Seeking To Keep World Series Crown, Astros Will Face Tough Competition After Rivals Rebuild With Free Agents

The Houston Astros will try to do this season what no major-league team has done since 2001: win back-to-back world championships.

With the vagaries of free agency, however, it’s not likely the 2023 Astros will become the first team to repeat since the 2001 Yankees won their third World Series in a row.

Houston certainly has incentive: it awarded 59 full shares, worth $516,347 each, to players, coaches, and staff after winning the world championship last year. That was a major-league record, topping the $438,901.57 shares given to players from the 2017 Astros, who also won the World Series.

The other 11 teams in the expanded postseason also got bonus money based upon post-season performance, all drawn from a $107.5 million players’ pool that was also a record, thanks to the advent of the best-of-three Wild Card Series.

More games means more money but the size of each World Series share depends upon how many are awarded by each team.

Even the New York Mets, who did not survive the Wild Card Series, got $9,480 apiece (68 shares).

Western Division

The Astros anticipate another post-season payday this year; they’ve reached the World Series four times in the last six years – winning twice – and the AL Championship Series six years in succession. But they’re about to plunge into their biggest challenge.

Gone this year are pitching ace Justin Verlander, who rode free agency across league lines to sign a New York Mets contract worth a record $43.3 million; catcher Christian Vasquez; and first baseman Yuli Gurriel, a former batting champion who was a post-season standout before hurting his knee.

But Dusty Baker, oldest manager in the majors, returns at age 74 to lead a team that still has strong starting pitching in Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier, a stalwart bullpen led by closer Ryan Pressly, and a productive lineup with Jose Altuve at the top; sluggers Jordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker in the middle; and newly-signed Jose Abreu (three years, $58.5 million) and Michael Brantley (one year, $12 million) arriving to assist. Alvarez was second in the AL last year with an OPS of 1.019, while Altuve is a three-time batting champion.

Houston’s biggest off-season addition is new general manager Dana Brown, former head of scouting for the Atlanta Braves. He and Baker are baseball’s first all-black tandem of general manager and manager.

Although the Astros finished with a 16-game bulge over second-place Seattle last summer, this year’s race could be considerably closer. Three of the Houston’s rivals have improved, with the free-spending Texas Rangers ready to challenge for the top under new manager Bruce Bochy, brought out of retirement at age 67, and two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, lured from the Mets with a five-year, $185 contract.

Bochy, who won three world championships with San Francisco, is a former catcher with a great knowledge of pitching.

His revamped rotation not only includes deGrom but also Nate Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney, Jake Odorizzi, and holdover Martín Pérez, who accepted a $19.65 million qualifying offer. Eovaldi, a Texas native, left Boston for a two-year, $34 million deal.

All told, The Associated Press reported the Rangers had spent a whopping $761 million on free agents in a year that ended with the deGrom signing on Dec. 2. By the time 2023 spring training started, Cot’s Contracts ranked the Rangers ninth in the majors at $188.6 million.

But club owner Ray Davis, anxious to end a club-worst string of six straight losing seasons and reverse the team’s 68-94 record, said he would not hesitate to keep increasing his hefty payroll.

The four sluggers who topped 25 homers for Texas last year – Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Adolis Garcia, and Nathaniel Lowe – are back while the return of Mitch Garver and arrival of rookie Josh Jung will help an offense that limped to a team batting average of .239 last season. The team also needs a dependable closer.

The Los Angeles Angels, without a pennant since 2002, also added pitching, signing starter Tyler Anderson (3 years, $39 million) and relievers Carlos Estevez (2 years, $13.5 million) and Matt Moore (1 year, $7.55 million).

Their biggest concern, however, is the expiring $30 million contract of two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who led last year’s team in wins, strikeouts, ERA, and runs batted in.

Ohtani, a left-handed DH when not serving as a right-handed pitcher, is still just 28 and a strong contender to recapture the MVP award he won in 2021.

His biggest competitor could be teammate Mike Trout, who has three of his own. The oft-injured Trout, 31, hit 40 homers in 119 games and owns the game’s biggest contract: $426,500,000 through 2030.

Anxious to end their streak of seven straight losing seasons, the Halos hope for help from rookie catcher Logan O’Hoppe and left-handed starter Reid Detmers, who pitched the only complete-game no-hitter in the majors last year.

