How 6 critical positions hold the keys to a Houston Astros repeat

How 6 critical positions hold the keys to a Houston Astros repeat
Let's run it back! Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images.

With Hanukkah underway, Christmas arriving this Sunday, Kwanzaa starting Monday, and 2023 just around the bend, how about some Astros New Year’s resolutions. In no meaningful order…

Kyle Tucker: Decent numbers in the books when he wakes up May 1. In 2021 Tucker ended April batting .181 with his OPS a woeful .610. In no other month of the season was his OPS below .873. In 2022 his first month wasn’t quite as bad (though the rest of his season was not as good as the rest of ’21) but May dawned with the batting average .224 and OPS .685. If he doesn’t leave himself in the starting blocks the first month of the season, Tucker can be a serious Most Valuable Player candidate. Speaking of MVP candidates…

Yordan Alvarez: On September 15 to be in legitimate contention to win the Triple Crown. Alvarez played 135 games in 2022, meaning he missed 27. That’s one out of every six, and that’s why he fell short of 40 home runs and 100 runs batted in. If he plays 150 games, would .320/47/125 shock anyone? The Twins’ Luis Arraez won the American League batting title at just .316. Aaron Judge was by far the best player in the league. He set the new AL record with 62 homers while driving in a whopping 131 runs. It’s a good bet Judge equals neither of those numbers in 2023. In the last seven full seasons 47 is the lowest AL-leading home run total. In five of the last eight full seasons 125 RBI would have led the league.

Jose Altuve: Just keep it up. With his huge last two months of the 2022 regular season Altuve finished with his first .300 batting average since 2018. His .330 averages and 200 hit seasons are things of the past but Altuve remains a tremendous player ahead of his 33rd birthday arriving in May. Over the last four full seasons he has averaged 160 hits. At the end of 2029 (seven seasons from now) Altuve will be 39 years old. As frame of reference, though not nearly the player he was through his age 32 season, Craig Biggio remained terrifically durable to continue amassing numbers through the rest of his 30s. In his ages 33 through 39 seasons Biggio averaged 159 hits. If Altuve can do the same he’ll end 2029 with 3048 career hits.

Martin Maldonado: Top the poor hitting threshold named for a former awful offensive player also with the initials M-M. Mario Mendoza was an utterly pathetic hitting infielder from the mid-70s to the early 80s. In no season of his career did Mendoza manage an OPS of even .600. Maldonado’s 2022 OPS was exactly .600. The “Mendoza Line” is a .200 batting average. In five different seasons Non-Super Mario failed to hit .200. In 2021 Maldonado finished at .172. This year he jumped to .186. If he can produce another 14 point increase in 2023, .200! Mendoza finished as a .215 career hitter. Maldonado is at .209.

Lance McCullers: 23 regular season starts and good health through the postseason. The Astros’ starting rotation obviously took a big hit with Justin Verlander leaving for the Mets. McCullers made just eight starts in the first season of his five year 85 million dollar contract extension. The Astros obviously need more now. Why 23? That’s about three-quarters of a full and healthy season workload. There is simply no reason to count on or realistically hope for McCullers to be a durable season-long stud. Lance has made 22 regular season starts in three separate seasons. The only year he made more (28 in ’21) his arm fell off in the playoffs.

Astros Game Operations Decision Makers: As the Astros upgrade their already fantastic giant video screen “El Grande” to something even better, I think I can safely speak for most fans in telling the game ops folks that it’s long overdue to start acknowledging good plays made by the opponent by showing them on the big board. If watching at home you get replays of all plays of consequence (home runs, great defensive plays, etc.), but fans paying to be at the game don’t get those replays? That’s wrong.

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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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