The Pallilog

Astros still need help in the arms race; Westbrook trade gets Rockets back in the spotlight

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NBA wheeling and dealing dominated the first half of July, now it's baseball's turn with the one and now only trade deadline looming the 31st.

I've steadfastly been saying the Astros are extreeeemely likely to win the American League West and that their real race is for homefield advantage in the playoffs, with the Twins and Yankees in the American League and maybe the Dodgers for World Series homefield edge. Catching the Dodgers looks unlikely. The Astros have a better team than the Twins, and an easier remaining schedule in trying to catch the Yankees.

For at least a few days though take the Oakland A's seriously. If a team scores about as many runs as yours does, and allows about as many as yours does, that team is basically about as good as yours is. Looking at the rosters I'm not sure how it's the case but that basically is Oakland this season. Since a 19-25 start, the A's have ripped off a 36-17 stretch to enter the weekend within five and a half games of the Astros. They've kept rolling since a month ago losing their best starting pitcher (Frankie Montas) to an 80 game performance enhancing drug suspension. The Astros and A's have 11 head-to-head games left, the first three coming at Minute Maid Park Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

The Astros can win the World Series with the club they have now, especially once Carlos Correa rejoins the lineup. They could also get bounced in the Division Series. The addition of a starting pitcher has clearly grown in need. Who is selling and what prices are the questions. The Jays' Marcus Stroman? The Tigers' Matthew Boyd? The Marlins' Caleb Smith? The Mets are on the fringe of the Wild Card picture, would they auction Noah Syndergaard? The Giants have surged into the mass of mediocrity that is the NL Wild Card pic, that would seem to make them trading Madison Bumgarner less likely. It's not as if the Astros would be the lone bidder on any of these guys.

A big move

I was off last week when news surfaced of the Russell Westbrook to the Rockets/Chris Paul and draft picks to the Thunder blockbuster trade. With it becoming official this week, some thoughts. Of course the Rockets wanted to move the three years, 124 million dollars left on Paul's contract. Of course there was concern over lingering problems between Harden and Paul. Maybe they'd have worked through it, maybe not. Of course taking on an additional year and 47 million more guaranteed dollars entails risk. But right now Westbrook is clearly the better and more durable player. It will be fascinating to see how well (or not well) Westbrook and James Harden mesh. What they did together seven years ago (with Kevin Durant too!) when Harden was a 22 year old sixth man isn't particularly relevant now. As he did with Harden and Paul, Mike D'Antoni will stagger their minutes to have at least one on the floor at nearly all times. Yeah, well, how are things handled down the stretch of close games? Harden is the man, Westbrook is a lousy spot up shooter. So is the ball in Westbrook's hands with Harden spotting up? Hard to see a steady diet of that. When off the ball both guys generally play as statues. That needs to change.

Westbrook may be the most explosive inch for inch player we've ever seen. Absolutely Jordanesque-not as a player, but for sheer stunning athleticism Westbrook has been amazing to watch. He brings a one man transition game ability the Rockets haven't had in ages. The consistent force with which he plays is captivating, even when he lapses into out of control Russell mode. There has to be concern that slippage in his game began last season during which Westbrook turned 30. However it was a season in which he was still third team All-NBA.

While averaging a triple-double for a third consecutive season, Westbrook's shooting numbers were poor. His free throw shooting tumbled to an awful 66 percent. His mid-range make percentage was not good. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three point shooters in the 40 season NBA history of the shot. His 30.8% career number is woeful, and in four of the last five seasons Westbrook hasn't hit 30%. The only player to take within a 1000 3s of the 2995 Westbrook has jacked up, and make a feebler percentage of them: Charles Barkley. Westbrook has played 11 NBA seasons and not hit the league average percentage from three in any of them. The notion that he's suddenly going to become a marksman for the Rockets is silly. The idea that Westbrook will get better look threes? Come on. Defenses have loved Westbrook shooting threes for years.

In the end, I like the trade for the NOW of it. The Rockets have a title contending upside, and an it could crater downside. They could wind up forfeiting lottery picks (top four protected) in 2024 when Harden is ready to turn 34 and Westbrook approaching 36, and again in 2026. While Daryl Morey has probably gotten too loose with discarding first round picks (they haven't made one since 2015), are you really going to be hung up on the risks of five and seven years from now?

