This new baseball season begins Thursday with a familiar reality check for fans in the Lone Star State: the Houston Astros are still miles ahead of the Texas Rangers and a reasonable bet to play in the World Series for the fourth time in six seasons.
The Rangers have made moves to close the gap, after finishing 35 games behind the Astros last season. The Rangers can do better than that this year, but a realistic goal for them in 2022 is simply to avoid a third consecutive last-place finish in the AL West, not to catch up to Houston. For at least another season or two, the song will remain the same.
This isn’t what Rangers fans were hoping for after an off-season in which their team dropped more than half a billion dollars in free-agent contracts—more than three times what any other team spent—and touted a minor league system the organization believes will deliver waves of talent over the next two years.
With a beautiful three-year-old ballpark offering creature comforts that Rangers fans never had before and second-year general manager Chris Young overseeing a reorganization of baseball operations, baseball lovers in the Metroplex have every reason to feel optimistic. But the Rangers still have work to do.
At some point in the future—possibly in 2023, more likely 2024—there’s a chance that the balance of power will shift toward North Texas. If the Astros remain a perennial American League playoff contender, there’s even a chance that the Rangers could one day face Houston in the kind of high-stakes September games that decide playoff berths and captivate the entire state.
This was the goal nine years ago, when the Astros exited the National League and joined the same division as the Rangers. Having both Texas teams in one league eliminated the possibility of a Rangers-Astros World Series, but it offered the possibility of a consistent in-state rivalry that might elevate baseball in the hearts and minds of fans.
Nothing in sports can match the drama of Major League Baseball when the stakes are high and the intensity cranked up. At its best, it’s the conversation starter in every office and saloon.
Anyway, that was the goal. In the nine seasons since, these two teams haven’t come close to delivering anything memorable. It’s hard to crank up a rivalry when one team isn’t playing for anything.
The Rangers and Astros have made the playoffs in the same year just once since Houston joined the American League. That year was 2015, and both teams lost in the divisional round (the Astros to the Kansas City Royals, the Rangers to the Toronto Blue Jays). The Rangers made the postseason again the following season, but were swept by Toronto and haven’t been back since. In four full seasons since, the Astros have averaged 30 more wins per season (102) than the Rangers (71).
As for the narrative that the Rangers have closed the gap on the Astros, that’s true—they just haven’t closed it all the way. The Rangers needed to do something head-turning to reengage their fans. Management promised to spend money to speed up the rebuild, and they did it.
As for the Astros, they did almost nothing in the off-season, unless you count losing their best player, shortstop Carlos Correa, to free agency. His departure means that rookie Jeremy Peña must step up for the Astros. The 24-year-old Peña will have big shoes to fill in the Houston infield, but replacing stars after they’ve signed with other teams for some of the richest contracts in baseball is how the Astros operate.
After the 2020 season, all-star George Springer left for Toronto, in part because the Astros believed that Kyle Tucker was ready for a more prominent role and could replace most of Springer’s production in the outfield. In previous years, when other players left for bigger paydays—Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Dallas Keuchel—the Astros had young talent ready to fill their roles.
As painful as it is to lose a foundational player like Correa, Peña has a chance to be special. “He’s going to be a superstar,” second baseman José Altuve told the Athletic. Peña will also make about $35 million less than Correa in 2022, and that payroll flexibility will allow Astros general manager James Click to fine-tune the roster—read: improve Houston’s pitching staff—during the season.
The Rangers opened their roster to an assortment of young players over the past two seasons, but it’s the Astros who have developed more young talent: Tucker, Yordan Álvarez, José Siri, plus an assortment of arms: Framber Valdez, José Urquidy, Luis Garcia, and Cristian Javier.
With right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. starting the season on the injured list and 39-year-old Justin Verlander eighteen months removed from Tommy John surgery, the Astros’ pitching rotation will probably require even more support for Houston to remain a World Series contender.
That’s where the payroll flexibility Houston gained by allowing Correa to sign with Minnesota should come in handy. One of the keys to Houston’s success in recent seasons has been the franchise’s ability to improve its roster at the trade deadline. The Astros added relievers Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna in 2018, right-hander Zack Greinke in 2019, and relievers Kendall Graveman and Phil Maton in 2021.
With Altuve signed for three more seasons in Houston and third baseman Alex Bregman for two, as long as the Astros keep making smart deals throughout the season, the best era of baseball in franchise history is likely to continue.
Meanwhile, even if the Rangers fall far short of expectations in 2022, the team is practically a lock to avoid finishing in the AL West basement for a third straight season, thanks to the Oakland A’s undergoing one of their periodic roster teardowns. Here’s how the MLB analytics site Fangraphs projects the AL West to shake out: Astros (89–73), Angels (83–79), Mariners (80–82), Rangers (75–87), A’s (70–92).
That would be a 15-game improvement for the Rangers after last year’s 60–102 finish. But the off-season brought hope to Arlington. Management promised to splurge on roster upgrades in free agency, and splurge it did, signing shortstop Corey Seager, second baseman Marcus Semien, pitcher Jon Gray, and outfielder Kole Calhoun for contracts worth a total of $581 million. (The Los Angeles Dodgers were a distant second in free-agent spending at $267.8 million).
The Rangers also made a huge upgrade at catcher by acquiring Mitch Garver from the Twins. But Texas still has holes throughout its lineup, weaknesses the franchise expects to be filled over the next two summers, as hotshot prospects like right-hander Jack Leiter and third baseman Josh Jung make their major league debuts. The Rangers will also have the third overall pick in July’s MLB draft.
For now, the Astros are still the superior ball club. They have a more complete and playoff-tested roster, proven ownership, management with more demonstrated success, and an organizational culture that allows the franchise to let Correa walk and remain confident that the team will keep winning.
Besides Houston’s trusted front office, the Astros also draw much of their steady demeanor from manager Dusty Baker, whose calm, self-assured style helps the players believe they belong in the playoffs, competing for American League championships and World Series crowns, year after year.
Despite Correa’s absence, a lineup with Altuve, Bregman, Álvarez, Tucker, Michael Brantley, and Yuli Gurriel projects to be among the best in baseball. Pressly anchors a solid bullpen, and if veteran starting pitchers like Verlander can stay healthy and McCullers returns in time to be sharp for the postseason, the Astros will be in the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.
This season, the Astros and Rangers will play each other nineteen times, but only three of those games will come in September. The last of those is September 7, and if we’re lucky, the two teams will be scoreboard-watching each other during those final three weeks.
Maybe that’s unrealistic. Maybe it’s too much optimism. But that’s what spring is about, and that’s what brings fans to support their teams every April. It’s in baseball’s DNA. Enjoy tomorrow.