For the third time in the last five years, the Houston Astros are American League champions. They defeated the Boston Red Sox in six games in the American League Championship Series, and will face either the Braves or the Dodgers in the World Series. Houston won the World Series in 2017 and lost the World Series in 2019.
Like every team, the Astros were assembled through all sorts of different methods. No team is built exclusively through the draft, or trades, or free agency. It's not possible. Successful teams acquire talent through every available avenue. Here is how the Astros constructed their 26-man postseason roster:
- Trades: 10
- International free agency: 6
- Free agency: 5
- Draft: 5
The Astros have leaned heavily on trades. In fact, they've made some of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. They've also done well in the draft, particularly in the first round, and they've made several shrewd free agent signings. Let's take a deeper look at how the Astros built the roster that carried them to the 2021 World Series.
In a perfect world teams would draft and develop their entire 26-man roster and never spend money on free agents or give up players in trades. That world does not exist. Not even close. The draft remains the best (and most cost effective) way to acquire talent, and the Astros built (most of) their current core at the top of the draft.
Houston has three high first round picks on their roster:
The Astros went 56-106 in 2011 and their reward was choosing between Correa and Byron Buxton for the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft. Buxton is a heck of a player, though Houston clearly chose wisely. Correa is legitimate franchise shortstop and he will hit free agency at age 27 this winter. He will become one of the highest paid players in MLB history.
It should also be noted the Astros selected ace Lance McCullers Jr. with the No. 41 pick in the 2012 draft. They signed Correa to a below slot bonus (that was one reason for taking him over Buxton) and gave the savings to McCullers. Alas, McCullers suffered a forearm injury in the ALDS and missed the ALCS, and will miss the World Series as well.
In 2013, the Astros went 51-111, then used the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft on Brady Aiken. Houston saw something they did not like in Aiken's elbow during his physical, so they didn't sign him, and received the No. 2 pick in 2015 as compensation. That pick became Bregman, and the No. 5 pick that year was Houston's natural first rounder. That became Tucker.
Picking at the top of the draft does not guarantee success. Every year mistakes are made near the top of the draft and the Astros are no exception. They had three straight No. 1 picks from 2012-14 and used them on Correa, Aiken, and Mark Appel. Usually going 1 for 3 is pretty good in this sport. With the No. 1 pick though? Eh, you'd like a better hit rate.
The Astros tanked to get those high draft picks all those years, and while they had some misses along the way, they did very well overall turning those picks into cornerstone players. Correa and Bregman are arguably Houston's two best all-around players, and Tucker was one of the best hitters in baseball after April this season.
In the late rounds of the draft the Astros nabbed what amounts to their center field quasi-platoon in Chas McCormick (21st round in 2017) and Jake Meyers (13th round in 2017). Turning late round picks into a legitimate big league contributors is a big win and often separates the good teams from the great teams.
The Astros are not batting 1.000 with their trades -- the six-player Josh Hader for Carlos Gómez trade worked out pretty terribly, though that trade was made by the previous front office regime -- but they tend to do very well when acquiring players from other clubs. When Houston calls about a player, maybe ask yourself what they see that you don't before making the trade.
Case in point: ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez was acquired before he ever even played a professional game. The Dodgers signed him out of Cuba on June 15, 2016, then traded him to Houston for reliever Josh Fields on Aug. 1, 2016. Alvarez was a member of the Dodgers organization for only 46 days, and now he's on the short list of the game's most devastating hitters.
Houston acquired Zack Greinke in a five-player trade with the Diamondbacks at the 2019 deadline, and although Greinke is greatly diminished now, he will receive Hall of Fame consideration when the time comes. Greinke led Houston with 171 innings pitched during the regular season, which is no small accomplishment at age 38. He helped them get where they are now, no doubt.
Six members of the bullpen came over in trades: Yimi García (Marlins), Kendall Graveman (Mariners), Phil Maton (Cleveland), Ryan Pressly (Twins), Brooks Raley (Reds), and Blake Taylor (Mets). The Pressly trade in particular was a heist, as Minnesota was unable to maximize his high-spin arsenal. Aledmys Díaz (Blue Jays) and Martin Maldonado (Angels) came over in small trades.
The only player on Houston's postseason roster to come over in a true blockbuster trade is Greinke. All their other trade additions came in smaller, under-the-radar type moves, including Alvarez, who was an unknown at the time of the trade. Guys like Maton and Raley are unspectacular, though they are effective, and they've proven to be important members of the bullpen.
