How latest landscape changes shine new light on Astros trajectory

Jose Abreu is showing some positive signs. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

In Major League Baseball terms the week starts with Monday not Sunday. Some series wraparound through Monday, but no series starts on a Sunday. So that established, it’s been a sigh of relief week so far for the Astros. Off a lousy road trip (two wins, five losses) made much worse by the loss of Yordan Alvarez, the Astros have taken advantage of the lowly Washington Nationals by winning the first two games of this nine game home stand while the Texas Rangers have dropped two out of three. The Rangers’ losses are a two-sided coin since they’ve come against the Angels. The Astros have whittled their season-worst five game deficit in the American League East to three and a half games, but they are only two games ahead of the Angels in the AL Wild Card race.

Another tough break for McCullers

It certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone that Lance McCullers’s latest major arm surgery means he won’t throw a pitch this season, or throw one well into 2024. The odds don’t favor McCullers ever again being a sustainable pitcher. He collects 17 million dollars each of the next three seasons. Maybe when the Astros and Rangers open their four game series June 30 McCullers and the Rangers’ Jacob deGrom can each throw out a ceremonial first pitch. Left-handed. To their agents. deGrom recently underwent his second Tommy John surgery. Which ended his year after six starts the first season of the absurd five year 185 million dollar free agent contract the Rangers held their breath, crossed their fingers, and pipe-dreamed in giving him.

With McCullers’s fate sad but not shocking, the harsher reality dealt the Astros is the loss of Alvarez for at least a month, probably until after the All-Star break. For a guy who doesn’t turn 26 years old until June 27th, the Cuban missile launcher sure has a troubling injury resume. Fortunately, Yordan’s knees have held up fine since he missed all but two games of the short 2020 COVID season because of knee problems that required arthroscopic surgery.

Last year and early this year there have been sore hand issues. Now, the oblique. Attendance is part of the grade and durability is one component of greatness. It would be horrible if those elements undercut Alvarez fulfilling his potential, which is Hall of Fame slugger. Last season Alvarez played in 135 games, meaning he missed exactly one-sixth (27) of the games. If not back before the All-Star game, Alvarez will have already missed 34 games. At the time he went down Yordan was not a top three AL Most Valuable Player candidate this season, but he certainly was within striking distance of at least matching his third place finish in 2022. He now has no virtually no chance at that, which is a downer, albeit of much lesser importance than what his absence means for the Astros’ lineup.

Signs of life

Here’s to Jose Abreu showing a pulse the past week. One good week doesn’t undo more than two brutally inept months, but he had to start somewhere. 11 for 27 (.407) with three homers over six games is somewhere. Abreu’s season remains a disaster overall to this point, but the Astros did not make a mistake moving on from Yuli Gurriel. Yuli was awful last season. His strong postseason didn’t make his lousy regular season inconsequential toward plans going forward any more than Jeremy Pena’s superstar postseason established him as a superstar going forward.

That the Astros could have kept Yuli for maybe three million dollars sounds good relative to the 19 and a half million given to Abreu for not only 2023 but each of the next two years, but the Astros signed a guy who was the significantly better player last year and certainly projected to be better this year. Alas, projections sometimes don’t come anywhere close to hitting their targets. The money is one thing, the personnel decision was not wrong. The now 39-year-old Gurriel’s numbers with the Marlins are not good.

Up next

After finishing with the Nationals Thursday night, the Astros get the Reds at Minute Maid Park for the weekend. The Reds finished 62-100 last season, but could win the lackluster National League Central this year. With a 34-35 record they are within a couple games of the first place Pirates. The Pirates? Yes the Pirates, who like the Reds lost 100 games last season. Setting aside their 31-29 mark in the short 2020 season, the Reds have had seven losing seasons in their last eight. However they now have some dynamic young talent, with two especially notables worth catching this weekend. 21-year-old shortstop/third baseman Elly De La Cruz debuted last week and has already demonstrated a breathtaking breadth of skills.

