The Third Starter

Collin McHugh is all that so far

Collin McHugh/Facebook

I know we're just four starts in and you can't make any assumptions in a baseball season until September but maybe just maybe the Astros have found their third starter and he's been right under our nose the whole time.

This is not something the organization had to realize. They've been on the Collin McHugh train since the offseason began. We fans have been slower on the uptake.

The first rumblings came early in the offseason when the team allegedly went after Nathan Eovaldi then James Paxton. They obviously had a number for each in mind that they wouldn't exceed and they lost out to the Red Sox and Yankees on both.

I for one wanted to see them go after Corey Kluber. I dreamed of a rotation of Verlander, Kluber, Cole and then fill in the gaps. Those three at the top of any rotation is the stuff parades are made of. It wasn't realistic to think the Indians wold trade him to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year but I could dream anyway.

Can't tell you how many times I've been asked if the Astros would re-sign Dallas Keuchel. My answer every time has been a fervent no. It seems almost inconceivable that a guy who won the Cy Young four years ago and was a number two starter on a World Series team just two years ago is still out of work but he's just not the same dominant guy he was. Not even close. Soft tossing lefties are not in high demand especially ones who are 31 and looking for big money long term deals. His last couple of years have not warranted it. He started 2017 with a 9-0 record. He had shoulder issues and finished the second half with a 5-5 record but more than that, every important stat was worse post all-star break. Maybe that was due to the injury but last year when he was thought to healthy he wasn't much better. He gave up more hits and faced more batters than anyone in the league. His WAR was his second worst since 2013. His K/W was down. His WHIP was up and so on and so on. He's not a top of the rotation guy anymore but wants to be paid like it. The marketplace is telling him it's not going to happen, not unless a good team gets desperate anyway.

In spring training Forest Whitley was all the rave. He looked great and he was ready to come in and assume that role of third starter. One problem: tough to do that from Round Rock and oh by the way he hasn't been all that in his two starts. His second outing on Monday lasted 1 1/3 and he has a 9.95 ERA. No big deal but not something any player wants to look up at on the scoreboard no matter how early in the season. The common thought is that the club will bring him up in June to get that extra year of service. If so it'll be plenty of time for Whitley to get acclimated to the bigs and pitch in some pressure games before the postseason. He's got top of the rotation stuff and could eventually be the ace here but when he does get here he's going to have prove that he's good enough to be the third starter on this staff because Collin McHugh won't relinquish that without a fight.

For whatever reason I just don't believe we've bought into McHugh as a big time starter. Maybe it's because of how he looks. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with his looks but it's not what an overpowering athlete is in 2019. Verlander and Cole look the part, McHugh not so much. But looks can be deceiving. Since he's joined the Astros he's had a winning record every year. He's 57-31. He's had a 19 win season. Some 3rd starters never do that. After going 48-28 over 4 seasons as a starter he was asked to come out of the bullpen and responded with what could have and maybe should have been an all-star season.

One big question coming into this season was whether or not McHugh could pitch deep into games after a year in the pen. He went 3 innings twice all of last season. If he couldn't it would certainly tax a bullpen that looks weaker without him and Brad Peacock. So far though he's gone six innings in 3 of his 4 starts. That could get better but A.J. may have some of the same doubt about him that we do. If your name is Verlander or Cole, A.J. will leave you in until you think you're done. If your name isn't Verlander or Cole he takes you out when he thinks you're done.

It's a long season and there are a bunch of starts left but McHugh has allayed some of the fears many of us had this offseason. He certainly looks the part of a 3rd starter on a championship team so far.

There is a lot going on for the Astros besides trade talk

Astros roundup: Correa and Diaz nearing a return, another Silver Boot win and more

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

While many are keeping a steady pulse on trade rumors as the July 31st deadline nears, the Astros have a few other moving pieces worth giving an in-depth look. Can they finish the season with the best overall record? Will they lock up the division well before game 162? What will the return of Carlos Correa and Aledmys Diaz mean for the defense and batting order?

Let's take a stab at some of these questions while we wait for some trades to start coming through the wire:

The Silver Boot stays in Houston as Astros continue to bash AL West at home

The 2019 Astros remain a vastly improved team from the 2016 squad that went 4-15 against their rivals up I-45. Since that year, the Astros went on to post back-to-back 12-7 records against the Rangers, winning the silver boot in both 2017 and 2018.

