Can Houston win the battle against discomfort?

Are injuries jeopardizing the Astros' season?

Astros George Springer
Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

The Astros have taken some big blows recently on the injury front. Jose Altuve hasn't played since May 10 after his hamstring injury. George Springer strained his hamstring on his first night back after missing several games with back tightness. Also this weekend Houston lost Max Stassi and Aledmys Diaz to other leg issues.

The discomforts are stacking up, and with that many will start to worry if all this missed time from these players will degrade the overall outcome of the 2019 season. My opinion on that matter at the moment is this: no, not really.

It's only May

Sure, it's the end of May, but still, it's early in the season. You hope injuries don't happen at any point in the season, but if they must, you'd prefer earlier than later. If you remember, Carlos Correa missed the first three games of the season with a neck strain, something that some conservative rest time has allowed him to play thus far fully healthy.

With so much season left, the Astros have plenty of time left to be conservative with players who need some time off, so they might as well take a slower approach and be sure that the players are 100 percent healthy before getting them back in the lineup.

Another side-benefit of allowing plenty of breathing room for these star players dealing with injuries: they can go on rehab assignments not only to get them back in rhythm but provide some veteran knowledge to some of the prospects we may see soon.

The division looks very winnable 

Early in the season, the Astros were looking up at the Mariners who started the season on an absolute tear. Since then, the Mariners have had a very tough stretch while the Astros have gone on to win series after series while putting together a couple of ten-game winning streaks.

It's of course too early to fly the division banner, but as of now, it's looking like even with some injuries along the way the Astros may find the AL West to be a division they can lock up well before the end of the season. However, they have a ton of AL West matchups in the second half which could either be cakewalks or fierce battles during the playoff push.

Strong depth 

One more reason that Houston can absorb a few players going on the injured list and take their time coming back, the team is balanced and has good depth. One way a team can keep the train moving with a few of their offensive leaders missing time: good pitching and defense. The Astros have plenty of that, including their rotation led by Justin Verlander, and strong defense including a strong left side of the infield and crazy athletic outfield.

There have been many plays on defense that have saved runs or stifled the momentum of opposing defenses, which along with a strong bullpen adds up to Houston's 8-5 record in one-run games. Despite moving Collin McHugh to the bullpen who would himself land on the injured list, the rest of the rotation has been solid, with Verlander having another Cy Young caliber year, Gerrit Cole leading the league in strikeouts, and Wade Miley and Brad Peacock racking up some quality starts.

A lot of defensive players can play multiple positions, which is a great benefit too. Yuli Gurriel can play first, second, or third. Tony Kemp can play second or in the outfield, and if needed Alex Bregman can play shortstop in addition to his now normal third base position. They're toeing the line of comfortability on infield versatility, but as of now, it's still manageable.

Put all of this together, and you've got a team that can still win plenty of games even with multiple injuries stacking up together. Even without Jose Altuve on the field and in the lineup, the Astros cruised along and rose to the top of the power rankings, and I think they still belong near the top of that list, for now, even with the other injuries that came later.

All of this said, even with the Astros being the best in the AL West, they need to ensure they can put themselves in a spot to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs because that will be one of the keys to a successful playoff run. That means that while the current injuries allow for plenty of time to play out, adding more, or more severe, injuries can make things challenging for the Astros in the rest of the season.

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The Astros need to turn things around in a hurry. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros have already been swept in four series this season. They were swept in four series all of last season. As Mexico City says bienvenidos to the Astros this weekend, there are certainly more than a few folks fretting that the Astros are already close to saying adios to playoff hopes. The Astros are not at the point of no return, though one can see it out there on the horizon. It wouldn’t take another month of their garbage level 7-19 performance for the season to be essentially down the drain.

If the Astros were in the American League East, they’d already be ten games out of second place. But they’re not! If in the AL Central they’d be eleven and a half games back of Cleveland. But they’re not! Dozens of teams have rebounded to win divisions from larger deficits much later in the season than the Astros face presently. The Seattle Mariners lead the thus far weak AL West at 13-12. The Astros being six and a half games in arrears of the M’s and six back of the Texas Rangers in late April is far from optimal but nowhere near devastating.

