From 111 losses in 2013 to a World Series title in 2017, the Houston Astros became a shining example of how to rebuild an organization from the ground up.
Under the leadership of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, they went from cellar-dweller to the pinnacle of the sport in four short years, and they did it in a way that seemed to position them for short-term success and long-term sustainability.
And just like that, it has all come crumbling down.
That's not to say team is not still capable of contending for a title in 2020.
To that point, Jeff Passan of ESPN wrote Jan. 13: "No World Series odds changed at Caesars Sportsbook as a result of the Astros' punishment, as no players were suspended. Houston remains tied for second-best odds at 6-1 with the [Los Angeles] Dodgers. The New York Yankees are favorites at 4-1."
And the players sound confident.
"Believe me, at the end of the year everything will be fine. We're gonna be in the World Series again. People don't believe it. We will. We made it last year. We were one game away from winning it all. I'm happy for the [Washington] Nationals. We will be in the World Series again," Jose Altuve told reporters Saturday.
However, the long-term picture has become decidedly less promising.
Luhnow and Hinch were fired, and the organization was fined a maximum penalty of $5 million. The Astros were also stripped of their first- and second-round picks in 2020 and 2021, which could wind up having the biggest impact of all.
But before the scandal and penalties, warning signs loomed, starting with the Astros' minor league talent. Since the start of the 2016 season, I've ranked MLB's farm systems. Here's a look at where the Astros began each season:
So what happened?
First, trades to acquire Justin Verlander (Aug. 31, 2017), Gerrit Cole (Jan. 13, 2018) and Zack Greinke (July 31, 2019) may have given the Astros an all-time great starting rotation, but they also came at a considerable prospect cost.
Take a look at the return packages for each trade, along with the future value (FV) grades assigned to each player by FanGraphs at the end of the 2019 season. For reference, a 45 FV prospect is expected to be an MLB regular, while a 50 FV or higher player is expected to make a significant impact.
- To DET for Verlander: OF Daz Cameron (45 FV), RHP Franklin Perez (45 FV), C Jake Rogers (40+ FV)
- To PIT for Cole: RHP Joe Musgrove (MLB roster), 3B Colin Moran (MLB roster), RHP Michael Feliz (MLB roster), OF Jason Martin (40 FV)
- To ARI for Greinke: IF/OF Josh Rojas (MLB roster), RHP J.B. Bukauskas (50 FV), RHP Corbin Martin (50 FV), 1B Seth Beer (45 FV)
Those trades, coupled with Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez and Josh James' moves to the MLB roster in 2019, have left the farm system short on top-tier talent.
Here is my ranking of Houston's top prospects heading into 2020:
- RHP Forrest Whitley (No. 27 in MLB)
- RHP Jose Urquidy (No. 49 in MLB)
- RHP Cristian Javier
- SS Freudis Nova
- RHP Bryan Abreu
- C Korey Lee
- 3B Abraham Toro
- RHP Tyler Ivey
- SS Jeremy Pena
- RHP Brandon Bielak
Whitley is the X-factor. Widely regarded as baseball's top pitching prospect at the start of 2019, he struggled to a 7.99 ERA in 59.2 innings, and his walk rate spiked to 6.6 BB/9. He pitched well in the Arizona Fall League (25 IP, 2.88 ERA, 32 K), but questions abound heading into 2020.
Behind him, Urquidy looks like a solid bet to start next season in the rotation after a strong finish to 2019, but there's a significant drop-off after him.
Javier and Abreu both have swing-and-miss stuff that will likely wind up in the bullpen. Nova is just 20 years old and a long way off. Lee was a reach at No. 32 overall last June. Toro looks like more of an MLB role player. There's just not another Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman or Alvarez in the system.
The question marks surrounding the team's future are not just in the minors.
There's a clear expiration date on the starting rotation.
Cole has already moved on, signing a record-breaking nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees. Verlander is entering his age-37 season and is only under contract for two more years. Greinke is entering his age-36 campaign and is also signed for two more years.
Replacing those three will be next to impossible—and the roster woes go beyond the pitching staff.
Outfielder George Springer will be a free agent after the 2020 season, and Correa, the team's star shortstop, will be a free agent after the 2021 season. Veterans Yuli Gurriel and Michael Brantley will also see their contracts expire after the 2020 campaign.
Those four players were worth a combined 16.9 WAR in 2019.
It's possible those players will want to distance themselves from the organization the first chance they get, and that could mean a mass exodus of talent over the next few years. In any case, they'd have a tough time shelling out all the money it would take to keep everyone.
At the same time, attracting top-tier free agents has likely become more difficult given the cloud hanging over the franchise, so replacing those players could prove extremely hard.
The first step toward contending this season will be finding a new manager.
One of the early favorites to replace Hinch appears to be 70-year-old Dusty Baker, who has already been confirmed for an interview, according to MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi.
Hiring an older manager would only further the 2020-or-bust narrative, giving the club a clear win-now mindset.
A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine the Astros' window of contention would slam shut so quickly, but that's the reality this team faces as it heads into what could be an all-or-nothing 2020 campaign.