This week, the Commissioner’s Office disciplined the Houston Astros for their illegal use of technology to steal signs. Some have said that the penalties are too harsh, many have said that they are not enough. While the addition of Gerrit Cole, and the specter of a healthier season makes the Yankees the World Series favorites in most sports books, the Astros are generally not far behind. The nature of the penalties in 2020 could actually push Houston to become a more dangerous opponent with an all-in mentality throughout the season, the trade deadline, and down the stretch.
Having lost draft picks in 2020 and 2021, the perception is that this penalty will only hurt Houston well down the road. Make no mistake about it, the Astros’ roster is built on the back of their high draft picks. Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Kyle Tucker were all selected in the first round. The Astros’ current top prospect, right-hander Forrest Whitley, will almost certainly make his major league debut this season. He is also a past first round pick.
In addition to the players that remain on the Houston roster, they used a first and a third-round pick to trade for Justin Verlander in 2017. Just last season the Astros traded three prior first-round picks and a second-round pick to acquire Zack Greinke and Aaron Sanchez. Several years ago, Ken Giles was brought to Houston from Philadelphia in a deal that involved a first and second round pick. Giles was then traded for Houston’s current closer Roberto Osuna.
When the team entered their window for contention after years of tanking, they aggressively used their top draft picks as trade capital to bring in major league ready pieces. Stripping those picks away compromises the Astros’ plans for 2021 and beyond.
The 2020 and 2021 picks that the Astros will lose would not have been tradable this season, but the front office knows that they soon won’t be able to restock the cupboard. That means that this team will likely be aggressive in this coming season to maximize the return on their core group, and try to get past the stigma that is now attached to them.
Another factor that is going to play into the aggressiveness of the Astros is their aging and expensive top of the rotation. Justin Verlander will turn 37 during spring training, but still appears to be near the peak of his powers as he comes off another Cy Young season. If he can repeat his 6.4 fWAR from 2019, he would more than justify the $33 million he will make over each of the next two seasons.
Zack Greinke is also fresh off a stellar season, one that saw him post a combined 5.4 fWAR as he split time between Houston and Arizona. Greinke turned 36 during the playoffs and has been in the major leagues since 2004.
Barring injury both Verlander and Greinke will throw their 3,000th regular season inning this coming. This is on top of extensive postseason resumes that both men have built during their Hall-of-Fame careers. They have both far surpassed the stage where pitchers typically decline, adding a sense of urgency to capitalize on the 2020 campaign.
Late in the week, the Astros came to terms with center fielder George Springer for $21 million. The number came in closer to Springer’s $22.5 million asking price than the Astros’ $17.5 million counter. It was the biggest gap between any player and his organization engaged in the arbitration process this offseason. Money and the increased earning power of their core group of players is on the mind of the Astros’ organization.
Springer and left fielder Michael Brantley will be free agents following the season. Those two provided significant production to a potent Houston lineup and may have to be replaced. Replacing them is not as easy as just cutting the check though, as it was reported by Ken Rosenthal in December that the organization had even entertained moving on from star shortstop Carlos Correa in an attempt to control cost.
Many factors are coming into play with the Houston Astros in 2020. These factors will combine to make a desperate organization that will likely go all in to capitalize on the core group that has found tremendous, if now tainted, success since 2017. The Yankees will still rightfully be the favorite to win the league and the World Series, but the nature of the penalties will push Houston to an all-in situation.