A Google search for “Houston Astros” and “evil empire” generates more than 1 million results, with headlines such as: “Are the Houston Astros the new evil empire of baseball?” and “Jose Abreu signing helps Astros approach evil empire status” and “The new evil empire: Houston Astros look to erase stain of cheating scandal.”
Back in December 2002, then-Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino tagged the New York Yankees with that moniker because of their run of championships in the late 1990s and early 2000s. New York embraced the idea, playing “Star Wars” music at Yankee Stadium and even staging a legal battle to protect use of the “evil empire” term when used in a baseball context.
Like those Yankees, the description is applied to the Astros for more than just their success on the field — and there has been plenty of that, with a record six consecutive ALCS appearances since 2017, plus four World Series trips and two titles. The one thing these Astros haven’t accomplished, however, is back-to-back World Series titles. Indeed, no team has done it since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas made the Astros the preseason World Series favorite. While they lost Justin Verlander in free agency, they brought back all the other key players and added Abreu. Can they end the back-to-back World Series drought?
ESPN MLB expert Dave Schoenfield considers what worked for the Yankees and gives five reasons why the Astros will repeat, followed by Jeff Passan, Brad Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Joon Lee and Jesse Rogers naming five other teams that can knock off the reigning champs.
Why Houston can repeat
1. Star power in the lineup
The Yankees had Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and Chuck Knoblauch anchoring the offense. The Astros counter with Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, Jeremy Pena and now Abreu. Which group would you take?
Over their three championship seasons, the Yankees averaged 22.6 bWAR, peaking at 27.5 in 1998 and falling to 17.2 in 2000. The Astros’ top five had 26.6 WAR in 2022, nearly matching what the Yankees did in 1998. Even with Altuve missing the first couple of months in 2023 with a thumb injury, FanGraphs projects these six at 24.9 WAR.
Indeed, if there’s one difference between the Yankees and Astros, it’s that the Yankees didn’t have a hitter of Alvarez’s level. In those three aforementioned seasons, their highest single-season OPS+ was Williams’ 160 in 1998. Alvarez hit .306/.406/.613 last season, good for a 187 OPS+. He followed with 14 RBIs in 13 postseason games, including three clutch home runs. He can carry an offense in October.
2. A dominant bullpen
No, Ryan Pressly won’t be confused for Mariano Rivera, but he has been one of the best closers in the game. Consider that from 1998 to 2000, Rivera converted 89% of his save opportunities in the regular season. Pressly has converted 91% of his chances the past two seasons. The Yankees had more than Rivera, however, with Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza pitching key innings in the postseason. From ’98 to 2000, that trio went 5-1 with a 3.21 ERA in the playoffs.
The Astros’ bullpen goes even deeper — as modern bullpens must do. With Rafael Montero, Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu and Ryne Stanek leading the way in front of Pressly, the Astros led the majors last season with a 2.80 bullpen ERA and 28.3% strikeout rate. All those guys are back, and there’s also depth in Phil Maton and Seth Martinez. The Astros’ starters led the majors in innings last season, but without Verlander and perhaps with the intent of conserving innings early in the season, manager Dusty Baker has the depth to rely on the pen — and then turn it loose in October. In case you forgot: Houston’s pen had a 0.83 ERA last postseason, allowing just six runs in 54⅓ innings.
3. One big addition
After winning it all in 1998, the Yankees added Roger Clemens in 1999 (trading away David Wells). In 2000, they added David Justice in late June and he was a monster, hitting .305/.391/.585 with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs in 78 games. He then dominated Seattle in the American League Championship Series. Abreu replaces Yuli Gurriel at first base for the Astros — and that projects as a big improvement given Gurriel’s struggles last season.
The Abreu addition does more than add an RBI machine in the middle of the order, making it more difficult to pitch around Alvarez. Once Altuve returns, the top five should go: Altuve, Bregman, Alvarez, Abreu, Tucker. They hope to get Michael Brantley back at the end of April. If he’s healthy, the lineup looks deeper than last year’s. Plus, Abreu was known as a good clubhouse leader with the Chicago White Sox, and he’s the perfect guy to make sure the Astros don’t suffer any World Series hangover. He wants a ring, too, after all.
4. They still have an ace — or two
That was what made the Yankees so tough: It didn’t matter where the rotation fell and who started the first game of a series — whether it be Clemens or David Cone or Andy Pettitte or the underrated Orlando Hernandez (who went 8-1 with a 2.20 ERA in the postseason from 1998 to 2000, making him the true ace of that run).
Verlander is gone, but the Astros still have Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier as a lethal 1-2 punch. Javier had a breakout season of sorts in 2022, going 11-9 with a 2.54 ERA and holding batters to a .170 batting average. Batters struggle to make contact with that four-seamer he throws up in the zone. Then we saw what he did in the postseason: 5⅓ scoreless innings against the Yankees and six hitless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. With more innings added to his workload, Javier should be a Cy Young contender in 2023.
Then add in Lance McCullers Jr., no stranger to big games in the postseason. He’s out now with an elbow strain but is expected back at some point. In October, Baker will feel comfortable lining up any of Valdez, Javier or McCullers to start the first game of a series and that’s something few teams can match.
