Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ashley Landis/AP/Shutterstock (12554849s) Houston Astros owner Jim Crane talks on the phone during batting practice before Game 1 in baseball’s World Series against the Atlanta Braves, in Houston World Series Baseball, Houston, United States – 26 Oct 2021
After clinching a fifth American League West title in six years and moving closer to securing a first-round bye in the playoffs, the pitching-rich Astros are favored to reach the World Series for the third time in six seasons.
After sweeping the Rays at Tampa, the Astros stood 99-51 going into their four-game series at Baltimore. The Astros clearly are the best team in the American League, and they’re trying to reach a fifth consecutive ALCS – a remarkable accomplishment.
Because of the sign-stealing scandal of 2017 when they beat the Dodgers in the World Series, the Astros still get booed on the road. But even their harshest critics have to respect what they’ve been able to achieve since commissioner Rob Manfred handed down his punishment.
Look at what the Astros have been able to accomplish compared to the Nationals, who defeated them 4-3 in the 2019 World Series.
Over their last three seasons, since losing the World Series to Washington, the Astros have compiled a 240-161 record, including 17-12 in the playoffs. A year after losing to the Nationals, the Astros lost the last game of the ALCS to the Rays and the World Series in six games to the Braves.
By comparison, the Nationals are 143-228 with no playoffs. Their 52-97 record this season is the worst in baseball. Ownership failed to re-sign three of their stars of that series – pitcher Max Scherzer, outfielder Juan Soto and third baseman Anthony Rendon.
Scherzer and Soto were traded, and Rendon left in free agency, the same as outfielder Bryce Harper did after the 2018 season. No wonder the Nationals are the worst team in both leagues.
And the Astros have managed to stay on top.
They’ve been able to overcome owner Jim Crane firing general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, as well as the loss of two first and second-round draft choices that weakened the farm system considerably.
Dusty Baker and James Click have done outstanding jobs since replacing Hinch and Luhnow in 2020 under the most difficult of circumstances, including that pandemic-shortened first season. They guided the Astros to the ALCS in their first season together and the World Series in 2021, before losing the World Series to Atlanta.
Baker and Click are in the last year of their contracts. Both have exceptional staffs that have helped the Astros remain perennial World Series contenders. Expect Crane, a shrewd businessman, to extend them in the offseason with well-deserved raises.
It’s almost mind-boggling to see the Astros as World Series contenders despite losing so many players who played substantial roles in their success: George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel – to name a few.
This season, the Astros have been able to withstand the loss of leftfielder Michael Brantley, who’ll miss 96 games.
Players come and go, and when you can replace them with the likes of Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker and Jeremy Pena, you should be competitive and have a chance to remain on top.
The Astros’ strength, of course, is pitching. Every team in baseball should be envious of something the Astros have and they don’t – a surplus of pitching.
They have seven healthy starters with a combined record of 75-33. They also have a deep bullpen that’s going to get deeper in the playoffs.
Baker, Click and pitching coaches Josh Miller and Bill Murphy will have difficult decisions to make when finalizing playoff rosters. Other teams would love to have the Astros’ problems.
By the way, Miller and Murphy have done exceptional jobs of replacing Brent Strom, the best pitching coach in team history.
Justin Verlander should be headed for another Cy Young Award. Framber Valdez should be in the running. Lance McCullers Jr. has rebounded impressively from his forearm injury. Jose Urquidy, Christian Javier and Luis Garcia also have playoff experience.
Baker and his pitching coaches will have to decide on a fourth starter for the playoffs and take into consideration Urquidy, who hasn’t pitched well lately, was 2-0 in the World Series last year and has extensive playoff experience.
Another tough call might be rookie Hunter Brown. Considering how effective he’s been in three appearances as a starter and reliever since being promoted, he should be close to becoming a lock for the playoffs because of that proven versatility.
The only team that’s enjoyed a better run than the Astros is the Dodgers, who have won the NL West nine of the last 10 years. They have a baseball-best 103-46 record this season. With a bottomless pit of money, the Dodgers have a payroll of $265.1 million compared to the Astros’ 183.1, according to Spotrac.com.
The Dodgers also have a deep and talented farm system that never seems to run out of pitching and hitting prospects who can replenish the roster or be included in trades. For the Dodgers, it’s become World Series or bust every season.
The Dodgers are favored to reach a fourth World Series in six years, although the Braves and Mets may have may have something to say about that.
When trying to predict what teams are going to reach the World Series, close your eyes and try to imagine the excitement in Houston and Los Angeles if the Astros and Dodgers tangle in the World Series for the first time since that tarnished 2017 season.
It couldn’t get any better than that for the Astros and their loyal fans who’ve supported them through 100-loss seasons, a massive rebuild, a scandal, a resurrection and perhaps the first untainted World Series title in the franchise’s 61-year history.
John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610, and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610, and he can also be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com