How The Houston Astros Fell and Why They Can Come Back

The Houston Astros have been the powerhouse of the American League and perhaps all of baseball since capturing their first title in 2017. They have made seven straight ALCS appearances, winning four pennants, and two championships including that 2017 run. Unlike juggernauts like the Los Angeles Dodgers who have built their contender with sheer financial might, the Astros built their winner on a perfectly executed rebuild, brilliant player development, and sensible front-office decision-making.

2024 however seems to be a new era in Houston, with the once-mighty Astros barely hanging onto relevance. It’s taken a recent five-game winning streak to get them within seven games of the division-leading Seattle Mariners and two games below .500. This fall is the result of their once sensible front office losing its way, making the same mistakes other losing organizations make. However, they still have a chance to turn back the clock and keep this historic run in Houston going. How the Astros fell is exactly how they can come back, they just need to remember what brought them their success in the first place.

The Astros’ Fall and What Can Bring Them Back

How They Built Their Success

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Except for second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman, the current Astros roster is entirely different from the one that brought Texas its first title seven years ago. That group was assembled by an all-time tank job in the early 2010s, so much so that in 2014 Sports Illustrated correctly declared them the 2017 World Series Champions. That tank, as well as the excellent drafting and player development that made it possible, left them with an extremely talented, cheap, and controllable young core that would carry them to the postseason for years. Players like Altuve, Bregman, center-fielder George Springer, shortstop Carlos Correa, and others who were the core of this team for the first several playoff runs were all drafted and developed by the Astros during their years of futility.

The Jeff Luhnow-led front office understood the importance of rebuilding, executed it perfectly, and understood the importance of keeping the team young, not trading for rentals, and not overspending on free agents just for the sake of it. They understood the long-term importance of youth and organizational depth in keeping the competitive window open as long as possible. From 2011 until 2017 every trade Luhnow made was an attempt to get younger and build organizational depth, he never traded for veterans on short-term deals when they weren’t competitive because it is useless to trade prospects for veterans when you aren’t a legitimate contender.

Finally, after years of carefully developing a winning team, in 2017, Luhnow got more aggressive, though he still never wavered in his sensible strategy to avoid rentals. When he did make a splash it was always for a player with multiple years of control, knowing rentals simply aren’t worth it. He acquired Justin Verlander in late 2017 and Ryan Pressly in 2018 who each had two years left on their contracts. He also acquired Gerrit Cole in the 2018 off-season, getting two quality seasons out of one of the best pitchers of his generation. His last big deal was at the 2019 deadline when he acquired future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke, who was under control for three playoff runs in Houston. None of these deals were for the team’s top prospects and went alongside continued efforts to keep the team as young as possible.

To start this historic run the Astros build their juggernaut on intelligence and common sense, understanding how the economics of baseball work and how to best manage a roster to maintain a wide open window of competition. Now that they have a winning team, they needed to keep it competitive, which the Astros have proven is far less difficult than building it.

How They Sustained It

Nov 5, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. (12) celebrates with teammates after the Astros defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in game six winning the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In the winter of 2020, the infamous sign-stealing scandal broke, rocking the Astros organization and creating major change. Among these changes was the dismissal of general manager Jeff Luhnow and the start of James Click’s tenure running the Astros front office. He was given a team coming off three straight 100-win seasons, all he needed to do was take this gift and make sure it didn’t fade away, ensuring the team stayed not only competitive but successful for years to come.

Many around baseball would misinterpret this as keeping the core players together and they would dole out ludicrous extensions to keep fan favorites in town and bring in over-the-hill stars in free-agent deals that only hurt the team for most of the term. Click did neither of these things, He didn’t overpay for free agents just to bring them back and kept the team competitive by maintaining farm system depth and building from within, rather than acquiring veterans on short-term deals. He let Springer and Correa walk, replacing them with prospects Kyle Tucker and Jeremy Pena who have both been excellent while the Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins rue the albatross deals and underperforming veterans they’re now stuck with.

