I'm not sure any Major League Baseball team is looking forward to 2020 ending as much as the Houston Astros. The year started with the Astros being punished for the sign-stealing scandal, continued with ace Justin Verlander going down with Tommy John surgery one start into the abbreviated 60-game season, and concluded with a 29-31 record and a Game 7 defeat in the ALCS. Not a lot to feel good about there.
At the same time, Astros players escaped sign-stealing punishment -- commissioner Rob Manfred said the players would be punished via public shame but there were no fans in the stands to boo them -- and that 29-31 record still earned Houston as a postseason spot thanks to the expanded 16-team field. Also, it was their fourth straight ALCS berth, and they became only the second team ever to force a Game 7 after falling behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series. It wasn't all bad.
The Astros now are approaching a crossroads, if they're not at one already. Michael Brantley and George Springer are free agents and Verlander will miss 2021 rehabbing. Verlander, Carlos Correa, Zack Greinke, Yuli Gurriel, and Lance McCullers Jr. will all become free agents after next season, and Baseball America ranks Houston's farm system 29th in baseball. Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman are signed through 2024, so they're not going anywhere, but this core's days are numbered. Next year might be their last chance to win another title together.
"That's the balance of trying to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future," GM James Click told SportsRadio 610 in October. "It's not lost on me -- or any of us -- how talented this group is. You don't get to the ALCS four years in a row, you don't get to Game 7 of the ALCS unless you have a very talented core. And obviously we want to try to keep this window open for as long as we possibly can. But the last thing that we can do is make a series of short-sighted moves that are going to put us in a bad position for the long term. So that's the balance of the present and the future."
The Astros, like every other team, did not make as much money as expected in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their 2020 luxury tax payroll was $233.8 million, second highest in baseball, and their current 2021 luxury tax payroll is roughly $155 million. It is safe to assume payroll will come down next year, but even if it drops to the $210 million luxury tax threshold, Click & Co. do have some money to spend. There are three key areas the Astros must address this offseason.
For more MLB Hot Stove talk, check out Fantasy Baseball Today, where the crew breaks down the best destinations for the top free agents.
1. Re-sign or replace Brantley and Springer
Over the last two seasons Josh Reddick, Springer, and Brantley ranked 1-2-3 in games played in the outfield among Astros players. All three are free agents this winter. Kyle Tucker, who impressed in 2020, will undoubtedly hold down one outfield spot in 2021. The other two spots are open questions, with speedster Myles Straw and the untested Chas McCormick the top in-house options now that Yordan Alvarez's knee surgeries all but ensure he will be a full-time DH moving forward. The Astros not only have to fill two-thirds of their outfield, they have to replace two All-Star caliber players in the process.
"It may take us years to try to recover from (the pandemic). So our spending is going to be dependent on what we think 2021 is going to look like operationally and what the market bears out as a result of that," Click told SportsRadio 610. "But George Springer, Michael Brantley, it's obvious to everybody how good they are at the game of baseball right now, how much they bring to this team on and off the field. The question is always how we balance everything and make sure that we put this team in a position to succeed, not only in the short term but the long term."
The Astros are already rumored to be pursuing a reunion with Brantley and I'm sure they've touched base with Springer's camp as well. Re-signing both seems impossible unless the Astros run a much higher payroll than expected, or cut salary elsewhere. Springer is the better player and the better fit -- Brantley turns 34 in May and is going to spend more and more time at DH in the coming years -- but he's also going to cost substantially more. Brantley figures to come on a short-term, lower cost deal.
"Shorter term deals do provide more flexibility than longer term deals," Click told SportsRadio 610. "We probably would prioritize shorter term deals. That said, there is always flexibility and appetite on my end to be creative about ways to line things up with potential free agents, or other trades where we don't have to do things the same way that they've always been done in terms of contracts. If we want to find new ways to be creative … we'll be open on any of those ideas."
Beyond Brantley and Springer, Marcell Ozuna, who isn't a great fit because he's a DH more than an outfielder at this point, Joc Pederson, and the recently non-tendered Eddie Rosario. Free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. strikes me as an excellent candidate to hold down center field post-Springer. Kevin Kiermaier is a potential trade target, maybe even Joey Gallo should the AL West rival Rangers put him back on the trade market.are
By OPS+, Brantley and Springer were Houston's two best hitters in 2020. The Astros still have the makings of a good offense with Altuve, Alvarez, Bregman, Correa, and Tucker, but how they replace Brantley and Springer may very well determine if they have a powerhouse lineup heading into 2021, or merely a good offense. Replacing those two is easily the team's most pressing piece of offseason business.
2. Add to the bullpen
The Astros didn't just lose Verlander to injury early in the season. Closer Roberto Osuna went down with an elbow injury of his own and was limited to four games. Houston released him after the season rather than pay him north of $10 million through arbitration in 2021. (Technically, the Astros outrighted Osuna off the 40-man roster and he elected free agency.) The Astros had a ton of pitching injuries in 2020 and it meant opportunities for young arms.
