SAN DIEGO -- Now that the Astros are dealing with the reality of a world where pitcher Gerrit Cole will be wearing pinstripes, they must find a way to replace the 26 quality starts, 212 1/3 innings and 326 strikeouts he provided during his terrific 2019 season in Houston.
The truth is the Astros won't be able to duplicate the production they got from Cole the past two years, especially last season when he was unbeaten after May 22. The loss of Cole, who agreed to a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees on Tuesday, punches a huge hole in what has been one of baseball's top rotations for the past two years.
Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow said Wednesday he spoke with Scott Boras, Cole's agent, at the Winter Meetings, but it was clear the Astros weren't in the mix because they wouldn't be able afford him with their payroll already at an all-time high.
"I understood where it was going and, obviously, I think there's 30 teams that would have loved to have had Gerrit Cole," said Luhnow, who acquired Cole from the Pirates prior to the 2018 season. "He's had a great career, he's going to continue to have a great career. He's the highest-paid player and pitcher in baseball history for a reason. Loved to have him back, but it wasn't something we could do."
Because Cole received a qualifying offer, the Astros will receive a pick after Competitive Balance Round B in next year's MLB Draft, which is being moved to Omaha. Houston's pick, at the moment, is No. 74 overall, though that will most likely change with subsequent signings/compensations.
The Astros' window of contention remains wide open heading into next year, with their top offensive players returning and two aces -- Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke -- in the rotation, but the signing of Cole by the team the Astros have eliminated in the American League Championship Series in two of the past three postseasons makes their path to the World Series much more difficult.
"We prefer he went to the National League, but he's in the American League," Luhnow said. "We faced the Yankees three out of the last five years in the playoffs, so maybe we'll do it again. But I'm glad he's not in our division. We'll face him but we won't face him quite as much. The Yankees will be strong. They'll be favored to win their division, but we plan to be right there."
Luhnow shot down rumors the club had considered trading star shortstop Carlos Correa, who called Luhnow from his honeymoon on Tuesday and asked him if he was on the trade block. Luhnow told him to enjoy his vacation and not read rumors.
Correa and the rest of the Astros' core position players return next year, including George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley, so the Astros will remain formidable despite losing Cole. Luhnow said he would be surprised if he traded any of the team's core players.
The 2020 rotation is headlined by Verlander and Greinke, with Lance McCullers Jr. back in the mix following Tommy John surgery. Beyond that, opportunity abounds for Josh James, Jose Urquidy, Framber Valdez, Rogelio Armenteros, Bryan Abreu and Cy Sneed. Brad Peacock could be used in the rotation if the Astros don't acquire another starter. And Luhnow said top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley has a chance to spend most of the season in the big leagues.
The Yankees may have positioned themselves as the team to beat in the AL, but the Astros aren't ready to concede anything.
"We're a good team," Luhnow said. "We'll probably be favored to win our division, depending upon what happens, and have a chance to go deep in the playoffs again. Last year, we lost Charlie [Morton] and Dallas [Keuchel] and we were able to get back to the World Series, so we're going to have to reload.
"That's part of operating as a successful baseball operation. You've got to plug in for the pieces you lose every year and losing pieces is inevitable. This isn't going to be the last year. It's going to continue. That's why we work so hard to find the next version of hopefully Gerrit Cole that we can bring in ... and someday he may leave."