Welcome to the All-Time Franchise Starting Lineup, where we review one of the 30 current MLB franchises every other week to determine the best players by position in franchise history. This week we’ll build a lineup for the Houston Astros, one of many franchises formed in the 1960s. You can find any of our prior installments if you’re interested here.
The Ground Rules
- Each player’s WAR with the franchise was the primary driver of the selections. We used two WAR calculations, one from Fangraphs and the other from Baseball-Reference. When the WAR between players was similar, we considered other factors, such as stats and awards, to break the tie.
- We only considered statistics earned with the franchise in question for each player. For example, someone like Albert Pujols won’t be the Dodgers’ first baseman since he only played there for part of a season near the end of his career.
- Players with multi-position eligibility can play any position they played for a reasonable period in their career.
- Outfielders can be shifted between center, left, and right as long as it makes sense defensively – especially for center field.
- Since we have universal DH now, we will assign one DH per team. Doing so also allows us to get more deserving hitters into the lineup who played at a log-jammed position.
- Three pitchers will be named – one right-handed starter, one left-handed starter, and one reliever.
The Houston Colt .45s were born in 1962 as a National League expansion franchise along with the New York Mets. After three seasons, the team changed its name to the Astros to coincide with moving into the newly built Astrodome. The expansion team struggled for many seasons, finishing no better than third place until 1979 when they finished one and one-half games behind the Reds. The following season, the Astros broke through with their first divisional championship but failed to advance to the World Series. This became a theme for the franchise, which made the playoffs eight times between 1980 and 2004 before finally making it to the Fall Classic in 2005.
Houston’s trip to the World Series didn’t go well, as the White Sox swept them. It took another ten years before they returned to the playoffs. In 2013, the Astros moved to the American League as inter-league play necessitated balanced divisions. Four years later, they represented the AL in the World Series, winning in seven games over the Dodgers this time. The club has made the postseason every year since, including two more trips to the Series, but hasn’t won another championship.
The 2017 championship became controversial in 2019 when allegations regarding a complicated sign-stealing scheme came to light. In addition to a hefty fine, the clubs’ manager and general manager lost their jobs, and the club forfeited draft picks. More importantly, it stained the reputation of the players in the eyes of many baseball fans and fellow competitors. Through it all, though, the Astros keep winning—and they are once again the favorites to represent the AL in the World Series in 2022.
Catcher: Craig Biggio
We’re cheating a bit by putting the Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio in as our catcher, but he did start his career behind the plate. Biggio debuted in June 1988 and mainly played catcher for his first four seasons. He was an excellent catcher, too, winning a Silver Slugger in 1989 and making his first All-Star team while playing the position in 1991. The Astros moved him to second base to prolong his career and keep his bat in the lineup, not because he was a defensive liability.
The strategy worked as Biggio turned into a superstar, attending six more All-Star games, and winning four more Silver Sluggers and four Gold Gloves over the next seven seasons. Biggio was an ironman, playing all 162 games three times and leading the league in plate appearances five times during the nineties. In addition, he led the NL in doubles three times, runs twice, stolen bases once, and HBPs a painful five times.
The Astros started making the playoffs regularly in the late nineties but didn’t get to the World Series until Biggio was 39 in 2005. Biggio hit well in the run to the series that year but, like most Astros, struggled in the World Series. Two seasons later, he retired after spending his entire 20-year career with the team. The club retired his number seven early the following season. Biggio remains the franchise leader in hits, double, games, plate appearances, and runs scored. In 2015, the BBWAA elected him into the Hall of Fame, making him the first player to don an Astros cap in Cooperstown.
First Base: Jeff Bagwell
Jeff Bagwell is number seven on our list of the Top Ten First Basemen of All-Time, and thus was an obvious choice for the position, especially since he played his entire major league career with the franchise. He wasn’t drafted by the Astros, however. Rather, in an ill-advised move, he was traded there by the Red Sox in August 1990 for Larry Andersen. The Red Sox considered him a light-hitting third baseman, plus they already had Wade Boggs. Boy, were they wrong. Bagwell made it to the bigs out of spring training the following year and won NL Rookie-of-the-Year in 1991 as a first baseman.
Bagwell was a model of consistency and reliability for Houston, playing in all 162 games four times. His best season came in the strike-shortened 1994 when he led the league in runs, RBI, SLG%, and OPS en route to his only MVP. Other accolades for Bagwell included four All-Star games, three Silver Sluggers, and a Gold Glove.
