Three weeks after the Houston Astros won the World Series, Carlos Correa was back in a training facility less than 20 miles from his team’s home stadium.
“The World Series didn’t make us comfortable,” Correa said.
In the coming days and weeks, the All-Star shortstop worked out alongside a group of teammates that included Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Marwin Gonzalez.
This band of 20-somethings wasn’t the only Astros feeling restless. Months after trading for Justin Verlander, Jeff Luhnow’s front office acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Meanwhile, the team that pushed the Astros to a seventh game in the World Series didn’t make any intentional upgrades to its roster. The Dodgers traded for Matt Kemp, but that was only to balance their books. They didn’t expect Kemp to be on their opening-day roster, much less their leading hitter.
Last season, the Dodgers and Astros were as evenly matched as two teams could be. This season, they couldn’t be any further apart. The Dodgers (16-26) are a traveling dumpster fire, dropping series after series to teams designed to lose and secure high draft picks. The Astros (28-17) remain in first place in the American League West after a 2-0 victory over the Angels on Wednesday night at Angel Stadium.
This isn’t to say the offseason strategies of their respective front offices were entirely responsible for their divergent fortunes this season. But it was a factor.
Relative to the Dodgers, who have to figure out who will start for them while Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu remain sidelined, the Astros have luxurious concerns. Before the series finale in Anaheim, Hinch spoke about when the similarly styled Verlander and Cole could stop pitching on successive days.
Hinch acknowledged the problem wasn’t really a problem, saying, “I think if you ask across the way, whether it’s [the Angels] or San Francisco next week, they won’t be excited to face similar styles when their names are Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.”
Cole is 4-1 with a 1.75 earned-run average. He started the game the Astros won Tuesday. The only AL pitcher with a lower ERA than him is the resurgent Verlander, who Wednesday lowered his mark to 1.05 after pitching his first shutout in three years.
Dallas Keuchel is a Cy Young Award winner. Charlie Morton has a 2.03 ERA. The team’s youngest starter, Lance McCullers, is 5-2 with a 3.63 ERA.
“Sometimes it’s boring because you don’t get any ground balls,” Correa said, jokingly. “You see strikeouts everywhere.”
The relatively recent additions of Verlander and Cole also fortified the bullpen. Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock, who were starters last season, have moved into relief roles and excelled.
Keuchel theorized that adding a significant component such as Cole has helped the Astros fight against any complacency that could have set in after winning the World Series.
“That kind of allows guys not be complacent with themselves,” Keuchel said. “You have somebody else that’s hungry and wants to win a World Series. It gives guys an extra bonus when they might be taking off a little bit, just kind of going through the motions because of how taxing it is.”
Hinch was worried about a so-called World Series hangover. He consulted with other coaches in Houston, Mike D’Antoni of the NBA’s Rockets and Bill O’Brien of the NFL’s Texans. While at baseball’s winter meetings, he spoke to other managers with World Series experience, including Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs and Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians.
“But I also subscribe to the theory you have to manage your own team,” Hinch said. “I know my guys better than anybody.”
Hinch scaled back the playing time for some players early in the exhibition season, but said, “You have to work and prepare to play at this level. One thing I wasn’t going to allow was us to limp into that season.”
It helps to have a lineup as youthful as it is deep. Correa is 23 and Bregman is 24. Altuve and George Springer are 28. Gonzalez is 29.
Asked about how Correa and some of the others started their offseason training programs so quickly after winning the World Series, Hinch said, “It’s great to be in your 20s, isn’t it?”
Hinch followed up by saying half-jokingly, “I bet [34-year-old catcher Brian] McCann took a little bit of time off. I bet [31-year-old outfielder Josh] Reddick took a little bit of time off.”
If the team’s young nucleus supplies the Astros with energy, it also provides a framework of ambition. A first overall draft pick, Correa was part of a celebrated farm system that also included McCullers, Springer and Bregman. As this group of players scaled up the minor leagues, they had visions of not only becoming more than World Series champions. They had ambitions of becoming a dynasty.
“We’re young,” Correa said. “We’re hungry. We want to strive for more. We want to build a legacy here.”