Is 2024 the End of the Astros as We Know Them?

Is 2024 the End of the Astros as We Know Them?


Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The other day I was just noodling around on the site, looking for ideas, when I noticed something interesting on the RosterResource payroll breakdown page. This coming season, the Houston Astros are at $222 million in payroll commitments, which brings them to $237 million and change against the competitive balance tax — just over by a couple hundred thousand.

Next season, Houston has just $65 million committed to the major league payroll. Now, actually clicking through to the team page, you realize that’s a little misleading: Depending on workload, both Justin Verlander and Ryan Pressly can activate lucrative options, and Framber Valdez and Kyle Tucker will both enter their third year of arbitration. I do not want to conceive of a scenario in which either Valdez or Tucker gets non-tendered; no doubt it would be horrifying. So clearly the Astros will be well into the hundreds of millions in 2025 no matter what they do.

But upon clicking through, I came to a horrifying realization: Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman will both be free agents after the season. Which just doesn’t seem possible. I remember Bregman’s freshman year in college, and Altuve playing on that terrible contract that the Astros ripped up in order to sign him through what seemed like the end of time. Well, guess what? The end of time is nigh.

I think of the past nine years for the Astros as one unbroken run of success, starting with 2015. That was not quite the fully developed juggernaut that would follow, but 2015 was the rookie year of both Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr., A.J. Hinch’s first year as manager, Dallas Keuchel’s Cy Young season, and — most importantly — Houston’s first winning season since 2008 and first playoff appearance since 2005.

Then in 2017, the Astros started their current run of seven straight trips to the ALCS, including four pennants and two World Series titles. When a team goes on a streak like that… well, actually, it doesn’t happen frequently enough for us to draw conclusions. I’ll rephrase. When a team has a decade-long run of making the playoffs almost every year, it’s understandable to assume that it’s the same team winning all those games every season. Obviously, that’s not the case.

Particularly in the free agency era, players come and go. Organizations that succeed over a long period of time don’t build one good roster. They build several, evolving from one core to the next as veterans age out and prospects come up. That’s a very, very difficult thing to do, especially without any hiccups in the road.

The best recent comparison I can think of to the Astros is the Boston Red Sox, who won titles in 2004, 2007, and 2013. We think of that as being one unified run, because of how constant David Ortiz was and how annoying Boston became as a presence in national pop culture. Had the sign-stealing scandal not left a lasting blemish on the team’s reputation, the Astros’ run could’ve touched off a similar period of cultural hegemony. I regret that this did not happen for Houston, that the zeitgeist did not replace Ben Affleck with Bun B and Dunkin Donuts with Kolache Factory. James Harden’s Rockets finally beat the Warriors and win an NBA title. Manchester by the Sea and CODA are still Oscar-winning movies, but they’re about shrimpers on the Gulf Coast. Congress doubles funding for NASA. We would all have been better off. But I digress.

Anyway, Ortiz is the only player from the 2004 Red Sox who was still around in 2013, but a new generation of stars came in around him and gradually replaced the old ones. The same thing happened in Houston, with Altuve as a 1:4 scale replica of Big Papi and Bregman as an exact clone of Dustin Pedroia.

Consider the Dodgers, who have now made the playoffs 10 years running. The only player from the 2014 Dodgers who’s currently under contract with the team is Miguel Rojas. And he was a reserve on that team, got traded away, spent almost a decade in Miami, where he missed all the fun stuff, and only made his way back to Los Angeles last year. You know how long ago 2014 was? Hanley Ramirez and Josh Beckett were on that Dodgers team. That’s basically closer to Jim Gilliam and Ralph Branca than it is to Shohei Ohtani.

But eventually, the churn ends. To paraphrase that masterpiece of the sports movie genre, Beerfest: The time is approaching when the Astros will have to either scheiße, or get off the crapper.

Forthcoming Astros Departures by Year

Year
Players Out of Contract

2025
Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Kendall Graveman

2026
Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, José Abreu, Kyle Tucker, Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Victor Caratini, José Urquidy

2027
Lance McCullers Jr., Mauricio Dubón, Luis Garcia, Bryan Abreu, Chas McCormick

Not every one of these decisions is going to be a heartbreaker; one imagines the Astros will be happy to be rid of José Abreu when the time comes, and anyone who’s worrying about losing Dubón three years from now needs to eat more fiber and drink more water. But Altuve is the face of the franchise and will be entering his age-35 season when his contract is up. Bregman and Valdez will be on the wrong side of 30, and with a recent track record of vacillating between absolute superstardom and merely being pretty good.

Here it’s useful to remember that the Astros have not only turned over their roster repeatedly, they’ve done the same with their leadership. They’re on their third manager and third front office since this run started. Original GM Jeff Luhnow kept the ball rolling by being pretty ruthless and unsentimental (in addition to either perpetrating or condoning not only the banging scheme but a whole bunch of other morally questionable stuff besides). He was followed by James Click, who kept the ship on course before his ouster at the end of the 2022 season.

But since Click’s departure, the Astros have been run by a third GM, Dana Brown, overseen closely by team owner Jim Crane-Wearing-Jeff Bagwell-Like-A-Backpack. The same Bagwell who, after a team built by Luhnow and Click won the World Series in 2022, voiced a criticism of (waggles fingers menacingly) “analytics” that the authors of Fire Joe Morgan would’ve been bored by in 2009.

This leadership group faces additional challenges: Most pressingly, that the Rangers are both good and well-funded at the same time for the first time since 2016. Outrunning the bear is harder now than it was then.

Over the next 10 to 24 months, the Astros will have to decide the fate of four absolutely crucial players: Altuve, Bregman, Valdez, and Tucker. They’ll probably have to replace Verlander and Pressly as well. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer in terms of sentimentality (though it’d be a shame to see Altuve finish his career in another uniform over a petty fallout), or even the value of empirics. The whole point is to make the decision that puts the Astros in the best position to win.

It’s snuck up on us, but 2024 might actually be the last hurrah for this iteration of the Astros.



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