Some of those young arms, like Cristian Javier, performed very well and cemented their place on the 2021 roster. Here's what their rotation looks like even without Verlander:
Pretty good! Greinke is getting a little long in the tooth but I'm not going to bet against him. He's a Hall of Fame talent. History tells us McCullers is likely to miss time with injury in 2021 and Javier figures to be on some sort of workload limit (his career high is the 113 2/3 innings he threw in 2019), so the Astros will need some rotation depth. As things stand, that top five is pretty strong. They need support rotation pieces more than cornerstones.
The bullpen is a different matter. It was clear in the postseason that manager Dusty Baker trusted only two relievers: Javier and closer Ryan Pressly. Javier is moving back into the rotation and will ostensibly be replaced in the bullpen by veteran Joe Smith, who opted out of the 2020 season. Houston's current relief crew looks like this:
- Closer: RHP Ryan Pressly
- Setup: RHP Joe Smith, LHP Blake Taylor
- Middle: RHP Enoli Paredes, LHP Brooks Raley, RHP Andre Scrubb
- Long: LHP Cionel Perez, RHP Austin Pruitt
Perez and Pruitt are out of minor league options, so either they stick on the MLB roster next season or they go on waivers. Being out of options doesn't guarantee them Opening Day roster spots but it does work in their favor. Teams usually don't want to give away pitching depth early in the year. Paredes and Scrubb were very impressive at times this past season, though walks were an issue. Adding depth to push them further down the depth chart isn't a terrible idea.
Houston's approach to rounding out the bullpen will depend at least in part on their outfield situation, specifically how much money they spend to re-sign or replace Brantley and Springer. Big names like Brad Hand and Blake Treinen could be in play. If the Astros aren't willing to spend at the top of the relief market, bounceback candidates like Jimmy Nelson and Kirby Yates could have appeal. Keone Kela is another bounceback candidate with big upside.
The Astros have several interesting depth arms waiting in the wings (Bryan Abreu, Brandon Bielak, Luis Garcia, Nivaldo Rodriguez, etc.) and top prospect Forrest Whitley should finally make his MLB debut at some point in 2021. They have inventory and aren't desperate for help, either in the rotation or bullpen, which puts them in good negotiating position. Houston probably won't pursue impact pitchers -- they're more likely to allocate their money to the outfield -- and can instead scour the market for bargains and upside plays.
3. Correa's future
Next season is Correa's final season of team control. He'll make approximately $10 million through arbitration in 2021, then join a stacked free agent shortstop class that is also scheduled to include Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story. Chances are one or more of those shortstops will sign an extension before hitting the open market, though Correa might be most likely to become a free agent. His contract talks with the Astros haven't been smooth over the years:
- 2017: Renewed at the $535,000 league minimum.
- 2018: Renewed at $1 million.
- 2019: Correa won $5 million in arbitration (Astros filed for $4.25 million).
- 2020: Avoided arbitration with $8 million salary.
The Astros and Correa could not agree to a salary in 2017 or 2018, so the team renewed him at the salary of their choosing, which was their right since he was not yet arbitration-eligible. In 2017, they renewed him at the minimum even though he had a Rookie of the Year award to his name and had received MVP votes. The next year they bumped him up to $1 million but still renewed him, meaning Correa did not agree to that salary. The two sides then went to an arbitration hearing in 2018.
Contract renewals and arbitration hearings don't always mean a relationship is fractured -- the Yankees went to hearings with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera back in the day and they lived happily ever after -- but Correa is now a year away from free agency, and because he will hit the market at 27, he's poised to cash in huge. Injuries and inconsistency have hampered him, no doubt. Correa has shown he can be a centerpiece on a World Series team though, and that's awfully valuable.
Correa's name popped in trade rumors last offseason and The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal recently reported the Astros are "not engaged in any active conversations on Correa," though that could change at anytime. The Reds need a shortstop. Let's say they offer five years of Nick Senzel for one year of Correa -- Houston could put Bregman at short and Senzel at third, his natural position -- don't the Astros have to at least listen? There's no harm in taking a phone call and listening.
The Astros have three options with Correa: trade him now to maximize his value, trade him at the deadline, or keep him all season and see what happens in free agency next winter. My guess is they will keep Correa, try to win with him next year, then make him the qualifying offer next offseason and take the draft pick should he sign elsewhere. An extension seems unlikely with Correa so close to free agency, and it's hard to see Houston trading him now, while the window is still open.
Brantley and Springer are free agents this offseason and several more core Astros will become free agents next offseason, and none are more valuable than Correa, a just-turned 26-year-old impact player at a key up the middle position. Maybe the Astros will let Correa walk and sign Lindor or Seager or Story. There's merit to it. The guess here is, if they're willing to spend that kind of money on a shortstop, they'll keep the guy they drafted No. 1 overall and know best.