Luhnow had a next wave of Astros stars in the minors ready to take over the big club and despite them still being prospects when Click arrived, he didn’t trade any of them and instead let them develop into the stars that have kept the Astros in the postseason and led them to another championship in 2022. This is especially true on the pitching side with a rotation including Cristian Javier, Framber Valdez, and Luis Garcia. He also oversaw Tucker’s development into a superstar and quickly got Yordan Alvarez under control with a very team-friendly extension.

Click was given the task of keeping the Astros at the top of baseball’s hierarchy and did a fantastic job, limiting free-agent signings to peripheral moves instead of core additions and letting the kids take over when they’re ready, many up-and-coming teams with impatient front offices can learn a lot from the way Click handled things. He not only oversaw one of the winningest stretches in team history but also set them up for an even longer run and a bright future. Unfortunately Click would step away after winning the 2022 World Series and with him left the common sense that kept the Astros in contention all these years.

How They Lost It

May 21, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros first baseman Jose Abreu (79) walks to the dugout after striking out during the fourth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the departure of James Click came the arrival of Dana Brown, who took over the organization while ignoring all of the strategies that made Houston as good as it was in the first place. The first big move he made was an indication of the philosophical shift that he would create. The signing of veteran, old first baseman Jose Abreu to a three-year contract worth more than $58 million was the first sign that common sense had gone down the drain. That contract could not have been a greater disaster as he was just released less than halfway through the deal.

At the deadline, he showed he was fully committed to expensive declining veterans when he acquired the now 40-year-old Verlander from the New York Mets for top outfield prospect Drew Gilbert. Verlander has been hurt for much of his time since then and Gilbert is now the 41st-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline. Last off-season he went even further against the “Astros way” by signing the now 34-year-old Altuve to a five-year extension worth $125 million. That is $25 million a year through his age-39 season, it’s obviously highly unlikely he will be worth anything near that at the end of this deal.

Brown again showed his desire to run up the owner’s bill and the team’s average age at the same time by signing all-star closer Josh Hader to a five-year, $95 million deal. The Astros once understood that relievers are so volatile it is poor decision-making to sign any reliever, regardless of how good they are, to a contract that long. Even with their own all-star closer, Pressly was only signed to subsequent two-year extensions to minimize the risk on the part of the organization. While it would have been expected that these moves would at least help in the short term, they haven’t and they will only look worse as the years go by.

Just a few moves over Brown’s tenure and the team’s outlook went from a bright future with a young core to now the competitive window is finally closing. That is what going against common sense does to any franchise, no matter how successful they’ve been in the past it is essential to stick to what works, youth and depth, not expensive veterans. Things are looking bad now but the Astros always seem to find a way, and they can do it again.

How They Can Get It Back

Jun 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) celebrates a home run against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The reason it’s so surprising for the Astros to be where they are is because of the high standard they’ve set for themselves, they are still in second in the AL West and only four games out of a Wild Card spot. As well, they just won five games in a row, including a sweep of the mighty Baltimore Orioles, reminding everyone around the game that the Astros are still a force to be reckoned with. It won’t take much for them to turn it around this season, even though the Mariners are six games ahead they are not unbeatable, their offense has struggled and they’ve lacked the consistency that has been a Houston hallmark for almost a decade.

As for the bigger picture, while recent moves have put the Astros in a worse spot than they’d like to be they can still find their way out of it, the drafting and development remain strong, and if they decide to sell either at the deadline or in the offseason, they have veteran pieces they could trade to replenish some young talent while remaining competitive in the present. Much of their recent struggles have been due to injuries, especially in the starting rotation, so the organization is in a better position than it appears to based on their record so far.

Overall, other organizations can learn a lot from the Astros, from how to successfully build a long-term competitor to how to keep a team competitive. For most of this run the Astros have been a model of how to run a winning organization but in recent seasons they have become a lesson in what not to do, much more similar to other less successful organizations who have put themselves in a similar situation. It’s likely owner Jim Crane has had some responsibility for this decline but it still falls on the front office, the coaches, and the players to find a way to win, something they still have a very real chance of doing in 2024.

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