No George Springer or Gerrit Cole on the Houston Astros in 2021. No Charlie Morton or Dallas Keuchel, either. Former top executives Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch are long gone, and Justin Verlander didn’t throw a pitch this season.
Just five players have remained on the roster for all four seasons since Houston hoisted the 2017 World Series trophy. That churn is inevitable in a sport in which prospects develop into stars and then cash out in free agency. Less predictable has been the Astros’ sustained excellence over those years, and the franchise’s ability to position itself to keep winning in 2022 and beyond. Long-term success is what only the smartest and most resourceful franchises achieve, and Houston’s 2021 playoff appearance looks like neither the end of the beginning nor the beginning of the end of the team’s run.
So enjoy another round of October baseball, Astros fans. Savor every moment. In the long and mostly painful history of Houston professional sports, perhaps no team has ever been this good for this long. The Astros have been so consistent in the last half decade that winning another division title in 2021 doesn’t seem like a major accomplishment. It is, of course, but the fact that the Astros making the playoffs no longer feels like a big deal is the ultimate affirmation of the job team owner Jim Crane has done in remaking the franchise since buying it ten years ago.
Crane purchased a mess, then tore it apart and rebuilt it from the ground up. That he remained committed to his original blueprint in those early years, as losses piled up and Minute Maid Park emptied out, says plenty about his resolve. The Astros lost 107 and 111 games in 2012 and 2013, Crane’s first two seasons as owner; they improved slightly to 92 losses in 2014, then went 86–76 and made the playoffs in 2015. With energetic young stars like José Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Springer, they were as entertaining as they were good. From there, the Astros haven’t looked back, qualifying for the MLB playoffs in all but one year since. They’ve won 605 regular season games over that stretch, second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Crane’s method could be a blueprint for every other professional sports owner—and it ain’t rocket science. He hired a hard-working, competitive staff and allowed the people in the Astros front office to do their jobs. Crane keeps tabs on franchise decisions, but he usually leaves the granular details to the experts. (He did insist Luhnow trade for for Verlander in 2017 and Zack Greinke in 2019.) His leadership style has worked, as Houston keeps winning, relentlessly and consistently, including this season’s 95–67 campaign. Over the past five seasons, the Astros have won sixteen more regular-season games than any other American League club and almost twice as many postseason games.
The Astros opened a best-of-five series against the Chicago White Sox with a 6–1 win yesterday. If Houston takes the series, the Astros will qualify for the American League Championship Series for the fifth straight year. If they win that and make it back to the World Series, it’ll be Houston’s third in five seasons.
Plenty of people wondered if this team would continue to win after the 2019 report that they’d been caught electronically stealing signs during their 2017 sprint to the World Series championship—with rumors that the franchise’s rule-breaking continued in 2018 and 2019 as well. In response to the scandal, Crane fired his manager (Hinch) and general manager (Luhnow) and replaced them with Dusty Baker and James Click, respectively.
While the fallout over the cheating controversy has resulted in opposing pitchers’ buzzing fastballs close to Houston batters’ heads and rival crowds serenading the Astros with boos, the results have not changed. The Astros had a plus-205 run differential this season, second to Tampa Bay’s 206 in the American League. They led the major leagues with 863 runs scored, and the Astros’ pitching staff clocked in with the seventh-lowest earned run average (3.76).
At a recent press conference, Baker praised his players’ ability to maintain their focus. “Everything this team has been through: highs, lows, ups, downs, ins, outs,” the manager said. “We’ve lost some. They just keep on stepping. They expect to win. I don’t hear them doing a bunch of talking. They just go out and play. These kind of guys I like to be around, because talk is cheap. You’ve just got to play.”
What’s perhaps surprising about the Astros’ 2021 success is that this season had all the makings of a transition year, the type of campaign a ball club can write off while rebuilding the roster to compete for future glory. But a new generation of Astros players immediately stepped in as high-level contributors, capable of playing winning baseball and competing for that glory right now. Outfielders Yordan Álvarez (33 homers) and Kyle Tucker (30 homers), along with right-handed rookie pitcher Luis Garcia (3.30 ERA, 155 innings) are just 24 years old. With veteran pitcher Greinke’s contract expiring after the playoffs, next year’s projected starting rotation has just one pitcher in his thirties: number five starter Jake Odorizzi, 31.
For all their success, the Astros are still young. Third baseman Alex Bregman is 27; number one starter Lance McCullers Jr. is 28. And while the Astros have depleted their farm system with trade deadline deals in recent years, there’s significant talent at the top, with shortstop/outfielder Pedro Leon, right-hander Hunter Brown, and catcher Korey Lee expected to make the jump from the minor leagues in 2022.
Plus, with Verlander and Greinke likely to leave the team in free agency, the two pitchers’ $65 million in combined salary will give Click room to upgrade his roster in other areas. Plenty of that flexibility depends on whether the club re-signs free agent shortstop Carlos Correa, who is expected to get a deal worth around $350 million over ten years. “It’s been an unbelievable journey, honestly,” Correa said. “We’ve grown together as a team in that clubhouse. We’ve gotten better together. It’s a reason why we accomplished so much in this sport and why we’re in the playoffs this year again. … I think we’re built for a championship, and we’ve just got to take care of business for us to accomplish that.”
Baker’s return also seems in doubt. He has said he’d like to return, but the franchise’s decision to allow him to continue this late into the season without offering an extension could be an indication the Astros are considering a change.
There’ll be plenty of time for those questions after the season. At a pep rally Tuesday outside city hall, Crane asked the crowd: “The question is: can we win it all?”
He answered himself: “Absolutely.”
Don’t bet against them.