Bagwell’s Astros only made it to one World Series – in 2005, his last season. He had missed most of the year with a shoulder injury but made it back for the playoffs – mainly as a pinch-hitter. The Astros retired his number 5 in August 2007, but he would have to wait a while to travel to Cooperstown. Coming off the steroid era, many suspected Bagwell of using performance-enhancing drugs, though there was never any proof other than him improving his physique. Eventually, the writers came around and elected him to the Hall of Fame in 2017.
Second Base: Jose Altuve
Altuve is one of two current Astros to make our lineup. There were several great options at second base, which is why we put Biggio at catcher. In addition to Altuve and Biggio, Joe Morgan and Bill Doran deserved consideration. We went with Altuve, though, as he continues to put up excellent numbers for the Astros, climbing higher in the club’s record books every season.
Altuve debuted in July 2011 and has been the club’s second basemen since. The following season, he made his first All-Star team while the club was still in the NL. Altuve has represented the AL at the Midsummer Classic seven more times and counting. His success is due to his being one of the league’s top hitters almost every season of his career. He led the AL in hits for four consecutive seasons from 2014 through 2017 and has three batting titles. Altuve can also run, leading the league in stolen bases twice and swiping 18 this year at the age of 32. The 5’6″ second baseman has also developed power, twice hitting 31 HRs in a season.
In addition to the All-Star selections, Altuve’s trophy case features five Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and the 2017 MVP. His MVP came the year the Astros won their only World Championship and has become tainted somewhat due to the sign-stealing scandal that followed. As Altuve continues to put up excellent numbers, one has to wonder how much help he really got that season. His postseason production has been a mixed bag. He’s been outstanding in the divisional and championship series, including being the MVP of the 2019 ALCS. However, he has performed below his standards in the World Series.
Altuve gets another shot at a championship this year as he and the Astros try to make it back to the Fall Classic for the fourth time in six years. There’s no doubt #27 will one day be retired to the rafters by the franchise, and at his current trajectory, Altuve could also end up in Cooperstown.
Shortstop: Carlos Correa
Altuve’s double-play partner for much of his career was Carlos Correa, who left the team in 2022 as a free agent. Correa was the first overall pick in the 2012 Amateur Draft and debuted with the club three years later in June 2015. Correa won rookie-of-the-year that season despite playing in only 99 games after hitting .279 with 22 HRs, 68 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. Correa made two All-Star appearances with the Astros, including in 2021, his final season with the club. He also won the coveted Platinum Glove last year, given to the league’s best overall defender.
Correa has raised his game in the playoffs throughout his career. In 79 postseason games, roughly half a season, Correa has hit 18 HRs, scored 82 runs, and driven in 59. Undoubtedly, the club will miss his presence in the lineup this fall.
Third Base: Alex Bregman
Alex Bregman is the second of our active players to make the lineup. Despite just completing his seventh season, he leads all Astros’ third basemen in WAR by a fair bit, earning a place in our lineup. Like Correa, Bregman was a high draft pick, going second overall in 2015 out of LSU. He debuted in Houston the following summer, playing his first game on July 25, 2016. Bregman produced for the club from the get-go, posting solid to spectacular numbers every season. His best seasons so far have been in 2018 and 2019, the two years he’s been an All-Star. In 2018, Bregman led the AL with 51 doubles and slugged 31 HRs with 105 runs and 103 RBI. The following season, he won a Silver Slugger and was second in the MVP voting after hitting .296 with 41 HRs, 122 runs, and 112 RBI. In addition, he led the league in walks that year with 119.
As the Astros have been to the postseason nearly every year of Bregman’s career, he’s amassed 319 plate appearances in the playoffs. His batting average isn’t great, but he does have 12 postseason HRs and 46 runs scored. Bregman’s production at the plate has slowed since his monstrous 2019, but he remains a valuable hitter and steady defender at the hot corner for Houston. He is already the franchise leader in HRs and doubles among third basemen.
Left Field: José Cruz
The Astros didn’t draft José Cruz. He began his career in St. Louis in 1970 and didn’t join Houston until after the 1974 season when the Cardinals sold his rights to the club. “Cheo” quickly became one of the team’s best hitters. In 1977, Cruz displayed an excellent all-around offensive game hitting .299 with 31 doubles, ten triples, 17 HRs, 87 runs and RBI, and 44 stolen bases just when the Astros were on the cusp of relevancy for the first time in their history.
When Houston won the NL West in 1980, Cheo was an All-Star and finished third in the NL MVP race. In 1983, he led the league in hits and won his first Silver Slugger, a feat he repeated the following season. Cruz made his second All-Star squad in 1985 at the age of 37. He was a late bloomer and a team leader but was starting to feel his age. It took a while for baseball fans to learn about José Cruz, but he was finally getting his due after putting up numbers for a decade.
Cruz only played two more years with the Astros after 1985. He played his last season with the Yankees in 1988 but had little left in the tank and retired in July. Cheo did not have a Hall of Fame career, but he was a great Astro. The club recognized this and retired his #25 in 1992.
Center Field: César Cedeño
Playing next to Cruz for much of his time in Houston was César Cedeño. Cedeño debuted with the Astros in June 1970, and the 19-year-old rookie was an immediate success. He hit .310, scored 46 runs, drove in 42, and stole 17 bases in roughly half a season, finishing fourth in the Rookie-of-the-Year voting. Cedeño built on that by leading the league in doubles the following two seasons and making the All-Star team four times in five years from 1972 to 1976. Cedeño was a five-tool center fielder who played excellent defense, evidenced by the five consecutive Gold Gloves he won starting in 1972. He had good power and fantastic speed, hitting as many as 26 HRs playing in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome and stealing as many as 61 bases.
Cedeño played on only two postseason teams with the Astros, as the club traded him to Cincinnati after the 1981 season. He was coming off an injury-plagued season and appeared to be on the decline. Cedeño rebounded with the Reds somewhat in 1982 but became a part-time player after that and eventually retired in 1986. Cedeño is not a Hall of Famer and did not have his number retired by the club, but he was one of their best players throughout the 1970s and is the franchise leader in stolen bases.
Right Field: Jimmy Wynn
We had a few options for our last outfield spot, including Terry Puhl, George Springer, and Bob Watson, but Jimmy Wynn seemed like the best fit as one of the Astros’ best players in the 1960s. Though he was primarily a center fielder, Wynn did man right field his last few years with the club after César Cedeño took over in center.
Wynn is the only player in our lineup to play for the Colt .45s. He debuted in 1963, midway through the franchise’s second season, after being selected by the Astros from the Reds in the “expansion” draft. Playing for an expansion franchise was a benefit for Wynn, who was able to develop at the major league level for the most part. After a short trip back to the minors in 1964, he was in Houston to stay. Wynn was an early “three true outcomes” hitter playing in a pitcher’s park. He broke out in 1967 when he slugged 37 HRs, drove in 107, and made the All-Star team. Thirty-seven home runs were a lot in 1967, and Henry Aaron was the only man to hit more in the NL that season. Wynn also led the NL in strikeouts that year, but two years later, he flipped the script and led the league in walks. Though his career batting average isn’t that impressive, Wynn made up for it with a high OBP and SLG. He was also a threat on the basepaths, stealing as many as 43 bags in a season.
In December 1973, Wynn’s tenure with Houston ended after the club traded him to the Dodgers. He was the franchise’s home-run king for many years until Bagwell, Biggio, and Lance Berkman eventually passed him. The Astros honored Wynn in 2005 when they retired his #24 at Minute Made Park.
Designated Hitter: Lance Berkman
Speaking of Lance Berkman, he’s our DH. Berkman was one of the best offensive players in Astro’s history but wasn’t known for his defense, so DH felt like the perfect fit. “Big Puma” debuted in July 1999 but didn’t stick in the majors until midway through the following season. Berkman could flat-out hit, and his bat was a welcome addition to a contending team. In 2001 he led the NL with 55 doubles and made his first of five All-Star appearances for the Astros. The following year Berkman slugged 42 HRs and led the league with 128 RBI, establishing himself as the club’s best hitter as Bagwell and Biggio were winding down their careers.
Houston made it to the playoffs three times in Berkman’s tenure, including the 2005 World Series. Big Puma raked in nearly every postseason series for the club and was one of the few bright spots in the Fall Classic, hitting .385 and driving in six runs in the four games. At the 2010 trading deadline, the Astros were on the brink of a rebuild and sent Berkman to the Yankees. The 34-year-old played three more seasons after that, retiring in 2013. Berkman did not accumulate enough volume to warrant Hall of Fame consideration, but he was one of the best hitters of his generation.
