Pablo Sandoval. James Click pushed the right buttons: the glaring hole in the Astros roster was the bullpen and he shored it up with costly but solid acquisitions such as Yimi, Maton and Graveman, a trio that was almost untouched in this October run. Giving up young talent for a bullpen piece is never easy, but it hurts less when your new weapon proves to be a good one.

Both made a terrific job, both teams tried their best but as the saying goes, sometimes you just get beat.

What’s next: a new heart and old faces

This is going to be a significant offseason in Houston, one that’ll decide the direction both owner and FO want to take and whether the door on the best run the Astros franchise has ever had is closing or is still open.

With more than $70M off the books there’s a lot of beloved payroll flexibilty to plug the holes that were and are visible on the roster, and it’s not a certainty that all of it will be used albeit Jim Crane already declared how he’s not against spending when building a winning team.

Let’s start from the “small” stuff: the Astros bullpen is losing three pieces in Yimi Garcia, Raley and Graveman, and I expect at least one to be back. My money is on Raley, particularly if Dusty Baker stays as he should: Brooks was his everyday lefty in the RS, with the sole Blake Taylor as the other LHP option, and while some stats were not great (ERA, LOB%) his contact profile was, moreover his cutter had some of the worst results against every single pitch thrown by Astros hurlers.

Graveman is going to be a closer somewhere, a contract akin to that of Pressly maybe a tad less but all of it deserved for a guy who found his calling in late innings and a true elite offering in his turbo Treinen-like sinker. Garcia had a great postseason and I wouldn’t mind him for another year, although I hope Click learned from the Pedro Baez disaster: never spend big on a bullpen piece, if in need go for a bulk of MiLB contracts hoping to snag a Paul Sewald or wait for the deadline and use your depth.

The starting rotation loses Greinke and 2017 legend/2021 no show Justin Verlander, how the latter will come back from TJS, in Detroit 99%, is going to be one of the most interesting stories in 2022 baseball. That said those are $50M+, a rotation spot to fill and choices are multiple: thinking about it the Astros already have a rotation, with McCullers/Framber/Urquidy/Garcia/Odorizzi but I’d go further than that. It’s time to develop Cristian Javier as he should: he has all the tools to be a great #3 if not #2, a fastball with amazing CSW%, a nasty slider/curve and what he really needs are reps and a changeup. His control wavers but the swing and miss is undeniable, and stalling him in the Long Reliever/ 2 inning role is a crime in and on itself.

If not, Houston could think about using some of his newfound payroll space for a SP: among the names available in the FA market I’d focus on younger arms that can still be improved and relied on for both innings and quality. Carlos Rodon is definitely a top dog, but his injury history is scarier than bases loaded Barry Bonds and he’s going to command a short contract at $20M+ AAV; Steven Matz has always been a plus stuff talent with severe control issues but he’s got upside; Jon Gray outside of Colorado is a nice bet but he’ll probably take the QO. Marcus Stroman, Robbie Ray, Scherzer and Gausman are all A+ but pricey as hell, too much for a team whose rotation is not the primary focus.

Two names I’m keeping track on: Eduardo Rodriguez has been an above average starter for some time, a lefty with cut, sink and good breaking balls, when he’s on he’s as good as any although he’s a bit mercurial with his emotions but at 29 he’s on his best years. The other is a project for our pitching and development coaches: Yusei Kikuchi’s stuff is some of the best among all AL LH starters, only behind Ray and Sale, but it’s also so inconstant and fatigue+substances ban made him decline hard in the second half. Still, he’s a ball of clay with pure upside, and at 31 there’s still gas in the tank.

There’s another option, trading for an elite SP, but that involves the biggest question mark that’ll follow Houston’s offseason moving forward: what to do at shortstop?

With Carlos Correa on the market, his asking price that of Lindor/Tatis Jr, there’s a tough decision on Crane and Click’s hands: the payroll space is there, long contracts have been scarce but given to franchise cornerstones such as Altuve and Bregman, and Correa certainly qualifies for that so there’s an outside chance he could don the H-Town uniform for another 8–10 years at $33M+ AAV, a new Killer B’s era, the A-B-C in this case with Altuve-Bregman-Correa perennial Stros until the dawn of time.

It’s not everyday there’s such an abundance at SS in FA though: along with Correa there are no less then 3 other elite shortstops available in Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story, and also Javy Baez which is…well you tell me. When such a group is on the market what happens is that everyone waits for the first piece to drop and then as a domino everyone else falls quickly, with prices inflated due to the offer becoming thinner and thinner.

That’s where it gets hard: wait too much and he’s as good as gone, blink first and you may have got a slightly worse option at a far better price. To be honest though the only other SS I’d love to see an Astro is Story, whose age, durability and pop fit the Astros lineup to bits, even if his defense took a couple of steps back. Seager has more injury red flags than Correa and Semien is 32, coming off a season at 2B no one knows if he’s still competent at short.

Signing one of Correa/Story, the latter cheaper and maybe at a shorter deal, would free up an important piece: Jeremy Pena. His stock as a SS prospect has skyrocketed as he came back from injury in AAA with burgeoning power and elite defense both in range and arm, his hit tool the only question. He projects to be a high top 100 prospect and a big SS signing would make him expendable in a trade for a young, controllable, ace-like starter a la German Marquez/Frankie Montas if OAK chooses to rebuild.

There’s not much else to fill in then, CF seems to be set with two of Meyers/McCormick/Siri and the other to the Minors, although you could trade one along with Pena and sign a Marte/Canha if you feel frisky enough and have room to spend, although in that case I’d first think about using that cap space to extend one or both Alvarez and Tucker to a long deal, as they proved to be part of the foundation of the Houston Astros to come.

What’s next for me? I’ll be here all offseason long, writing about low profile signings your team shoud make, delving further into the BIP clustering world with my usual stops in KDrama land. Until Spring comes again, as Rogers Hornsby used to say, I’ll stare out the window, write an entry or two and indulge in bittersweet memories, longing for the sound of a bat hitting a ball to the moon, a signal as loud as the ump’s “Play Ball” warcry.

The game may be over for now, but it’ll be back. And I’m still here, waiting.