World Series champion Astros have ingredients of dynasty
LOS ANGELES — Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow uses a Seinfeld reference when pinpointing the time he saw the once-woebegone franchise start to turn around its fortunes on the way to becoming what it is today, the newly crowned World Series champion.
Luhnow had arrived in December 2011, after the Astros lost 100-plus games in a season for the first time in their history, and his plan called for plenty more losing as they moved expensive veterans and built through high draft picks.
The next two seasons were miserable, each worse than the previous one and bottoming out with a 51-111 record in 2013, but the next year signs of hope emerged. The Astros became more competitive, finishing at 70-92. They had a two-time All-Star in second baseman Jose Altuve. And a swashbuckling rookie named George Springer provided much-needed signs of better times to come.
“Our fans were waiting for our process to start working and the players to start coming up,” Luhnow said.
“We had a lot of up-and-down guys, but when Springer arrived, there's a Seinfeld episode — the summer of George — and I remember tweeting something out about the summer of George. He infused such energy into our team that from that point on I knew it was going to be all up and not down.”
The Astros reached the summit by outlasting the Dodgers in a memorable World Series, and it was Springer who set the pace, batting .379, tying a record with five home runs and earning unanimous MVP honors.
Turns out the autumn of George isn't that bad either.
“This has been a crazy journey, a wild ride,” said Springer, a first-round pick in 2011. “The organization has come so far in three years, it's awesome to be a part of. To look back on 2014 and to look back on the huge jump we made in 2015 to now, it's incredible.”
At 28, Springer is part of a nucleus of Astros players either in their prime or early in their careers, a core that infuses Astros fans with optimism that they won't have to wait another 56 years for the next title.
Altuve, the favorite to be named AL MVP, has played seven seasons in the majors but is only 27. Fellow All-Star Carlos Correa, a shortstop with MVP potential of his own, turned 23 in September. Third baseman Alex Bregman is 23 as well.
The only prominent free agent the Astros figure to lose this offseason is DH Carlos Beltran, who seems likely to retire at 40.
“We have a really good chance of defending,” said right fielder Josh Reddick, 30, who came on board as a free agent last November. “I think we all realize that. That trophy could stay in Houston for a few years.”
Getting the first one to Houston took a monumental effort. In Game 7, the Astros had to beat the team with the majors' best overall record and best home record at its own ballpark, in front of 54,124 fans stoked by incessant exhortations to make noise through the P.A. system.
They overcame record-setting wildness by starter Lance McCullers, who couldn't control his nerves or his fastball and became the first pitcher to hit four batters in a World Series game. And they maneuvered around the postseason-long struggles of their bullpen by relying on their regular relievers for just two outs.
Afterward, Bregman interrupted an interview with former Pirate Charlie Morton in the clubhouse by toasting the man who pitched four innings of one-run ball by saying, “Can we get this man a wheelbarrow to carry his (guts)?”
The youthful exuberance was evident all over. Correa, who became the first player to total seven postseason homers before turning 24 by belting five in October, took it a step further by proposing to girlfriend Daniella Rodriguez on live TV after the victory.
That capped a dream day for Correa, who recalled the days growing up in Puerto Rico when his friends would head out to a party and he would instead go to the ballpark to work on the skills that made him the top overall pick in the 2012 draft and a champion five years later.
“It's a feeling you can't describe,” he said of securing a ring at such a tender age. “You dream about it as a kid, but when the moment arrives, it's so much more than what you thought it was going to be.”
Of course, it wasn't only young players who carried the load for the Astros. Almost to a man they cite the importance of the club adding veterans like Beltran and catcher Brian McCann, who proved perfect complements with their savvy.
The Morton signing, initially criticized because he was coming off an injury-shortened season, proved a stroke of genius. He tied for the team lead with 14 wins, then notched two more in the postseason.
And the Aug. 31 trade for Justin Verlander fortified the rotation for the championship run.
But months before that, McCann sensed something special was afoot in Houston's blend of youth and experience. McCann had become an Astro through an offseason swap with the New York Yankees, waiving his no-trade clause for a chance to join a club with which he could win his first ring.
At a team dinner in Seattle during the Astros' first trip in April, McCann noticed the players expressing how they saw themselves contributing to the club, which gave him a feeling that Houston could go far. The next several months confirmed that notion.
“I'm a baseball fan,” McCann said. “The view I get, the talent I get to watch every night, we're going to look back in five, 10, 15 years and it's going to be, ‘I can't believe all those guys were on the same team.' That's the kind of talent I get to witness every night.”
And he'll continue to see it for a while.