A risky proposition

This MLB wildcard could be all the difference in Astros retaining tent pole stars

Astros Alex Bregman
Houston is on the clock. Composite Getty Image.
Bench - Bregman

Scott Boras, the agent for both Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, says there’s “been an expression of desire” by the Astros to sign their star players to contract extensions this offseason, “but obviously that’s not something we’ve approached yet.”

For the Astros part, general manager Dana Brown says, “I think we’re going to look into talking to both of them, particularly this offseason, maybe all the way up to spring training. Once the season starts we really don’t want to get too much into it.”

What does all this mean beyond the time-honored posturing of greedy agent versus penny-pinching team?

It means that the Astros haven’t crunched their numbers down to pennies and are figuring out how much and for how long they can offer Altuve and Bregman for future services.

They better get it right this time. Last year’s offseason contract dangling came back to bite the Astros butts in 2023. Without a proper general manager in place, the Astros biggest free agent signings were first baseman Jose Abreu (3 years, $58.5 million), reliever Rafael Montero (3 years, $34.5 million) and “professional hitter” but mostly injured list resident Michael Brantley (1 year, $12 million). Although Abreu’s bat woke up in late season, all three signings were disappointments.

The Astros better get it right with Altuve and Bregman, both of whose contracts expire at the end of next season. If the Astros dawdle and try to buy cheap, or agent Boras plays hard to get and lets Altuve and Bregman get to free agency (as Boras is famous for doing with his clients), then look out below.

While Altuve is (let’s stop with the “may be”) the greatest Astro ever, the days of players accepting a hometown discount are over. Altuve will turn 34 next season. He would still be in his prime with lots of tread on his tires. He is beloved in Houston. He looks like Houston. He hits in the clutch. Everything about Altuve is good.

There will be civil unrest in Houston if the Astros don’t lock up Altuve for the rest of his career.

Bregman is a more complicated deal. The third baseman will be 31 next season. If he gets to free agency, teams will have to take a number to get in line to meet with Boras. While the Astros are loathe to offer deals for more than $150 million and longer than four or five years, well, they better get over that if they want to keep Bregman.

If Bregman gets to free agency, you can imagine the Yankees backing up a Brinks truck to sign him. Bregman in New York? Young mothers would be handing him their babies to raise. They’d be naming streets and buildings after him – there may be a few properties available soon. Bregman and his wife Reagan would be hosting Good Morning New York. He’d be throwing out the Opening Day ceremonial first pitch to himself.

Last season Manny Machado signed an 11-year extension worth $350 million with the San Diego Padres. The deal includes a no-trade clause with no op-outs. Machado will be 41 when the contract is up. Machado is a superstar, right? And that’s the kind of money that superstars get, right?. You want to know something? Machado ain’t got nothing on Alex Bregman.

Machado’s lifetime batting average is .279. His career on-base percentage is .339. His slugging is .490. His OPS is .829.

Bregman’s lifetime batting average is .274. His career on-base percentage is .373. His slugging is .487. His OPS is .861.

They’re basically the same player. If anything, let’s give the edge to Bregman because he’s a year younger. When the playoffs roll around, Bregman has Machado beat by a wide margin.

You’re on the clock, Astros.

Sure, the Astros have let star players go before. You remember Carlos Correa, George Springer and Gerrit Cole? They used to play here. The Astros didn’t make serious offers to keep any of them.

Plus the Astros have to look beyond 2024 when they’ll have to pony up with Kyle Tucker or get off the pot. Framber Valdez, Chas McCormick and others are waiting for their crack at big money, too. That’s the problem with baseball – other teams want good players, too.

But that’s then, this is now, and the Astros better get it done with Altuve and Bregman or they’ll lose all the goodwill they’ve established with Houston these past years.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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