They played in three stadiums and three divisions under two different names and two different leagues. In their first 55 seasons, the Astros went a lot of places, but never to the top of the sport.
Yet, perhaps as well as anyone since the 1998-2000 Yankees last did it, these Astros are positioned to repeat. They waited a long time to secure that first title, but are well positioned to win a second.
For they are deeper than the team that won the AL West by 21 games in 2017 and are now championship-hardened by dramatic seven-game victories over the Yankees in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the World Series.
“We are better on paper,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch acknowledged.
The Astros possess qualities that I believe helped the Joe Torre Yankees turn dynastic, mainly built around depth.
Houston led the majors in runs last year because the order lacked soft spots. Jose Altuve was the AL MVP and Carlos Correa one of the game’s best players. But know that 10 of the 11 players who led Houston in plate appearances are back. The only one who is not is the retired Carlos Beltran, the lone hitter in the group who had an OPS-plus below league average. Every other hitter was 9 percent above league average or better.
First baseman Yulieski Gurriel is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season recovering from surgery to remove the hook of his left hamate and having to serve an MLB-leveled five-game suspension for what it deemed disparaging gestures toward Yu Darvish in the World Series.
Marwin Gonzalez will probably move to first during this period, and Houston will get a few-week laboratory to see if left fielder Derek Fisher is ready to help expand the homegrown core four of Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman and George Springer.
“We have learned to win in different ways,” Hinch said. “When we went to the playoffs in 2015, we hit homers, struck out and felt great on the day Dallas Keuchel started.”
The Astros last year led the majors in runs by 38 and OPS by 38 — both over the Yankees — by finishing second in the majors in homers while striking out 66 times fewer than any team, and 365 fewer than in 2016.
The dynastic Yankees won in the postseason for a variety of reasons, but one was that no one person in the lineup put undo pressure on himself, so strong was the belief that the guy behind him was of quality and could come through.
Another reason the dynastic Yankees won in the postseason was that no matter what happened in any one game, the internal belief was the next starter was capable of winning a big game whether it was, for example, Roger Clemens or David Cone or Orlando Hernandez or Andy Pettitte or David Wells. In the period in which the Yanks won four championships in five seasons (1996-2000), each of those pitchers started a playoff series Game 1 at least once.
The Astros have evolved into something akin to that. Justin Verlander was added on the final day of last August, and the Astros outdid the Yankees to land Gerrit Cole from the Pirates in the offseason. Those two plus Keuchel, postseason revelation Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers have moved Collin McHugh, who finished eighth in the Cy Young voting in 2015, and Brad Peacock to the bullpen and rotation insurance. Verlander, Keuchel and Cole all have started a Game 1 or a wild card game, and McCullers and Morton both closed out Game 7s with four innings of relief.
What the Astros do not have is a Mariano Rivera type. Last postseason, Hinch had to maneuver around Ken Giles in the postseason with Morton, McCullers and Peacock all helping out of the bullpen. Houston tried to deepen its pen with free agent buys Hector Rondon and Joe Smith.
But no one should be surprised if the Astros were serious bidders come July for the best relief arms — think Baltimore’s Zach Britton (if he is recovered from a torn Achilles tendon), Texas’ Alex Claudio, Tampa Bay’s Alex Colome or Toronto’s Roberto Osuna.
It will potentially hurt the Astros to improve internally or externally that top prospect, righty Forrest Whitley, will miss the first 50 minor league games after being suspended for what MLB said was violation of its drug protocols.
Hinch said he has noticed his key players be more inundated by requests for media and by advertisers, but that he thought it was having no impact on preparation for the season. Another key to the Yankees dynasty was that success never dimmed the group hunger to keep winning titles — if anything, the experience of winning made the group more prepared to handle all that came with and a desire to keep doing it.
“We can’t underestimate the growth of our young players, who are a year older and a year wiser, but all still in their prime.” Hinch said. “I think they all have a better understanding of what take to be successful.”