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4 specific ways the Astros are proving the haters wrong in 2021

Astros Yordan Alvarez, Dusty Baker, Chas McCormick
The Astros have a surplus of young talent. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2021 Astros season has been a bit of a ride so far. The start of the season saw this team being seen as a possible threat to make the ALCS, but were they seriously considered a World Series contender? There were holes on this roster that many thought would prevent them from reaching such lofty heights. To be more specific, it was the outfield depth, bullpen, and starting rotation. Those positions were the ones in which most people looked at with some trepidation going into this season. Fast-forward to 19 games left before the regular season ends, and the Astros are running away with the AL West, and are about four to five games behind the Rays for the overall lead in the AL. This turnaround can be attributed to those three key positions that were called into question when the season started, and what was believed to be a shaky minor league system.

Starting rotation

When you lose a guy like Justin Verlander for the season before it starts, it's a major blow to your starting staff. Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr were expected to be the leaders of the starting rotation. They have been pretty consistent and held things down, but there are other guys who've made positive impacts as well. Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier have all contributed to the success of this staff. Javier has been more of an arm out of the pen lately, but that doesn't diminish what he means to this staff. Valdez, Garcia, and Urquidy have all proven themselves worthy of holding down starting positions in this rotation.

Bullpen

One other area that was a red flag when the season stated was the bullpen. Javier has bounced between the bullpen and rotation, but settled as a long relief guy lately. When they added Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman to the bullpen through trades, it changed the way we see the bullpen altogether. No longer do fans fear a small lead. Instead, they patiently wait for what's to come. Usually, it's another Astros win. Occasionally, there have been some letdowns, but not nearly as often as it was earlier in the season.

Outfield

Once upon a time, Myles Straw was a thing in the outfield. Since then, Jose Siri and Jake Meyers have made names for themselves. Straw was seen as a sacrificial lamb of sorts in the Maton trade. Since Meyers has lived up to the hype, and Siri has played well in limited action, Straw has been a forgotten man. While Michael Brantley, Kyle Tucker, and Chas McCormick have held it down, the new guys are giving the outfield an infusion of youth.

Farm system

Another thing that has stuck out to me is how some of these guys have been promoted from what was once considered a dwindling cesspool of a minor league system. Hailed as one of MLB's most promising a short time ago, the Astros' minor leagues have been raided to keep their run as a dynasty alive. With a ring in hand and another World Series appearance to show, I consider it worth it. With this team on the verge of prolonging said dynasty, I'm also for whatever keeps it going. Whether it's trading the future for a chance to win now, or getting young guys playing time now who'll be a part of something long term, I'm here for that as well. The minors weren't as devoid of talent as once was thought. General manager James Click isn't a hapless bum scrambling to fill Jeff Luhnow's shoes. This team has what it takes to win it all and still compete for years to come!

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*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 The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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