Right-Handed Starter: Roy Oswalt
There were several great candidates for our right-handed starter, as most of the great pitchers to throw for the franchise were righties. Roy Oswalt stood out in terms of WAR, but Larry Dierker, Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Don Wilson, Shane Reynolds, Mike Scott, Joe Niekro, and Justin Verlander all had their merits. What set Oswalt apart is that he put up his numbers in an era dominated by hitting, leading to a much higher WAR than the other candidates on both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.
Oswalt broke in with the club in the bullpen in May 2001 but was a starter by June. He won 14 games that season in 20 starts with an ERA of 2.73, finishing second in the Rookie-of-the-Year balloting and fifth in the Cy Young voting. Oswalt dominated National League hitters for the next six seasons, averaging 16 wins, 212 innings, and 171 strikeouts with a 3.11 ERA and 1.2 WHIP from 2002 to 2007. He led the NL in starts and won 20 games twice during that span, in addition to the ERA title in 2006. Oswalt also went to three All-Star games and was a top-five Cy Young candidate four times.
Oswalt made seven postseason starts for the Astros, going 4-0 with a 3.66 ERA. His best series was the 2005 NLCS, when he was the series MVP after winning two games with a 1.29 ERA. However, Oswalt’s start in the World Series that year did not go well, as he allowed five runs in six innings. Oswalt was another casualty of the 2010 trading deadline when the club sent him to the Phillies, where he joined a stacked rotation. He pitched three more years after that, the last two plagued by injury, and retired after the 2013 season. Oswalt didn’t have a long enough career to garner many Hall of Fame votes, but he ranks high in several categories among Houston’s all-time pitching records.
Left-Handed Starter: Dallas Keuchel
The choices for our left-handed starter were not as plentiful. Dallas Keuchel got the nod over Wandy Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, and Mike Cuellar, as his peak was the highest. Keuchel debuted midway through the 2012 season and struggled his first two years. In 2014, though, he began to turn it around, winning 12 games with an ERA of 2.93 in 200 innings. The following season was Keuchel’s apex when he won the Cy Young after leading the league with 20 wins, 232 innings, and a 1.02 WHIP with a 2.48 ERA. He made the All-Star team that year and again in the Astros’ championship season of 2017. In addition, Keuchel was an excellent fielder, winning four Gold Gloves with Houston.
Keuchel made nine postseason starts for the franchise, posting a 4-2 record with a 3.31 ERA. He started twice during the 2017 World Series but went 0-1 with a 5.23 ERA. Keuchel hit free agency after the 2018 season, but teams were reticent to surrender draft pick compensation in addition to his high salary demands. As a result, he had to wait until June before officially joining a new team, the Atlanta Braves. Keuchel pitched well in the short 2020 season but has otherwise mostly struggled the past few seasons. He pitched poorly for three franchises in 2022, and it remains to be seen whether he will retire. Whatever the case, he was a dominant lefty for the Astros for a short period.
Reliever: Billy Wagner
Billy Wagner made our list of the Top Ten Relief Pitchers of All-Time, so he was a no-brainer for our lineup. He didn’t look too intimidating on the mound at 5’10” and 180 pounds, but Wagner could bring it, and he reigned as one of the top closers in the NL for over a decade.
Wagner faced one batter in September 1995 and began the following season in the minors. He was recalled before too long, though, and starting closing games after injuries created an opening. He reclaimed the closer role in 1997 and held it for the rest of his tenure in Houston. The only exception was in 2000, when he underwent elbow surgery in June and missed the rest of the season. He was an All-Star for the first time in 1999 and returned six more times, representing the Astros thrice.
“Billy the Kid” averaged 35 saves per season from 1997 through his last season in 2003 (excluding the injury-shortened 2000). However, he did not find much success in the postseason, making only five appearances for the club with nary a save. In 2004, Houston traded Wagner to Philadelphia, ending his run in Houston. He kept piling up saves at every stop until retiring in 2010. Wagner has yet to be elected to the Hall of Fame, but every year his vote total gets higher, so he still has a good shot at being immortalized at Cooperstown.
We travel north to Kansas City for our next All-Franchise Starting Lineup in a few weeks. If you love baseball as much as we do, check out the We Love Baseball section for more great content!
Featured Image Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)