HOUSTON -- Instead of participating in what would have been World Series media day at Minute Maid Park had the Astros found a way to beat the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch met with the media on Monday to set the stage for what figures to be an interesting offseason.
The Astros, who won the World Series in 2017 and were eliminated in five games in the ALCS by the Red Sox last week, will return a solid core that should make them once again contenders to win the AL pennant in 2019, but several key players from their championship run will be facing free agency.
"It's going to be interesting to see how this all plays out and whether any one of them comes back or moves," Hinch said.
The Astros' list of free agents is deep: starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, infielder/outfielder Marwin Gonzalez, reliever Tony Sipp, designated hitter Evan Gattis and catchers Martin Maldonado and Brian McCann, who has a $15 million option for 2019 that won't be exercised.
All of those players, with the exception of Maldonado and Sipp, were key members of the team's championship run in 2017, and Keuchel and Gonzalez are the two longest tenured members of the Astros not named Jose Altuve. Luhnow said the front office will have extensive meetings this week and next week to discuss their own free agents and those on other teams.
"There's no doubt with two of our rotation members going into free agency we're going to have to replace them," he said. "We're going to look externally, we're going to look at that group itself and we're going to look internally and try and figure it out. The starting rotation was a huge strength of our team this year, and we want it to be the strength of our team next year. We've got the top two guys coming back, and they're going to be pretty solid and ready to go. The question is how we fill out the rest of the rotation."
It's hard to envision the Astros re-signing Keuchel, and the 30-year-old lefty hinted Thursday he was going to test free agency. Morton, hampered by a shoulder injury on the heels of a 15-win season, could retire -- but he has said he wants to be an Astro if he keeps playing. Gonzalez will be the best utility player on the free-agent market and command a big contract.
With Maldonado and McCann potentially both gone next year, the Astros don't have catching depth beyond Max Stassi and Triple-A catcher Garrett Stubbs. Luhnow said starting pitching and catching will be a priority this offseason. Among the catchers who are free agents are Yasmani Grandal, Jonathan Lucroy, Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters.
"We need to have three or four more catchers we can rely on that can catch this pitching staff," Luhnow said. "They'll be working for a manager who was a catcher and the demands are pretty high for our catchers. It's definitely an area of focus for us this offseason, no question."
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will anchor the rotation next year, but there are questions about the health of Lance McCullers Starter-turned relievers Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock are candidates for the rotation, along with rookies Josh James and Framber Valdez, and top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley, who's dominating in the Arizona Fall League.
"This is a championship-caliber team, and we expect to have a championship-caliber rotation," Luhnow said. "We'll have to look very closely at our own free agents and other team's free agents to see how we round out that rotation."
Meanwhile, the team acknowledged Saturday that Altuve had knee surgery the day after the season ended, but Luhnow wouldn't divulge if any other players are headed for medical procedures. McCullers hinted Thursday he might have surgery at some point soon after pitching through a forearm strain that forced him to miss six weeks in August and September.
Luhnow said all players underwent exit physicals and "a number" of them have follow-up appointments with specialists to determine any possible medical courses of action. Shortstop Carlos Correa played through a lower back injury in the second half of the season, and outfielder George Springer was plagued by a thumb injury.
"In some cases, it's going to be rest. And in some cases, it might be something more than that," Luhnow said. "Specifically, I can't comment on any particular player except for Jose, because we've announced he's had his surgery and he will be recuperating."
Luhnow said the entire coaching staff was under contract for next season and he wants the staff to return intact but added the team has gotten a lot of permission requests from other teams to interview some of its coaches. Bench coach Joe Espada has interviewed for several managerial openings this month, including the Angels job that went to Brad Ausmus.