5 big questions facing Astros this offseason

November 8th, 2021

HOUSTON -- After falling in the World Series for the second time in three seasons in 2021, the Astros face an offseason that could see them lose franchise icon and 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner in free agency. But that’s only the beginning of the uncertainty surrounding Houston this winter.

Here are five questions facing the Astros this offseason:

1. Who will play shortstop in 2022?
With Correa now a free agent, who will take his place if he doesn’t re-sign? The Astros really have two options here: acquire an experienced shortstop or give the job to prospect Jeremy Peña.

Considering the Astros plan on contending for another American League West title in 2022, it’s likely that they would try to sign another one of the free-agent shortstops on the market, which includes Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Marcus Semien. Any of them would presumably be cheaper than Correa, with Story and Semien the mostly likely targets.

Astros owner Jim Crane said Friday that he hasn’t ruled out re-signing Correa, but the latest offer of a five-year, $160 million deal, as reported by KRIV-TV in Houston, probably won’t get Correa’s attention.

So what about Peña? Houston’s No. 4 prospect had left wrist surgery in April and missed four months of the season, returning on Aug. 10. He’s considered a Major League-ready defensive player and he crushed the ball with Triple-A Sugar Land in September, slashing .347/.410/.716 with nine homers and 18 RBIs in 24 games.

2. What’s the plan in center field?
A year ago, the Astros were wondering how they were going to replace George Springer in center after he signed a free-agent deal with the Blue Jays. The Astros rolled the dice with speedy Myles Straw, who made progress at the plate before he was traded to Cleveland in July for reliever Phil Maton.

That gave the job to , who suffered a left wrist injury that opened the door for rookie . Both wound up splitting time in center field, with mixed results at the plate, as they are top-notch defenders who have some power. They’ll compete for the job in 2022, with in the mix as well.

Then there’s the Astros' No. 2 prospect, Pedro Leon. Signed out of Cuba for $4 million in January, Leon played mostly shortstop in the Minor Leagues after being touted as a center fielder. He had just arrived in Triple-A when he broke his left pinkie finger sliding into a base in July and missed two months. The Astros sent him to the Arizona Fall League this year to make up for lost time, but he’s likely going to start next year at Triple-A.

3. Is there a need for another ace pitcher?
In short, yes. The Astros were dire straits when right-hander suffered a strained forearm in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, though Houston beat the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series and took the Braves to six games in the World Series with a rotation headlined by Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy.

McCullers will have recovered by next year and Valdez, Garcia and Urquidy will be back, each with World Series experience under their belts. Started-turned-reliever Cristian Javier figures to return to the rotation in the spring, while Jake Odorizzi is coming off an up-and-down debut season with the Astros.

But if the Astros plan to contend, they could use another top-line starter. Whether that means re-signing Verlander or exploring the free-agent market (Robbie Ray, Max Scherzer), Houston would like another arm to pair with McCullers atop its rotation. If the Astros had another healthy front-end starter in the postseason, they would have matched up better with Atlanta.

4. How will the departure of Brent Strom affect the pitching staff?
One of the biggest reasons why the Astros have had so much success on the mound in recent years is Strom, who announced last week he was leaving the club after eight seasons as pitching coach. The Astros made the playoffs six times in those eight years, posting the fourth-most strikeouts and fifth-best ERA in baseball in that span.

Strom embraced analytics while using his vast experience to take pitchers like Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to the next level, salvaging the careers of hurlers like Will Harris and Collin McHugh in the process. He had Cy Young winners in Keuchel (2015) and Verlander (2019). Pitching coach Josh Miller and assistant pitching coach Bill Murphy worked closely under Strom and will lead the staff going forward, but Strom’s impact was huge.

5. With money to spend, where will it go?
With the contracts of Verlander ($33 million in 2021), Zack Greinke ($24.7 million) and Correa ($10 million) coming off the books, the Astros will have money to spend in free agency. Crane said Friday that the club will once again have one of the highest payrolls in the league in 2022.

“The budget will be at the top of baseball,” he said.

According to Spotrac, the Astros’ payroll of $221 million in 2020 (prorated for 60 games) exceeded the luxury tax threshold of $208 million. Houston’s $206 million payroll in 2021 was just under the threshold of $210 million

“If we have to make a move to compete and close out something, we’ve always done that,” Crane said. “Our goal is to win championships, put the best team we can put on the field every single year and be competitive.”