NEW YORK AWAITS

Breaking down Astros' impressive 5-0 start to playoffs, and critical challenges ahead

Ryan Pressly came up big in Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Houston, by their record, is rolling so far in the 2022 playoffs. They are 5-0 so far in their games, with the three-game ALDS sweep of the Mariners and now firing out to a 2-0 ALCS lead over the Yankees. They look like the best team still playing, and the results prove it.

Yet, are they without weakness? For most aspects, the answer so far has seemed like yes, but there may be more to the story:

Pitching continues to be the differentiator

The Astros have won their five playoff games by a combined seven runs. Three of the five have been one-run victories, including, most recently, the ALCS Game 2 win by a score of 3-2. As was the case in the 2022 regular season, it's been a testament to Houston's elite pitching staff that they have been able to edge out the Mariners and Yankees in these close games.

The three starters who have taken the mound thus far have, besides ALDS Game 1, been as advertised. Justin Verlander's lousy six-run outing against the Mariners has been quickly forgotten and forgiven with his vintage six-inning, one-run, eleven-strikeout dominance in ALCS game 1. Framber Valdez has two strong showings, allowing just four runs (two unearned on his own errors) over 5.2 and 7.0 innings, respectively, in his two starts.

Lance McCullers Jr., who is now in line to start ALCS Game 4 in New York (Cristian Javier will start Game 3), kicked off the eighteen-inning marathon of incredible pitching by the Astros in ALDS Game 3, going six innings while giving up just two hits and two walks along the way. While starting pitching has been great, the Astros' relievers are the story of these close games.

So far in the postseason, two runs have been allowed over 25.1 innings; that's what Houston's bullpen has provided their team. The guys from the "arm barn" continue to step in and step up when they're called on, including guys like Bryan Abreu, who has appeared in four of the five games, providing 4.1 innings of shutout baseball while giving up just one hit.

Despite a shaky ninth inning in ALDS Game 2, Ryan Pressly has looked dominant as the closer as well, including notching back-to-back saves in consecutive games to start the ALCS, one of which was a four-out save in Game 1. Of Pressly's thirteen outs in the playoffs, eight have been on strikeouts, showing he's not bothered by the biggest stage and the brightest lights.

What if pitching isn't enough?

While the caliber of pitching the Astros are getting may be the key point to them advancing to and possibly winning another World Series, what if they get into another slugfest like ALDS Game 1? The Astros are certainly capable, as evidenced by the five runs over two innings they put up in the eighth and ninth inning of that game, but since then, they've put up an average of three runs per game.

Baseball is a finicky beast, especially for hitters at times. Going into the postseason, no one could have predicted that after five games, things would look like this:

  • Martin Maldonado: 3-for-11, .273 average, .748 OPS
  • Yuli Gurriel: 9-for-22, .409 average, 1.091 OPS
  • Jose Altuve: 0-for-23, .000 average, .080 OPS

While it's a pleasant surprise that Maldonado and Gurriel, who had struggles in the regular season, are coming through in these games, it's downright perplexing what is going on with Jose Altuve. Similar to the 2020 playoffs, where the yips struck him that zapped the defense away from a Gold Glove winner, the five-time Silver Slugger has looked lost at the plate, or when he has made contact, it's been right at fielders.

A big caveat is that Altuve could explode for a string of games that erases all of this disappointment, he's certainly capable of that, but until he does, Houston's leadoff spot has become a liability they could find themselves not being able to afford. I'm not advocating for moving Altuve down in the lineup, nor pinch-hitting for him late in games, don't get me wrong; it's just something that should work itself out over time, but time is limited.

Regardless of the few flaws, though, the Astros have done what they've needed to do: win. When people look back at the scores and who ends up holding the Commissioner's Trophy, they won't immediately know which players did what along the way. All that matters is the W next to the team name, and that's what Houston continues to provide, even if it takes a different player stepping up in each game.

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Will Uncle Mike get signed next? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

The Houston Astros have added another stellar bat to their already deep lineup with the signing of first baseman Jose Abreu to a three-year deal worth $58.5 million.

The 35-year-old Cuban native is second in Major League Baseball with 863 RBI since his rookie season in 2014 and won the 2020 American League MVP.

Last season with the White Sox, Abreu hit .304/.378/.446 and has a career .292 batting average.

So with Abreu now in the fold, what will the Astros do next?

His addition to the Astros seems to indicate the likely departure of Yuli Gurriel via free agency.

The former AL batting champion played well in the playoffs, but had a down year offensively in the regular season hitting .242/.288/.360.

Gurriel’s Gold Glove caliber defense isn’t to blame for his potential departure, but rather Abreu brings more to the plate and is three years younger.

Although Gurriel will be missed, Astros fans should be excited about the addition of another MVP.

Without changing the batting order, Abreu could take Gurriel’s spot behind Kyle Tucker and add more power and RBI to this already lethal lineup.

There is a possibility of Gurriel returning to a utility position, but Mauricio Dubón and David Hensley are both younger and more affordable options for that role.

Another free agent, Michael Brantley, has said he would like to return. Given the option between the two, Houston would benefit more from re-signing Brantley, who would fill an outfield need and continue to add production from the left side of the plate.

His leadership in the clubhouse is an asset to this team, and the Astros could certainly attempt to re-sign the 5x All-Star.

Although Houston has been linked to other free agents that include Michael Conforto and Cody Bellinger as potential outfield options, the Astros might already have a solution to fill that need.

Chas McCormick has proven himself to be a quality center fielder with World Series success, and if Jake Meyers could return to his 2021 form, he would be an excellent in-house option to fill that need without overpaying a free agent.

The Astros will continue to browse the free agent market, but could fill their voids with players already in their system as they have done in the past.

Houston has replaced Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Carlos Correa in consecutive years with All-Star caliber players such as Framber Valdez, Kyle Tucker and World Series MVP Jeremy Pena.

The Astros find ways to win by promoting from within, and signing free agents as necessary.

Abreu might be their biggest addition of the offseason unless a deal can be made to re-sign Justin Verlander.

If last season’s Cy-Young Award winner were to leave, the Astros’ rotation would still be in good hands with six potential starters.

Regardless of Verlander’s decision, Houston will continue to be the number one contender in the American League.

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