This might be Astros’ best chance to win title for a while

Expect the Astros to turn their bad deeds into the world’s largest shoulder chip.

They will be motivated to win in 2020, not just for all the obvious reasons — notably that they will want to demonstrate that their 2017 title, specifically, and their 2017-19 overall excellence were not the result of cheating.

Like Giants fans cheering Barry Bonds or Cardinals fans doing the same for Mark McGwire, expect the Houston loyalists to form a cocoon of protection and positivity around the Astros. This is how it works: The cheaters out there are a scourge, but my cheater is a great guy unfairly castigated. I would expect a lot of “nobody believed in us” coming from the Astros as a rallying cry for themselves and a rebuke against those who questioned their tactics.

For the Astros, though, the need to win in 2020 should be about more than exoneration or chest thumping. The way their roster and farm system are positioned after the best run of on-field success in organization history, this coming season projects as arguably their last, best shot to win it all in this phase.

Lineup core pieces Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel and George Springer are entering their walk years, as are Josh Reddick and Brad Peacock. Their two best starters, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, will pitch at 37 and 36, respectively, and both will be free agents after 2021 — as will Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Roberto Osuna.

The farm system, once able to replenish with high-end talent, was ranked 27th out of 30 organizations by Baseball America. MLB Pipeline had Houston with just one top-100 prospect, pitcher Forrest Whitley, whose star has fallen from his prospect peak. This is part of the baseball circle of life in which organizations either graduate their best prospects such as 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez or trade them for players such as Verlander and Greinke.

Houston has Kyle Tucker ready to step in for Reddick, which should be an upgrade in production and a lowering in cost beginning in 2021. There are opposing organizations that see Abraham Toro as more than a utilityman. Jose Urquidy out-pitched his reputation last year. But aside from perhaps Tucker, there is nothing that looks anything like a Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman or Correa coming.

Plus, as part of the punishment for the illegal sign stealing, the Astros were stripped of their first- and second-round picks in 2020 and 2021. That not only will impact near-future talent bases, but also will make trading current farm talent in July more difficult, since it will be harder to replenish.

To keep winning, therefore, Houston owner Jim Crane will have to write a bunch of big checks. Will he want to do that? The Astros are projected nearly $20 million over the $208 million luxury-tax threshold this year — the organization has never previously exceeded the threshold.

For 2021, Altuve, Bregman, Verlander and Greinke will count about $100 million toward the payroll, when the threshold will be $210 million, and strong seasons for Correa, McCullers and Osuna could take them to a combined $40 million, perhaps even $50 million, for their 2021 walk years. So it will take a lot of creativity to re-sign or replace what is necessary to remain big-time contenders while staying under that threshold — assuming Crane does not want to pay the tax in consecutive years.

Which puts emphasis on maximizing a 2020 season that has gotten trickier. Jeff Luhnow’s reputation has taken a beating. But he was an expert talent gatherer while GM before being fired for his role in the sign-stealing scandal. He was replaced by James Click as the Astros — like the Red Sox with new head of baseball operations Chaim Bloom — try to tap into the more-from-less magic of the Rays by hiring one of their top executives.

Though much of the sport will be hoping for karmic collapse by the Astros, Dusty Baker will bring positivity as the manager. He will not only boost his Astros, but will be the one member of the organization who will be supported outside. Owing to Baker’s popularity, many would like to see him win his first World Series, which might get him into the Hall of Fame. I believe Baker has been an underappreciated manager. Yet, even stating that, I thought A.J. Hinch was state-of-the-art, and there has to be some notch down after his dismissal.

And this team is going to need managing. The free-agent departures of Cole and Will Harris have left the pitching staff weaker. There is a thinness to the rotation, especially if McCullers does not come quickly and fully back from a 2019 lost after Tommy John surgery.

There is still plenty of talent here. Enough to be, at minimum, the clear AL West favorites. The Astros will try to generate energy and underdog spirit from having just about the whole sport hoping for their comeuppance and downfall.

But the Astros have more to play for than that. This looks like the last, best chance for this core group of Astros to do something together to mend their reputations by remaining at the top of the sport.

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