As droughts go, no team matches the Seattle Mariners, a 1997 expansion team that has never won a pennant. It did win 91 times last year, however, to secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2001.

Seattle has a sensational center-fielder in Julio Rodriguez, who won AL Rookie of the Year honors with 28 home runs, 25 stolen bases, and Gold Glove defense. He not only made the All-Star team but topped Mike Trout’s mark of becoming the fastest rookie to enjoy a 25/25 season.

Clearly planning their future around the 22-year-old Dominican, the team gave him a contract extension that could carry him through 2034 if all player options are exercised. The first 12 years, at $210 million, are guaranteed but the long-term potential is $300 million over 17 years, which would make it the longest contract in baseball history.

He gets help in the lineup from Eugenio Suarez, who led the club with 31 homers and 87 RBI; Teoscar Hernandez, who hammered 25 homers for Toronto; and catcher Cal Raleigh, whose walk-off Sept. 30 homer put Seattle into the playoffs. Kolten Wong tightens the infield.

Seattle has a strong left-right rotation tandem in Robbie Ray and Luis Castillo, acquired from the Reds at the 2022 trade deadline.

If one thing’s for sure in the AL West, it’s the cellar-dwelling status of the once-proud Oakland Athletics. Rookie manager Mark Kotsay endured a 102-loss season and the continued exodus of star players in 2022, though the club is collecting prospects that may someday gel elsewhere, with Las Vegas the leading contender. The last time the A’s lost 100 was 1979.

Whomever wins the West is likely to have challengers from the East.

Eastern Division

The New York Yankees, who very nearly lost American League MVP Aaron Judge to free agency in the wake of his record-setting 62-homer season, are determined to avenge their sweep by the Astros in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series.

They not only gave Judge a nine-year, $360 million deal but retained fellow slugger Anthony Rizzo (2 years, $40 million) and added stalwart southpaw starter Carlos Rodón (6 years, $162 million). That left them with a payroll of $271.2 million and tax bill of $288.5 million, both second in the majors but miles behind the Mets on the payroll rankings, according to Cot’s.

The Yankees won 99 games last year but haven’t reached the World Series – once familiar territory for them – since 2009.

The 6’7″ Judge not only towers over his teammates but also over the record-book. The right-fielder, who turns 31 in April, nearly won a Triple Crown with a .311 average and 131 runs batted in to accompany his 62 homers. His WAR (wins against replacement), as measured by, was 10.6.

Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Rizzo, and former MVP Josh Donaldson anchor a lineup that will also include two-time batting champion DJ LeMahieu and Gold Glove catcher Jose Trevino.

The addition of Rodón (14-8, 2.88 with San Francisco) bolsters a rotation that also features Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes, who combined for 25 wins, and Luis Severino, who’s pitched just 26 times over the last three seasons.

Toronto’s mid-season managerial switch allowed the team to move within seven games of the front-running Yankees by season’s end. But the Jays spent the winter trading offense for defense, landing center-fielder Kevin Kiermaier (1 year, $9 million), first baseman Brandon Belt (1 year, $9.3 million), starting pitcher Chris Bassitt (3 years, $63 million), and ex-Yankee reliever Chad Green (2 years, $8.5 million).

The Jays also added the left-handed power of Daulton Varsho, who hit 27 homers for Arizona, to back returning sluggers Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, and George Springer.

Alek Manoah, whose 2.24 ERA placed third in the league last year, heads a robust rotation that includes Bassitt, Kevin Gausman, and comeback candidates Jose Berrios and Hyun Jin Ryu while Jordan Romano returns as closer in the wake of a 36-save season.

The Tampa Bay Rays should not be confused with The Little Engine That Could. But it’s close. Their payroll sits third-from-worst at $70.3 million, according to Cot’s, and their main winter addition, starting pitcher Zach Eflin, got the biggest free-agent deal in club history (three years, $40 million) despite a 4.49 career ERA.

He’ll join All-Star Shane McClanahan and erstwhile ace Tyler Glasgow, starting his first full season in the wake of Tommy John elbow surgery.

Also on the comeback trail is shortstop Wander Franco, whose 11-year, $182 million contract extension started with the 2022 campaign. He’s healed from hamstring, quad, and hamate bone injuries.

