At the start of November, the Houston Astros were World Series contenders, one of two MLB squads still in the hunt for a championship. Now, they’re just like every other franchise: shut down amid a league-wide lockout, pending a new collective bargaining agreement between the MLB and the players association.
And yet, the Astros have managed to stand out by virtue of their attachment to perhaps free agency’s biggest star, Carlos Correa, and more recently, by finalizing a marquee signing that defied convention. Both factors, as well as the Astros’ long-term planning, have kept the flame of fans’ hopes alive amid the long, cold lockout weeks.
A quick explainer: the operation of Major League Baseball depends on agreed-upon terms by the league and the MLB Players Association, the labor union that represents players. That set of terms, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), lasts for a period of five years, and the most recent one lapsed on December 1. At that point, nearly all operations or interactions between the league and the players halted. Such standoffs have occurred before, most recently and infamously during the 1994 and 1995 players’ strike, when the standoff lasted 232 days and led to the cancellation of hundreds of games and the entire 1994 postseason, including the World Series. Since then, CBA negotiations have been uneventful and yielded favorable terms for owners, who have been widely portrayed as the bad guys who are obstructing discussion this time.
The final meeting between the owners and players before the lockout began lasted just seven minutes, leading to speculation that the sides might remain at loggerheads through the off-season, into spring training, and possibly beyond. Since then, the league and the union have met once, last Thursday, during which time the parties discussed “noncore economic issues such as scheduling, grievance procedures, special events, and/or the drug and domestic violence policies,” according to ESPN.
With the normal off-season activity of trades and free-agent signing put on hold, fans have had more time than usual to reflect on roster construction. While the Astros appear to have a more settled lineup than many other franchises, they also still have an enormous unanswered question lingering: will Correa, the team’s All-Star shortstop, remain in Houston?
Coming off another excellent season, including a fifth consecutive ALCS appearance, the Astros will have little movement among their starting pitching rotation or position players. Franchise face José Altuve, 2021 AL batting champion Yuli Gurriel, All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman, recent Rookie of the Year outfielder Yordan Álvarez, and right fielder Kyle Tucker are all returning. Speculation has swirled about the team adding a center fielder, but the Astros’ platoon approach got the job done last season; an upgrade wouldn’t hurt but isn’t necessary. All other positions in the infield and outfield are set—except shortstop.
Correa, the Astros’ dynamic shortstop who won a 2021 Platinum Glove award as the best defensive player in the American League and who finished third in the majors with 7.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) last season, was regarded as the top free agent available before the lockout began. And since he didn’t ink a deal prior to the work stoppage, he’ll still be the biggest name on the market whenever a new CBA is signed. That suspense has kept Astros fans holding onto hope that he’ll re-sign with the team.
Heading into the off-season, Correa was positioned to land one of the most valuable contracts in MLB history, predicted to be worth upwards of $340 million over ten years. That’s beginning to look less likely. For starters, a couple of the teams that were considered likely suitors for Correa signed shortstops in the final days before the lockout. The Rangers signed Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, both natural shortstops, with a plan to move Semien to second base. Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers signed Javier Báez, who has mostly played shortstop, but could also move to second, leaving some room for the Tigers to pursue Correa.
Heading into this off-season, MLB observers expected the impending lockout to put a damper on free agency, with star players refusing to ink quick deals. That prediction couldn’t have been more wrong. In addition to the aforementioned signings, several star pitchers and a handful of other position players signed large deals, in a free-agent frenzy that electrified baseball fans.
To some degree, that spending spree set the market for Correa, especially Seager’s $325 million, ten-year contract. As the top shortstop on the market, Correa will likely expect more. But in an off-season in which shortstops were abundant and the early signings removed potential suitors from the bidding war over Correa, the star infielder may have lost negotiating leverage. The Astros and the New York Yankees could be the last two franchises in the market for a $340 million shortstop. Scott Boras, the notoriously fierce player agent, represents Correa, and it’s possible the pair decided firmly against signing before the lockout to avoid rushing into a deal, but that strategy might wind up backfiring. Additionally, MLB insider Buster Olney reported that concerns over Correa’s history of back injuries may deflate the market for his services.
While most Astros fans are surely rooting for Correa, a player who has meant so much to the team, to get every penny he deserves, the coldhearted truth is that the pre-lockout free-agency activity makes it more likely that Correa will stay in Houston. That said, it’s no secret that Correa wants the kind of eye-popping offer that MLB players of his caliber have received in recent years (and also the kind of contract that Astros management has typically tried to avoid). Meanwhile, the Yankees have never been afraid to splurge on star players. But if there’s any player the Astros would consider breaking the bank to sign, it could be a homegrown, generational talent like Correa.
As Houston seeks to keep shortstop a position of strength heading into next season, the other big story is, well, Story. Colorado Rockies infielder Trevor Story hit free agency this off-season and is in line for a large payday, though he may command less money than Correa. Of course, Story won’t arrive with the same level of comfort with the team’s culture or the same amount of fan adoration Correa has built up since winning AL Rookie of the Year with the Astros in 2015. Houston could also fill the position internally with Jeremy Peña, a highly ranked prospect in the Astros farm system who has performed well in the minors and in Dominican Republic winter ball.
There’s also the question of how a new CBA could alter teams’ strategies in free agency. Among the main sticking points between the league and the players association are structures governing the length of rookie contracts, how soon players become eligible for arbitration (to negotiate higher salaries), the league’s minimum salary, and the threshold for a luxury tax. Changes to any of these could increase owners’ costs and make them even more wary of decade-long, nine-figure deals like the one Correa seeks. In fact, four of the Astros’ young starting pitchers—Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy, and Cristian Javier—have yet to reach free agency and are in a period of pre-arbitration. If the new CBA shortens the arbitration period, which is currently set at three years, Houston could be facing costly decisions sooner rather than later. Even if the new labor agreement doesn’t wind up changing the Astros’ team-building approach, the CBA could alter how other teams act, which in turn could shift the Astros’ plans for Correa or other players.
Even amid the work stoppage, the Astros have defied convention by somehow circumventing the rules of disengagement by convincing MLB to push through the franchise’s signing of pitcher Justin Verlander. Houston fans collectively held their breath when news broke that the deal had not been finalized before the lockout, as was believed. However, just a few days later, the deal was completed. Verlander’s return brings back Cy Young–caliber pitching and a veteran level of experience to guide the young arms in the team’s rotation. Plus, the surprise timing of Verlander’s deal might signal a better relationship between the players and owners—at least in Houston—than was initially suspected. The cooperation certainly reflects a positive rapport between Astros owner Jim Crane and Verlander, and that bodes well for the rest of the franchise’s front office and players.
Regardless of the final terms of the new CBA, the Astros’ long-term vision has set the team up for success. The franchise has one of the most talented rosters in baseball, including several young players on bargain contracts. Pitcher Lance McCullers is the only Astro currently signed to a contract that extends beyond 2024. At a time when the economic framework that governs baseball is expected to change, the team has protected its flexibility while continuing to be a perennial World Series contender.