Buzzer beaters

1. Kyle Tucker should not be untouchable for a pitcher the Astros would control beyond this season. 2. By the advanced WAR (win above replacement) metric the Rangers have the two best AL pitchers this season. The Astros face Mike Minor Friday night and Lance Lynn Sunday. Justin Verlander ranks third as he starts opposite Minor 3. Best sports Halls of Fame to visit: Bronze-hockey, Toronto Silver-pro football, Canton Gold-baseball, Cooperstown

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When will Jose Altuve return? Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images.

Come Thursday, there is nothing that can wreck the joy for the Astros and their fans of the unveiling of the 2022 World Series championship pennant inside Minute Maid Park, or of the following night’s distribution of their World Series rings. That said, losing Jose Altuve for at least the first two months of the regular season comes about as close as an any Astro or fan would want to get. It’s a major blow to the Astros on multiple levels, but definitely not devastating to their chances of making a run at becoming the first back-to-back World Series champs since the Yankees won three straight in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Yes kids, a looooong time ago the Yankees actually used to make the World Series.

Altuve had his surgery Wednesday (March 22) with the Astros saying he is at least two months away from resuming baseball activities. He won’t need a full spring training length of preparation, but it will certainly take at least a week. If offered June 1 as Altuve Opening Day with good health the rest of the year, the Astros would be silly not to pounce on such an offer. Let’s say he’s ready June 1, though that’s probably a shade optimistic. The Astros have 55 games scheduled through May, that’s one more than one-third of the 162 game regular season slate. So as collateral damage to the injury, as unlikely as Altuve was to put together a 200 hit season anyway, now there is zero chance. Unless he wins the vote to be a starter, a ninth All-Star team selection is basically a goner too. We’ll see down the road what losing 50 or 60 or 70 hits means in a possible chase for 3000 career hits. What matters most though is the impact on the 2023 Astros.

Altuve had a fabulous 2022, the third-best season of his career. Still, even if he was to play at that level again this year, it’s not as if missing Altuve for a third of the season costs the Astros 10 wins. He was a little over a five Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR) last season. WAR meaning if a guy was replaced by a borderline Major Leaguer how many wins would the team lose. Five wins is a little under one per month, so in theory, replacing Altuve with a fringe guy for two months should hurt the Astros roughly two games in the win column. Intuitively that seems low, but the methodology is sound, though I won’t go deep diving into it here.

Anyway, if Mauricio Dubon is to get the bulk of the playing time at second while Altuve is out, yikes. Dubon offers little hope for much better than replacement level. A versatile defensive reserve, offensively he’s not umm….. he’s not umm…he’s not good (a tip of the ballcap to Ty Webb). Dubon has a .653 career OPS. That’s better than Martin Maldonado. That’s damning with faint praise. Dubon also isn’t some prospect with seemingly unfilled potential. He turns 29 in July. The Astros don’t have a prototypical leadoff hitter without Altuve, but it’s managerial malpractice if Dusty Baker puts Dubon atop the lineup, as he did four times last season.

David Hensley isn’t a major prospect either. He turns 27 next week. His Major League resume is wafer thin (34 regular season plate appearances), but there is virtually no doubt he would provide better offense than Dubon. Hensley had a .420 on base percentage at AAA last year, .369 at AA the year before. Could Hensley handle the defensive end of things well enough, especially as the “no more shifts” era begins? It’s not as if Dubon has the defensive chops of Roberto Alomar.

In losing Altuve for an extended period, the Astros lose their leadoff hitter, and I’ll say their soul. They still have plenty of heart. And talent. Better that he suffered the injury March 18 than August 18. Another possible silver lining: Altuve had a couple of leg issues last season. It’s not the worst thing in the world that Altuve will have two fewer months of wear and tear on the legs when he first takes the field this season. Altuve turns 33 May 6.

Their margin for error is now less but the Astros' regular season goals remain unchanged and very plausibly attainable. First, again win the American League West. Second, secure one of the best two records among the three division winners to avoid the best-of-three Wild Card round. Third, again put up the best record in the AL for homefield advantage through the AL playoffs.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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