The Houston Astros won the World Series last year. They had a really good chance of winning it again this year. Unfortunately for the team, a really good chance in the playoffs still topped out below a 50/50 shot, and they ran into a really good Red Sox team that played well. Winning back-to-back championships is hard. No team has done it since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. Even making it to the World Series in back-to-back seasons is difficult. Since that Yankees’ team made it to the series again in 2001, only the Phillies in 2008 and 2009, the Rangers in 2010 and 2011, and the Royals in 2014 and 2015 have participated in the World Series in back-to-back years. The odds were in the Astros’ favor and simultaneously stacked against them. Always take the field.
The Astros are incredibly well set up for the future. In Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa, the team has not only three legitimate stars but potential MVP candidates. This 2018 season was not a good one for the 24-year-old Correa, whose lower-back problems sidelined him at times and rendered him an average player when he was in the lineup. Consider how well the Astros persevered, though, despite lacking the services of six-win player. Kris Bryant of the Cubs had a similar season, for example, and the Cubs’ offense struggled to score runs, eventually losing in the Wild Card Game and firing their hitting coach. The Dodgers were huge favorites in the National League West. Without Corey Seager, however, they struggled to 90 wins and a 163rd game for the division after acquiring a similar player for half the season in the form of Manny Machado.
Alex Bregman emerged as a star, Jose Altuve put together a very good season despite his own injury issues, and George Springer turned in another good season. On offense, the team took a step back from its MLB-best 123 wRC+ in 2017, but still put together the fourth-best offense (110 wRC+) in the majors. The downturn in offense made little difference, as the pitching stepped up. A full year of ace Justin Verlander plus a trade for co-ace Gerrit Cole paced the team with 13 combined WAR, while Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., and Charlie Morton all put together above average seasons. Those five pitchers made 152 of the team’s 162 starts. The rotation’s 22.5 WAR placed them just behind Cleveland’s and meant the bullpen had to cover just 499.2 innings. Houston didn’t have a problem with middle relievers because they never had to use them.
Heading into next season, nearly every major contributor is back, with Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton the notable exceptions and Evan Gattis, Marwin Gonzalez, Brian McCann, and Tony Sipp also set to become free agents. To help mitigate some of those losses, Houston can turn to two of the top prospects in baseball, Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley. The 21-year-old Tucker struggled in a brief callup to the majors but crushed Triple-A pitching and should be ready for a bigger role next season. Whitley missed the first part of the season with a suspension while his second half was truncated by a lat injury, but the 21-year-old righty did pitch well when he played, and he could find himself a role on next year’s team as well. Josh James emerged late in this season and is a good candidate for a role either in the rotation or back in the bullpen. Prospects J.B. Bukauskas, Corbin Martin, and Cionel Perez might be in a position to help the team at some point next year. Garrett Stubbs could be part of the solution at catcher.
The Astros are well positioned to repeat as AL West champs without making any significant additions. Even with arbitration raises, their payroll commitments look to be around $130 million for 2019, which is $30 million less than they were at the beginning of the 2018 campaign. For a team that drew nearly 3 million fans — 580,000 more than 2017 — in a very large Houston market, $160 million is hardly as high as the team could go if they wanted. They’ll need starting pitching and could bring back Keuchel or Morton or both, sign one of the other available free agents, or make a trade with their considerable prospect depth.
All of this is to say that the Astros will probably be very good again next season. But it is possible they won’t be. This is how it could happen:
- Injuries to Altuve and Correa linger into next season, and the players are slightly compromised. Maybe they don’t fall off a cliff completely, but perhaps they can’t quite play up to the level expected of them. Alex Bregman is great, but a 7.6 WAR season is hard to repeat for anybody. Compare the Astros trio of Altuve, Bregman, and Correa to the Nationals’ Harper, Rendon, and Turner. Sometimes it doesn’t all come together, and sometimes it just isn’t enough. A rebound from George Springer provides some insulation, but it’s hardly a guarantee. The Astros’ big three combined for 16.3 WAR in 2017 and 14 WAR in 2018. A drop to 10-12 wins isn’t unfathomable.
- Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick continue their declines. In 201,7 the pair hit for a 119 and 128 wRC+, respectively, and combined for five wins. This season, they hit 107 and 99 wRC+, respectively, and combined for 2.3 WAR. Gurriel will be 35 years old and Reddick turns 32 in February. Expecting better in 2019 is unreasonable and worse is a more likely outcome.
- Kyle Tucker still isn’t ready. Assuming the Astros clear a spot for Tucker, they will have Springer in center field with Reddick in right. If Tucker doesn’t play well, the Astros might get poor production out of two of the three outfield positions.
- Justin Verlander wears down. Over the last three years, Verlander has logged nearly 700 innings between the regular season and the playoffs from the age of 33 to 35 years old. Over the last 30 years, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Derek Lowe, Greg Maddux, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, and David Wells had similar workloads and performance at that age, including a good age-35 season. Those seven went from an average WAR of 6.3 in their age-35 seasons to 3.3 at 36 years old, with only Wells approximating his performance from the season before. Verlander looks great, but even the great ones have trouble sustaining their performance every year.
- Rookies and free agents can’t get the job done in the rotation. In Kuechel and Morton, the team has to replace nearly seven wins in the rotation. Expecting Cole or Verlander to be any better isn’t reasonable, and it isn’t entirely clear how many innings McCullers is capable of throwing. The Astros had no significant pitching injuries this season. Things don’t normally go that way.
- The bullpen just isn’t good. It happens.
The Astros were a 103-win team in the standings and on paper last season with the team not benefiting from any good or bad luck when it comes to sequencing. They will probably project close to 95 wins next season, as well, but that’s not a guarantee of continued success. The Nationals were projected to win 92 games and finished 10 games below that mark. Cleveland was projected to win 96 games and won only 91. If Houston had won 88 games this year, they would not have made the playoffs. The Astros are probably going to have another really good season next year, but don’t take this one for granted, and don’t be shocked if things fall apart. It isn’t likely, but the possibility is there.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.