Wednesday afternoon it was reported that pitcher Charlie Morton would not be returning to the Houston Astros next year, opting instead to sign a 2-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays worth roughly $30 million. Morton--most noted for securing the final out of the Astros 2017 World Series Championship--was a pivotal arm in the Astros' most recent 2018 campaign, ringing up over 200 strikeouts en route to a 15-3 record.
Morton's confirmed departure is yet another blow to what was viewed by many as one of the top three rosters in the MLB. Pitcher Dallas Keuchel, utility man Marwin Gonzales, catcher Brian McCann, and designated hitter Evan Gattis--all critical players in securing Houston's first ever World Series championship have all either signed or are expected to sign elsewhere over the winter. And while the Astros' front office has made a handful of shrewd moves to begin the off-season, they have not only let proven commodities walk away but have also seemingly shied away from many of the blockbuster moves most experts had pegged as "must happens."
Houston's two main threats for the past two seasons for American League supremacy, The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have had quite the opposite approach. New York acquired a stud of a pitcher and absolute thorn in Houston's side in James Paxton. Boston remained in-house, resigning 2018 playoff monster Nathan Eovaldi to a 4-year $68 million dollar contract. Two of the league's top three winningest teams from a season ago have all either reloaded, or upgraded. Why then, is the third remaining motionless? Astros fans have become increasingly anxious as a result, but in order to understand what's happening--and in so doing, what's going to happen, it's imperative to understand how the Astros got to where they are today.
The Astros became a powerhouse not by buying up every big name they heard on the free agent market, but by cultivating their talent within. Just about every name you associate with the Astros not named Justin Verlander is a home grown product that has never worn another major league ball cap other than the navy one with the H-star. As a result, the Astros boast one of the most potent offenses in the league with a core that is still primarily clocking into work on rookie contracts. It's that type of financial flexibility that allows acquisitions like a high dollar, season-altering Verlander trade to even be possible in the first place.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this Astros front office is very selective in free agents. They rarely offer deals beyond 3 years and tend to look for value deals like a Charlie Morton or an Evan Gattis. Most people think about the acquisitions of Verlander and pitcher Gerrit Cole as evidence that Houston will be a major player in free agency and that just isn't how they operate. Both of those players were obtained via trade. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow has always approached free agency tentatively and outside of Carlos Beltran in 2017, he hasn't hit on very many of his signings. Last season the Astros signed relievers Hector Rondon and Joe Smith, and while Rondon had moments of production, neither were game changers by any means.
Simply put, don't expect Houston to throw $300 million at a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. What you can expect is that the Astros will stick to their script, typically despite the behest of their fanbase. It also means is that if something does happen, it will most likely happen in the form of a trade. And if recent history has taught us anything, it will happen much later--if not almost too late--than everyone expects. Cole wasn't acquired until mid January of last season and Verlander wasn't moved until the last second of the last hour of the 2017 trade window.
The bottom line is, there is a method to the madness. While it tugs at the heartstrings to see local heroes like Morton and Keuchel move on, the organization is correct to avoid overpaying for nostalgia. Rest assured the Astros are aware that this is their window to be a championship caliber team, and while it may not happen on anyone's preferred timeline, expect Houston to be players once again this winter to remain so.
With a new season on the horizon, the Astros have high hopes for 2024 after coming just one game shy of being in the World Series for three consecutive seasons.
If Houston wants to get back to the Fall Classic in 2024, they're going to have to rely on their pitching. Owner Jim Crane believes the club has 8 starting pitchers when Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. return mid-season.
Which allows several of the starters to move to the bullpen and provide even more depth. Add those guys to Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly, and Josh Hader and you have a recipe for success.
Check out the video above as ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham goes through the entire staff and makes his case for the Astros having the best pitching staff in baseball.
You can listen to The Killer B's with Jeremy Branham and Joel Blank every weekday on ESPN 97.5 & 92.5 from 3 pm - 6 pm!