Exploring how the Astros built their AL championship team

The Astros will be playing in the World Series for the third time in five seasons, but only six players remain from that 2017 championship team, and only four of that group (minus the injured Lance McCullers Jr. and the non-rostered Marwin Gonzalez) actually appeared in Houston’s ALCS victory over the Red Sox.  While the Astros continue to rely on some familiar cornerstones of that controversial 2017 team, there has been quite a bit of roster overhaul over a relatively short period of time, not to mention a new manager and GM in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal.

Proving that there is no one way to design a great team, the Astros used several different methods of transactions to collect their players.  Perhaps just as importantly, the Astros have been able to retain key talents through contract extensions, or by re-signing players once they reach free agency.  Here is the breakdown of how the Astros built their latest pennant winner….

Homegrown, international signings: Jose Altuve (2007), Framber Valdez (2015), Jose Urquidy (2015), Cristian Javier (2015), Luis Garcia (2017)

Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve
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Landing a franchise second baseman, three members of a starting rotation and a key swingman via the international signing market is impressive enough.  But the Astros’ feat stands out even more considering that none of these five players were considered blue-chip prospects at the time of their signings and were signed for merely thousands of dollars.

Altuve’s legend is well-known by this point, as the diminutive second baseman was inked for a modest $15K bonus and has now become a Houston sports icon.  The savings extended into Altuve’s first multiyear deal (a four-year pact worth $12.5M in guaranteed money plus club options for 2018 and 2019), but Altuve then scored a much bigger payday with his second extension: a five-year, $151M pact that runs through the 2024 campaign.

Going forward, the Astros’ international investment in their pitching corps might be an even more important overall development than landing Altuve.  Valdez, Urquidy, Garcia and Javier combined for a 3.38 ERA over 498 1/3 innings, and all four pitcher are controlled through at least the 2025 season.  The quartet has already become an integral part of one contending team, and considering the veteran losses the Astros could face in free agency this offseason, Houston can feel some level of comfort in already having a new wave of arms already in place.

Homegrown, amateur draft: Jason Castro (2008 draft, first round, 10th pick), Carlos Correa (2012 draft, 1-1), Alex Bregman (2015, 1-2), Kyle Tucker (2015, 1-5), Jake Meyers (2017, 13-391), Chas McCormick (2017, 21-631).

Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa
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Let’s begin with the caveat of Castro, who began his career in Houston through the lean years of the team’s rebuild, but left for the Twins as a free agent in the 2016-17 offseason — just before the Astros broke through to reach the Fall Classic.  Castro returned to Houston this past winter, signing a two-year, $7M free-agent contract.

There is also McCullers (the 41st overall pick of the 2012 draft), a huge part of the Astros’ regular-season success in 2021 but whose postseason has been marred and possibly ended by injury.  Brandon Bielak (2017, 11-331) also threw 50 innings mostly as a reliever in 2021, but he hasn’t been included on Houston’s postseason rosters.

Center field was seen as a weak link for the Astros in the wake of George Springer’s departure in free agency, yet the team ended up getting very solid production from Myles Straw for much of the season, and then from the rookie tandem of Meyers and McCormick when Straw was dealt at the trade deadline.  Meyers is another injury absence from the ALCS, so McCormick and Jose Siri look to be handling center field duties during the World Series.

That leaves the three gems of the Astros’ extensive rebuild, as the club made no pretense about its intent to bottom out with multiple losing seasons in order to restock with premium young talent at the top of the draft.  Hard as it may seem now, but Correa was actually seen as a bit of a surprise as the first overall pick in 2012, as the Astros took a more “signable” player so they could spread out their draft bonus money on other picks.  With both Correa and McCullers developing into stars, that plan worked to perfection.

Tanking for multiple years gave Houston multiple chances to score on high draft picks, which is why the Astros haven’t really suffered any consequences for drafting consecutive 1-1 picks (Mark Appel in 2013, Brady Aiken in 2014) who didn’t reach the majors.  Indeed, after not reaching an agreement with Aiken due to concerns over his UCL health, the Astros received the second overall pick in the 2015 draft as compensation.  The result was the selection of both Bregman and Tucker within the first five picks, which stands out as one of the more impressive first-round hauls in recent memory.

International free-agent signings: Yuli Gurriel (July 2016)

Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel
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While Altuve and company turned out to be incredible bargains on the international amateur market, the Astros had to pay Gurriel $47.5M on a five-year deal, outbidding several teams for the Cuban star as he made the jump to Major League Baseball.  Gurriel didn’t make his big league debut until he was 32 years old, and while there has been some inconsistency along the way, Gurriel has proved to be a very solid contributor, with a .293/.337/.467 slash line over 2721 career plate appearances in The Show.

Despite a lackluster 2020 season, Gurriel still received a contract extension in late September 2020, giving Houston control over Gurriel in 2021 (for a $6.5M salary) and 2022 (a club option worth $8M, with a $500K buyout).  The extension surprised many at the time, but it has proved to be one of GM James Click’s canniest moves, as Gurriel rebounded with the best season of his six-year MLB career and won the AL batting title.  Unsurprisingly, Astros owner Jim Crane has already implied that Gurriel will be back with the team via that club option.

