added 01/09/2021 by Hector Llorens
Astros fans always knew this would be a difficult off-season, considering the expiring contracts across the starting outfield. That obviously includes the likely loss of George Springer, a playoff stud and member of the "core four". We all saw that coming years ago when he didn't sign an extension like Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman did.
Then 2020 happened. First, the GM who built a multi-year championship contender and the manager who steered the ship were fired. In March, came the pandemic leading to a short season and lost revenue for every baseball team. Once the season started, both Justin Verlander and Roberto Osuna went down. As a result, the Astros went into this off-season with too many holes and too little money to spend. Exacerbating the matter, new GM James Click has given few clues on his roster strategy or spending philosophy. We have even heard rumors Carlos Correa is being shopped. It feels like the Astros' playoff run might be over. Is it?
When it comes to the Astros, I'm always the optimist. I blindly predicted championships for 35 years before this golden age of Astros baseball began. Compared to the last few decades, this most recent run of four straight ALCS trips, two World Series and one championship feels like a dynasty. Last year, our under-performing team with a losing record came within one win of a third World Series appearance and, for a while, had us believing it was meant to be. But all those hopes were grounded upon a core set of impact players we may never see again in an Astros uniform.
Can the Astros afford to lose Springer? Surprisingly, the answer is 'yes'. Defensively, he was solid but it's not like he ever won a Gold Glove. That makes his defense far more easily replaceable than his bat. We saw Myles Straw enough times in CF last year to indicate he could handle the job, not to mention that defense-oriented center fielders are still available out there via trade or free agency. If the Astros were to land Kevin Kiermaier or Jackie Bradley Jr., they would upgrade their defense in center (Jackie has one Gold Glove; Kiermaier has three).
When it comes to replacing Springer's bat, that's a multi-dimensional problem. First you'll need a new leadoff hitter and, thankfully, the Astros have a three-time batting champion who can easily fit into that slot. Altuve back at leadoff is exactly what he needs to return to All-Star form. Second, the Astros need to replace Springer's run production over 162 games. That happens with the return of OF/DH Yordan Alvarez to the lineup. Finally, it is Springer's October production that will be hardest to replace. Not all players are made for playoff baseball (even some Hall of Famers) but Springer has proven he can take it to another level when it matters most.
Here's the thing though. If the Astros make it to October this year, that would mean the remaining core of Altuve, Bregman and Correa had great seasons. This trio owns some of the biggest walk-off hits in Astros history. It's not like the remaining core have failed to perform in October. In fact, each has excelled and I have no doubt those guys can rise to the occasion should the team be fortunate to continue their playoff run.
The key to the whole thing is keeping Correa for this season and beyond. Far more troubling than the thought of seeing Springer in another uniform is the idea of losing the former overall top draft pick as he nears his peak. He should have won the Gold Glove in 2020 after leading American League shortstops in fewest errors (1) and fielding percentage (.995). Correa's bat came alive in the playoffs. He is 26 years old and we still haven't seen this guy's best.
Now is not the time for Click to torture Astros fans with the "Ray Way". That's when you're so cheap you don't re-sign or extend any of your best players, trading them before their contracts expire. Longsuffering Tampa Bay fans have seen this time and time again with Evan Longoria, David Price, Carl Crawford, Chris Archer, Ben Zobrist, James Shields, Wil Myers and, most recently Charlie Morton and Blake Snell.
I'm not saying Click was part of all that, but he came from a culture where you win on the cheap. With the current financial situation, lost draft picks and holes elsewhere on the team, I am fearful Click will sacrifice the 2021 season. That's exactly what a Correa trade would mean for the Astros. Click didn't draft Correa and doesn't have anywhere near the attachment to him that Jeff Luhnow would, were he still at the helm.
With Correa in the fold, the Astros field a dynamic top two-thirds of the order. If the team re-signs Michael Brantley or picks up Jackie Bradley, the lineup gets deeper:
Last year, the most valuable entity on the team was the young pitching staff which goes into 2021 more experienced and playoff tested. Brent Strom is back for another season and his impact to the Astros on-the-field success is immeasurable. And while Dusty Baker made us scratch our heads quite a few times in 2020, the Astros surprised with two series wins in October and darn near pulled off a third. Dusty deserves credit for managing this team through the most tumultuous of seasons.
Is the Astros' playoff run over? It is not. Not by a long shot. But it's all up to Click.