2021 Houston Astros Outlook

Greetings, Earthlings!

I come to you with late-breaking news that former Astros manager A.J. Hinch has made “substantial progress” towards becoming the new manager of the Detroit Tigers, according to Jon Morosi.

The moment the World Series ended on Tuesday night, Hinch and fellow exiled manager, Alex Cora, were free to join any club in any capacity for the 2021 season.

Good for them.

I’ll forever bark in areas of no influence that Hinch should still be manager of the Astros, but that’s another subject for another day.

It’s been roughly two weeks since the Astros fell numerous miraculous defensive plays by the Rays short of becoming just the second team in MLB history to come back from a 3–0 series deficit and advance to the World Series.

The Astros got to within a game of pissing off an already-pretty irritated country with a motley crew of young pitchers playing way beyond expectations, and an offense suddenly jolted to life after a 29–31 regular season that left all of us wondering just how heavily the sign-stealing scandal, and the reaction to it, was weighing on the stars of this team.

They played valiantly and with all the balls you’d expect from a team this talented, even in spite of their myriad star absences.

People all over the baseball universe spent a fair amount of time using results from a truncated and incredibly unusual season as proof that improprieties from three years prior were to blame for all the success that came before, during and after.

Then the Twins went home. Then the A’s got what they asked for. Then the Rays blew a 3–0 series lead and nearly served as yet another cautionary tale for why you shouldn’t doubt the talent coming out of the Bayou City.

But they didn’t. The Astros lost, the country rejoiced, and now… questions abound!

Today, we’re going to tackle the fate of the 2021 Astros; who’s coming, who’s going, what I think new GM James Click will do with the team’s myriad free agents who will be free to sign anywhere they please on Sunday, and how I also believe the economic damage to baseball in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic will affect Houston’s spending habits in free agency, with extensions, and even in trades.

First, let’s start with who the Astros stand to lose in free agency if they simply sit on their hands and let each guy walk.

  • OF George Springer ($21 million in 2020)
  • OF Michael Brantley ($16 million in 2020)
  • OF Josh Reddick ($13 million in 2020)
  • RHP Roberto Osuna ($10 million in 2020)
  • RHP Chris Devenski ($2 million in 2020)
  • RHP Brad Peacock ($3.9 million in 2020)
  • C Dustin Garneau ($650K in 2020)

The Astros announced yesterday that they placed Osuna on outright waivers in lieu of his elbow injury that most likely will lead to Tommy John surgery, which ends his ’21 season and likely spills into ’22. That move helps Houston evade what was expected to be a $10 million repeat of his 2020 salary in what would have been his final trip through arbitration. Given his injury, off-field history, and his price tag, it’s not difficult to envision Osuna clearing waivers and spending the ’21 season without a franchise to call home.

As for the rest of Houston’s free agents, it’s all about fit and finances.

The 2020 season was unlike any other in MLB history, and the combination of economic downturn and prospect emergences will make a lot of these guys, and possibly all of them, former Astros by the time Winter ends.

Let’s look at the potential lineup the Astros would trot out if all those guys were gone and no outside additions were made.

2B — Jose Altuve ($29 million thru 2024)

3B — Alex Bregman ($13 million in ’21 and ’22, $30.5 million in ’23 and ‘24)

SS — Carlos Correa ($17 million estimated thru 2021)

1B — Yuli Gurriel ($7 million thru 2021)

DH — Yordan Alvarez ($600K)

C — Martin Maldonado ($3.5 million thru 2021)

RF — Kyle Tucker ($600K)

CF — Myles Straw ($600K)

LF —Aledmys Diaz ($5 million estimated thru 2021)

Altuve and Bregman are both signed thru the next several seasons at premium rates, and both Yordan and Tucker are under team control well into the decade. Gurriel and Maldonado aren’t long for Houston past 2021, but the big question mark is Correa and what the Astros decide to do with the guy who became the eager spokesman and defender of all things-Astros during this tumultuous 2020 season.

’21 will be his final season under team control and while the Astros may extend him or even consider trading him in order to cash in on his immense value, the answer to his fate lies largely in what the Astros do about the two massive holes they have in the outfield.

Springer and Brantley are indispensable offensive threats, and Springer is not just arguably the best lead-off threat in baseball, he’s a great defensive outfielder and the heart and soul of this club. If the Astros lose both this off-season, it’s difficult to imagine their output being matched or replicated in any way by either an in-house replacement or via free agency, which is notably bare this year in the way of outfield talent.

Reddick and his aging, diminishing production is a goner in Houston. He’s been preparing for it all season, as have the Astros. The emergence of Tucker as a legitimate offensive threat has spelled the end of the 33-year-old’s four-year tenure in Houston, but he leaves us with plenty of fun memories to look back on with fondness.

*que the 21-WOO!! salute*

My personal opinion? There’s enough noise out there to suspect that, in an ordinary off-season, Springer would be headed out to a new team.

Not only has his output been fantastic through his first seven years in the Bigs, he’s also had a credible beef with the Astros’ front office since 2014, when then-GM Jeff Luhnow offered the then-top prospect a seven-year, $23 million contract prior to the start of the ’14 season.

