How Astros can navigate latest leadership challenges, pivotal opportunities ahead

Astros Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve
Could deferring money be the secret to re-signing Jose Altuve? Composite Getty Image.

Maybe it was the excitement of the Houston Texans’ improbable run to the NFL postseason, or the Houston Rockets suddenly becoming competitive again … but the 2024 baseball season sure has crept up on us fast.

How much do you love that Astros pitchers and catchers report to spring training in just two weeks, on Valentine’s Day? That’s amore.

For a team in full bloom of a historic run – you know the numbers, seven consecutive ALCS, four World Series appearances, two championships – the Astros enter the 2024 season with more question marks than the Riddler’s three-piece suit.

With the dust finally settled on the Astros’ disappointing 2023 campaign (yeah, they only finished tied for the AL West and took eventual World Series champions Texas Rangers to seven games in the ALCS), it becomes clearer that last year was a season of turmoil. Now we can see just how deep the distrust and disgust was between general manager Dana Brown and field manager Dusty Baker.

Before the Minute Maid Park roof closed on the 2023 season, Brown began dismantling Baker’s vision of the Astros. First, Baker was gone without so much as a “you’ll always be part of the Astros family” or meaningless title of “Executive Consultant in Charge of Nothing.” Baker’s departure wasn’t a retirement or a kick upstairs – it was just goodbye.

Brown finally was able to hire his own manager and picked longtime bench coach Joe Espada. Will Espada be the right choice, a veteran trusted soldier who has the support of the clubhouse, or the coach who interviewed for several managerial jobs over the years and couldn’t get a bite?

With Dusty Baker’s teacher’s pet Martin Maldonado gone, will young slugger Yanier Diaz fulfill his promise as the No. 1 catcher? The Astros won’t miss Maldonado’s weak bat and eroded defensive skills, but Maldy was undeniably a team leader in the clubhouse. When the Astros needed a verbal kick in the butt, it usually was Maldonado unleashing the tongue lashing. Who will step up as the Astros’ emotional team leader?

It isn’t escaping fans’ attention that Jose Altuve, the greatest Astro ever, is entering his free agent year seemingly without an extension offer on the table. While most believe that the Astros will do whatever it takes to keep Altuve in Houston, a total gag order exists on Alex Bregman’s future. Conventional wisdom says the Astros will keep Bregman through the upcoming season, pass on swallowing a long-term, big-money contract, and let him escape via free agency. However, with Shohei Ohtani signing a ridiculous $700 million contract packed with deferred, interest-free payments, conventional wisdom ain’t so conventional anymore. The Astros maybe, just maybe, could get creative and keep both Altuve and Bregman.

Does Justin Verlander have enough left in his tank to be more than a 5-inning starter? With Maldonado gone, will diva Framber Valdez accept Diaz as his battery mate? Will Lance McCullers ever be a rotation guy? Will Kyle Tucker continue his path to superstardom or stew over the team’s reluctance to sign him to a fair market multiyear extension? Will Jake Meyers become a legit everyday center fielder? Will Josh Hader put the exclamation point on a shutdown bullpen?

The Astros should have enough for another run at a World Series ring, but cracks are showing in the foundation. While the Astros tied for the division title in 2023, they finished with 16 fewer wins than 2022. Surely it galls Astros owner Jim Crane that the World Series champs are the other team in Texas.

Vegas’ confidence in the Astros hasn’t wavered, though. Oddsmakers have the Astros as the (+800) favorite to win the American League pennant. The only teams with shorter odds to win the World Series are the Dodgers (+350) and Braves (+550).

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Suns defeat Rockets, 110-105. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

Phoenix All-Star Devin Booker and Houston rookie Cam Whitmore got into a minor scuffle midway through the fourth quarter Thursday night and both players were called for a technical foul.

With a couple big blocks on the ensuing possession, Suns center Jusuf Nurkic was there to back his star teammate.

Booker scored 35 points, Kevin Durant added 24 and the Suns held off the Rockets 110-105, with the teams set to meet again in Phoenix on Saturday night.

Nurkic had 16 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks before fouling out. His biggest moment came in the fourth, when he stuffed Whitmore twice on the possession following the scuffle, drawing huge roars from the Phoenix crowd.

“Very important — that's the team sticking together,” Booker said. “That goes a long way. That's what you need when things get tough, it gets to the thick of things and the energy is high. You want to know you have people on your team that are built like that.”

Booker scored 20 points in the first quarter to help give the Suns an 18-point lead they would never relinquish. He has scored at least 20 points in an NBA-high six quarters this season.

Three-time All-Star Bradley Beal missed his fifth straight game because of a hamstring injury.

The Suns took an 86-75 lead into the final quarter. Houston cut the advantage to six midway through the fourth, but Booker responded immediately with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to nine.

That led to the brief skirmish between Booker and Whitmore. Tempers stayed hot over the next few minutes — Houston's Alperen Sengun fouled out and then got two quick technicals, earning an ejection.

Booker hit both of the technical free throws, Nurkic followed with his two free throws from Sengun's foul, and that pushed the Suns' lead to 99-84. The Rockets would cut the lead to four with 16.9 seconds left, but Royce O'Neale hit two free throws to end the threat.

Jalen Green led Houston with 34 points. Fred VanVleet added 21. The Rockets connected on just 11 of 45 3-pointers and shot 33.3% from the field overall, which was their worst percentage of the season.

“It wasn't one of our better nights as far as guys getting open looks and making the extra pass,” Rockets coach Ime Udoka said. “We had a few guys who had it going, but a few guys who were struggling.”

Phoenix has won seven of its past 10 — and nine in a row at home — as it tries to stay in the top six of the Western Conference playoff race and avoid the play-in tournament. The sliding Rockets have lost eight of 10.

“We're getting confident in this building,” Suns coach Frank Vogel said.

Booker's big first quarter pushed the Suns to a 33-17 lead. The four-time All-Star made 8 of 10 shots from the field, including a 33-foot 3-pointer in the final seconds.

Phoenix settled for a 64-53 halftime lead. Booker had 26 points before the break while Green led Houston with 21.

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