Free-agent signings: Michael Brantley, Jake Odorizzi, Ryne Stanek, Jose Siri

Houston Astros designated hitter Michael Brantley
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Brantley signed a two-year, $32M deal to join the Astros in the 2018-19 offseason and then re-signed with the club for that exact same contract this past winter.  While Brantley missed some time with relatively minor injuries this season, he has still been a productive hitter, adding to the success of his overall tenure in Houston.  Brantley has hit .310/.367/.474 with 35 home runs over 1332 PA in an Astros uniform, twice receiving All-Star nods.

The Marlins non-tendered Stanek (rather than pay him a projected $800K) in the wake of a mediocre 2020 performance.  The Astros swooped in with a $1.1M deal and ended up landing a controllable reliever who bounced back pretty nicely with a 3.42 ERA and 28.6% strikeout rate over 68 1/3 innings, but Stanek’s control and hard-contact numbers weren’t impressive.  Stanek has stood out as a workhorse in the playoffs, with a 1.35 ERA over eight appearances and 6 2/3 innings during Houston’s run.

Odorizzi was another signing from the most recent offseason, but he didn’t sign his $23.5M contract until March.  Between missing part of the usual spring training ramp-up and then suffering multiple injuries, Odorizzi’s innings were managed for much of the season, but he did contribute a 4.21 ERA over 104 2/3 frames.  Thus far in the postseason, Odorizzi has pitched in only one game, tossing four innings in relief of Garcia in the Astros’ 9-5 loss to the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALCS.

Siri was a minor league signing who had never played as much as a game in the majors until this past September 3, and now he’ll very likely to be headed to the World Series as Meyers’ replacement.  Siri played seven seasons in the Reds’ farm system (and was briefly a Mariner and a Giant via waiver claims) before signing with the Astros this past winter, and he posted a .956 OPS in his first 49 PA as a big leaguer.

Trades: Justin Verlander hasn’t thrown a pitch this season due to Tommy John surgery, and his tenure with the Astros could be over if he signs elsewhere in free agency this winter.  Verlander is certainly worthy of mention, of course, given his huge role in the 2017 World Series after the Astros nabbed him from the Tigers on August 31, 2017, and how Verlander then re-upped with Houston on a two-year, $66M extension.  (Unfortunately, Verlander has thrown only six innings over the course of that extension.)

Houston Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez
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Beyond the injured Verlander, 10 players on the ALCS roster were acquired via trade…

  • Yordan Alvarez: As this section indicates, the Astros are no strangers to notable deals at the trade deadline.  However, this one from 2016 drew only a little attention at the time, yet picking up Alvarez from the Dodgers for reliever Josh Fields has turned out to be one of the steals of the decade.  Alvarez has looked like one of baseball’s best hitters when healthy, and he just earned ALCS MVP honors for his huge series against Boston.
  • Zack Greinke: Completed just under the buzzer at the 2019 trade deadline, Houston acquired Greinke from the Diamondback for a four-prospect package of J.B. Bukauskas, Josh Rojas, Corbin Martin and Seth Beer.  Rojas was the least-regarded of the four youngsters at the time, but he has gone on to enjoy the most success thus far at the big league level.  Greinke has been mostly solid, if generally not quite up to his past ace-level performance during his two-plus seasons in Houston, and his strikeout rate took a big dip in 2021.  While Greinke tossed 171 innings, some injuries late in the season turned him into something of a depth arm on the playoff roster, as Greinke has thrown only 2 1/3 innings this postseason.
  • Martin Maldonado: A two-time trade acquisition, the Astros first landed Maldonado from the Angels a few days prior to the 2018 deadline, then brought him back on deadline day 2019 after Maldonado had played with the Royals and Cubs earlier that season.  Maldonado has become a Houston fixture, as the team has signed him to a pair of contract extensions that will keep him in the fold until at least the end of the 2022 season.
  • Aledmys Diaz: The versatile Diaz has been a valuable utility piece for the Astros since being acquired from the Blue Jays in November 2018.
  • Ryan Pressly: The right-hander was already an underrated reliever during his time with the Twins, but he took it to another level after the Astros landed him in a July 2018 trade.  Pressly signed an extension prior to the 2019 season that now stands as a three-year, $27.5M deal after he unlocked a vesting option to guarantee his salary for 2022 season — a $10M price the Astros are surely happy to cover given how well Pressly has pitched.
  • Basically the entire bullpen: The Pressly trade is the headline move, and Houston has generally looked to the trade market in assembling its relief corps.  Blake Taylor was acquired as part of the Jake Marisnick trade with the Mets in December 2019, while fellow southpaw Brooks Raley was picked up from the Reds in August 2020.  The Astros targeted bullpen help in three separate trades near this year’s deadline, including the surprising acquisition of Kendall Graveman and (the now-injured) Rafael Montero from the AL West rival Mariners.  The emergence of McCormick and Meyers gave the Astros enough comfort to trade Straw to the Indians for Phil Maton, as well as another young outfielder in Bryan De La Cruz and a swingman in Austin Pruitt to the Marlins for Yimi Garcia.  Graveman has been the best of the new faces in both the regular season and playoffs, while Maton has added some key innings in the postseason.

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