He’ll have his struggles along the way, De La Cruz has struck out 15 times in 34 at bats. But at six feet five inches tall he is an eye-popping combo of power, speed, and agility. Think of it this way: the Astros would trade Jeremy Pena for him in a heartbeat. The Astros would trade any player in their organization for De La Cruz, with the probable exception of Yordan. The Reds’ starting pitcher Saturday is 23 year old Hunter Greene. The second overall pick in the 2017 draft is still developing his craft, but throws more pitches 100 miles per hour plus than any other pitcher in MLB. Over his last three starts Greene has 28 strikeouts against seven walks.

After the Reds it’s the New York Mess in for three. Slated to start Tuesday for the Mets, some guy wearing a Justin Verlander uniform. After an injury-delayed start to his season, Verlander sits 2-3 with a 4.40 earned run average in eight starts.

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The Texans host the Steelers at NRG this Sunday. Composite Getty Image.

What: Texans vs. Steelers

When: 10/1 12pm CST kickoff

Where: Houston, TX NRG Stadium

TV/Radio: KHOU-TV, KILT-Radio

Betting Lines: Steelers -2.5 (-120), O/U 42 (-110) *As of this writing

The Watt Brother Bowl takes place on Sunday. I'm calling it that because the Texans are honoring their all-time great J.J. while they're playing his younger brother and current hell raising edge rusher for the Steelers T.J. The Steelers have won four of the last five matchups vs. the Texans by an average score of 28-17. The biggest difference is that the Steelers have a second year starter at quarterback in Kenny Pickett, and the Texans have a rookie in C.J. Stroud. When you look at the two quarterbacks, both organizations have full faith in each guy. Both teams have tried to build a defense to help their young signal callers. Both are still trying to surround their franchise guys with weapons.

When the Steelers have the ball: Here's a game where Will Anderson Jr can make headway as a proven EDGE. Stacking consistent performances together and helping your team win games by making winning plays. It helps that Pickett has tiny hands. This was a knock on him during draft season last year. Hand size for a quarterback impacts grip. That can not only impact accuracy, but it could make it easier to strip the ball from him.

While he doesn't have the weapons to torch this defense, Pickett does hand the ball off to Najee Harris who's more than capable. Averaging only 67 yards rushing as a team can't be taken lightly. Denzel Perryman is expected to miss the game Sunday, so hopefully that won't help jumpstart the Steelers' run game. The Texans defense will have to key in on the run, given that they average giving up 117 a game on the ground. Those aforementioned weapons may not be scary, but the injuries to the defensive backs has hurt. Tavierre Thomas is expected to miss the game recovering from hand surgery. Jimmie Ward coming back last week showed what happens when they have a top safety back there, especially when the pass rush is turning up. Hopefully, the Texans can capitalize again this week, with safety Jalen Pitre expected to return to action.

When the Texans have the ball: Good luck stopping Tank Dell and Stroud! These guys have already established themselves as a formidable duo three games into their careers. A great way to get that connection going is to pound the rock. The Steelers are giving up over 150 yards on the ground per game so far this season. That's also a good way to keep T.J. at bay while J.J. watches. With Laremy Tunsil and Josh Jones both expected to miss the game, here are the offensive line starters: Austin Deculus, Kendrick Green, Jarrett Patterson, Shaq Mason, and George Fant.

Making the younger Watt brother slow down a bit instead of going balls to the wall after Stroud because a run could be coming will help the pass game tremendously. Stroud will have to continue to make quick decisions, but even quicker this game. I wouldn't be surprised to see his first pick of his career here, given the pressure he's most likely to be under. Especially when your offensive line starters were mostly all backups to begin this season.

Outcome: I failed to place a money line bet on the Texans last week because the game started and the live bet wasn't as profitable. I wanted to take a chance on them given their recent record against the Jags. Looking at their last five vs. the Steelers, one would say why make that bet this week? It's because I believe in Stroud more than I believe in Pickett. While T.J. Watt is a different kind of monster, Will Anderson Jr is on his way to becoming something special. Texans win/cover, and hit the over, but barely: Texans 24, Steelers 20.

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