The offer came with an obvious instant promotion to Houston to begin the season. Springer turned the offer down, opting to bet on himself to earn more money down the road. The decision cost him as he then opened the season in Triple-A despite being absolutely ready for The Show, which was Houston’s move to control his service clock and buy an extra year of service from Springer before he could reach free agency.

This kind of move was relatively new in baseball, but was pioneered by Luhnow and the Astros, having done it to Springer’s fellow prospect, Jon Singleton that same year to the tune of five years, $10 million, which earned Singleton a not-so-surprising instant promotion to The Show.

The Singleton deal angered players who felt he had sold himself short, but it was Singleton who got the last laugh after hitting .171/.290/.331 with 14 homers in 114 major league games. He’s like Houston’s mini-Bobby Bonilla as he’ll receive his final $250,000 buyout payment in 2021 despite last playing for the Astros briefly in 2015.

But Springer bet on himself, turned the deal down, kept his head down and made his debut later in 2014, once the Astros were assured that Springer would be under team control through 2020.

Service-time manipulation has become a lightning rod issue between players and organizations, highlighted by Kris Bryant’s own dealings with the Cubs, among many others, and will absolutely be dealt with one way or another in 2022 when players and owners attempt to avoid the first strike since the 1994 fiasco that nearly killed the sport.

Springer’s bet paid off as he’s, to date, earned just under $50 million in his career through arbitration raises. Prior to his firing in January, Luhnow gave Springer a massive raise for the 2020 season, taking Springer from $12 million in ’18 and ’19 and paying him $21 million for this season.

Springer, of course, only received a prorated amount of that salary due to the coronavirus-shortened season, but the move was meant to be an act of good faith for the organization’s heart and soul. Springer though has been light on his intentions beyond 2020 and, with the effects of the scandal lingering still, he may find it more desirable to simply start new elsewhere.

That said, this is not an ordinary off-season. Springer, along with Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, are the clear-cut best players available in free agency. But it does little good to try to imagine how the market for their services will take shape when teams are still attempting to figure out if they should cut costs, keep them where they are, or go for broke and hope 2021 isn’t another Siberian hellscape, financially speaking.

Springer will definitely shop his services and see what’s out there. He’ll have plenty of suitors, but the offers may lack the kind of punch that he’ll be looking for at age 31.

If the Astros can offer him a deal in the neighborhood of five years, $135 million, you’re talking an AAV of $27 million for arguably baseball’s most impactful leadoff hitter and a guy who is still playing at peak level. Give him an opt-out option after year three and see if he bites. If he receives an offer better than that, tip your cap and wish him the best.

As for Brantley, the Astros hit a damn grand slam when they signed him prior to 2019 on what became a bit of a discount at two-years, $32 million. Turning 34 in May, Brantley is still one of the most professional of “professional hitters” in the game, but his glove is an increasing liability and DH isn’t much of an option with Yordan and his bad knees taking up permanent residency in that slot.

While I would wager it’s worth looking into bringing him back on a short deal, this is one of those instances where the club is likely to wish him well as he continues on elsewhere.

So what are Houston’s options if one or both of Springer and Brantley depart?

Atlanta’s Marcell Ozuna is an option, though his glove is a massive liability. Seattle’s Mallex Smith, Washington’s Adam Eaton, and Houston’s old friend, Marwin Gonzalez, are also options who will likely come with smaller price tags than their incumbents, but they’ll also bring smaller production.

The other route is via trade, which is where this off-season could get very wacky.

CLICK, CLICK, BOOM?

*^^I’m not even a little sorry about that *

Remember, back in January, James Click, Houston’s current GM, was still the vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays when they swung the now-brilliant deal for 2020 playoff superstar (and likely demigod) Randy Arozarena of the St. Louis Cardinals, who wasn’t even the main part of the deal. He was essentially a throw-in as St. Louis had a glut of outfielders and nowhere to put Arozarena. The Rays got him as depth and he turned into a stud on the grandest of stages.

Click had been with the Rays for the past 15 years; that team that beat Houston in seven games in the ALCS and nearly won the World Series this season with superb defense and pitching, was constructed with a heavy hand by Click.

The small-market Rays, with Click rising through the organization, developed an uncanny method of finding and developing overlooked and undercooked players and turning them into franchise-altering participants on pennant contenders in the ruthless American League East Division. It’s Houston’s hope that he’ll be able to do the same with the Astros, though with deeper pockets to operate within and a pandemic changing the game for a lot of teams in how they’ll conduct business.

Click has yet to make a major deal as Houston’s GM, but with a minor league system dwindling with major talent and an expensive roster at the top, that’s likely to change very soon. His own work in Tampa tells me to keep an eye on teams with outfield gluts and young, inexpensive players blocked by firm major leaguers not going anywhere anytime soon.

Same goes with pitching. Charlie Morton will always stand out as the guy who the Astros turned from an afterthought to a stud, but that was Luhnow’s grab. Does Click have the same eye for undervalued arms? We’ll see, but be on the lookout for those cheaper, under-the-radar moves. No way the Astros make an expensive grab for a starting pitcher given their ’21 obligations to Greinke and the Ghost of Verlanders past.