Brandon Lowe and Josh Lowe, also seeking good bills of health, boost the offense of a team whose top sluggers (Randy Arozarena and Issac Paredes) hit 20 homers apiece last summer.

The Baltimore Orioles are another team planning to make maximum mileage from minimum expenditure. Their projected payroll of $64.9 million outranks only Oakland’s but their placement of eight players on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 outranks everybody.

Catcher Adley Rutschman, third baseman Ramon Urias, shortstop Gunnar Henderson, and righty starter Grayson Rodriguez figure to play major roles on a team that made a 31-game improvement last year, nearly reaching the playoffs. Veteran Cedric Mullins and young Jorge Mateo give manager Brandon Hyde two speedsters to help manufacture runs ahead of Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle, who combined for 55 home runs, while veteran Adam Frazier supplies a steady bat at second base.

Signees Kyle Gibson (1 year, $10 million) and Mychal Givens (1 year, $5 million) add experience to a young pitching staff led by Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish, and lights-out closer Felix Bautista (2.19 ERA and 15 saves after succeeding the traded Jorge Lopez).

While the Rays and Orioles will rely on youth, the Boston Red Sox are relying on experience. Their nine free-agent signees include outfielder Adam Duvall (1 year, 7 million), starting pitcher Corey Kluber (1 year, $10 million), closer Kenley Jansen (2 years, $32 million), and former Dodgers Justin Turner (2 years, $21.7 million) and Chris Martin (2 years, $17.5 million).

But the best of the bunch could be Masataka Yoshida, a contact-hitting outfielder the Sox see as the second coming of Ichiro Suzuki. He got a five-year, $90 million deal.

The biggest off-season financial move made by the Bosox was the contract extension of Rafael Devers. After hitting .295 with 27 home runs, the 26-year-old third baseman got an 11-year, $331 million deal that is the largest and longest ever given by the team. But the good news stops there.

Boston’s bid to escape the ALEast basement could be sabotaged by the severe elbow injury that will keep Trevor Story sidelined much of the season, the free-agent losses of Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Nate Eovaldi, and the physical well-being of trade acquisition Adalberto Mondesi, held to 50 games over the last two years by injuries.

Sox manager Alex Cora, whose club has seen better days, isn’t sure who will play second base, shortstop, or center field – all keys to a good defensive alignment – but versatile veteran Kiké Hernandez will fit in somewhere.

Duvall, an all-or-nothing slugger, will love The Green Monster as will Turner, though both might be playing positions they don’t like. Fans should like rookie first baseman Triston Casas, who has good power.

Ancient starters Chris Sale and James Paxton, both reclamation projects, need to stay healthy on a staff where Nick Pivetti is the ranking ace. To make matters worse, the slow-working Jansen could be handicapped by the advent of the pitch clock.

Central Division

Compared to the heavyweights on both coasts, the American League Central almost seems like an afterthought. The Cleveland Guardians won it last year, finishing 11 games ahead of the Chicago White Sox, but the Minnesota Twins might go into 2023 as the favorite.

The Twins made one of the winter’s biggest splashes in signing Carlos Correa to a six-year, $200 million deal that could be worth much more if multiple options are exercised. He had agreed to terms with both the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets before doctors vetoed both over concern about the star shortstop’s old ankle injury.

Minnesota also managed to ink Christian Vazquez, a catcher Houston wanted to keep, for three years and $30 million and outfielder Joey Gallo, who got a one-year, $11 million deal to hit home runs and supply strong defense.

The Twins led the division much of last season before injuries interfered, leaving the team in third place, 14 games out with a 78-84 record. An inability to beat the Guardians, who won 13 of their 19 meetings with the Twins, hurt.

Now that Correa has stability, Minnesota could make a major statement. All-Star MVP Byron Buxton joins Correa, Gallo, and Jose Miranda as leading run-producers on a club where Joe Ryan and Jon Gray top the rotation and ex-Oriole Jorge Lopez is the leading closer.

Frugal Cleveland did not do much in free agency, adding only switch-hitting slugger Josh Bell (2 years, $33 million), catcher Mike Zunino (1 year, $6 million), and pitcher Anthony Gose (2 years, $2 million). But the Guardians still have one of the game’s best managers in Terry Francona, a potential Cy Young Award winner in Shane Bieber, and an All-Star closer in 25-year-old Emmanuel Clase, whose 42 saves led the majors.

