Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The best kept secret in Major League Baseball is that the Houston Astros and their successful run are nearing the finish line.

We’re not going to discuss the infamous cheating scandal today. We will, rather, mention its architect, former general manager Jeff Luhnow. Independent of the 2017 season, he is still the man who revamped Houston’s player development. Additionally, the Astros have done a good job both revitalizing and developing arms. Just look at Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

In fact, it was Houston’s young pitching that led it to its second World Series title. We discussed how for all of the 2022 team’s strengths, the lineup wasn’t one. And yet, the Astros still swept the Yankees in the ALCS. The first rematch series takes place in New York over a long weekend in August. For Labor Day Weekend, the Astros will host the Yankees.

What people don’t realize is major changes are underway in Houston. There’s been significant roster and front office turnover and soon, the Astros will morph into MLB’s version of the Dallas Cowboys.

But they’re still the Yankees’ main threat in the American League. More importantly, all seven games are late enough to have playoff implications from top to bottom.

Greatest Addition: Jose Abreu, even if he’s only two years younger at 36 than his predecessor Yuli Gurriel. Houston is asking a lot of its pitching staff this year and it is crucial the lineup have a solid middle of the order bat to complement Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Abreu hit a career-low 15 home runs for the White Sox last year, but still hit .304 in an otherwise good season.

The question is if Abreu’s power will come back to justify the Astros overpaying him on a three-year, $58.5 million contract. Houston’s Crawford Boxes are a righty power hitter’s dream and the former MVP should slug at least 20 homers this year. Regardless, the team is hoping that the veteran first baseman’s advancing age is just a number.

Greatest Loss: Justin Verlander without question. The man just had the best season of his career, pitching to a 1.75 ERA and 18 wins at age 39. Oh, and he missed all of the 2021 season with Tommy John surgery.

Now with the Mets, Verlander’s departure makes the Astros’ pitching their biggest question mark. He leaves the Astros having posted an astounding 2.26 ERA in five years along with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). Houston has young arms ready to compete, but matching that kind of production is nearly impossible.

Thus, when the Mets visit the Astros in June, count on Minute Maid Park being twice as loud.

Greatest Strength: Young and controllable pitching, which is what’s keeping Houston the current AL West favorites. Even better for the Astros is that no one in their projected rotation hits free agency before 2026. Between that and the lineup, this team has every chance to be competitive and in the World Series picture for a long time.

Framber Valdez is an innings eater who’s also a groundball machine with a 3.38 career ERA and groundball rate (GB%) of 66.2%. Lance McCullers is injury prone, but overall effective. Luis Garcia’s young career is only just beginning. Cristian Javier was the winning pitcher in not one, but two no-hitters last year.

It’s like we said before. With this young group of arms, the Houston Astros could be a good team for a while.

Greatest Weakness: Jim Crane, soon to be the MLB equivalent of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. The Astros might still be a good team but this offseason has made something very clear. Crane is now running the show. The telltale sign is Abreu getting almost $20 million a year and former GM James Click, who came from the analytical Rays, being shown the door. Furthermore, Click was replaced by veteran executive Dana Brown, whose scouting background suggests an old school mentality.

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal called Crane “difficult, demanding, and heavily involved in baseball operations” back in September. Nothing Houston has done this offseason suggests otherwise. Crane clearly feels the need to be hands-on and in control after the cheating scandal, much like Jones in Dallas. One can only hope he can keep building winners and, unlike Jones, avoid living in the past.

Will the Yankees finally slay the Astros beast in 2023? I’ve never been one for playoff predictions, but the Yankees should absolutely win the season series against Houston. The new shift rules mean New York won’t be so home run or bust this year. The Yankees also have the pitching to keep up with the Astros.

The fact is though Houston has most of its core players locked up long-term, they still lost a Hall of Fame player in Verlander. And yet, their division is still bad enough that they’ll still hold first place on what’s looking like a slow trip to the bottom.

Just like the Dallas Cowboys.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.