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Astros still sitting pretty despite quiet offseason

February 6, 2019

HOUSTON -- If you look really closely -- that is, if you hold the roster up to the light and turn it this way and that -- you might have a doubt or two about the 2019 Astros.You know, like how the fifth spot in the rotation is up for

HOUSTON -- If you look really closely -- that is, if you hold the roster up to the light and turn it this way and that -- you might have a doubt or two about the 2019 Astros.
You know, like how the fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs, and how that competition could settle a bullpen role or two. There's a spot available for a backup outfielder, perhaps as part of the designated hitter rotation.
Actually, these are the kinds of problems you have when you don't really have any problems, and that's where the Astros appear to be as they prepare to open Spring Training next week in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The Astros have virtually no weakness at the Major League level. They've spent cautiously this offseason, and have the flexibility to add a player at some point. They still have one of baseball's stronger Minor League systems.
And after back-to-back 100-win seasons and three postseason appearances in four years, the Astros are poised for another run at a World Series. After winning in 2017, they were eliminated by the Red Sox in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series last October.
This is the kind of long-term success Astros owner Jim Crane had in mind in December 2011, when he put Jeff Luhnow in charge of baseball operations shortly after purchasing the club. Crane told him he would endure some short-term losing as Luhnow built something sustainable.
Lose they did. When the Astros lost 111 games in 2013, Luhnow bought a specialized license plate with that number on it. He looked at it every day and was alternately driven and tortured by it. That season, the Astros were near the bottom of baseball in home attendance, and their local television ratings were a flat zero some nights.
Fast forward to today's team, the Astros just missed drawing three million fans to Minute Maid Park in 2018. Television ratings have likewise taken off. And they won a franchise-record 103 games despite two of their biggest stars -- shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman José Altuve -- being slowed by injuries down the stretch and in the postseason.
Perhaps most flattering to Luhnow is that he continues to lose members of his front office and coaching staff to other clubs hoping to replicate the Astros' success. Alex Cora led the Red Sox to the World Series last fall after serving as Houston manager AJ Hinch's bench coach in 2017.
David Stearns has had success in Milwaukee after leaving the Astros' front office to be the Brewers' president of baseball operations and general manager in 2015, and the Orioles recently hired Mike Elias from Houston to be the O's president of baseball operations.
"Our coaches, scouts, analysts and executives were in high demand across the industry," Luhnow said Wednesday. "Approximately 20 percent of the openings for senior-level talent across all areas of baseball operations were filled with Astros employees. That's the highest [number] in the industry by a large margin. But we are fortunate that we have a deep talent pool internally, and most of the openings that were created we were able to fill from within."
Now, about the Astros in 2019. Correa and Altuve appear to be on their way to being healthy. Third baseman Alex Bregman became a cornerstone player in '18, and outfielder George Springer has a 16.3 fWAR during this four-year run. He trails only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts among AL outfielders.

And at the top of the rotation: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who finished second and fifth in AL Cy Young Award balloting last season.
At a media luncheon to reveal the team's marketing slogan for 2019 -- "Take It Back" -- Luhnow spoke with pride.
"We are built to win for the foreseeable future," Luhnow said. "We have at least four position players that in my opinion can compete for an MVP this year. We have at least two starters that can compete for the Cy Young this year. We have a deep and long lineup that will make contact and drive the ball. Our bullpen is built to finish games. We can defend, we can throw, we have depth. Many of our players that are going to start at Triple-A would be starting on other clubs in the Major Leagues."
Despite three prominent free-agent departures -- Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez and Charlie Morton -- Luhnow signed only one free agent to a multiyear contract: left fielder Michael Brantley (two years, $32 million).
He pursued others, including DH Nelson Cruz and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, and has remained in touch with the agents for Keuchel and Gonzalez. Luhnow also had conversations with the Marlins about catcher J.T. Realmuto. Passing (for now) on Realmuto reflects Luhnow's overriding desire not to empty his Minor League system and be forced into an organizational rebuild.
"Part of it is not mortgaging your future too much or too early or too often," Luhnow said. "That's a fine balance. We've traded so many good prospects to other teams in order to get better now. We'll continue to do that, but we also have to maintain a healthy farm system and our own crop of prospects so we don't have to go out and make desperate moves at the Deadline or in free agency.
"I love this team. If this is the roster we have, we've got a really good chance of accomplishing our goals this year. We talked about leaving something in the tank, whether it's money or prospects to make some deals during the season or even before the season. We're not going to rest on our hands, but we certainly like the team we have."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.