The team is also a model of defensive excellence, with four returning Gold Glove winners: Andrés Giménez, outfielders Steven Kwan and Miles Straw, and Bieber.

Switch-hitting third baseman Jose Ramirez led the team in home runs (29) and RBI (126) but the contact-hitting Kwan, a 5’9″ left-handed hitter, had the best batting average (.298), one point better than Giménez. Bell and Zunino provide additional punch, along with Ahmed Rosaio and Josh Naylor.

Bieber and 15-game winner Cal Quantrill provide a strong right-left punch to lead a good rotation, which will also include Zack Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Triston MacKenzie.

In Chicago, the White Sox lost manager Tony La Russa, who retired with health issues; closer Liam Hendricks, who has non-Hodgkins lymphoma; and their 2021 AL Central crown.

The team trailed the Guardians by 11 games last year but finished only 81-81 despite a club-record, $192 million payroll. A myriad of injuries, coupled with poor performances by veteran stars, were the chief culprits.

Whether the Sox can regroup is debatable. They have two star starters in Dylan Cease and Lance Lynn, a new left-fielder in free-agent signee Andrew Benintendi (five years, $75 million), and a familiar face at second in late-signing Elvis Andrus (one year, $3 million), a veteran shortstop who has never played the position before.

They also have good young players in Andrew Vaughn, who led the 2022 team with 17 home runs and 76 runs batted in; shortstop Tim Anderson, who hit .301 in a season limited by injury in August; third baseman Yoan Moncada; and outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.

Cease, who went 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA and 227 strikeouts, could form a strong 1-2 punch with Lucas Giolito, coming off a disappointing season, while Lynn serves as a solid No. 3. Kendall Graveman, with closer experience, takes over for the ailing Hendriks.

Neither the Detroit Tigers nor Kansas City Royals, separated by one game last year, figure to be factors in the 2023 AL Central race.

The Bengals rank 19th in projected payroll at $118.2 million, according to Cot’s, while the small-market Royals rank 25th at $86.5 – a figure that virtually matches the combined annual salaries of Mets pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.

The Tigers tried to boost attendance, as well as their standing, last year by winning a bidding war for All-Star shortstop Javier Baez. Despite his six-year, $144 million contract, the long-time Cubs star was a bust, hitting .238 with 17 homers. But none of his teammates – not even future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera – hit more as the Tigers were shut out 22 times.

Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, is starting his 21st big-league season and 16th with the Tigers. With his contract expiring, however, he has announced 2023 will be his last year. He has already parlayed the rare combination of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs into a Cooperstown ticket five years after he retires.

The Tigers desperately need veteran lefty Eduardo Rodriguez to recapture his former form – and good work from newly-signed journeymen Matt Boyd (1 year, 10 million) and Michael Lorenzen (1 year, $8.5 million).

Poor pitching also plagued the Royals last season, the seventh time in a row Kansas City had a losing record. Kaycee pitchers posted the worst ERA (4.70) and had the fewest strikeouts per nine innings (7.6) and the most walks per nine innings (3.7). Except for Brady Singer, who returns as ace of the staff after going 10-5 with a 3.23 ERA, the team is in dire straits.

Desperate for a change, the Royals reached into free agency for Jordan Lyles (2 years, $17 million), Ryan Yarbrough (one year, $3 million) and lefty closer Aroldis Chapman (one year, $3.75 million) while re-signing 39-year-old Zack Grienke (one year, $8.5 million) after he went 4-9 in 26 starts.

Kaycee also inked potential DH Franmil Reyes, who hit 37 home runs in 2019, to a minor-league deal with a major-league spring training invite. The Royals suffered 16 shutouts last year, when their best hitters were rookie third baseman Bobby Witt, Jr. (20 homers) and veteran catcher Sal Perez topped the team with 23. They need more.

On the eve of the exhibition season, here’s how the American League race looks:

East Division – Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles, Red Sox

Central Division – Twins, Guardians, White Sox, Royals, Tigers

West Division – Astros, Angels, Rangers, Mariners, Athletics

Wild-Card Series – Angels over Guardians; Twins over Rangers; Yankees, Astros get byes

Division Series – Yankees over Angels; Astros over Twins

Championship Series – Yankees over Astros

World Series – Braves over Yankees