Astros' offseason options: 5 scenarios for the defending champions

While it's fairly standard for the defending World Series champion to be one of the main characters of an offseason, the Houston Astros' hot-stove activity thus far has been anything but ordinary. 

It began with the decision by owner Jim Crane to offer GM James Click only a one-year contract, and subsequently see him depart, despite having just successfully achieved the thing general managers are hired to do: build a team that wins it all. In the weeks since, Crane — along with a tight circle consisting of — has boldly assumed the bulk of the team-building responsibilities. 

The decision to press forward sans a traditional head of baseball operations has made this winter for the Astros an especially fascinating one to observe. 

With the understanding that Crane will be calling the shots when it comes to building out this roster for at least the short term, what are some paths he might take in the coming weeks? Retaining Montero and bringing in Abreu were big moves, but there's surely plenty more on the agenda. Let's speculate!

Verlander is the obvious place to start with any Astros offseason plan moving forward, and Crane seems to have signaled significant interest in retaining the future Hall of Famer and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. However, retaining Verlander for what will likely be at least $35 million a year would push Houston a lot closer to the $233M Competitive Balance Tax line (AKA the luxury tax), a line that Crane routinely suggested he is willing to go over but has never actually done so. The Astros' payroll currently sits at a projected $183M, according to RosterResource, so it's certainly doable to fit Verlander in under the tax line, but it may lessen their willingness to aggressively pursue any other high-profile free agents. 

It's unclear just how much of a priority the team considers adding an outfielder compared to, say, a catcher (more on that in a second), but it's worth noting that Bagwell — who, based on reporting and the way he's talking is clearly heavily involved in roster-building right now — suggested that Houston still wants Yordan Álvarez to get a healthy amount of reps in left field rather than becoming a full-time DH. 

Verlander will command by far the highest average annual value of any of Houston's reported targets. If he departs for a mega-deal elsewhere, the Astros would have much more payroll flexibility to target multiple other free agents, most likely headlined by Contreras. As important as Martin Maldonado has been for the Astros pitching staff, his bat has been way below league average for years now, and it seems the Astros are ready to upgrade offensively at the position and slide Maldonado into more of a backup role. Houston will reportedly meet with Contreras, the top catcher on the market, at the Winter Meetings in San Diego. 

Normally, contending teams in this scenario would prefer to trade prospects rather than big-leaguers, but a strong farm system is actually not something Houston currently boasts relative to many of the other powerhouse organizations across the league, . That's not to say they don't have any prospects worth trading, but it may be easier to land an immediate contributor with one of Urquidy or Garcia as the centerpiece. 

Forget team fits and sustainability; maybe Crane just decides he wants to pony up the big bucks far more than we are even considering possible. Rather than tip-toeing around the luxury tax as he has in years past, perhaps he just zooms full speed past it toward Steve Cohen Territory by bringing back Verlander, signing Contreras and adding another free-agent outfielder for an eight-figure annual salary. While it's not completely uncommon for owners to get involved heavily with free agency or high-level trades, we may be entering some uncharted territory with the degree to which Crane appears to be running the show, and that leaves room for quite the range of possibilities. 

 and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for , DAZN and The Ringer. He's a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter