The Astros are coming off their third pennant in the past five years, but they came up a couple games shy of a World Series title. As they set their sights on returning to the Fall Classic in 2022, they’ve retained their skipper and a future Hall of Fame starter. Looming over the entire winter, though: the potential departure of their franchise shortstop.
- José Altuve, 2B: $87MM through 2024
- Lance McCullers Jr., RHP: $85MM through 2026
- Alex Bregman, 3B: $74MM through 2024
- Justin Verlander, RHP: $25MM through 2022 (deal contains a $25MM player option for 2023 conditional on Verlander reaching 130 innings pitched in 2022)
- Héctor Neris, RHP: $17MM through 2023 (includes buyout of $8.5MM club option for 2024)
- Jake Odorizzi, RHP: $16.5MM through 2023 (Odorizzi can opt out of final year and $6.5MM after 2022 season)
- Michael Brantley, LF: $16MM through 2022
- Ryan Pressly, RHP: $10MM through 2022
- Yuli Gurriel, 1B: $8MM through 2022
- Pedro Báez, RHP: $7.5MM through 2022 (includes buyout of $7.5MM club option for 2023)
- Martín Maldonado, C: $5MM through 2022 (contract also contains $5MM vesting option for 2023)
- Jason Castro, C: $4.25MM through 2022
Total 2022 commitments: $151.85MM
Projected Salaries for Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
The Astros came up a couple games short of a World Series title, but they kicked off their offseason by trying to preserve continuity. Within the first few days, Houston signed manager Dusty Baker to a one-year extension. The accomplished skipper will be back for a third year at the helm, although he’ll be without highly-regarded pitching coach Brent Strom, who left the organization to take the same role with the Diamondbacks.
While a World Series title continues to elude the highly respected Baker, there’s little question he’s been an important stabilizing force over his first two years. The veteran skipper was hired to replace A.J. Hinch over the 2019-20 offseason amidst the self-inflicted organizational tumult due to the sign-stealing scandal. Yet Baker has stepped in and guided the Astros as far as the AL Championship Series in both seasons, and agreeing to an extension seemed like a fairly easy call for general manager James Click and the front office.
Equally obvious was the decision to bring back Yuli Gurriel via an $8MM club option. He’s coming off a batting title and will reprise his role as the regular first baseman. Not long after exercising Gurriel’s option, Houston made a bolder strike. Within an hour of rejecting the team’s $18.4MM qualifying offer, Justin Verlander agreed to re-sign on a $25MM guarantee that contains a matching player option for the following season, conditional on reaching 130 innings pitched next season.
It’s a heavy investment for a pitcher coming off two seasons lost to Tommy John surgery, yet it goes without saying that Verlander’s a unique case. He was a Cy Young award winner during his last healthy season, and there aren’t more than a handful of pitchers teams would rather run out in the first game of a postseason series than peak Verlander. Whether he can regain that form in his age-39 campaign remains to be seen, but he’ll slot into the top of the starting staff.
Even sans Verlander, Houston had an impressive rotation. Yet it now looks like one of the game’s best, as he’ll be followed by Lance McCullers Jr., José Urquidy, Luis Garcia, Framber Valdez, Jake Odorizzi and perhaps Cristian Javier. That’s an enviable combination of young talent and depth, one that could result in a trade coming out of the transactions freeze. Rival clubs would surely jump at the opportunity to acquire a controllable young starter like Garcia or Valdez, yet it’d be a surprise if the Astros entertained that kind of arrangement.
An Odorizzi deal, on the other hand, seems very possible. The veteran hurler publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the team’s seeming reluctance to let him work through opposing lineups three times during his starts. Odorizzi, Baker and Click all downplayed the possibility of that affecting the parties’ long-term relationship, but a deal arguably makes sense even independent of personal considerations. After all, there’s a case that Odorizzi should slot sixth or seventh among the Astros’ deep starting mix, but he’d be a definitive upgrade to plenty of other clubs’ rotations.
Trading the veteran righty should clear most or all of his $8MM salary for 2022 off the books, which could give the Astros flexibility to bolster other parts of the roster. There aren’t many weak points, but adding to a bullpen that was middle-of-the-pack in 2021 could be a target area. Houston’s already taken one step in that regard this winter, signing former Phillies closer Héctor Neris to a two-year guarantee. Yet they’ve also seen Kendall Graveman, Yimi García and Brooks Raley walk in free agency, and solidifying the bridge to All-Star closer Ryan Pressly could be of interest.
A southpaw to pair with Blake Taylor could be particularly helpful. The free agent crop of lefty relievers is thin, but Andrew Chafin and Tony Watson are among the generally reliable veterans coming off good years who remain on the market. On the trade front, perhaps the Twins would be willing to make Taylor Rogers available.
