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Astros insider: End of an era?

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 10/18/2020 Chandler Rome
a baseball player holding a bat © Karen Warren/Staff Photographer

SAN DIEGO — The final image is not of a mammoth home run or a sliding catch in center field, but of George Springer donning an orange jersey, standing on deck and not getting an opportunity to save the Astros’ season. He held the bat and tracked Aledmys Díaz’s fly ball to right field. Yuli Gurriel ran to second base only because he had to. The fate was sealed.

At the moment Manuel Margot squeezed the final out, an era of Astros baseball may have ended. Winter always raises questions of player retention or attrition, but none in recent memory is more magnified than this. The Astros have a franchise player headed to free agency, along with two other starting outfielders. Justin Verlander will not pitch in 2021, either, creating a compelling winter for first-year general manager James Click.

“It sucks because it just feels like we were right there,” starter Lance McCullers Jr. said. “You want to do it for the guys like George, the guys like Brant, guys who have been so instrumental in rebuilding this organization, being a face of this organization. It may be the last time you share a jersey with guys you love. It sucks, man. It sucks.”

Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick all perhaps played their final games as Astros on Saturday. The pandemic prevented a proper sendoff from Houston fans who’ve watched Brantley for two seasons, Reddick for four and Springer for seven.

The three men played 1,454 regular-season games as Astros. Springer is the team’s emotional leader who plays with a reckless abandon. Brantley mentored him for the last two seasons. Reddick patrolled the clubhouse as an approachable veteran, a man who instituted wrestling belts and robes for players of the game — rituals that became routine during the team’s renaissance.

“I loved every second of playing with those guys,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “They left it all on the field every single time they took the field. I learned a lot from all of them. Getting to grow up in the big leagues around those guys was pretty special, I’ll be friends with them for life.”

For five months, Springer has avoided any discussion of his immediate future. Twenty minutes after the season ended, he maintained the same demeanor. He lamented the finality and abruptness of the result, but did not consider whether it was his final game as an Astro.

“I haven’t really thought about that yet,” Springer said. “Our season just ended and I’m more focused on kind of what’s happening now, what happened tonight and I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

Neither Brantley nor Reddick was made available after the game. It is clear Click must rebuild his outfield, but his means for doing so are a mystery. The man is a first-year general manager and has no tendencies or tactics to look back upon. Kyle Tucker’s emergence solidifies one of the three spots Click must address.

In June, owner Jim Crane said the team is “in a position to be aggressive, no matter what the market looks like.” The team has $125,916,666 committed to seven players on guaranteed contracts for 2021. In February, Crane said he “made it known” to Springer and his representatives that the team wanted to re-sign Springer.

Springer will be the most sought-after position player on the open market. His stellar September and playoff explosion only increased his value. The Astros will certainly extend him a qualifying offer — and Springer will almost surely decline it — to get draft-pick compensation if they don’t reunite.

Springer will command the sort of free-agent deal the Astros haven’t negotiated in Crane’s tenure. Reddick’s four-year, $52 million contract in 2017 remains the longest and most lucrative of Crane’s ownership. Springer’s deal will dwarf that.

Whether the Astros will extend Brantley a qualifying offer, reported to be worth $18.9 million, is an intriguing question. Brantley played the final year of a two-year, $32 million deal this season. He is 33, but shows no signs of aging or decline. His .840 OPS during the regular-season was the fourth-highest of his 10-year career. Manager Dusty Baker often calls him the most steady hitter he’s seen since Will Clark.

Reddick’s already acknowledged he’s going to play next season on a short-term deal, wherever he is. His offensive production has plummeted since a spectacular 2017 season that aided Houston’s World Series title. Springer won the MVP of that seven-game series.

But, on Saturday, their last acts came more than 1,000 miles away from Minute Maid Park in a bid to make history. Only Brantley recorded a hit.

Springer’s final at-bat is perhaps the most frustrating, the most unbecoming of what he’s meant to this franchise since his delayed call-up in 2014. He arrived in the eighth inning against Nick Anderson. Martín Maldonado had worked a walk in the nine-hole, the sort of mistake Springer almost always makes hurt. Springer’s 19 postseason home runs are more than any man in Astros history. In 64 playoff games, he struck 70 hits.

Anderson threw him two pitches. The second sailed on the outer half. Springer swung anyway, rolling a weak grounder to third base for a crucial second out. Brantley bounced out to end the sixth against Anderson, making Rays manager Kevin Cash appear prophetic for his preposterously early hook of starter Charlie Morton.

“This one hurts because the couple of guys that may not be here anymore,” McCullers said. “When you have a group of guys like that and everything that our team has been through, you really want to pull off this last victory. We showed what kind of team we are. We showed the fight that we have in us. As I’ve said, it’s a couple days off and we get going for 2021.”

But who will be there with him?

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