IT'S THAT KIND OF YEAR

Fear ye not: how MLB history provides plenty of reasons for Astros fans to believe

Never say never. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One day, when Dusty Baker turns in his toothpick and wristbands and leaves as Astros manager, Kenny & Ziggy's delicatessen should hire him as a cook.

Because only Baker could make chicken salad out of … the light-hitting, under-achieving, injury-ravaged 2020 Houston Astros.

Unless the roof caves in at Globe Life Field, this bamboozled band of Astros will lock up second place in the American League West and clinch a spot in baseball's post-season sometime soon, maybe tonight, possibly tomorrow, but c'mon, definitely by Sunday.

What a difference a year makes, huh? Last season, the Astros hit the hell out of the ball, finished with a team-record 107 wins and came within one dumb managerial decision of winning the World Season.

This year? Playoffs … you're talking about the playoffs? I'm not sure this has ever been done, but every regular on the Astros has a lower batting average in 2020 than last year. In this nutty coronavirus season, the Astros developed herd immunity – to scoring runs.

Even after last night's offensive explosion, 12 runs on 18 hits in a win over the Rangers, let's run down the lineup:

George Spring is hitting .264 (last year .292)

Jose Altuve .225 (last year .298)

Alex Bregman .254 (.296)

Michael Brantley .305 (.311)

Yuli Gurriel .235 (.298)

Carlos Correa .256 (.279)

Josh Reddick .243 (.275)

And the hits do stop coming.

Last year, DH Yordan Alvarez hit .313.

This year, DH Kyle Tucker is hitting .266.

More?

Last year, primary catcher Robinson Chirinos hit .238.

This year, catcher Martin Maldonado is hitting .218.

Don't look for help on the bench, either: Abraham Toro is hitting .145, Myles Straw (.211), Jack Mayfield (.179), Aledmys Diaz (.240) and Dustin Garneau (.125).

Last year's Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, 23 years old, had surgery on his two old-man knees.

The Astros pitching staff doesn't compare to last season, either. In 2019, the Astros had the two best pitchers in baseball. Gerrit Cole racked up 20 wins, Justin Verlander (21 wins). Don't forget that Wade Miley pitched in with 14 wins. This year, those three combined for one win. At least Verlander stuck around for Opening Day. The American League's save leader from last year, Roberto Osuna is MIA, too.

There you go, the 2020 Astros, limping into the playoffs, thanks to a flukey, one-year-only rule that expanded the number of teams qualifying, NHL-style.

It's hardly the first time a team foundering around .500 made the post-season.

The 1973 Mets finished 82-79 and not only made the post-season, they made it to the World Series, where they fell to the Oakland A's. The 2005 Padres finished 82-80 and made the post-season. The Texas Rangers made the playoffs with a 52-62 record, somehow winning the American League Central in strike-shortened 1994.

The first team to make the playoffs with a losing record was the Kansas City Royal in 1981. A midseason strike forced a split season, with division leaders from both halves making the playoffs. The Royals stunk up the diamond during the first half, played better the second half, and got in despite a combined 50-53 record.

Coronavirus was the Astros' MVP (most valuable pandemic) this year. Because of the shortened season, the Astros played only teams in the American League West and National League West. No fans were allowed to attend. The Astros didn't have to endure 50,000 villagers chasing them with pitchforks at Yankee Stadium. If things had been normal, surviving Astros would be wrapping up a three-game series in New York today.

This was the season when opposing pitchers were supposed to use the Astros lineup for target practice. Didn't happen. Fans weren't able to turn Oakland-Alameda Stadium into gladiator fights at the Roman Coliseum. Off with their batting helmets!

While fans weren't able to yell "cheater!" at Jose Altuve, suffering the slump of all slumps, that didn't stop Dodgers broadcaster from snickering after a called third strike … "guessing is harder than knowing." Ouch!

The silver lining on Altuve's disastrous season and 60-point drop in batting average? It's nowhere close to Norm Cash's crash landing in 1961-62. In 1961, Cash won the American League batting title with a sterling .361 average. The following year, look out below, Cash sunk to .243.

Post-season play begins next week. Bring on the White Sox or Twins or whomever. I'm sticking with my prediction that the Astros win the World Series. With this bizarre, upside-down, inside-out season, the Astros are a lock.

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Life after Correa may not be the worst thing. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Carlos Correa is having a damn good year. The Astros shortstop is hitting .285 with 24 homers, 87 RBI, 72 walks, .862 OPS, a 7.2 WAR, and a .981 fielding percentage. In any other year, those would be numbers worthy of being in the mix for AL MVP (if it weren't for that dastardly Shohei Otani). Correa is also in a contract year. He and the Astros were far enough apart that the season started and he's held true to not wanting to negotiate midseason.

The offers of six years for $120 million and five years for $125 million were both rejected by he and his camp. They're seeking something much longer and for more money on the annual average. With the team unwilling to meet those demands, it seems as if the team and the player are headed for a split.

Lots of Astros fans are not happy with the prospect of Correa leaving via free agency. Some think the team isn't doing enough and should pony up to bring him back. Some feel Correa should take what they're offering because it's a fair deal that'll allow the team to sign other players. Then, there's that small band of us that are totally okay with him leaving.

One of the main reasons I'm okay with him leaving is the players the team still has under control that are potential replacements. Aledmys Diaz and Pedro Leon are the first two guys that come to mind. Diaz is a 31-year-old vet who's stepped up when he's called upon. He can slide over to third and allow Alex Bregman to play shortstop. Leon is the team's 23-year-old hot prospect who signed as an outfielder that the team has been trying to turn into a shortstop. If Correa were to leave, he could instantly plug the hole Carlos would leave behind. Either of those options lead to my next point of being okay with Correa leaving which is to...

...allocate that money elsewhere. Whether it's signing a replacement (at short or third), or boosting the pitching staff, I'll be fine as long as it's money well spent. Signing a shortstop or third baseman would determine where Bregman would be playing. If said player takes significantly less than Correa and fills 70-80% of his offensive shoes, it'll be worth it. Others will have to step it up. If they find a deal on a top of the rotation starting pitcher, that would be ideal as well. As I stated a couple of weeks ago, this team has employed a six-man rotation, but doesn't have a true ace. Spending anywhere from $20-30 million a year on a top-notch pitcher to add to the staff would bolster this staff in more ways than one. It'll finally give them the ace they lack, plus it'll bump all the young talent (still under team control) down a peg creating depth and perhaps even creating bullpen depth.

The only way any of this works is if Correa isn't back. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander's money comes off the books also. Freeing up that much payroll and not re-appropriating those resources to ensure this team stays in contention would be a first degree felony in sports court. I don't think Jim Crane wants that for this team. I for sure don't think James Click wants that as his legacy. Let's sit back and watch how the organization maneuvers this offseason and pray they get it right.


Editor's note: If you want to read the other side of the argument, check out Ken Hoffman's piece from Tuesday.

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