Astros expect to be just as competitive in '24: 'We were one win away'

October 24th, 2023

HOUSTON -- Chas McCormick freely admits, without apology, that he feels “spoiled” by being part of an Astros organization that views October success as a given. After reaching the World Series in each of his first two seasons, there was no reason not to expect another trip in 2023.

“After we won Game 5, I was like, ‘We’ve got this. We’re going to do another trip to the World Series,’” McCormick said late on Monday evening, absorbing the reality of Houston’s 11-4 loss to the Rangers in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. “We were one win away this year. It hurts, but there’s always next year.”

Any straw poll of the Astros’ clubhouse after that emotionally charged ALCS Game 5 at Globe Life Field would’ve yielded the same results as McCormick’s internal monologue. Instead, they endured “Let’s Go Rangers!” chants spilling out of the Minute Maid Park grandstands, unable to respond after ALCS MVP Adolis García put the visitors up big early.

“I think we fully expected to be here, and we expected to win,” said third baseman Alex Bregman. “We got outplayed, and we'll learn from the mistakes this offseason. We'll get after it and be ready to get back to competing.”

The sting of losing four ALCS home games will trail the Astros into the winter, but to zoom out, it was hardly a dominant season by their recent standards. After steamrolling the AL West with 106 wins last year, the Astros scuffled to a 90-72 mark, including their head-scratching sub-.500 record at home -- and, yet, they nearly claimed a pennant.

Astros manager Dusty Baker described the season as “a grind,” noting that injuries removed second baseman Jose Altuve and designated hitter Yordan Alvarez from the lineup for significant time. It was the same on the pitching side for Luis Garcia and José Urquidy.

Thus, Baker said that his defending World Series champions found themselves “out there with a bunch of kids that didn't have much experience,” name-checking pitchers J.P. France and Hunter Brown, plus catcher Yainer Diaz.

“As veteran as we were, we were also just as young,” Baker said.

Yet, the Astros still ranked third in the AL with 827 runs scored and a .768 OPS, averaging 5.10 runs per game (yes, their numbers were better on the road). On the pitching side, their 3.94 ERA ranked sixth in the AL. The staff permitted 4.31 runs per game, tied for seventh.

No evidence suggests the Astros should be less competitive in 2024.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come back here,” said right-hander Justin Verlander. “... I think moving forward, there’s still a good window available. It’s a little early to say I’m excited about next year; I’m still dealing with this, but that was on my mind before.”

Most of the lineup is set to return in 2024, including Altuve and Bregman, who could field extension offers from the club. A published report this week indicated that an Altuve deal is the club’s top priority; Bregman said late on Monday that he hasn’t given his contract status any thought.

Several free agents could be on the move, including outfielder Michael Brantley, catcher Martín Maldonado and right-hander Ryne Stanek.

“Our mindset’s always to get to the World Series and win. I don’t expect that to change,” said outfielder Kyle Tucker. “I’m sure we might have a little different look as a team, but our goal is always the same.”

As we discuss possible changes, let’s not bypass the manager’s chair. The 74-year-old Baker has hinted at a future that may not include the dugout, mentioning that he felt as though he “really sort of cheated” his young grandchildren by chasing another World Series title this year. A report from The Athletic strongly indicated Baker won’t return as Astros manager in 2024.

But as Baker surveyed downtown Houston this month, he noticed the packed bars, hotels and restaurants -- seeing those as a direct result of his team’s on-field performance, because “these streets would have been empty the last two weeks.”

“Instead, I saw a whole bunch of people out having a good time,” he said.

As difficult as the aftermath of a Game 7 loss can be to swallow, Baker believes that both the city and the Astros are primed to enjoy many more bright tomorrows.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hold our head down about,” Baker said. “We're down, but we're not out. And every team in baseball would trade to have had the last four years that we've had.”