The Houston Astros have reached a status in baseball that few do: They have become a superteam.
They won the World Series in 2017 and won the American League pennant in 2019. Baseball hadn't seen a rotation as frightening as theirs since the 1990s Atlanta Braves. Their lineup was equally as scary, and their defense was stifling.
But the Astros look a little different coming into the 2021 season.
A few key members of those World Series teams are gone. Their former staff ace, Gerrit Cole, went to the New York Yankees in 2020 to try to help the original superteam regain that status. Their current ace, Justin Verlander, is on the shelf possibly through the entire season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, though he did tell general manager James Click that he would like to return in the fall, if possible.
Instead of George Springer in center field, it's someone named Myles Straw.
Plus, the Astros are about to play in front of fans again for the first time since Trash Can Gate. They got a preview of what it might be like to play in front of hostile crowds last year during spring training, but they haven't played in front of fans since then because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fans are not likely to forget the sign-stealing controversy anytime soon.
The Astros' championship window is still open, but for how much longer? Between team turmoil, the recent departures and potential departures in the future, this season could be their last with the core that has made them so dangerous over the last four seasons. The window is narrowing.
Shortstop Carlos Correa and right-handed starters Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. will be free agents after this season. Correa recently told reporters that he has not yet discussed a new contract and that he does not plan to do so during the season. The 26-year-old isn't the first player to object to in-season negotiations and he won't be the last, but it does little to assuage fans' fears of the future.
The Astros tanked their way to the top, and it paid off when they won the first World Series title in franchise history. Is another round of losing in order to get back to the top?
The answer to that is probably not. The front office and the farm system are set up to sustain success. Years of making trades to gear up for championship runs has thinned Houston's farm system, which B/R's Joel Reuter currently has ranked 28th. But the Astros have repeatedly proved their ability to develop top-tier talent.
The Astros are built on a homegrown core. They know the key to winning as a middle-market team is drafting and developing talent. They might not be bidding for the most expensive free agents, but they sure can produce those expensive free agents.
They'll be relying on a new crop of in-house talent to complement the existing veterans this season, starting with Straw. The 26-year-old outfielder will have the unenviable task of replacing a franchise favorite, but he seems up to the task.
At 5'10" and 178 pounds, Straw is a different player than Springer, who was imposing in the box as a 6'3" power hitter. He is more of a pest than he is powerful. Straw lacks the strength to get the ball out of the yard, but he's hit for average at every level of the minor leagues, owning a career average of .300 and a career minor league average of .305.
Straw profiles as a leadoff man. He can get on base and make things happen once he's there. He's aiming to swipe 50 bags this season.
Chas McCormick, another top prospect looking to graduate to the major leagues, will likely spell Michael Brantley in left field on off days. An outfield of McCormick, Straw and Kyle Tucker could be one of the fastest in baseball.
Framber Valdez and Jose Urquidy are the Astros' frontline starters of the future, and they'll play a big role this season as well.
Valdez was solid in the 2020 playoffs with a 1.88 ERA. Urquidy's status is somewhat unclear after he fractured his index finger in his first Grapefruit League start, but Jake Odorizzi will take his place for now. Urquidy's return will only deepen the rotation.
Forrest Whitley may also be one of those future starters, but there is some uncertainty surrounding the right-hander. The 2016 first-round pick has pitched in only 69 games across four levels, and he's now set to miss the entire 2021 season as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.
Whitley was suspended for 50 games 2018 for a violation of the MLB drug prevention and treatment program, and he missed more time with oblique strains. He spent much of 2019 on the injured list with shoulder fatigue.
But Whitley would have only been a supporting cast member this season. Straw, McCormick, Valdez and Urquidy will also be supporting players. The season hinges on the stars: Greinke, Correa, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.
The Astros played some uninspiring baseball at the start of last season. It was a strange year because of the pandemic, and the fallout of the sign-stealing fiasco couldn't have helped. Whatever the case may be, the Astros fell flat to start the season before turning it on in time to get into the postseason.
Altuve, one of the best hitters of his generation, had the worst year of his career, hitting only .219 with a .629 OPS. Greinke's 4.03 ERA was his highest since 2016.
Good teams need their leaders to play to the best of their abilities. If the stars aren't playing like stars, the contributions of the role players will be of little value.
The 2021 Astros are still a force, but if they're looking different now, they'll look like a shell of their former selves by 2022. The 1990s Braves and the dynasty-era Yankees didn't last forever, and neither will these Astros.
Houston is set up for success past this season, but 2021 might be the last stand for this superteam.