This weekend, Houston locked it up once again, sweeping the Rangers in the three-game series. That gave them wins ten and eleven of the nineteen total games, securing the season series with two games left against Texas this year.

The three-game sweep also moved the Astros to 15-1 at home against their division. Houston's remaining schedule features twenty-two of the remaining sixty-one games of the season against the AL West at Minute Maid Park. That stretch of games starts tonight with a three-game series with the second-place A's.

Potentially light schedule remaining

Speaking of the division, the Astros currently lead theirs by 6.5 games. That lead, paired with their success this year against the division, has them at a 99.0% chance to lock up another AL West pennant, according to FanGraphs.

Those odds could also factor in Houston's remaining strength of schedule. Of the remaining twenty series the Astros have, eleven of those are against teams currently over .500 while the other nine are not. Of note, out of those eleven, seven are against the A's, Rangers, or Angels, whom the Astros have been successful against this season so far.

Some of the marquis matchups remaining on the schedule include next week's trip to Cleveland to face the Indians for three games, hosting the Rays for three games at the end of august, then a two-game set with the Brewers in Milwaukee at the beginning of September.

Should Houston take care of business and stay healthy, they could easily regain the top spot in the overall MLB standings, win the race to 100 wins, and even potentially lock up the best overall record at the end of the season.

The return of Correa and Diaz

With both nearing the end of their rehab assignments, the Astros should get both Carlos Correa and Aledmys Diaz back this week. The return of these two pieces is one step closer to the Astros being a fully healthy team. Granted, they have not had extreme struggles during any of the injuries this season.

Diaz will help provide some depth at various positions on the field, allowing for more scheduled rest days that the Astros will be grateful for down the stretch towards the playoffs. His return will be especially helpful at first base, where the recent move to take Tyler White off the roster leaves Houston short-handed.

Another position that will receive a boost this week is shortstop. While Myles Straw has done a fine job of covering the position, as has Alex Bregman, it's no question that Carlos Correa is an upgrade defensively. The intriguing question will be: how does he shake up the batting order?

Before sustaining his rib injury, Correa was batting fifth behind Michael Brantley. Now, with Yordan Alvarez in that slot in the lineup and performing remarkably well, where will A.J. Hinch stick Correa? Do you put him ahead of Yuli Gurriel, as hot as he's been, or put him as far down as seventh? I suppose it's a good problem to have for a manager.

Several bats heating up

When considering how to plug Correa back into the lineup, it'll be a fun assignment trying to align a few bats that have been heating up, and staying hot, recently. Jose Altuve is one of those, who before his injury on May 10th had started his season out with a disappointing .243 average.

Altuve has been on a momentum-building tear of late, though, increasing that average up to .273 and posting multi-hit games in twelve of his twenty-six games since returning to the lineup. In contrast from Altuve who is working his way back to a .300 average, there's Michael Brantley.

Brantley has not seen a batting average under .300 since April 19th. He currently sits at .332, which is good for second in the American League and fifth in the entire league. His consistency has been a great asset to the Astros.

Another guy that has been putting up highlights nearly every day, at least recently, is Yuli Gurriel. He has been absolutely red-hot in the sample size of his last twenty-two games. In that stretch, dating back to June 23rd, Gurriel has gone 34-for-91 for a .374 average and driven in 28 runs including 13 home runs.

Oh, and let's not forget the rookie who is living up to the hype, Yordan Alvarez. He continues to shine in his early major-league career, slashing .333 / .406 / .675 to maintain an OPS over 1.000, currently at 1.081. While his home runs have been the highlight, all ten of them so far, he has also shown he can come through with clutch hits. Alvarez notched one more RBI on Sunday, raising his total in his rookie campaign to 34. He continues to shoot his way up the Rookie of the Year predictions, and for a good reason.

While the surging offense does not erase the need for a fresh arm for the rotation, it does give Houston a better chance to bail out days with below-average pitching.

So again, while trades will dominate the headlines in the coming days as teams try to either fortify their 2019 roster or tear down for a future rebuild, the Astros have plenty to keep them occupied while they wait to see what their front office comes away with before the deadline.

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