Hader the right move at right time for Houston

January 21st, 2024

The Astros didn’t make it back to the World Series last year, which would have been their fifth in an amazing run that began in 2017. It was the Rangers who won the last two games of the American League Championship Series and did that in Minute Maid Park, which happens to be the same thing that happened to the Astros in the ’19 World Series, when they fell to the Nationals. The Rangers finally rolled them, 11-4, in Game 7, before rolling right through the Series themselves. It was their time.

That doesn’t change the fact that for the past seven seasons, and seven American League Championship Series in a row, this has been the best run in franchise history for Houston. It keeps winning, never takes a step back or stops trying to get better, and just reminded everybody of that, in lights, by signing free agent to be their closer.

If Hader at 29 isn’t the best at that job in the game, he is certainly in the conversation. Though the deal has not yet been announced, sources tell MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand that the Astros and Hader have agreed to a five-year, $95 million contract that makes him one of the highest-paid relievers in history. In the process, Astros owner Jim Crane pays more for a free agent than he’s ever paid before.

But this is the business of the Astros, who clearly mean business again, and add Hader to a bullpen that already includes the guy who had been their closer, Ryan Pressly, plus Bryan Abreu and Rafael Montero. The Astros lost Kendall Graveman for the season to shoulder surgery, but here comes Hader, who was once part of the Astros’ Minor League system, and now is back, in a very big way.

There had been rumors all winter that the Rangers might be interested in Hader, too. The Astros get him instead. And maybe, after the way the two teams played each other to the last day of the regular season and then played that pretty wonderful seven-game series, the rivalry between the two Texas teams will continue to be one of the best in the sport, and not just because of geography.

Chris Young, who runs the Rangers, clearly wants to build something to last the way the Astros have become this kind of consistent powerhouse. The Braves haven’t been to seven League Championship Series in a row, and neither have the Dodgers. The Astros sure have.

Starting in ’17, the Astros have played in 19 postseason series and 97 postseason games. They won two World Series (2017 and '22) and lost two ('19, '21), and we’ve already talked about how close they were to winning in ’19 when they had a 3-2 lead over Washington, and how close they were to making it back to the Series when they were just ahead of the Rangers 3-2 in the '23 ALCS.

Now they add Hader to what is largely the same team that went toe-to-toe with the Rangers. They will have Justin Verlander, who returned to the Astros from the Mets at the Trade Deadline, for a full season. The stars who have been with them throughout the run, starting with Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, are still there. So are Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. So is the kid, Jeremy Peña, who replaced Carlos Correa at shortstop.

Other than the 29-year-old Hader, who has been Reliever of the Year three times and whose strikeout-per-nine number is a whopping 15.0, the biggest change for the Astros this season will be in the dugout, where Joe Espada replaces the great Dusty Baker. So they’ve changed managers. We’ve seen them change general managers three times across this run, starting when Jeff Luhnow lost his job after the 2019 season because of the sign-stealing scandal.

But what has not changed with the Astros, at least so far, is that they just keep winning. The rest of baseball can just watch as the center continues to hold at Houston. You might not love them if you’re a fan of any of the other 29 teams, but you also need to wonder who might next come along to have a seven-year run like this one ever again.

By the way? None of this means the new manager doesn’t see areas where he thinks the team can get better across the long season, and then into another postseason.

“We know this is what winning looks like, yes, but we need to continue to push and be better and continue to be better at doing the small stuff,” Espada said recently. “As a team, last year, sometimes we lacked on doing the small stuff, doing those things well. I think those are the areas that I need to make sure that we cover and we go over and we get better at.”

Houston came as close as you can come to going back to the World Series, was one more Game 7 win from a chance to be the first team since the Yankees of 1999-2000 to win the Series two years in a row.

It had been a quiet baseball winter for them until Hader. Then the Astros stepped up and added an elite closer to an already formidable bullpen. The Astros just got better. Joe Espada is right. They know what winning looks like. And keep coming.