Astros promise to be good again in 2019 but a busy offseason awaits as Verlander, Cole near free agency
The Astros are fighting the clock as much as anything
The Houston Astros were after losing the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox by a 4-1 margin. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar season that saw the Astros win 103 games and their second consecutive AL West title. The Astros even had the best run differential in baseball during the season, but no one hangs a banner for such accomplishments -- not yet anyway.
Now the Astros must shift their thinking away from planning a second championship parade, to how they're going to navigate what may prove to be a pivotal winter.
When people think of the Astros, they think of a team built around talented young hitters like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa. Each of those players is under team control for at least two more seasons. Yet other important Astros are closer to their free agency dates. Both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole -- Houston's top two starters -- will hit the open market after next season, and the Astros stand to lose as many as five notable players this winter: catchers Brian McCann (club option) and Martin Maldonado, starters Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, and utilityman Marwin Gonzalez. That's both catching starters, the other half of the playoff rotation, and Gonzalez, whose versatility helps patch most any lineup hole.
The Astros, to their credit, have the potential to replace most of those pieces internally. Max Stassi is eternally straddling the lineup between the catcher of the future and the long-term backup; Josh James and Collin McHugh could slide into the rotation until the lesser one yields their spot to pitching prospect Forrest Whitley; and while Tony Kemp can't do everything Gonzalez could, his protean nature would pad the loss.
Still, it's more likely the Astros will go outside the organization a couple times. They have some payroll flexibility working in their favor, too. Baseball-Reference projects Houston to have about $35 million in spending room for next season -- that's if they decline McCann's option, pick up Will Harris's, and match this year's budget. Obviously these things can change as arbitration numbers come in, and it's possible the Astros would hold some budget space in reserve for next trade deadline.
Let's say the Astros have around $30 million to spend. How would they spend it?
Perhaps the most attractive free-agent option would be Yasmani Grandal, whose postseason could obscure the fact he's a quality two-way backstop. If the Astros decide to indulge themselves with an upgrade at first base, they could revisit trade talks for Jose Abreu -- or, better yet, see what the Arizona Diamondbacks want for Paul Goldschmidt. There's also an endless array of young starters out there who the Astros might pursue in hopes of gaining another Cole-like return on investment: what about Jon Gray? Marcus Stroman? And so on.
Are any of these moves likely? No, not necessarily. But the Astros remain in a good place. They have a high-quality foundation with room to add. The question isn't whether Jeff Luhnow and company will buttress that this winter, but to what extent and with whom. As it stands, the Astros have one more guaranteed season of Verlander and Cole. Expect them to make the most of it -- and, by extension, put themselves in good position to reach a third consecutive ALCS.
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Santana and Kemp were both released by other teams in recent weeks
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