Retired numbers: Houston Astros

Houston has held more retirement ceremonies than any other team its age, yet it still has candidates

Many Major League Baseball teams are parsimonious with retirement ceremonies.

The Marlins have not retired the uniform of any former player, manager, or coach. The Rockies have saluted only Todd Helton. (Larry Walker is slated to be Colorado’s second honoree whenever fans return to Coors Field.) The Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Mariners, and Rays have retired just two jerseys apiece.

But the Astros take an entirely different approach. Houston has permanently pulled nine uniform numbers from rotation, the largest count for any of the 14 franchises created since 1961. (None of these totals includes the No. 42 of Dodgers superstar Jackie Robinson, which was retired for all 30 teams in 1997 by order of Commissioner Bud Selig.)

The Astros have been so free with the process that they have actually retired more numbers than five franchises that have been in operation for at least 120 years — the Athletics, Cubs, Orioles (formerly Browns), Phillies, and Twins (formerly Senators).

You might imagine, then, that Houston has run out of potential honorees. The Astros have won only one world championship, yet have suffered at least 90 losses in 14 different seasons. Could such a franchise possibly find additional numbers to retire?

You’d be surprised.

Astros’ numbers already retired

Only three of Houston’s nine current retirees can be found in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: No. 5 Jeff Bagwell, No. 7 Craig Biggio, and No. 34 Nolan Ryan. The first two played their entire careers in Houston, while the latter spent nine of his 27 seasons as an Astro.

Bagwell, who was a first baseman, debuted as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1991 and rose to become its Most Valuable Player three seasons later. His 449 career home runs are the most by any Astro.

Biggio arrived in Houston as a catcher in 1988, then shifted to second base in 1992. He made seven All-Star teams before retiring in 2007 with 3,060 hits, which is 746 more than anybody else in team history.

Ryan went 106-94 for the Astros between 1980 and 1988. He posted the NL’s lowest earned run average in 1981 and 1987, and led the league in strikeouts during his final two seasons in Houston. He remains the team’s all-time strikeout leader with 1,866 as an Astro.

The franchise’s two earliest stars — No. 24 Jim Wynn and No. 49 Larry Dierker — were rewarded for the spark they provided during a succession of losing years in the 1960s and early 1970s. Outfielder Wynn blasted at least 20 home runs in seven of his 11 seasons in Houston, no easy feat in the languid air of the Astrodome. Pitcher Dierker started 320 games, which is still the team’s career mark. He remained as Astro for 13 years.

The next generation of stars is also represented by an outfielder and a pitcher. No. 25 Jose Cruz was the former, ripping 1,937 hits for the Astros between 1975 and 1987. No. 33 Mike Scott was the latter, capping his nine seasons in Houston with the Cy Young Award in 1986 and a 20-win season three years later.

The franchise’s other two retirees were memorialized after their untimely deaths. No. 32 Jim Umbricht pitched just 69 games for the franchise, then known as the Colt .45s, in 1962 and 1963 before dying from cancer. No. 40 Don Wilson tossed a pair of no-hitters and won 104 games for the Astros in nine seasons. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1975.

Astros’ candidates for retired numbers

So, with nine numbers already packed away, who could possibly be left? Several worthy candidates exist, though none has an ironclad case.

Among the leaders is No. 28 Cesar Cedeno, a center fielder who played in Houston from 1970 to 1981, running up 49.6 wins above replacement. That’s the highest total for any Astro whose number hasn’t already been retired. The same is true of his 1,659 hits and 487 stolen bases.

No. 17 Lance Berkman is right behind Cedeno with 48.1 WAR as an Astro. He played in Houston’s outfield and at first base (1999-2010) for a total of 1,592 games, fourth in franchise history behind Biggio, Bagwell, and Cruz. Berkman is the team’s all-team leader in on-base percentage (.410) and is second in home runs (326).

Three pitchers also warrant consideration. Knuckleball specialist No. 36 Joe Niekro (1975-1985) is No. 1 in franchise history with 144 wins. Right behind him is No. 44 Roy Oswalt (2001-2010) with 143 victories as an Astro. No. 13 Billy Wagner (1995-2003) posted at least 30 saves in five different seasons in Houston.

Looking for a possible dark horse? It’s often forgotten that Hall of Fame second baseman No. 18 Joe Morgan played his first nine seasons in Houston (1963-1971) before blossoming into a superstar with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Morgan returned to the Astrodome for a curtain call in 1980, finishing with 972 hits in a Houston uniform (out of a total of 2,517).

The big unknown, of course, involves the present team. Several current Astros could eventually enter this discussion — even with the lingering specter of the club’s cheating scandal — though it’s too early to be certain who will finish his career with the best numbers. The leader right now is second baseman No. 27 Jose Altuve, who already ranks eighth in Houston’s career standings with 36.0 WAR after 10 seasons (2011-2020).

The outlook

Cedeno and Berkman would seem to have the strongest cases for number retirement under normal circumstances, but there’s a catch.

The club announced a new strategy last year. It created an Astros Hall of Fame, which henceforth will be the primary honor for the franchise’s greatest players. Six of the seven candidates noted above have already been inducted — Morgan and Niekro in 2019, Cedeno, Berkman, Oswalt, and Wagner this year.

Jersey retirement, says the team, will be confined in the future to Astros who are admitted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Will Houston be able to adhere to this policy? Will it be able to restrict its unusually strong impulse toward number retirement? Only time will tell.

Previous posts on retired numbers