The Astros’ early offseason activity has primarily revolved around the pitching staff, yet nothing hangs over the offseason more than the shortstop situation. Carlos Correa is the top free agent on the market, and the possibility of the Astros losing one of their franchise players looms large. Houston owner Jim Crane is reportedly disinclined to go beyond a six-year guarantee in the Correa pursuit. With the two-time All-Star having a strong case for a deal that runs into the next decade, it seems increasingly likely he’ll wind up elsewhere in the weeks following the lockout.
If Correa does walk, how does Houston approach the position? They could pivot to the other star free agent shortstop available, Trevor Story. The former Rockie might land a contract in the five-year or six-year range with which Crane seems to be more comfortable, and the Astros expressed some interest in Story before the transactions freeze. Yet Story’s coming off his worst offensive showing in four years, and it remains to be seen if the Astros want to commit a nine-figure investment to another infielder with José Altuve and Alex Bregman each slated to earn at least $29MM annually between 2023-24.
That’s particularly true given the presence of top prospect Jeremy Peña. A highly-regarded defensive shortstop, Peña missed most of the 2021 campaign recovering from wrist surgery. He returned late in the year and hit well over two months at Triple-A before being added to the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft. Turning shortstop over to Peña right out of the gate might be too risky for a win-now club, but it’s possible the organization is counting on him to seize the job by the middle of the year.
If that’s the case, then a stopgap option might be preferable. Utilityman Aledmys Díaz could be in consideration for such a role, although he’s not an ideal fit at the position defensively. A run at a glove-first shortstop to split time with Díaz could make some sense. In such a scenario, the superior defender could get the bulk of the playing time behind ground-ball specialists like Valdez and McCullers while Díaz plays behind a fly-ball oriented pitcher in the Urquidy or Garcia mold. Andrelton Simmons, probably the best defensive shortstop of this generation, is available in free agency and could likely be had for a low-cost, one-year deal. On the trade market, players like Nick Ahmed, Paul DeJong and Isiah Kiner-Falefa might all be made available.
The rest of the starting lineup is pretty well set. Gurriel, Altuve and Bregman will have the remainder of the infield locked down. Martín Maldonado and Jason Castro are back to share the catching duties. Michael Brantley will play left field regularly, so long as he’s healthy. Kyle Tucker is established in the other corner. Yordan Álvarez is the designated hitter, and he’s capable of spelling Brantley in left on occasion to give the 34-year-old a breather.
There’s an outside chance of Houston making a splash in center field. They’ve been linked to stars there in trade over the past few months, and it’s possible they inquire about players like Cedric Mullins and Bryan Reynolds coming out of the lockout. It seems unlikely either the Orioles or Pirates wind up pulling the trigger on that kind of deal, though, and the free agent center field market is completely barren.
Barring a surprise trade strike for a star, José Siri and Chas McCormick seem likely to hold down center, with Jake Meyers also in the mix whenever he’s fully recovered from shoulder surgery. None of those players are locks to provide above-average production, but they all played well as rookies in 2021. Relying on that group shouldn’t be all that problematic, and the Astros can reevaluate midseason if all three players regress.
Aside from shortstop, the Astros’ position player group might be the most stable around the league. There’s virtually no other uncertainty other than how to replace (or retain) Correa. Perhaps a right-handed hitting corner outfielder/DH could be of interest, as each of Brantley, Tucker and Álvarez hit left-handed. Yet all three players are going to be in the lineup on most days anyhow, so that’d be more of a luxury buy than anything else.
Even facing the possibility of Correa walking, the Astros will go into 2022 with a quality roster. They’re returning the bulk of a lineup that was the league’s most productive by measure of wRC+ this past season. The starting staff is strong enough they could consider trading from the depth. The bullpen may be the comparative weak point on the roster, but one more addition — particularly from the left side — could tie that group together nicely.
There should be opportunity for Click and his staff to add, even if dropping $300MM+ on Correa may not be in the cards. Jason Martinez of Roster Resource projects the club’s 2022 payroll at $170MM, around $15MM – $20MM below where it sat heading into 2021. Houston narrowly ducked below the luxury tax threshold this year as well, so it’s possible they’ll be willing to exceed that figure (wherever it lands in the next CBA) after resetting their tax bracket to avoid escalating penalties.
The Astros aren’t operating in a vacuum. While the A’s look likely to take a step back, the other three teams in the AL West have been among the most active this offseason. The Rangers probably aren’t yet serious threats, but the Mariners and Angels could push towards the top of the division if everything goes well.
Those clubs will have their work cut out for them knocking the Astros from their perch, though, even after accounting for the potential loss of Correa. His departure would certainly make them worse, but there’s so much talent on the roster that the window’s in no danger of closing completely. Regardless of what they do over the coming months, Houston should enter 2022 as one of the top contenders in the American League.