5. Just get in
The Astros won 100-plus games in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022 — including 106 wins last season. They will be hard-pressed to match that mark again and maybe don’t even reach 100 with a tougher AL West. But they don’t have to. All they have to do is get into the postseason and anything can happen, especially with their bullpen. Just look at the 2000 Yankees. After the Yankees won 114 games in 1998 and 98 in 1999, they stumbled to an 87-74 record in 2000, including losing 15 of their final 18 games. Luckily for them, the AL East was bad that year and they won the division, while 90-win Cleveland missed the playoffs. They turned it on in the playoffs — and caught a lucky break when Seattle’s Jamie Moyer fractured a kneecap in a simulated game and missed the ALCS.
Like then-Yankees manager Joe Torre, Baker isn’t going to panic if the Astros get off to a slow start or if the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers or Los Angeles Angels push them for a division title. In fact, now that Baker finally has his ring, the Astros should be more relaxed and confident than ever in October. If they can just get there, they’ll be tough to beat. — Schoenfield
Who can stop the Astros?
Perhaps it’s a cop-out to go with the last non-Astros team to win a championship, but give me the Braves. Compared to their 2021 championship team, this year’s incarnation boasts far more talent. The additions: Matt Olson, Michael Harris II, Sean Murphy and Spencer Strider, plus Kyle Wright in a prominent role and Ronald Acuña Jr. healthy. Gone are Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson — no doubt two vital players, but, sized up against the half-dozen who weren’t there, not even close in terms of impact.
Losing Max Fried for an unknown period because of an Opening Day hamstring tweak doesn’t help matters, but it’s not thought to be serious. A playoff rotation of Fried, Strider, Wright and Charlie Morton, backed by a deep bullpen and manager Brian Snitker’s canny use of it, will give Atlanta the pitching advantage in most series. And that’s to say nothing of a lineup with Olson, Harris, Murphy, Acuña, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies, Travis d’Arnaud and more. Talent is great. Talent with experience is dangerous. — Passan
We came within a whisker of an Astros-Padres World Series last year. I’m not sure San Diego was as ready for that matchup as it would figure to be if the teams face off this October, though of course anything could have happened in the seven-game series. The teams look even across the board in 2023, and if they do both survive what will be challenging league playoff brackets and clash in the Fall Classic, there are dozens of small things that could be a tipping point for one team or the other.
If the Padres make it that far, you have to assume their biggest stars will be on point. Not even the Astros can match the lineup foursome of Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. The rotation battle probably favors the Astros, but it’s a slight edge at best. As for the bullpen, the Padres will have to solidify it over the course of the season to reach the World Series, but once there, they would have Josh Hader to lock down late leads.
San Diego has spent big to reach its current status as a leading contender, and when you build a roster like this, each current season is going to be the best chance you have to win for the foreseeable future. The Padres have been building for this season for, well, over five decades. If their star power is rolling in October and gets them to the World Series, no one will be able to stop them once they get there. — Doolittle
The Blue Jays’ lineup is one of very few that can rival that of the Astros. Combine that with a starting rotation that might have a higher ceiling, a defense that significantly improved over the offseason, a bullpen that looks better — and can definitely be bolstered further in the summer months — and what do you get? A title contender.
Don’t believe it? Let’s go step by step. The Blue Jays boasted the highest adjusted OPS in the majors last season, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (24 years old) and Bo Bichette (25) will probably keep getting better. The rotation saw Alek Manoah emerge as an ace, but Kevin Gausman was a stellar No. 2 who pitched even better than his 3.35 ERA would indicate — and now they’ve added Chris Bassitt to form a formidable trio.
The bullpen is a concern, but Jordan Romano is one of the game’s best closers and newcomer Erik Swanson stands as a respectable back-end complement. And an outfield defense that was subpar last season, with minus-three outs above average, has received a major boost from the additions of Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho, two players who should help a fly ball-heavy starting pitcher like Jose Berrios bounce back from a rough 2022. If he does, the Blue Jays might become the best team in the world. — Gonzalez
New York Yankees
The Yankees might not be the trendy, young Jays oozing with potential or the analytically savvy Tampa Bay Rays that seem to pull stars out of thin air year after year, but they still have one of the most talented rosters in the entire sport. Aaron Judge continues to anchor this lineup and the hope is that top prospect Anthony Volpe cements his place as a long-term shortstop for years to come.
While New York still has issues with pitching depth, it signed Carlos Rodon to a massive contract during the offseason to take some weight off of Gerrit Cole’s shoulders. Rodon starts the season on the injured list, highlighting the Yankees’ biggest concern this season: health. If their core contributors manage to stay on the field, this team will be a threat to make a deep run into the postseason and topple the Astros. Much of that weight will lie on the shoulders of Rodon and Volpe, the roster’s two most noteworthy additions this season. If Volpe can meet expectations and provide more offensive production at shortstop, and if Rodon can stay healthy, the Yankees will be tough to beat in October. — Lee
Maybe this is the Mariners’ year, or maybe it’s next year, but at some point, they will overtake Houston as the best team in the AL West — or, at the very least, upset the Astros to advance in the playoffs. First off, no team has repeated since the Yankees won three consecutive years from 1998 to 2000, so picking against the Astros is already a good idea.
Secondly, why not go with the team that knows them best? People may have forgotten about the Mariners’ offseason, but they added All-Star Teoscar Hernandez, defensive master Kolten Wong and veteran hitters AJ Pollock and Tommy La Stella. While those additions may not have been the biggest headline-worthy moves, Seattle doesn’t need to be splashy — it just needs to take another step with what it has. Julio Rodriguez is a true star and the Mariners have a solid starting staff — including a full season of Luis Castillo. They can do this. — Rogers