Just when it seemed the clock might have finally struck midnight on the Houston Astros—after all the postseason success and wild dugout celebrations and championship banners raised at Minute Maid Park—their season may have been saved by a utility infielder named Mauricio Dubón.
The Astros acquired Dubón from the San Francisco Giants early last season, at a time when Houston’s roster lacked depth and some of the franchise’s veterans were attempting to play through injuries. The Astros were thrilled to get Dubón, who can fill positions all over the diamond. He began this season with a .244 career batting average and a reputation as a good teammate who would accept any role.
Houston envisioned Dubón as a capable fill-in who could step up when other players went down; there were no plans for him to become an everyday starter. But when Astros superstar second baseman José Altuve suffered a broken right thumb in the World Baseball Classic, Dubón slid right into the spotlight and reeled off a 19-game hitting streak. His play this season has resembled an excellent impression of, well, José Altuve.
The Astros also opened the season without outfielder Michael Brantley, who was still recovering from shoulder surgery. No problem there either. Rookie Corey Julks made his major league debut in the second game of the season, and within a week he’d become a hitting machine. Just this Sunday afternoon, he came off the bench in the ninth inning and singled in the go-ahead run to complete a three-game road sweep of the Atlanta Braves.
Julks could be the Astros’ feel-good story of 2023—a local kid from Clear Brook High School and the University of Houston getting a chance to shine after spending five mostly anonymous seasons in the minor leagues. The Astros, who left Julks unprotected in last winter’s Rule 5 draft of minor league players, can’t say they knew he was capable of this, but neither can the 29 organizations that chose not to pluck Julks from the Astros’ farm system.
Oh, and there’s veteran reliever Phil Maton, who didn’t make Houston’s 2022 postseason roster because he broke his hand punching a locker. He did this after surrendering a hit to—wait for it—his brother Nick, then an outfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies. Sometimes known as “Spin Rate” for a wicked curveball that made new-age front offices swoon, Phil Maton has rediscovered his number one pitch and made one of baseball’s best bullpens even deeper.
This is how the Houston Astros, baseball’s most successful team over the last six seasons, remains at the top of the American League West division year after year. The team hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2016, and it’s made it to the World Series four times since then, winning it all in 2017 and 2022.
Yet when they got off to a slow start this season, losing six of their first nine games, it felt logical to view the Astros’ swoon as the beginning of the end for their run of dominance. Were they staring down the barrel at the end of a dynasty?
This happens to every great team—if the franchise attempts to keep all its stars, then the front office execs will wake up one day with a bloated payroll and a team filled with over-the-hill (and overpaid) veterans. If the organization tries to keep its payroll in check by allowing one prominent player after another to depart via free agency, then eventually they slide out of contention because they’ve let so much talent walk out of the clubhouse.
The Astros have already defied the pro sports life cycle by continuing to win despite allowing Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, George Springer, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and other key contributors to sign elsewhere. Last season, Houston won 100 games for the fourth time in 5 seasons, a total the team had only reached once in its first 55 seasons. More impressive is that they accomplished that (and won the World Series) with MLB’s eighth-highest payroll.
That’s because the rookie shortstop who stepped up to replace Carlos Correa, after the all-star free agent signed with the Minnesota Twins, exceeded all expectations. By the end of last season, Jeremy Peña had become the first rookie position player in history to be named Most Valuable Player of both the American League Championship Series and the World Series. Bryan Abreu also emerged last year, rising from a reliable but unspectacular middle reliever to the Astros’ most dominant reliever. Rookie pitcher Hunter Brown was nearly unhittable after getting called up to the majors late last season.
Change has been constant in Houston. Altuve and starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. are the only Astros who have been with the club since 2015. But as the names and faces have changed, the Astros haven’t skipped a beat. With an average age of 28.5 years old, Houston’s lineup isn’t weighed down by aging stars, and most of the team’s key players are at least two seasons from free agency. The Astros’ two best players, Yordan Álvarez and Kyle Tucker, are 25 and 26, respectively. None of the pitchers in Houston’s starting rotation have turned 30.
But this season has been a test. The team did not have Altuve, Brantley, or McCullers on Opening Day. Third baseman Alex Bregman and Peña got off to poor starts, and Álvarez has been sidelined with a sore neck. Houston’s starting pitchers—baseball’s best in 2022—looked less dominant than they had the year before.
Was allowing Justin Verlander to leave in free agency after last season the Jenga piece that brought the whole house down? He won the 2022 American League Cy Young Award, then signed a two-year, $86.7 million contract to pitch for the New York Mets.
But after that 3–6 beginning to this season, the Astros have gotten back on track, relying on a cast of previously unheralded players, where each victory seems to put a new hero in the spotlight. Dubón admits he was lost last year after joining the Astros. He’d attempted to impress his new team by hitting home runs—even though he’d only managed to belt fifteen homers in four-plus seasons with the Giants. He credited a series of heart-to-heart talks with Álvarez with helping him rediscover his approach to hitting. “It’s fun to talk hitting with a guy like that instead of looking at a computer to see what’s wrong,” Dubón told the Athletic.
Or, as Astros bench coach Joe Estrada said: “He’s finally found something that works and a voice that is helping him and he feels comfortable leaning on. . . . In the dugout during the game, [Álvarez] is one of those guys that you want to go up to and talk about hitting. He has a way of slowing the game down that is hard to teach, but has a way of doing it that he is not afraid to share thoughts or ideas.”
Dubón: “I haven’t changed my swing. I haven’t changed anything, it’s just a new mindset. Pick a pitch, go with a plan. If you’re going to die, die with a plan.”
Julks has learned a lesson or two since the Astros made him the 241st pick of the 2017 draft. His breakout came last season, when he hit 31 home runs for the Triple-A Sugar Land Space Cowboys. Then, during spring training this year, Julks beat out a number of other outfielders vying to step in for the injured Brantley. Julks’s patience—a quality Baker covets in young players—and plate discipline have helped him become an immediate success.
“I told him day one when he got here that you have to believe you belong right away,” Bregman told reporters. “A lot of guys come up, and they kind of tiptoe around and try to feel their way through things, but not on this team. We try to make sure everyone who comes up and is making a debut is confident in their abilities, believes in what got them here, and believes in themselves that they belong. I think he’s done a really good job of that.”
There have been other surprises. Jake Meyers has earned the centerfield job after coaches convinced him to add a leg kick into his hitting mechanics. Their thinking was that he occasionally overthinks things, and the leg movement would force him to react and trust his athletic ability. These are the small victories that often go unnoticed, a tribute to the competence and attention to detail throughout the Astros organization. Sports dynasties do not survive otherwise.
The Astros have won ten of fifteen games since their 3–6 start, and while some of the names and faces in navy and orange have changed, the results have not. “They’re good. They’re really good,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton said this month after his team lost two of three to the Astros. “They defend. They hit. They’re deep. I mean, one of the best players in baseball didn’t play today in the lineup in Álvarez and their starting pitching is legit. Again, that’s why you win the World Series.”