CHARLIE PALLILO

Don't look now, but the Texans and O'Brien are in the mix for big things

Don't look now, but the Texans and O'Brien are in the mix for big things
Deshaun Watson has helped Bill O'Brien and the Texans. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Aside from the passing of founder and owner Bob McNair, the good times have just kept on rolling for the Texans. They should make it nine wins in a row Sunday, though Cleveland is no longer the gimme it has been for years.

Provided the Texans handle their business, Sunday’s next most significant outcome is Minnesota at New England. In a couple of weeks the Patriots play at Pittsburgh. It’s unlikely the Pats lose both, but not impossible. If they lose both the Texans have a tremendous shot at securing a playoff bye as a top two finisher in the AFC. The Steelers already have three losses and a tie (and a chance to lose to the Chargers Sunday). The Steelers have a probable loss at New Orleans yet to come. If the Texans finish 12-4 they are a near certainty to finish as at least the number three AFC seed.

So how does Bill O’Brien, NFL Coach of the Year candidate strike you? Back in preseason, certainly in mid-September, it would have struck you as ridiculous and/or hilarious. If the vote were today O’Brien would probably finish behind Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy. The Bears were 5-11 last season, Nagy has them 8-3 in his first season on the job. O’Brien last season captained the titanic Texans to 4-12. Add this season’s 0-3 start to that, and the fat contact extension he was gifted in the offseason looked even more absurd. This should have been a “prove it” season for O’Brien, his fifth in the gig. He is proving it.

O’Brien has always been a commanding personality, sometimes to the point of Billy Bluster mode. Results are results so he must be given his due. The most critical component of O’Brien becoming a better coach was the drafting of Deshaun Watson, but so what? Even with the Texans’ powder puff schedule and some big breaks going their way, eight straight wins shouldn’t be scoffed away.

Have the Texans evolved into a powerhouse team? There is no strong evidence saying yes. But they are positioning themselves to get a real shot at proving themselves bonafide contenders and perhaps legit upper echelon They could also wind up exposed as the beneficiaries of their easy schedule. If that turns out to be the case, at least they’ll be better positioned going forward than at any prior point in franchise history.

The not so good

Then, there are the Rockets.

Heading into the weekend here’s the full list of teams the Rockets are ahead of in the Western Conference: Phoenix.  

If the Rockets Friday night lose to the (10-11) Spurs for the second time this season, that would be loss number 12 already. The Rockets’ 12th loss last season didn’t happen until January 15th. All they need to match last season’s 65 win brilliance is a 56-6 finish! Snowballs have much better chances in hell.

As the Mavericks beat the tar out of the Rockets Wednesday night, about all Rockets’ backers had to fall back on was, well, Chris Paul was out. Last season when Paul, James Harden, Clint Capela all played the Rockets went an amazing 44-3. This season’s Rockets have already lost three games when their version of a Big 3 all played. Paul missing a chunk of the schedule is par for the course. No reason to think he’ll get more durable in his mid-30s. That Mike D’Antoni had Paul averaging his most minutes per game in four years was not smart, but you can grasp D’Antoni’s dilemma given the punchline of a bench Daryl Morey has him coaching. The Rocket bench is abominably bad. Over his decade-plus on the job Daryl Morey has been a very good General Manager, but this past offseason he was Dismal Daryl. From Carmelo Anthony on down the line.

Saturday night the Rockets are home Saturday for the bumbling Bulls. That is an extremely unenticing matchup. Owner Tilman Fertitta sure won’t be there. Much more excitement at the University of Houston as the Cougars host Oregon in the grand opening game of the Fertitta Center. The Cougars will never be a big deal citywide, but to grow their niche a sparkling 7100 seat arena with Kelvin Sampson coaching a good team gives UH as good a shot as it can ask.

Oregon’s leading scorer is 7’2” freshman Bol Bol. Yes, Bol Bol. Son of the late 7’7” Manute.  

Still waiting

It’s been mostly quiet on the baseball free agency front. The winter meetings should accelerate things when they open in Las Vegas a week from Sunday.

Buzzer Beaters

1. How ‘bout them Cowboys? The Rams say thanks.  2. Don’t know that Texas can score enough points to beat Oklahoma a second time, but UT plus the points is the sensible pick. 3. One addition, one addition only for the Astros among the rumored available: Bronze-Goldschmidt  Silver-Realmuto Gold-Kluber

 

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It's not time to panic, yet. Composite Getty Image.

