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Unorthodox or not, Astros keep finding ways to produce on their own terms

Would a true "ace" be nice? Of course! Composite image by Jack Brame.

Ever since the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Gerrit Cole left via free agency, and Justin Verlander got hurt, the Astros haven't had a true ace on their pitching staff. Yes, I'm aware Zack Greinke is on this team. I'm also very aware of Lance McCullers Jr, and Framber Valdez's respective presences in the rotation. I tend to look at a true "ace" of a pitching staff as a top of the line starter who'll give you at least six to seven innings and/or about 100 pitches per start. ESPN Houston's The Killer B's spoke about this on their show Tuesday. He's always a threat to win 20 games, approach 200 plus strikeouts or more, post a sub three ERA, and always finishes near the top three to five in the Cy Young voting. Keuchel won a Cy Young with the Astros in 2015. Cole finished second to Verlander in the 2019 Cy Young race, narrowly missing out by a 171 to 159 point edge.

None of the current pitchers in the starting rotation are a threat to put up those kinds of numbers. At least not as of this season. Greinke is a solid vet, but he isn't the threat he once was. Valdez has good to great stuff, but he has to prove he can do this on a more consistent basis. McCullers has all the tools to be an ace, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. If he and Valdez can stay healthy, improve/fine tune their pitching repertoire, and be more consistent, they both have "ace" written all over them. So if the Astros don't have a true "ace", how are they one of the contenders in the American League to make it to and/or win a World Series?

Most top-notch starting rotations have an ace, a dependable number two, and the rest is a crap shoot. The Astros have three number twos (Greinke, Valdez, McCullers Jr), and a host of number threes and fours. The reason why not having an "ace" is a problem for this team is because their rotation is filled with guys who are secondary starters. A team is lucky to have an "ace", and even more lucky to have a pitcher or two behind that "ace" in order to command control with their rotation. The Astros have managed to do so without an "ace." They've been able to maintain control of first place in their division and stay in relative striking distance of the AL's best record with a rotation by committee. At certain points, they've gone to a six-man rotation whereas most teams utilize a five-man rotation. Having a surplus of starting caliber pitchers has afforded them that luxury.

What it has also afforded the Astros is the ability to interchange parts in their rotation as needed. Whether they've utilized the six-man rotation, or various versions of the traditional five-man rotation, they've navigated the waters to an AL West division lead, while almost guaranteeing a return to the postseason, and positioning themselves for another playoff run. With the moves they made at the trade deadline, they shored up the bullpen, which was once a weakness, and have made themselves into true contenders in the AL.

Would a true "ace" be nice? Of course! Is it an absolute necessity? Maybe not. Only time will tell whether this approach will work or not. I'd deem it a success if this team made it to another ALCS and/or World Series. Anything short of that isn't a failure, but it does speak to the lack of having a true "ace" and what that means to your rotation. This team will still go down as a dynasty for what they've done since 2015. Anything they do now will only add to that legacy. However, winning a ring now would force-feed the haters a big serving of STFU about the cheating scandal, and I'm here for it!

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Here's why the Texans will make the playoffs under Lovie Smith

1. The Houston Texans had a mentally tough practice Saturday. The team has worked a lot in pads and Lovie Smith noted the days starting to build up on them during this practice. The head coach said this is a good practice because it is like the fourth quarter of the games the team will end up playing.

2. Davis Mills threw one of the best passes he has thrown all camp on Saturday. In a red zone drill, he dropped back and whipped a pass between two defenders into the tightest window he has had all camp. Nico Collins hauled in the threaded pass for a score.

3. A few reps later Davis Mills struck again. With traffic from linebackers and defensive backs, he found Chris Conley for a score. It wasn’t as tight of a window as the first one, but Mills snapped it off nonetheless.

4. Pharaoh Brown made something hard look very easy on Saturday. With Mills rolling out and tossing the ball to Brown in the back corner Brown hauled in a one-handed catch and had both feet down. Touchdown. Brown then acted like it was no big deal.

5. Pharaoh Brown has had a wonderful camp. Lovie Smith named him the starting tight end. The thing that really jumped out to me today is he makes his work look easy. He isn’t straining to excel in his opportunities. The good ones always make it look easy and it has looked easy for Brown so far.

6. Rookie linebacker Christian Harris is on the shelf for a few days. He joins fellow rookie Kenyon Green as players who are injured. Max Scharping played left guard with Green down. Wide receiver Phillip Dorset practiced while veteran wideout Chester Rodgers did not.

7. Roy Lopez flashed again today. While Friday was about the rushing attack and Lopez made his presence felt at defensive tackle, he got into the pass rush Saturday. Lopez would have had a bone-crushing sack in a live rep.

8. Ross Blacklock hasn’t been consistent. A statement like that is good and evil. There are some plays where Blacklock looks like he isn’t a factor. I watched one today. A play later he had what would have been a sack on the play. He’s a player to watch in the preseason games closely.

9. Don’t expect to see Derek Stingley in the preseason opener next Saturday. Lovie Smith wouldn’t commit to the rookie cornerback playing in the preseason. Smith did say Stingley is on track to play week one in the regular season.

10. Brevin Jordan has had a nice camp and should be an important piece for the team. Jordan had a bad drop in 7-on-7 drills that he was beating himself up over for a few minutes. That was out of the norm. He’s been used a lot and will be on the field a bit it seems for the Texans.

11. Brevin Jordan also rattled off a few contenders for the quote of the day. He exclaimed he had taken care of himself this offseason and he finally had abs. He also revealed he’s quite the fisherman and once caught a 125-pound tuna. When asked what he did with the tuna Jordan laughed and said “RIP tuna!”

Listen to Cody Stoots weekdays afternoons 3-7pm on his show "The Wheelhouse" live on ESPN 97.5 + 92.5 FM or anytime on demand at the podcast here.

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