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Within days of winning the World Series, the Astros parted ways with their general manager. They went with an uncertain front office for a few months but made a few early splashes. Things quieted down before Houston brought in their new GM, who has already set out to put his stamp on the organization in Spring Training.
Major League Signings
2023 spending: $43MM
Total spending: $105MM
Trades and Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
Even as the Astros were barreling towards the second championship in franchise history, whispers of conflict behind the scenes began to trickle out. Rumors of a strained relationship between general manager James Click and manager Dusty Baker and, to an even greater extent, between Click and owner Jim Crane mounted towards season’s end. Even the team getting to the pinnacle of the sport couldn’t stop the situation from reaching a tipping point.
In the days after the World Series parade, Crane made one-year extension offers to Baker and Click — both of whom had been on expiring deals. The longtime manager accepted and will be back for a fourth season at the helm. Click, on the other hand, rejected an offer he and many throughout the industry considered below standard for an executive whose team had just won a championship. Crane responded by dismissing him, setting the stage for an almost unprecedented GM search on the heels of a title.
While the front office uncertainty loomed over much of the offseason, Crane consistently maintained he didn’t view it as a pressing hole to plug. The owner himself stepped further into day-to-day baseball operations with help from assistant GMs Andrew Ball and Bill Firkus and from longtime Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell. The Astros faced some immediate roster decisions as a handful of key players were headed to the open market.
Houston struck early with one of their top free agents. During the five-day window between the end of the World Series and the official start of free agency — a time when clubs have exclusive negotiating rights with their own players — the Astros kept reliever Rafael Montero off the market on a three-year, $34.5MM deal. The righty was coming off the best season of his career, posting a 2.37 ERA with above-average strikeout and grounder numbers. He’d been a crucial piece of an excellent relief corps. Retaining Montero kept the group mostly intact, although Houston did buy out deadline pickup Will Smith and allow him to join the Rangers.
Even with Montero returning, Houston faced the potential departures of a handful of key players from last year’s club. None loomed larger than the defending Cy Young award winner. Justin Verlander had returned from a Tommy John surgery to throw 175 innings of 1.75 ERA ball during his age-39 season. He has shown no signs of slowing down with age and/or injury and made the obvious decision to decline a $25MM player option for the upcoming campaign.
Houston and Verlander were in contact early in the winter. Crane even went on record to indicate Verlander was seeking a deal that approached the three years and $130MM that Max Scherzer had received from the Mets the previous offseason. Yet reports suggested Houston wasn’t prepared to go to those lengths for a pitcher who’d turn 40 before Opening Day. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle suggested the Astros were offering between $60MM and $70MM over two seasons.
The market also valued Verlander at two years but at a loftier annual price. Verlander ended up reuniting with Scherzer in Queens, matching his record $43.333MM average annual value over two seasons. The total guarantee checked in around $86.667MM, quite a bit higher than Houston’s reported offer. After four and a half seasons, Verlander moved on. The Astros never seemed to seriously consider replacing him, instead moving everyone else in a still strong rotation up a peg.
Beyond Verlander, Houston also saw Yuli Gurriel, Michael Brantley and deadline acquisitions Christian Vázquez and Trey Mancini hit the open market. Not coincidentally, Houston was rumored to be in the market for players at first base, catcher and in left field. Initial reports suggested the Astros were targeting Anthony Rizzo to replace Gurriel. When Rizzo promptly re-signed with the Yankees, Houston pivoted to arguably the top first baseman available in free agency.
The Astros made José Abreu their biggest external addition of the winter. The 2020 AL MVP inked a three-year, $58.5MM deal in late November. There’s risk in buying the age 36 through 38 campaigns for a player who is limited to the bottom of the defensive spectrum, but Abreu should bring quite a bit more offensive punch than Gurriel provided in a down 2022 season. A career .292/.354/.506 hitter, Abreu posted a .304/.378/.446 line with 15 home runs in 157 games during his final year with the White Sox.
To address left field, Houston checked in on such players as Michael Conforto and Andrew Benintendi. Rather than splurge on either, they ultimately circled back to Brantley as their lefty-swinging left field/designated hitter option. Coming off season-ending shoulder surgery and headed into his age-36 campaign, Brantley was limited to a one-year deal. Yet he still secured $12MM on the strength of offensive production that remains excellent when he’s healthy enough to take the field. Brantley walked more than he struck out over 277 plate appearances last season, hitting .288/.370/.416 with five homers and 14 doubles.
The trio of Montero, Abreu and Brantley ended up comprising all of Houston’s major league free agent acquisitions. Their catcher pursuit came up short. Houston reportedly put forth a multi-year offer to top free agent backstop Willson Contreras but saw the longtime Cub instead join the Cardinals on a five-year, $87.5MM deal. The gap between Contreras and any other free agent catcher was massive, and Houston ultimately decided to roll with their internal options after missing out on the one catcher who could’ve added another middle-of-the-order presence. While the Astros were at least loosely tied to lower-tier veterans like Tucker Barnhart, they’re going to move forward with Martín Maldonado for another season.