Multiple media outlets have noted how few teams historically have started a season in as stumblebum a fashion as the 2024 Astros and wound up making the playoffs. What every outlet I have seen noting that failed to include: this is just the third season since Major League Baseball added a third Wild Card to each league’s postseason field. So, while 7-19 out of the gate is indisputably awful, it is not the death knell to the extent it has been over generations of MLB.

The issue isn’t where the Astros sit in the standings, it’s that they have played atrocious baseball and aren’t providing reason for optimism that a stark turnaround is imminent. The starting rotation is the best hope. Justin Verlander has made two starts. Framber Valdez rejoins the rotation Sunday. Cristian Javier should be a week or so away. Obviously, Ronel Blanco isn’t going to continue pitching as well as he has through his first four starts. But if he is a good number four starter, that’s fine if the top three coming into the season pitch to reasonably hoped for form.

Hunter Brown simply is not a good big league pitcher. Maybe he someday fulfills his potential, but the data at this point are clear. What can Brown do for you? Not much. Spencer Arrighetti needs better command to be a good big league starter. J.P. France was a revelation over his first 17 starts last season, but since has looked like the guy who posted underwhelming numbers when in the minor leagues. If the Astros wind up with 50-plus starts from Brown/Arrighetti/France their goose will probably be cooked.

The only MLB teams with worse staff earned run averages than the Astros’ horrific 5.07 are the Chicago White Sox (Wait! They have Martin Maldonado!) and Colorado Rockies. At 3-22 the White Sox are on an early pace to post the worst record in the history of Major League Baseball. The Rockies never have a chance to post good pitching stats because of the mile high offensive freak show environment in Denver.

Way to go, Joe

Props to Joe Espada for his conviction in making what he believed to be the right call in pulling Verlander after four and a third innings Thursday at Wrigley Field. Verlander allowed no runs but had reached 95 pitches in just the second outing of the injury-delayed start to his season. Not easy for a rookie manager skippering what has been a Titanic journey thus far to pull a surefire Hall of Famer who was two outs away from qualifying for a win. Many were no doubt poised to destroy Espada had Rafael Montero given up the lead in the fifth. Verlander was angry at being pulled from any chance at his 259th career win. Understood, but the manager’s job is to make the decisions he thinks are in the ballclub’s overall best interest. That Montero and Bryan Abreu combined to blow the lead in the sixth is immaterial.

Then there's the offense…

Six runs total the last four games. Scored more than four runs in just one of the last nine games. Timely hitting largely non-existent.

At last check Alex Bregman still hawks that “Breggy Bomb” salsa. At the plate, he’s been mostly stuck in “Breggy Bum” mode, including zero bombs (home runs). 23 games played without a homer is Bregman’s longest drought since 2017 when he had separate 35 and 27 game stretches between dingers. Bregman has a history of slow first months of the season, but never anything as inept as he’s posted thus far. A litany of lazy fly balls, infield pops, and routine grounders add up to a .216 batting average and feeble .566 OPS. Reference point: Martin Maldonado’s worst OPS season with the Astros was .573. If Bregman was a young guy handed a starting job coming out of spring training, if a viable alternative were available, there’s a chance he’d be a Sugar Land Space Cowboy right now. Bregman’s track record makes it a decent bet that he winds up with decent numbers, but nothing special. Certainly nothing remotely worth the 10 years 300 million dollars or whatever Bregman and agent Scott Boras intend(ed) to seek on the free agent market this coming offseason. Two hits Thursday did get Bregman to the 1000 hit plateau for his career.

Despite arriving south of the border with his batting average at .346, even Jose Altuve has his warts. With runners in scoring position, Altuve has one hit this season. One. In 16 at bats. Small sample size, but it counts. That’s .063. Yordan Alvarez has been no great shakes either, five for 24 (.208) with RISP.

One wonders what would happen if the Astros got a hold of and “lost” Jose Abreu’s passport/visa this weekend in Mexico City and Abreu couldn’t get back into the U.S. after the two-game set with the Rockies.

Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTube with the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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