We should also note the Astros acquired Justin Verlander in a trade in 2017 -- it is one of the most significant trades of the last 10-15 years -- though he did not pitch at all this season as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. Verlander signed a two-year extension worth $66 million two years ago and made just one start during the life of the contract.
Free agent signings
Generally speaking, free agency is the least efficient way to acquire talent in terms of cost vs. production. The Astros do not give out significant free agent contracts all that often -- they've signed only three players (four contracts) to free agent deals worth at least $10 million since 2017 -- and truth be told, their free agent track record is a bit spotty. There have been some misses.
The most notable free agent signing on Houston's roster is Michael Brantley. He first joined the team on a two-year, $32 million deal in Dec. 2018, then returned to the club on an identical two-year, $32 million deal in Jan. 2021. Here is the complete list of players to qualify for the batting title and hit .300 every year since 2018: Michael Brantley. That's it. It has been money very well spent.
Right-handers Jake Odorizzi (two years, $20.25 million) and Ryne Stanek (one year, $1.1 million) joined the Astros last offseason and were known quantities to GM James Click, who was in Tampa's front office when those two played for the Rays. Stanek has been a solid high-leverage option all season. Odorizzi has been up and down though, and isn't locked into a postseason roster spot.
Catcher Jason Castro (two years, $7 million) rejoined the Astros last winter, 13 years after Houston made him the No. 10 pick in the 2008 draft, and he's a solid backup to Maldonado. Extra outfielder Jose Siri is a former top prospect who bounced around a bit and signed a minor league contract with the Astros last December. He made his MLB debut in September.
In the free agent dud department, the Astros gave righty Pedro Báez two years and $12.5 million over the winter, and he rewarded them with 4 1/3 innings around injuries in 2021. If you're going to miss on a free agent, missing on a middle reliever making middle reliever money isn't a bad place to miss. That's not going to cripple the Astros financially or derail their roster planning.
The Astros typically spend their dollars on extensions for current players rather than free agent contracts for new players. Brantley is the most notable exception and he has proven to be a bargain. Otherwise Houston's notable free agent additions are complementary pieces like Castro, Odorizzi, and Stanek. Necessary pieces to be a championship team but not high-priced.
International free agency
There are two ways to acquire amateur talent: the draft and international free agency. The Astros scout Latin America very well, so much so that three-fourths of their postseason rotation joined the organization as international amateur free agents:
- Luis Garcia: Signed July 2, 2017 out of Venezuela.
- José Urquidy: Signed March 2, 2015 out of Mexico.
- Framber Valdez: Signed March 18, 2015 out of the Dominican Republic.
All three were lower profile signings who received small signing bonuses. Garcia signed at age 20 for $20,000 and Valdez signed at age 21 for $10,000. Urquidy signed right before his 20th birthday and his bonus has not been reportedly publicly, which usually indicates it is very small. Perhaps $10,000 or less. Three postseason starters for such a minimal investment is a huge success.
Most amateurs who sign as intentional free agents sign at age 16 or 17. Players who sign at 20 or 21 are relatively ancient in this market. All the best players are scooped up long before then. Garcia, Urquidy, and Valdez all signed close to or after their 20th birthday, however. Those three are franchise-altering player development success stories, truly.
Of course, Houston's most notable international free agent signing is Jose Altuve, who the Astros initially turned away from a tryout camp in Venezuela because he was too short. He came back for a second tryout and landed himself a $15,000 bonus. Altuve is now a heart and soul player for the Astros and represents another massive scouting and development success story.
Yuli Gurriel was an unconventional international free agent. He was the best player in Cuba for more than a decade -- Gurriel hit .500/.589/.874 with 38 strikeouts and three walks in 49 games his final season in Cuba -- before defecting at age 31 in Feb. 2016. He was a veteran free agent more than an amateur free agent. The Astros initially signed him to a five-year, $47.5 million contract.
Regular season starter turned postseason ace reliever Cristian Javier was another small bonus international signing. He received a $10,000 bonus out of the Dominican Republic as a 17-year-old in March 2015. Altuve, Garcia, Javier, and Valdez cost the Astros a combined $55,000 in signing bonuses, and those four players contributed 10.9 WAR in 2021. Incredible.
There is no magic formula in baseball. The only constant throughout history is you have to be good at everything. That means hitting, pitching, and defense on the field. In terms of building the roster, that means using every available avenue. The Astros have done well at the top of the draft and especially in international free agency, and they've augmented their homegrown core with shrewd trades and free agent signings. Arguably no team has done it better over the last half-decade.
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