Richard Justice: The Astros have almost all the key players locked up for two more seasons. For that, thank Jim Crane.

Oct 11, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros owner Jim Crane looks on during batting practice before game one of the ALDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs against the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: The Astros have almost all the key players locked up for two more seasons. For that, thank Jim Crane.

This is Jim Crane’s genius: the Astros have virtually every key player locked up for at least the next two seasons. This is all any baseball fan can ask of a team owner.

Injuries can undo the best-laid plans, but Crane has smartly controlled the economic side of things. The Astros had baseball’s second-best record in 2022 with its ninth-highest payroll.

They’ll probably end up somewhere near the bottom of the top 10 in 2023 as well. The Texas Rangers, having committed $800 million to free agents the last two offseasons, may inch ahead of them, with both teams creeping toward $200 million.

Michael Brantley, Martín Maldonado, and Ryne Stanek are the only potential significant free agent departures after the 2023 season. Otherwise, the Astros are set for two more postseason runs.

If you’re inclined to look down the hall and around the corner to find trouble, check out the 2024-2025 offseason when Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman can be free agents, and Kyle Tucker, Framber Valdez, and Cristian Javier are a year away from the open market.

That should not distract from the 30,000-foot view: After winning more games than any other American League team the past six seasons, the Astros seem likely to remain in the postseason mix at least through 2024.

This was already a remarkable run. To make the playoffs six years in a row, which the Astros have, without a massive payroll explosion, speaks volumes about the overall smarts of the organization.

Crane has been unafraid to make tough calls. That the Astros would continue to win after the departures of George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Gerrit Cole is extraordinary.

Crane badly wanted Justin Verlander back in 2023, right up until it became clear the pitcher would land the $43-million salary he was seeking.

With a deep pitching staff and two big offensive holes in the lineup, Crane directed his resources to signing José Abreu and Brantley. His starting rotation is significantly thinner without the 2022 American League Cy Young Award winner, but the offense is much better.

Crane’s challenge now will be keeping Framber Valdez, Kyle Tucker, and Cristian Javier as their salaries soar during their arbitration years. All of them will get big raises in 2023.

Cots MLB Contracts estimates Tucker will get a 621% raise from $764,000 to $4.75 million. If he stays healthy and productive, he’ll get two more big raises before hitting free agency after the 2025 season.

Likewise, Valdez and Javier will get raises next season in their first and second seasons of arbitration eligibility. That’s why the Astros payroll will continue to increase even without any crazy free-agent spending.

Crane surely would like to sign all three of them to extensions, offering financial security in exchange for buying out a year or two of free agency.

Crane was roasted around the country for dismissing general manager James Click after winning a World Series. They simply were not a good fit together.

As one Astros source said: “When Jim wants something done, he wants it done. I think he felt James slow-walked some things.”

Crane may still hire someone with the title of general manager, but the front office arrangement seems to be working fine at the moment, with Crane, Jeff Bagwell, and the analytics team seemingly working smoothly.

Brad Ausmus could join the front office in some role, although he seems reluctant to be the general manager. I asked someone in the know why a full-time general manager was needed at a time when things are running smoothly.

“To talk to the media,” he said.

I mentioned that Bagwell had been among the best interviews in the sport for about two decades. I got no answer, but I’m certain my suggestion was appreciated.

The Astros have functioned at such a high level under Crane that the years of playoff meltdowns seem like a century or so ago. If Mayor Sylvester Turner were to ask, I’d recommend making Nov. 17 an official holiday.

It was on that day in 2011 that MLB owners approved Crane’s purchase of the Astros. In 11 years since, the Astros have been the best-run franchise in the game.

His blueprint was simple: rebuild from top to bottom and accept there would be short-term pain in exchange for constructing something sustainable.

Since then, the Astros have made winning look easy, and Crane’s original $615-million investment may be worth $2.5 billion. If you’re one of those people that grew up rooting for this team, you could never envision a time when it would be this good. It’s unlikely to end for at least a couple more seasons.

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  • Been an An Astro’s fan for 42 years. These are the best of times.

  • Crane is a baseball man who knows business. Very different from owners like the Ricketts, and most others. He started by upgrading the facilities realizing when FAs were ready to sign the facilities needed to be first rate. Mostly good hires with an emphasis on player development. Finally finding some low cost gems in the international signing period has been key. The fact that players want to extend or sign (with a few exceptions) says a lot.

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