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How the Astros can be stopped

The Astros are early favorites for the 2020 World Series, but is what they’ve built sustainable?

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Houston Astros will be back. That should be obvious. With the exception of perhaps the Dodgers, the Astros are the team most likely to return to the postseason. At least one odds-maker has them as the favorite for the 2020 championship. The Astros were an incredible team in 2019, and they’ll be an incredible team in 2020. Coming within three innings of a second championship in three years might sting, but the future shines brightest in Houston.

The only question is how long this window can stay open. The general wisdom is that it’s nearly impossible to project a team’s success beyond three years. There are too many variables that can change a team’s competitiveness. Talented cores get older and more expensive. Players suffer injuries. Prospects don’t pan out. Other teams get better.

In Houston’s case, they’ll have to navigate several free agent departures. Every team in baseball should be vying for Gerrit Cole’s services. In addition to him, Collin McHugh, Will Harris, Robinson Chirinos, Martín Maldonado, Wade Miley, Joe Smith, and Héctor Rondón have all become free agents. George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel all become free agents after next season. At which point, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander will be entering their age 37 and 38 seasons respectively. They might not get much reinforcement from the minors beyond Forrest Whitley as their farm system ranks 24th in baseball per FanGraphs.

The Astros won’t sit idly by as their talent leaves them, but they have somewhat diminished resources. That farm system might not work out any more Greinke or Verlander trades, and Roster Resource currently projects the Astros to surpass the $208 million competitive balance tax threshold. Their window isn’t rapidly coming to a close or anything, but reloading the roster will be more challenging than it has been in previous seasons.

The Astros, however, have gotten to where they are now by revolutionizing player development. Tanking for a few years helped, but they wouldn’t have put together one of the best teams in history if they couldn’t turn Gerrit Cole into a demigod or if they couldn’t flip Ryan Pressly’s switch from mediocre to elite. Those are just two of their biggest success stories, but the Astros have been making every one of their players better since they helped José Altuve evolve from a de facto all-star to a legitimate MVP. This ability to create talent coupled with the budget of a large market team should be a recipe for perpetual success, but it’s not impossible to see the system the Astros have created breaking down.

Any revolution will become the norm eventually. Baseball is a copycat league, and any time a team finds some sort of advantage, others will attempt to repeat it. The Astros have already been subject to “brain drain.” Mike Elias, who had been Jeff Luhnow’s director of amateur scouting and had worked with Luhnow since his days with the Cardinals, left the Astros to become Baltimore’s new general manager. Elias even brought Sig Mejdal, who had been Houston’s director of decision sciences, along with him. Mike Fast, the former director of research and development for the Astros, went to Atlanta.

Those were just the high-profile departures, too. Speaking with Richard Justice, Jeff Luhnow said that “approximately 20 percent of the openings for senior-level talent across all areas of baseball operations were filled with Astros employees.” By degrees, Houston’s closely guarded secrets will become industry norms so if the Astros are to maintain their analytical edge, they will need to break ground faster than the rest of the league can catch up.

That’s going to be a difficult task especially if the Astros’ terrible mishandling of the Brandon Taubman situation accelerates their turnover. It wouldn’t be the first time unethical practices have deteriorated morale and possibly led members of the front office to look elsewhere. In The MVP Machine, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik wrote that “most or all of the front office was strongly opposed to [the Roberto Osuna] trade.” A source they interviewed said, “I do feel like things on a human level have, sadly, gone downhill since the World Series.” The Astros will have a difficult time hiring the best of the best if fewer and fewer people want to work there.

That may even extend to the player side. Immediately after the World Series, Gerrit Cole was quick to divorce himself from the Astros.

Cole eventually spoke to reporters wearing a Boras Corp cap which makes any chance of a return to Houston appear nonexistent. Cole’s frustrations after Game Seven were likely borne from losing the series rather than any deep-rooted dissatisfaction with how his former employers conducted themselves. Most baseball players will be happy signing with whichever team offers to pay them the most money, but it’s also not hard to imagine a free agent not wanting to play for a GM who traded for a player currently serving a suspension for domestic violence, who tried to discredit a reporter, and who had to be talked out of drafting Luke Heimlich.

The Astros are still the early favorites for the 2020 World Series, and they might even be the favorites for 2021. They are anything but an unstoppable force, however. Luhnow’s win-at-all-costs edict has been a driver in making them the best team in baseball, but it also might be what costs the Astros the most.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.