Mandatory Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to explain where the Houston Astros are at.

Their important players are talented, but either aging or approaching free agency. There’s lots of exciting young talent on the rise, but the previous dynasty has set the bar so high. Whether they’ll clear it remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the Astros must now contend with their AL West division rivals and defending World Series champion Texas Rangers. Don’t forget Julio Rodriguez and the Seattle Mariners either. Houston’s strong grip on the division is definitely slipping.

All the more reason to believe that as things currently stand, the Astros are priming for one last World Series run. Things have broken their way so many times before, but will age finally rear her ugly head?

Greatest Addition: Josh Hader. When the future of the pitching staff is uncertain, make sure the bullpen is untouchable. Thus, the Astros went and signed Hader to a five-year, $95 million contract. The hard-throwing lefty had 33 saves and a 1.28 ERA for the Padres last year and is already a five-time All-Star at 29 years old.

We should also note that aside from their AL West rivals, Houston has to be keeping an eye on the Yankees, their longtime playoff rivals. New York’s bullpens are always strong, and adding Hader gives the Astros a surefire relief option in October. Against the Bronx Bombers or any other team.

Greatest Loss: Hector Néris. Adding Hader came at the price of letting Neris walk after a career season. Neris had a personal best 1.71 ERA in 71 games with the Astros last year, his age-34 season! Overachieving or not, Houston general manger Dana Brown knew that running it back just wasn’t an option.

Neris instead signed a one-year deal with the Cubs. To add insult to literal injury, or perhaps injuries, the Astros lost popular teammate Michael Brantley to retirement. Hader was a nice get, but at the price of weakening the bridge to his ninth inning.

Greatest Strength: Joe Espada. Owner Jim Crane could have hired a bigger, headline-grabbing name to succeed Dusty Baker. Buck Showalter, maybe Joe Girardi, or any other journeyman manager.

Instead, he let general manager Dana Brown make the smart hire and just promote Joe Espada from bench coach to the big chair. Espada joined the Astros’ coaching staff in 2018 and has also worked with the Marlins and Yankees. He’s interviewed for several jobs over the years. His steady hand should keep Houston’s eyes forward in 2024.

Greatest Weakness: Life After Verlander. Even at 41 years old, Justin Verlander still pitches at a high level. The Astros love him so much that they let him walk in free agency after a Cy Young season, only to trade back for him at the deadline months later. Now, he’s set to retire in Houston.

It is at this point when the Astros will come to that fork in the road, and they’d better be ready to take it. Verlander is a future Hall of Famer and an ageless wonder. He practically is Astros pitching.

So what happens if he decides to call it quits after 2024? Are Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier ready to be a 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation? Will JP France and Hunter Brown be effective enough to keep the dynasty alive? What version of Luis Garcia will be back post-Tommy John surgery?

Having Yordan Alvarez in the lineup might be enough to keep the Astros in contention for a while, but a lineup can only do so much.

Home runs win games. Pitching wins championships. And Houston knows that better than anyone.

Do the Astros have one more World Series run in them? Yes, but this team is only as good as the pitching behind Verlander. The lineup, meanwhile, is both aging and top heavy. Three quarters of the starting infield will be over 30 come Opening Day. Add Alex Bregman hitting the market along with JV next winter, and this Astros team definitely has something of a “Last Dance” feel about it.

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.