On every championship journey, there exists a window seat.
Different teams will discover that the window view closes quicker for them than for others. For older teams, there’s usually a crack of sunlight before darkness engulfs the plane. For teams with a bevy of free agents-to-be, the window remains open only as long as guys are committed to the ring on the finger rather than the ring of the cash register.
For the Houston Astros, the window of opportunity persists, as panoramic and gorgeous as ever.
Oh sure, it’s closed for this year. When the Boston Red Sox finished off the Astros, 4-1, in Thursday night’s Game 5 of the ALCS, it hurt for the Astros and their fans (myself included). It stung like some David Price chin music.
But as much as it feels defeatist to chant the monk-like refrain, “There’s always next year, there’s always next year,” for the Astros, there really is a next year.
Before we venture too much into the weeds, let’s acknowledge this: Houston lost to a better team. The Red Sox, winners of an MLB-best 108 games in the regular season, showed why against the ‘Stros, who had been playing as well as anyone entering the ALCS.
Beantown boasts some beastly bashers, including former Astros castoff J.D. Martinez. The pitching staff stacks up against anyone in the game. Defensively, however, is where Boston truly separated itself in the ALCS. Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi made some truly special plays in the outfield during the series, and the latter’s catch to close out Game 4 is as clutch a play as you’ll ever see to end a postseason game.
Now, just because we’ve admitted that Boston was better doesn’t exonerate the ghastly umpiring. Joe West’s ruling on Betts’ catch attempt in the right-field stands (yes, he was in the stands) in the pivotal Game 4 was a terrible call. But umps have bad games, too. Grumble all you want, Astros fans – it won’t change anything, but it’s your right as a fan of the dearly departed.
OK, now that we’ve covered the postmortem, let’s focus on brighter days ahead. Houston GM Jeff Luhnow should resist any urge he might have to make drastic changes to the Astros’ roster. Nothing is broken here. Tweaks are fine, but no overhaul is required.
Winning a World Series demands good health as much as all-star talent. The Astros suffered through some costly injuries in 2018. Jose Altuve – fittingly described by manager A.J. Hinch as the “heart and soul” of the team – failed to play in 150 games for the first time since 2012. He still hit some rockets in the playoffs, including one that should have resulted in a two-run homer in Game 4 (OK, OK, I’m moving on), but he wasn’t quite right. Hinch took to using the gimpy Altuve at DH instead of his normal spot at second base, which exponentially weakens the lineup.
Carlos Correa has been plagued by injuries for the past two seasons actually, playing in only 219 of a potential 324 regular-season games. Pitcher Lance McCullers missed some key time during the stretch run of the regular season.
Correa, age 24, and McCullers, 25, still own promising futures. For as good as both of those young guys have been, neither has even approached the peak of their potential. Correa has made an all-star team, but has yet to hit 30 home runs or drive in 100 runs in a season. McCullers has looked untouchable at times, but has never finished a big-league season with an ERA under 3 or a strikeout total better than 200.
A breakout is coming eventually for those guys. As Luhnow once found out the hard way in the case of J.D. Martinez, it’s better for the breakout to come in your team’s uniform rather than someone else’s.
The good news is, in the case of the aforementioned duo, the Astros have them locked up through the 2021 seasons. Other critical players like Altuve, outfielder George Springer and pitchers Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are guaranteed to be back next year at the very least. (Altuve is signed through 2024, and deserves to someday retire as an Astro.)
Now, Luhnow will still have to face some tough decisions this offseason. Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Marwin Gonzalez are all headed for free agency. Brian McCann is another veteran presence who the Astros can either retain or send into free agency, through an option clause in his contract.
The Astros likely won’t be able to afford to bring everyone back, but they should at least keep the nucleus together. It may be time to bid farewell to McCann and venture forward with a Martin Maldonado-Max Stassi platoon at catcher. Gonzalez’s versatility as a utility player makes him a target for re-signing, and you’d like to bring back at least one of the Keuchel-Morton combo. Yet even if you lose both of those players, a pitching rotation of Verlander, Cole, McCullers, Collin McHugh and either young flamethrower Josh James or promising prospect Forrest Whitley would still rank among baseball’s best.
The point is, even if they lose a few guys, the Astros have the pieces in place to be very, very good again in 2019 (and beyond). Some projections suggest that, depending on who they keep and how arbitration rolls out, Houston could have as much as $30 million to spend this offseason for any other upgrades.
Nobody repeats anymore. It’s been 20 years since the New York Yankees stacked consecutive World Series-winning dogpiles together, as champions in 1998 and ’99. It’s really hard to do. Like, advanced calculus hard.
But do you know what does still happen? Franchises which are able to win multiple titles a decade or less. Call them Mini Dynasties, or maybe Micro Regimes. For example, the San Francisco Giants won the Fall Classic three times from 2010 to 2014. Since breaking the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, the Red Sox have won it all twice more, in ’07 and ’13. Boston’s victim in that 2013 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals, have seized two titles this century, in 2006 and 2011.
With what returns, the Astros have every opportunity to join that group. Many of their core players haven’t even reached their prime yet.
No need for the Astros to go window shopping now. It may not feel like it today, but the exquisite view hasn’t changed.