Richard Justice: Michael Brantley’s return is the gift the Astros were hoping for and finishes the heavy lifting for 2023.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Christian Smith/AP/Shutterstock (13035448n) Houston Astros’ Michael Brantley watches from the dugout during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, in Houston Athletics Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 17 Jul 2022

Richard Justice: Michael Brantley’s return is the gift the Astros were hoping for and finishes the heavy lifting for 2023.

   The Astros were in trouble. For the first time in a long, magical season, the championship dream seemed to be slipping away. Eighteen hours earlier, the Phillies had laid a 7-0 whipping on our lads in Game 3 of the 2022 World Series.

   The Astros were no stranger to hostile environments. They’d survived ‘em again and again. In Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park. In Yankee Stadium and Nationals Park.

   This one just felt different. There are no fans like Philadelphia fans, and in that Game 3, one player, in particular, saw things he did not like. Michael Brantley summoned the Astros hitters to an indoor batting area the next afternoon and said things only a veteran of his stature could say.

    Never mind that he hadn’t played since late June. His voice still mattered. He told his guys that they’d allowed Phillies pitchers to set a tempo, that they seemed to control at-bats before the at-bats even began.

   Forget the strategy. This was only partly about that. This, as one player said later, was about Brantley reminding the Astros who they were. The Astros took control of the World Series thanks to Cristian Javier and three relievers throwing the second no-hitter in World Series history.

But that chat, one in which Brantley contributed without stepping foot in the batter’s box speaks volumes about why the Astros wanted him back in 2023.

   Jim Crane, Jeff Bagwell, and their baseball staff toyed with signing an assortment of other outfielders, from Michael Conforto to Andrew Benintendi to others. But Brantley is the guy they targeted from day one. Their only question had been about his health. He will be six months out from shoulder surgery on the first day of Spring Training.

   “Are you going to be OK? Are you confident of that?”

   That’s what they asked him. They knew he would be honest. They surely went through a stack of medical reports, but the No. 1 thing they wanted was to hear it from Brantley himself. If he could assure the Astros he was healing normally; there was no one else they’d rather have.

   His agreement to a one-year, $12-million contract on Sunday signals that the Astros are done with the offseason’s heavy lifting. With the signing of José Abreu and the re-signing of Uncle Mike, the Astros believe they have positioned themselves to win again.

   Brantley is 35 years old, so there’s some risk there. But a one-year contract removes most of that risk. Besides, as we’ve seen again and again this offseason with contracts being awarded that stretch into the age 38, 39, and 40 seasons for some players, teams have begun to see age differently.

   Just a few years ago, a player’s age 27 season was considered his peak performance based on mounds of data about production. But with a player like Brantley, meticulous in his training and preparation, his 36th birthday next May seems like much less of a factor.

   Are the Astros better than the team that just won the World Series? Offensively, there’s no question they’re better. Brantley played just 64 games last season before undergoing surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, but his OPS+ was 25% above league average.

   In four seasons with the Astros, it’s 24% above league average. If he’s healthy, pencil him in for about a .370 on-base percentage. Here’s what the Astros batting order on Opening Day could look like:

   Jose Altuve, 2B

   Michael Brantley, DH

   Yordan Alvarez, LF

   Kyle Tucker, RF

   Jose Abreu, 1B

   Alex Bregman, 3B

   Chas McCormick, CF

   Martín Maldonado, C

   Jeremy Peña, SS 

   If that’s not the best lineup in the game, it’s on the very, very shortlist. McCormick proved down the stretch and in the postseason that he deserves to start on Opening Day.

   But the Astros probably are going to open up center field to a spring competition between McCormick, Jake Meyers, and a pair of prospects, Pedro Leon and Justin Dirden.

   To argue that the Astros are better overall than the 2022 champs would be foolish because of the departure of the American League Cy Young Award winner.

   Justin Verlander didn’t just produce on the field. Every young player could feed off his tactics, competitive fire, and work ethic. Even with all that pitching depth, pitching is such a fragile commodity that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Astros add a back-end starter for insurance.

   But with the payroll now pushing $190 million and with signing Tucker to an extension a big priority, Crane has shown he’s unafraid to make difficult decisions.

   When the Mets offered Verlander a two-year contract at $43 million per season, the Astros were out of that game.

   The Yankees are going to be really good again. The Mariners are going to be good, too, and the Rangers are getting better fast.

   None of those teams has accomplished what the Astros have accomplished the last six seasons (six playoff appearances, four World Series, two championships).

   On the 2023 Opening Day, the road to the championship goes through Houston again. Brantley’s signing guarantees the Astros nothing, but all things considered, they could hardly be positioned better.

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