The Houston Astros' 2021 postseason run ended with a thud on Tuesday night in Game 6 of the World Series. The Atlanta Braves' 7-0 win encapsulated quite a bit of what the 2021 Houston Astros became as the ALCS spilled over into the World Series — shaky starting pitching, a lack of timely hitting, with some gutsy bullpen performances sprinkled in.
As World Series losses go, the 2021 loss to the Braves is a little easier to digest than the 2019 loss to the Washington Nationals. In 2019, the Astros won 107 games in the regular season, only to go 0-4 at home in the World Series with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole at the top of their rotation. The better team lost the World Series in 2019.
This postseason, the Braves came into the playoffs on a 40-21 run in their final 61 games. Their final regular season win total of 88 was very deceiving, as they played more like a 100-plus win team over the final two months of the season. The 2021 Braves were better than the Astros by the time the World Series rolled around. I can live with losing to the better team.
The only thing that escalates the pain of the 2021 World Series loss near the strata of the 2019 loss is the fact that we have probably seen the last of shortstop Carlos Correa in an Astros uniform. Correa hits free agency this week, and it is expected that some team will offer him a 10-year deal for north of $300 million total. That's too pricy for the Astros, who have routinely had a top five payroll in the last five years, but will have several young players to get locked up in the next few years, if they want to keep this title window open.
Losing Correa will no doubt be a blow, and yet, when the odds came out Wednesday morning for World Series champion in 2022, the Astros were second on the board, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers. Vegas knows Correa is probably gone, and yet still they see the Astros as one of the favorites. There is, no doubt, still a ton of talent on the roster, but in order to stay at "title contention" level, here are four things that either must change, get solved, or get recaptured:
Alex Bregman needs to become Alex Bregman again.
I have no idea if the pending departure of Correa means Bregman moves back to shortstop (the position he played at LSU before being drafted in 2015), and the team finds another solution at third base. That remains to be seen. What must happen with Bregman, though, is he needs to recapture his MVP runner-up form of 2019, when he hit 41 home runs and had an OPS of 1.015. Bregman missed 71 games in 2021, most of them due to a leg injury, and he did not look altogether healthy in the postseason. In 2022, he needs to get right medically, so he can get back to being "Alex Bregman, Baseball Messiah."
Yordan Alvarez needs to take "The Leap."
In 2021, Yordan Alvarez had, by the standards of most players, a fine season. Playing DH for most of the games, with some appearances in left field sprinkled in, Alvarez was a fixture at cleanup in the Astros' batting order, and finished the season with 33 home runs, 104 runs batted in, and an OPS of .877. Again, most MLB players would kill for those numbers. However, if the Astros are letting Correa walk, it's probably in part because they know they'll need to pay Alvarez someday, and if Alvarez is truly getting PAID, it means he is putting up the numbers of his rookie season in 2019, when he batted .313 with a 1.067 OPS. If you add up Alvarez's 2019 and 2021 seasons (he only played in two games in 2020 before requiring knee surgery), his 162 game averages are 42 home runs, 129 RBI, and a .948 OPS. THAT is the Alvarez the Astros need to remain dominant in 2022.
James Click needs to spend the $60 million coming off the books wisely.
When you think about it, it's pretty remarkable that the Astros made it to within two games of winning a title, while paying Justin Verlander $33 million to rehab his elbow, Zack Greinke roughly $25 million to be a glorified opener in the postseason, and they were missing Lance McCullers with a forearm injury. Now, the nearly $60 million paid to Verlander and Greinke is coming off the books (not to mention the $11.7 million Carlos Correa made in 2021), and GM James Click should be able to go shopping. Of course, this post assumes he will not be spending that money on retaining Correa, but if he spends it on reasonably priced deals for a frontline pitcher, some relief help (retaining Kendall Graveman?), and a feasible Correa replacement at shortstop, the Astros should be in really good shape.
These Brent Strom replacements better work out.
One bit of news that kicked off the offseason on the wrong note for the Astros came right after the Tuesday loss to the Braves — pitching coach Brent Strom made it official that he will not be back as pitching coach for the Astros. That one stings, as nearly every pitcher that came through Houston during Strom's time improved to some degree. Average pitchers became good (Dallas Keuchel), good pitchers became great (Charlie Morton), and great pitchers became superhuman (Verlander, Cole). Strom will likely be replaced by assistant pitching coaches Bill Murphy and Josh Miller. Murphy just finished his first season as part of a big league staff, and Miller served as the bullpen coach in 2019-20 before being promoted to assistant pitching coach this season. Both coaches have been in the Houston system since 2016, so they are very familiar with the young pitchers on this staff, and those coming up through the minor league system. If you're counting Astro employees MORE valuable than Strom during this title window, I would say the list is Jeff Luhnow, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Justin Verlander, Alex Bregman, and probably Carlos Correa, with Yuli Gurriel on about the same level as Strom.
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