This is not a column for fanboys or sugarcoating. To this point in the season the Astros stink like rotten eggs. They stink like Angel Hernandez’s umpiring. They stink like Bill O'Brien's general manager skills. The Astros are a bad team right now. That’s notably different from being a bad team. Their 4-10 record is well-earned and it is definitely possible that the Astros’ run of high quality and annual playoff appearances crashes and burns this season. But it’s laughable to declare so after just 14 games of the 162 scheduled have been played.

Last June the Astros had a lousy window in which they went 3-10. In August they had a 4-8 funk. In September it was a 3-9 stretch of collapse. The 2022 World Series Champions had a 3-8 hiccup in April, and a 2-6 blotch overlapping July and August that included getting swept in a three-game series by the then and now awful Oakland A’s.

Now the Astros are back home (Oh No!) for six games, three vs. the Rangers then three with the Braves. The Rangers lead the American League West but are just 7-6, so despite their cellar-dwelling status, the Astros are just three and a half games out of first. A winning homestand is obviously the goal. No, really. 3-3 would be ok, even though that would just about clinch a losing record heading into May.

Mandatory aside: spectacular weather is the Friday night forecast. Stop being stubborn and lame, Astros. Open the roof! I don’t mean just for the postgame fireworks.

On the mend?

The Astros’ track record of downplaying pitching injuries that turned out to be major certainly causes angst as we await Framber Valdez’s return from a sore elbow. If Valdez ultimately winds up out for months, the Astros’ starting rotation is in deep trouble. Even more so if upon the approaching delayed start to his season, 41-year-old Justin Verlander pitches to his age in terms of results and/or durability. However, if Valdez is ok within a month and JV is solid, those two, and Cristian Javier can stabilize the rotation quite nicely.

The Astros started three guys in Kansas City who belong in the minor leagues. It was a sad sign of the times that the Astros were reduced to calling up Blair Henley to make the start Tuesday. Except for Royals fans and Astros haters, it grew uncomfortable watching Henley give up four hits, walk three, record just one out, and wind up charged with seven earned runs. But it’s not Henley’s fault that he was thrust into a role for which he was utterly unqualified.

Last season at Double-A Corpus Christi, Henley’s earned run average was 5.06. Because of the crummy state of the Astros’ farm system, Henley failed up to Triple-A Sugar Land to start this season. After one not good start for the Space Cowboys, “Hey, go get out big leaguers Blair!” Henley turns 27 next month, he is not a prospect of any note. If he never again pitches in the majors Henley forever carries a 135.00 ERA.

But you know what? It was still a great day for the guy. Even if undeserved, Henley made “The Show.” For one day on the Astros’ 26-man roster, Henley made over four thousand dollars. To make him eligible for call up, the Astros first had to put Henley on their 40-man roster and sign him to a split contract. That means that until/unless the Astros release him, Henley’s AAA salary jumps from approximately $36,000 for the season to over 60K.

Lastly, while Henley’s ERA could remain 135.00 in perpetuity, at least he’s no Fred Bruckbauer. In 1961 Bruckbauer made his big league debut and bade his big league farewell in the same game. He faced four batters, giving up three earned runs on three hits and one walk. Career ERA: Infinity! Bruckbauer is the most recent of the more than a dozen pitchers to retire with the infinity ERA.

Spencer Arrighetti’s debut start went much better. For two innings, before it unraveled in a seven run Royals third. Arrighetti has good stuff, but not great stuff. Control has been an issue for him in the minor leagues. Without better command Arrighetti cannot be a plus starter in the majors.

Then there’s Hunter Brown. We could go decades without seeing another pitcher give up nine runs and 11 hits in two-thirds of an inning as Brown did Thursday. It had never happened in MLB history! To this point, Brown is an overhyped hope. ERA last July: 5.92, August: 6.23, September 1 on: 8.74. Three starts into 2024: 16.43.

Jose Abreu watch

It's still early enough in the season that even just a couple of big games can markedly improve a stat line but Jose Abreu continues to look washed up at the plate. Three hits in 37 at bats (.081 batting average), with the most recent hit a questionable official scoring decision. Manager Joe Espada has already dropped Abreu from fifth in the lineup to sixth, then seventh, then eighth. Two more slots down to go, Joe! Continuing to act like Jon Singleton could be a competent bat in the lineup is just silly, though.

Catch the weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week now generally goes up after Sunday’s game (second part released Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTubewith the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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