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2019 AL West Preview: Houston Astros, prospects and 2021 outlook

The Astros’ window might be closing right as the Mariners’ is (hopefully) opening

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

With an extremely young core, a strong farm system, and an apparent ability to CPAP-machine any pitcher into a fire-breathing reliever, the Astros have everything they need to stay a perennial contender in the American League West. The Mariners have set their sights on 2021 for the team to challenge their AL West rivals. Let’s gaze into our crystal balls to see just how strong the Astros teams of the future might be during that window.

Projected Roster: (projected prospects in italics)

Houston Astros Projected 2021 Roster

Position Player Age Contract
Position Player Age Contract
C Garrett Stubbs 28 --
1B A.J. Reed 28 Arbitration Year 2
2B José Altuve 31 $29M
SS Carlos Correa 26 Arbitration Year 3
3B Alex Bregman 27 Arbitration Year 2
RF Kyle Tucker 24 Arbitration Year 2
CF Derek Fisher 27 Arbitration Year 1
LF Yordan Álvarez 23 --
DH Tyler White 30 Arbitration Year 2
SP Lance McCullers 27 Arbitration Year 4
SP Josh James 28 --
SP Framber Valdez 27 --
SP Forrest Whitley 23 --
SP Cionel Perez 25 --
SP J.B. Bukauskas 24 --
RP Roberto Osuna 26 Arbitration Year 4
RP Chris Devenski 30 Arbitration Year 3
RP Reymin Guduan 29 Arbitration Year 1
RP Francis Martes 25 Arbitration Year 1
RP Dean Deetz 27 --

Unsurprisingly, the Astros have very little payroll committed for the 2021 season. José Altuve is the only player currently under contract, with his seven-year extension and escalation paying him $29 million a year beginning in 2020. What’s more surprising is the names who aren’t under contract. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Collin McHugh all become free agents after 2019, and George Springer, Josh Reddick, and Michael Brantley can walk a year later. Fortunately, the strength of the Astros farm system—pitching and outfield—line up with these holes that will be created.

The Astros infield will continue to be a strength in 2021—and a source of potential long-term extensions. Carlos Correa will be in his final year of arbitration at the young age of 26 and Alex Bregman will be entering his second year of arbitration. Both of them are likely candidates for massive extensions within the next few years. If they can lock up both of them to team-friendly extensions, the Astros will have so much more flexibility to fill the holes created by their impending free agent exodus.

In Kyle Tucker and Derek Fisher, the Astros have two near-MLB-ready outfielders to replace Springer and Reddick if they choose to let them walk. But center field might be a potential hole they’ll need to fill as neither outfield prospect is a true center fielder. Springer might be an extension candidate along with their two superstar infielders but that’s a lot of money they’d have to commit to in the next few years. First base also poses a potential problem for the Astros as they haven’t really figured out if they’re going to commit to A.J. Reed for the long haul. Tyler White could potentially move there from designated hitter. They could also stick the position-less Yordan Álvarez there to get his potent bat into the lineup and his glove out of the outfield.

The biggest hole in this Astros team of the future is—as it is in our present assessment of the team—behind the dish. If the Astros want a homegrown catching superstar for the near-ish future, they are going to have to start drafting and developing a raft of college catchers. The only catching prospect currently listed in the Astros top prospect lists is senior sign 8th-rounder Garrett Stubbs, whose profile leans heavily on words like “high character” and “leadership.” Otherwise, they could trade for a backstop, although they balked at the price set by the Marlins for J.T. Realmuto this off-season. They could also throw money at a free agent like Yasmani Grandal, although that would limit them somewhat in re-signing their infield core.

By 2021, Lance McCullers should be fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery. He’ll be joined by the best pitching prospect in baseball, Forrest Whitley. Two other strong pitching prospects, J.B. Bukauskas and Cionel Pérez, should have their major league careers kicked off by then too. We also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Astros re-sign one or more of Verlander, Cole, or McHugh just to solidify their rotation while their prospects establish themselves, although as shown with Dallas Keuchel, the Astros have no problem with letting older, high-ticket players walk rather than commit to them on long-term deals.

While the Astros and Mariners are currently neck-and-neck in payroll, by 2021 the Astros are currently slated to be 24th in payroll, giving them lots of financial flexibility to lock up their young core. The Astros like to paint themselves as a small-market team, but Houston is seventh in market size among the Big Four sports and 11th in team value in MLB, and their owner is worth a solid $2 BILLION, provided he doesn’t have to spend some of that on his ex-wife’s legal fees if she decides to destroy any more children’s birthday parties. There’s plenty of money in the banana stand; the question is if Houston will spend in player extensions and free agency rather than depend on their above-average player development and depend on being able to replace a Carlos Correa or Alex Bregman internally. While the Astros have set the standard in the use of analytics and advanced technology and been able to improve every pitcher who crosses their doorstep, other teams have now caught on to the analytics revolution, narrowing the Astros’ competitive advantage. Consistent finishes at or near the top of baseball will also crowd the Astros out of top-tier talent in the draft in coming years. Even with strong internal development, as the Cardinals of recent years show, no dynasty can rule forever. The Astros are a long way from being the Astr-lols of years past, but may find themselves in 2021 and beyond facing down a division rival every bit as talented, young, and hungry as they were five years ago. Let’s hope so.