Houston acquired Vázquez last summer as a veteran backup to Maldonado but allowed him to depart in free agency. With Jason Castro retiring, Houston seems set to turn to a less experienced option as Maldonado’s #2. Former first-round draftee Korey Lee is a strong defender with some power but significant strikeout concerns. Yainer Díaz had a breakout 2022 showing in the upper minors and brings the opposite profile: an advanced bat but questions about his defense. They’ll battle for the backup job and potentially for longer-term run as the organization’s catcher of the future, since the 36-year-old Maldonado will hit free agency at the end of the 2023 campaign.
The rest of the position player group is straightforward. Abreu will man first base. Jose Altuve is back at second, with Jeremy Peña having secured shortstop behind an excellent rookie season. Alex Bregman returns to solidify the hot corner. Brantley, when healthy, will split his time between left field and designated hitter. Yordan Alvarez will do the same, with the club aiming to get their star slugger a little more defensive work than he’s logged in years past. Kyle Tucker is one of the sport’s best right fielders on both sides of the ball.
To the extent there’s a position battle, it looks like it’d be in center field. Chas McCormick has consistently produced over his first two big league campaigns, though the organization has seemed reluctant to anoint him their long-term center fielder. McCormick should have a leg up on the job after playing well during the club’s postseason run. Baker has suggested this spring that Jake Meyers is still in the mix, though, and utilityman Mauricio Dubón could garner some consideration as well.
Dubón is out of minor league option years and figures to be on the MLB roster as a depth player. He and rookie David Hensley could take on some utility responsibilities after Houston lost Aledmys Díaz to free agency. The Astros also brought in infielder Rylan Bannon on a waiver claim from the Cubs. Their only trade of the offseason was the acquisition of depth corner outfielder Bligh Madris from the Tigers for cash.
Houston did even less to augment the pitching staff, showing plenty of faith in their in-house options. With Verlander gone, Framber Valdez assumes the role of staff ace. He’s followed by Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy. A healthy Lance McCullers Jr. would be in the mix but he’s not going to be ready for Opening Day after suffering a muscle strain in his right arm. That pushes top prospect Hunter Brown into the rotation. It’s still a strong top five but the depth behind that group is a little thinner than it has been in recent seasons.
There are no such concerns about a bullpen that again looks to be one of the league’s best. Montero returns to join Ryne Stanek, Héctor Neris, Phil Maton and Bryan Abreu among the bridges to closer Ryan Pressly. It’s a group that skews right-handed, but that has been the case for a few seasons and the Astros have been no worse for wear. Houston added southpaw Matt Gage off release waivers from Toronto to compete with the likes of Blake Taylor and Parker Mushinski in that regard. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Astros ran out all right-handed bullpens at points.
After an initial flurry of activity early in the winter, Houston was mostly quiet from December onwards. While their work with the roster faded into the background, the organization took a few months to put their new leadership structure in place. At the end of January, they finalized a deal to bring in Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown as their new general manager.
Brown is a first-time GM but has played an integral part in building the core of an Atlanta team that won the World Series two seasons ago. He hasn’t had a chance to put his stamp on the roster with any external pickups considering he was hired after the free agent and trade markets were all but finished. Yet he’s already shown one aspect that could help define the next few seasons of Astros baseball: an affinity for contract extensions.
Since taking the helm, Brown has gone on record about a desire to sign players like Tucker, Valdez, Altuve and Bregman to long-term deals. No organization has been as successful at locking up key players in recent years than the Braves, and it’s clearly a philosophy he’ll attempt to bring to Houston. He’s already hammered out one long-term deal, signing Javier to a $64MM guarantee to buy out his three arbitration seasons and two would-be free agent years. Javier secured the largest deal ever for a pitcher with between three and four years of service and didn’t need to tack on any below-market club options at the back end. It was a strong contract for the electric young righty, one that hints at the kind of aggressiveness which could define future extension talks.
It stands to reason the front office will spend the rest of Spring Training trying to get another deal(s) like that done. Even if nothing comes to fruition, the Astros remain as well-positioned for success over the coming seasons as any team in the game. Brantley, Maldonado, Stanek and Maton are the only players set to reach free agency at the end of the ’23 campaign. While those are valuable contributors, Houston isn’t at risk of losing any of their true star performers until Altuve and Bregman hit the market over the 2024-25 offseason.
The Astros have had a remarkable past few years, advancing at least as far as the American League Championship Series in six consecutive seasons. They’ve done so despite a decent amount of roster turnover, with only Altuve, Bregman and McCullers remaining from the 2017 World Series team. (Gurriel is still unsigned and could theoretically return, although Brown has implied the club doesn’t feel they have the playing time to offer him.)
Tucker, Peña, Alvarez, Valdez, Javier and Garcia will be around for at least three more seasons. Even as teams like the Mariners, Angels, and Rangers improve, the competitive window in Houston remains wide open. The Astros again look like the favorites in the AL West and will try to become the first repeat World Series winners since the late-’90s Yankees. Legitimate championship aspirations aren’t going away anytime soon.