When star outfielder and premium free agent George Springer eventually signs this offseason, the biggest storyline will of course be what Springer promises his new team and how he betters their chances of contending in 2021 and beyond. A leading subplot will be what it all means for the team he's heretofore spent his entire career with, the Houston Astros.
The expectation according to an array of reportage is that the Astros will not re-sign Springer, and if that's indeed what's ahead then it will be a grave blow to Houston's hopes for relevance in the season to come -- just as it was then they lost Gerrit Cole to the Yankees last offseason. On a more telling level, the loss of Springer, the team's best player in 2020, may herald an end to the Astros' current run of pertinence. It's not accurate to call the Astros' last half decade or so a dynasty, but whatever it is, a Springer-less 2021 might be the last of it.
The Astros are coming off an abbreviated 2020 season in which they finished 29-31, which constituted their first losing season since 2014 when they were emerging from their "tanking period" under then GM Jeff Luhnow. Yes, they made the postseason, but that was largely a function of the expanded 16-team playoff field.
As they move forward into 2021, the Astros, working from that diminished baseline, are faced with not only the potential loss of Springer but also fellow outfielder Michael Brantley. That would be a massive blow to an offense that doesn't have much help on the way from within the system. Yes, Kyle Tucker looks legit, and young DH Yordan Alvarez is on target to return from surgery on both knees. Without the certainties provided by Springer and Brantley, however, the Houston offense could take a step back -- especially if Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman don't resume vintage or vintage-ish form.
They don't figure to make up that ground in run prevention. The rotation will likely be without Justin Verlander once again, as he underwent Tommy John surgery near the end of the September and would require a highly aggressive timetable to pitch in 2021. Zack Greinke is 37, Lance McCullers Jr. remains an injury risk, and Cristian Javier may not yet be ready for an "anything goes" workload at the highest level. The theoretical starting five hardly profiles as a weak spot, but depth is a potential issue that needs to be addressed. This, after all, is a team that gave starts to 10 different pitchers across the 60-game regular season in 2020.
The bullpen is also a source of concern, especially given the likely free-agent losses of Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski. Yes, they got little from that trio in 2020, but it's far easier to paper over such a lack of depth in a 60-game season. Even so, relief questions abounded for the Astros in the playoffs last year. If Javier is indeed a rotation fixture in 2021, then that's another serious blow to the relief corps. Right now, it simply doesn't project as a contention-worthy bullpen, and GM James Click has yet to do anything about it as we work our way toward the new year. Given that multiple quality high-leverage relievers are on the market, this shortcoming can be addressed.
As for the competition, the A's still look like contenders as they'll be aiming for their fourth-straight postseason berth, and the Angels under new GM Perry Minasian are poised to add targeted pieces around their core of Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. Don't be surprised if they take a significant step forward in 2021. As well, the playoff field figures to be at least somewhat smaller in 2021, so the bar for Houston will likely be higher. That, however, should be motivation to do no more, not scale back.
The Astros' first significant move of the offseason will be telling, and so will their first significant non-move of the offseason. If Springer indeed casts his lot elsewhere, will Brantley soon follow? Will that, in turn, increase the chances that Carlos Correa is traded going into his walk year? If any of those things come to pass, then it will likely signal a pivot toward the long-term for the Astros and a complete abandonment of 2021.
Such a pivot would be unfortunate and reflect poorly on owner Jim Crane. This remains a club with a championship core in place or within reach, and it's on Crane to invest at levels befitting a team that's been to the ALCS four straight seasons. If he doesn't do that, then it's a sure sign that he's not especially serious about keeping the current window open at least one more year and that he's content with getting one title -- one title that some would dismiss as illegitimate because of the sign-stealing scandal -- out of a nucleus that could've been a dynasty.
Not surprisingly, the Astros appear to be operating with the luxury tax threshold foremost in mind. They were over the line for 2020, but that won't entail any financial penalties. Going into 2021, Houston appears to have a bit less than $40 million of room under the tax line. That's enough to re-sign Springer, but fortifying the pitching staff at the same time, which needs to be done -- and perhaps also bringing back Brantley --- would push them over. To that we say: So what? After the 2021 season, the Astros will have a great deal of money coming off the books. Greinke, Verlander, Correa, and McCullers are all slated for free agency, and if the Astros choose to shift to another rebuild it will be easy enough to get under the tax line and reset their penalty schedule. In the meantime, they can position themselves for one more run in 2021 -- and possibly send manager Dusty Baker to the Hall of Fame in the process.
Targeted investments in the roster could keep those aspirations alive, but that starts with something that seems less and less likely by the day. That's bringing George Springer back to Houston.