HOUSTON IS STILL THE CREAM OF THE A.L. WEST CROP

Astros fans, here's why the grass is still greener in H-Town

Astros fans, here's why the grass is still greener in H-Town
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Astros fans are getting close to panic mode these days as they hold their breath waiting for MLB to make their ruling on the sign-stealing scandal and deal with whatever punishment is handed down. The fact that both AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow could be facing lengthy suspensions, and the team could lose draft picks and get strapped with a significant fine has every Astros fan biting every last finger nail in hopes of some last minute saving grace.

While I get it that until the ruling comes down and the ramifications are known, it's a very stressful situation, the good news is, regardless of that decision and whatever moves the team makes between now and late March, your baseball team is still in the drivers seat to win another A.L. West title and another opportunity to compete for a World Series crown.

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Unlike in previous years when the competition in the division has either stood pat with financial concerns (A's), went for it with a quick fix plan for one year of success (Mariners), or overspent for over-the-hill, veteran, free agents and journeymen (Angels), this offseason the competition has been very savvy in their attempts to get on par with Houston. The Angels opened their checkbook and added Anthony Rendon to compliment Mike Trout, but they are still forced to deal with the Albert Pujols contract and a lack of pitching talent and depth.

The Mariners are in full rebuild mode and don't seem to be doing anything but getting worse in the short-term and the A's are standing pat with a solid core of young talent and the hope that they can keep the train moving forward for another season. The hated Rangers have traded for Corey Kluber to give them a legitimate Ace at the front of their rotation but still have significant holes to fill in their lineup as well as their pitching staff. If the trend continues for the rest of the winter and these are the biggest and best moves those 3 teams can muster, Houston should feel very confident heading to Florida for spring training.

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I get it if you are concerned about losing Gerrit Cole and have questions about Lance McCullers and the young arms being able to pick up the slack and replace the innings and stats. I also understand if you worry about who will play catcher and how many arms Luhnow will re-sign and add to the pen. I'm with you if you wonder what they are going to do to shed salary obligations and free up money to be able to plan for the upcoming contract issues they will face with George Springer, Carlos Correa and others, but those decisions are at least a year away and none of that should significantly impact the talent and lineup that will take the field for at least one more season at Minute Maid Park.

As long as you still have Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke at the top of your rotation, the core four of Springer, Bregman, Altuve and Correa in the middle of your lineup, complimentary pieces like Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley and a back end of the bullpen that consists of Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna, you are better than three-quarters of the rest of the league. I know it's not the preview you have gotten used to over the last three years when almost everyone made you their odds on favorite to win it all, but it could be a lot worse. You could be the Mariners or Orioles.

Most front offices and most fan bases would kill to have a team like that to cheer for, even for just one year, you will have it in place for yet another campaign and that should be more than enough for all H-town faithful to be thankful for while sitting around the tree next week. Of course, it's ok to have asked Santa for another starting pitcher, a solid veteran catcher and some bullpen help or a trade partner for Josh Reddick, but all in all, even though you didn't get Cole in your stocking the holiday should be a time to feel hungry, happy and satisfied.

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It's not time to panic, yet. Composite Getty Image.

This is not a column for fanboys or sugarcoating. To this point in the season the Astros stink like rotten eggs. They stink like Angel Hernandez’s umpiring. They stink like Bill O'Brien's general manager skills. The Astros are a bad team right now. That’s notably different from being a bad team. Their 4-10 record is well-earned and it is definitely possible that the Astros’ run of high quality and annual playoff appearances crashes and burns this season. But it’s laughable to declare so after just 14 games of the 162 scheduled have been played.

Last June the Astros had a lousy window in which they went 3-10. In August they had a 4-8 funk. In September it was a 3-9 stretch of collapse. The 2022 World Series Champions had a 3-8 hiccup in April, and a 2-6 blotch overlapping July and August that included getting swept in a three-game series by the then and now awful Oakland A’s.

Now the Astros are back home (Oh No!) for six games, three vs. the Rangers then three with the Braves. The Rangers lead the American League West but are just 7-6, so despite their cellar-dwelling status, the Astros are just three and a half games out of first. A winning homestand is obviously the goal. No, really. 3-3 would be ok, even though that would just about clinch a losing record heading into May.

Mandatory aside: spectacular weather is the Friday night forecast. Stop being stubborn and lame, Astros. Open the roof! I don’t mean just for the postgame fireworks.

On the mend?

The Astros’ track record of downplaying pitching injuries that turned out to be major certainly causes angst as we await Framber Valdez’s return from a sore elbow. If Valdez ultimately winds up out for months, the Astros’ starting rotation is in deep trouble. Even more so if upon the approaching delayed start to his season, 41-year-old Justin Verlander pitches to his age in terms of results and/or durability. However, if Valdez is ok within a month and JV is solid, those two, and Cristian Javier can stabilize the rotation quite nicely.

The Astros started three guys in the last four games who belong in the minor leagues. It was a sad sign of the times that the Astros were reduced to calling up Blair Henley to make the start Monday in Arlington. Except for Rangers fans and Astros haters, it grew uncomfortable watching Henley give up four hits, walk three, record just one out, and wind up charged with seven earned runs. But it’s not Henley’s fault that he was thrust into a role for which he was utterly unqualified.

Last season at Double-A Corpus Christi, Henley’s earned run average was 5.06. Because of the crummy state of the Astros’ farm system, Henley failed up to Triple-A Sugar Land to start this season. After one not good start for the Space Cowboys, “Hey, go get out big leaguers Blair!” Henley turns 27 next month, he is not a prospect of any note. If he never again pitches in the majors Henley forever carries a 135.00 ERA.

But you know what? It was still a great day for the guy. Even if undeserved, Henley made “The Show.” For one day on the Astros’ 26-man roster, Henley made over four thousand dollars. To make him eligible for call up, the Astros first had to put Henley on their 40-man roster and sign him to a split contract. That means that until/unless the Astros release him, Henley’s AAA salary jumps from approximately $36,000 for the season to over 60K.

Lastly, while Henley’s ERA could remain 135.00 in perpetuity, at least he’s no Fred Bruckbauer. In 1961 Bruckbauer made his big league debut and bade his big league farewell in the same game. He faced four batters, giving up three earned runs on three hits and one walk. Career ERA: Infinity! Bruckbauer is the most recent of the more than a dozen pitchers to retire with the infinity ERA.

Spencer Arrighetti’s debut start went much better. For two innings, before it unraveled in a seven run Royals third. Arrighetti has good stuff, but not great stuff. Control has been an issue for him in the minor leagues. Without better command Arrighetti cannot be a plus starter in the majors.

Then there’s Hunter Brown. We could go decades without seeing another pitcher give up nine runs and 11 hits in two-thirds of an inning as Brown did Thursday. It had never happened in MLB history! To this point, Brown is an overhyped hope. ERA last July: 5.92, August: 6.23, September 1 on: 8.74. Three starts into 2024: 16.43.

Jose Abreu watch

It's still early enough in the season that even just a couple of big games can markedly improve a stat line but Jose Abreu continues to look washed up at the plate. Three hits in 37 at bats (.081 batting average), with the most recent hit a questionable official scoring decision. Manager Joe Espada has already dropped Abreu from fifth in the lineup to sixth, then seventh, then eighth. Two more slots down to go, Joe! Continuing to act like Jon Singleton could be a competent bat in the lineup is just silly though.

Catch the weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week now generally goes up after Sunday’s game (second part released Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTubewith the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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