When the Houston Astros took the field for their first World Series appearance representing the American League, they had assembled an enviable quartet of hitters who could fill the heart of the lineup and also man the infield.
Rebuilt and reborn from the ashes of a scorched earth tanking project watched closely by the rest of the sport, they had emerged in 2017 as a next-generation powerhouse. The fruits of that daring, if abrasive, strategy were apparent in the lineup for World Series Game 1 against the Dodgers. From left to right, the infield went Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel.
It remained that way Tuesday when the Astros fell to the Atlanta Braves in the 2021 World Series. It had remained that way over these past five years, as Houston ran up an AL-best 435-273 record, crushed offensive records and helped revolutionize pitching development.
Of course, all that consistency belies the tumult they brought upon themselves when they galloped brazenly over the line in pursuit of an edge, sparking the sport’s biggest team-level cheating scandal in a century. It also explains how they weathered it, how they kept hitting and winning under new management and through the haze of boos and banging trash cans.
There have been departures and changes before now, of course. Playoff titan George Springer left for Toronto last winter. Justin Verlander went down with injury. Charlie Morton has played in the World Series with two different teams since closing that 2017 title for Houston. Dusty Baker and James Click are at the helm now.
But as the Braves celebrated after Game 6, Houston entered a winter that might finally force a reconfiguration. When the Astros arrive in spring 2022, they might not be the Astros anymore, at least not the version we’ve come to know.
Big questions loom over one of the league’s most successful and most scrutinized teams. Here are a few.
Has Carlos Correa played his last game for the Astros?
The No. 1 draft pick gleaned from the teardown. The top prospect whose arrival heralded the Astros’ return to contention back in 2015. The vocal leader who galvanized the team as it faced backlash to the sign-stealing scandal.
He has not always been the best player on the Astros — Altuve has won an MVP and Bregman has come close — but Correa feels like a centerpiece of the core. In addition to his crucial role in the Astros clubhouse and his postseason heroics, Correa is just plainly a superstar-level player. He’s coming off a 7-WAR season, and is the only shortstop who has put up five seasons of 20 homers and a .250 or better batting average since he came to the league.
And now, at 27 years old, he’s a free agent, possibly the best one available in baseball this offseason. The Astros reportedly lowballed him with a five-year, $125 million offer last year before his stellar walk year. He can now shoot for the $300 million range.
While Astros owner Jim Crane said in October they would be in the mix to sign him, Correa spoke about Houston in the past tense after the World Series loss. We don’t need to read too much into that, but you can’t blame him for viewing a return as unlikely. The Astros have signed stars like Altuve and Bregman to early-career extensions, but declined to ante up for players who reach the open market. Gerrit Cole and George Springer each found bigger money elsewhere as the Astros tended to add contributors like the reliable Michael Brantley on shorter, smaller deals. General manager James Click doesn’t have a long track record from which to glean tendencies, but he hails from the thrift-obsessed Tampa Bay Rays organization.
The writing on the wall says Correa will be taking his talents to headline another team, and the Astros will be moving forward needing to replace a crucial piece of their identity.
Is the front office willing to spend like a contender?
They will also be needing to replace … a lot of other talent.
The Astros have seven free agents: Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Kendall Graveman, Yimi Garcia, Brooks Raley and Marwin Gonzalez.
Yuli Gurriel has an $8 million option they’ll exercise in the coming days. Ryan Pressly’s $10 million option vested in September.
— Jake Kaplan (@jakemkaplan) November 3, 2021
The emergence of Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier over the past two seasons already softened the blow of potentially losing Greinke and Verlander (who missed 2021 with injury), but there will be holes to fill.
It may be that they don’t directly replace Correa externally. The organization’s top prospect is a shortstop named Jeremy Peña who can certainly handle the position defensively, and impressed evaluators by adding power at Triple-A this year.
They may find it more attractive to add a true center fielder if they don’t believe in the durability of the Jake Meyers/Chas McCormick combo they were playing down the stretch.
The Astros ran a top five payroll in 2021, so they spend at a level commensurate with their World Series bonafides. But a good deal of that came in via timely, lower-risk trades which will be harder to pull off with a farm system depleted by years of contention and draft pick penalties from the sign-stealing scandal.
Vegas, for its part, believes in Houston. The Astros have the second-best odds to win the 2022 World Series at BetMGM. There will be threats to their chances, though. After a long time in the wilderness, the Seattle Mariners surprised in 2021 (despite obvious signs of overachievement) and could take another step forward thanks to a strong farm system in 2022. And the Los Angeles Angels always have the star power to compete. Surely they will, at some juncture, figure out a way to succeed at literally anything else ... right?
So the question for Click and his front office going forward is how to keep Houston at its current level of dominance in the AL West with so much production walking out the door.
How do they replace the influence of pitching coach Brent Strom?
After World Series Game 6, it quickly became apparent that the Astros intend to bring back Dusty Baker as manager, but longtime pitching coach Brent Strom said he will be stepping down from his role.
The 73-year-old sage of the mound has been a key part of the team’s success, unlocking arm after arm and encouraging pitchers to lean into their best qualities even when that means doing something wildly unconventional.
It seems likely the organization has absorbed enough of Strom’s approach to produce an adequate ongoing facsimile, but there’s always risk in change. Especially recently, Houston has populated its rotation largely with diamonds in the rough — none of Valdez, Garcia or Jose Urquidy were acclaimed prospects. It’s hard to view that as anything but a credit to Strom. If that effect begins to wane, it puts even more pressure on the front office to supplement the team with external talent.