HOUSTON -- The Astros, along with the Red Sox and Yankees, are one of the three best teams in baseball, which should make the American League playoffs must-see TV this year. The Astros dispatched both in the 2017 playoffs before the Red Sox turned the tables and beat Houston in five games in last year's American League Championship Series.
With a talented and deep lineup, two top-five AL Cy Young Award finishers from last year anchoring their rotation, and a veteran bullpen, the Astros are poised to make a serious run at their second World Series title in the past three seasons. Their path to a championship will likely go through the Red Sox and Yankees once again, and Houston is built for the challenge.
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It was only five years ago the Astros were coming off a 111-loss season -- their third consecutive 100-loss campaign -- and were seemingly playing in a different league than the Red Sox and Yankees. Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow stuck with his plan and rebuilt the farm system and slowly strengthened the big league club into the behemoth it is today.
The Astros have had four consecutive winning seasons, including three playoff appearances, back-to-back AL West titles (2017-18) and one World Series title. They won a club-record 103 games last year.
"When I took this job, I talked about our goal, which was to become competitive and stay competitive," Luhnow said. "We were going to develop young talent. We were going to build capabilities across scouting and player development, research and development, sports medicine, etc. We're not done accomplishing our goal, but I am pleased to report the state of our franchise is strong."
The Astros drafted well, snagging All-Stars Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Alex Bregman, and made some shrewd trades to land Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna, among others. They also spent wisely in free agency in landing Josh Reddick, Charlie Morton, Yuli Gurriel and -- earlier this offseason -- Michael Brantley and Wade Miley.
They were able to build a young and controllable core that includes Correa, McCullers, Bregman, 2017 AL Most Valuable Player Award winner José Altuve and 2017 World Series Most Valuable Player George Springer. And they did it without ravaging their farm system, which remains one of the best in baseball.
The Astros have six players on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 list, and had each of their top five Minor League affiliates make the playoffs in 2018. Pitcher Forrest Whitley (No. 7 overall by MLB Pipeline) and outfielder Kyle Tucker (No. 8) could be impact players in 2019, which is why the Astros have been reluctant to include either in a trade.
"Typically, teams that have been winning for four years like we have deplete their farm system to keep winning," Luhnow said. "We haven't done that, and we're not going to do that. We want to win for a long time. We want to win again soon, and I'm confident we have the talent to do it."
Despite losing Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, Morton, Evan Gattis and Martín Maldonado in free agency this winter, the additions of Brantley, Miley, Robinson Chirinos and Aledmys Díaz filled needs without busting the payroll.
The 2019 season is a crucial one for the Astros, considering their top four starting pitchers -- Verlander, Cole, Collin McHugh and Miley -- are all free agents after this season. They've already signed Altuve to a lucrative long-term extension, but free agency looms for Reddick, Brantley and Springer in '21, and Osuna, Correa and McCullers in '22.
Other than signing Altuve to a pair of contract extensions and inking lefty reliever Tony Sipp to a three-year deal prior to the 2016 season, Luhnow has been reluctant to give extensions. It is important to note the club tried to extend several players to team-friendly deals early in their careers, including Springer (former top prospect Jon Singleton took a five-year, $10 million deal).
The Altuve contract -- he signed a five-year, $151 million extension last year -- was the first big step in keeping the team's nucleus together into the next decade. How the club approaches the Verlander and Cole free agency -- and Springer and Correa down the road -- could carve a new path for the franchise.
As they head into 2019, the Astros are about as complete as any team in the Major Leagues. Sure, there are questions at the back of the rotation and at a couple of offensive spots, but those can be addressed with in-season trades. If they can avoid the injuries to key players that plagued them last year, the Astros should roll into October as a force to be reckoned with once again.
"We are built to win for the foreseeable future," Luhnow said.