HOUSTON -- The Astros’ surprising run to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, which came on the heels of a regular season in which they went 29-31 and saw their pitching staff devastated by injuries, served as a reminder that Houston’s window of championship contention remains wide open.
Here are five questions the Astros must answer as they dive into the offseason:
1. Will the Astros re-sign George Springer, Michael Brantley or Josh Reddick?
In short, no. The Astros’ outfield figures to look much different next year with perhaps all three of their starters -- Kyle Tucker and Brantley split time between outfield and designated hitter -- gone in 2021. The Astros will almost certainly have no interest in bringing back Reddick, whose signing to a four-year, $52 million deal prior to the '17 season was one of the last pieces to their championship puzzle. Reddick will probably have to look for a backup job elsewhere in ’21.
Springer and Brantley, on the other hand, remain elite players who will have suitors in free agency. Springer, 31, is hitting free agency for the first time and is one of the biggest names on the market this year. How much does he desire to leave Houston -- perhaps return to the East Coast -- and get as far away from the stigma of the sign-stealing scandal that persists in Houston? And how much does owner Jim Crane open his wallet to keep him? The Astros issued a qualifying offer to Springer on Sunday.
Brantley, 33, remains one of the best pure hitters in the game and could return for much less than Springer. Putting Brantley and Tucker at the corner-outfield spots and saving money by letting Springer walk could enable the Astros to spend at other spots while remaining competitive. It’s probably hard to envision the Astros re-signing both, and Brantley is probably the most likely to sign because of the price tag.
We know that Crane wants to win and will feel compelled to keep the nucleus of the club together, but Springer may want the kind of money that will price out the Astros. Seeing Springer in another uniform would be tough to stomach for Houston fans.
2. What’s the plan if Springer leaves?
The Astros don’t have any outfield prospects who will be ready to take over as starters if Springer leaves. Speedster Myles Straw and Chas McCormick, who was on the roster for the Wild Card Series but has yet to see any big league time, will push for playing time next year, but they aren’t yet starters on a contending club.
That brings us to free agency, where -- after Springer and Brantley -- Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Red Sox and Marcell Ozuna of the Braves will be available. Ozuna had a huge year for the Braves, but he is a defensive liability. And the Astros wouldn’t be able to DH him, either, with Yordan Alvarez back next year. Bradley had a solid year on offense (.814 OPS) and brings a Gold Glove Award in center field, but he would be a downgrade from Springer.
You also have to wonder whether the Astros will push to play Alvarez more in the outfield next year after he had surgery on both knees to fix a lingering problem that kept him at DH.
3. How will the Astros shore up their bullpen?
With closer Roberto Osuna and fellow right-handers Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock headed for free agency, the Astros will be looking to retool the bullpen. The Astros will return Ryan Pressly, who took over as closer for Osuna, and veteran sidearmer Joe Smith, who is under contract for 2021 after opting out of the ’20 season. Several young arms emerged this year, including Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, Andre Scrubb and Brooks Raley, but Houston will be in the market for relief help. Among the bigger names on the free-agent market are A’s closer Liam Hendriks, White Sox closer Alex Colomé and Blake Treinen, who was an All-Star with the A's in '18 and played a key role in the Dodgers' playoff bullpen last season.
4. Will general manager James Click make any changes in the front office?
Click was hired right before the start of Spring Training, which lasted only about three weeks before the sport was shut down because of the coronavirus. He inherited the same baseball operations department that worked under former general manager Jeff Luhnow, so it only stands to reason Click will eventually make some changes.
The Astros laid off a number of employees from all areas of their organization in the final week of October, including special assistant to the GM/player personnel Kevin Goldstein, who was hired by Luhnow in 2012 and was the team’s pro scouting director until '17.
5. Is it time to explore an extension for shortstop Carlos Correa?
Correa will be a free agent after the 2021 season at 27 years old. His career has been a mixed bag offensively, in large part because of injuries, but there’s no denying he’s one of the best shortstops in baseball. He’s a finalist for the Gold Glove Award in the AL (and he should win it) and he is coming off a terrific postseason in which he hit .362/.455/.766 with six homers and 17 RBIs in 13 games.
The Astros locked up second baseman Jose Altuve in 2018 and third baseman Alex Bregman in '19 to big contract extensions, and they will have the contracts of Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke coming off the books in ’22. The only big contracts they currently have committed to in ’22 are Altuve ($29 million) and Bregman ($13 million), so there figures to be some flexibility if they want to try and keep Correa in a Houston uniform long-term.