THE ROTATION

The Astros, from 2015 to 2019, cultivated one of the more formidable pitching staffs in baseball. Utilizing the genius of pitching coach Brent Strom and their obsessive emphasis on spin rate, the Astros saved the careers of Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole, resurrected Justin Verlander, turned non-prospects like Dallas Keuchel into a Cy Young Award winner, and became a hot bed for pitching development success stories.

In 2020, Cole departed for Yankee pastures, Verlander underwent Tommy John surgery after making just one start, Morton sent us home as a member of the Rays, and Keuchel played his first season in Chicago and his second away from Houston.

Lance McCullers Jr. returned after missing all of ’19 with TJ surgery, and the team relied heavily on the surprise developments of youngsters Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier and on the delightful quirkiness of 2019 acquisition Zack Greinke.

Heading into ’21, the rotation seems to be set as such.

SP1 — Framber Valdez ($600K)

SP2 — Zack Greinke ($35 million/$10.3 million paid by Arizona thru 2021)

SP3 — Lance McCullers Jr. ($10 million estimated)

SP 4 — Jose Urquidy ($600K)

SP 5 — Cristian Javier ($600K)

The combined salaries of both Greinke ($24.7 million) and the injured Justin Verlander ($33 million) will be off Houston’s books after the ’21 season, which means any journey the Astros may take into luxury tax territory in either re-signing Springer and/or Brantley, as well as any other signings to supplement or replace them, will likely be a one-year gambit. It’s possible Verlander agrees to come back in ’22 at a far lower rate if both sides desire it, but it’s more likely the Astros continue to cultivate a new-look rotation with Valdez, Javier, Urquidy, and — hopefully — top prospect Forrest Whitley leading the charge as Houston takes advantage of a largely inexpensive pitching staff from 2022 and beyond.

THE BULLPEN

CP — Ryan Pressly ($8.75 million thru 2021)

RP — Enoli Paredes ($600K)

RP — Andre Scrubb ($600K)

RP — Josh James ($600K)

RP — Brooks Raley (L) ($600K)

RP — Blake Taylor (L) ($600K)

RP — Joe Smith ($4 million thru 2021)

RP — Austin Pruitt ($600K)

The Astros’ bullpen will look pretty similar to this season, with notable additions such as Joe Smith, the side-arming righty who opted out of this past season due to COVID-19, and Pruitt, who missed all of this season due to injury. The emergence of young arms like Paredes, Scrubb, Raley, and Taylor will make Houston’s search for additional relief help purely of the supplemental variety. I could see the Astros maybe making one veteran addition via free agency, and that would be of the closer variety. I expect them to pursue veteran closer Liam Hendricks of the A’s, or perhaps even the recently waived Brad Hand of the Cleveland Indians.

Guys like Peacock and Devenski, while not prohibitively expensive in either case, are veterans coming off of injuries that derailed their seasons and, in light of the growth of the prospects who replaced them, likely are headed elsewhere in ’21.

Josh James did undergo hip surgery that will keep him out, potentially, until the middle of the ’21 season, so I won’t say the door is shut on them, but it’s good as at this point, especially if Pruitt is healthy and able to fill that long-relief role, or perhaps even Bryan Abreu.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Astros are about to undergo one of the most volatile roster shakeups since the team stopped rebuilding in 2014 and began loading up for the run that would make them World Series champions in 2017, two-time pennant winners, four-time pennant contenders, and one of the most controversial franchises in the sport’s history.

The core of this team is undoubtedly Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Springer, Gurriel, Reddick, McCullers and Verlander.

But that core will take a sizable hit in ’21 and an even larger one in ’22 as the members of the ’17 title team continue to disband. That’s the nature of baseball and economics, even without a murderous pandemic bearing down on the sport and the country.

Reddick will be elsewhere next season, Verlander will miss all of the season and likely go as well. Springer may stay given the depressed economics of the game and what, I assume, will be an increased reluctance by teams to spend exorbitant dollars on players they don’t know, though I think the chances are iffy at best. Brantley is likely gone as well, though a shadow of a chance remains for the same reasons as Springer. I do believe one of the two stays.

I believe the Astros will allow all other free agents to depart which, minus Garneau, are all long-time members of the most successful era in the history of Astros baseball.

By the time we get to Opening Day 2021, this could be a very different looking Astros team. By the same day in 2022, it’ll be almost unrecognizable minus the assumed presences of Altuve and Bregman along with, perhaps Correa.

The Astros, had 2020 not been a dumpster fire on wheels that also spit butcher knives and poison, would have had a Opening Day payroll of about $215 million.

I believe they’ll want to decrease that by about $25–30 million, though a one year upcharge can’t be ruled out given the aforementioned expected departures of Greinke, Verlander and McCullers after the season.

I guess what I’m saying here is… we’ll see.

Gratifying, I know. I’m here to please.

Joel Roza Jr. is an at-large writer covering a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from sports to politics and other special interests.