How the Houston Astros season could hinge on this critical date
Come Thursday, there is nothing that can wreck the joy for the Astros and their fans of the unveiling of the 2022 World Series championship pennant inside Minute Maid Park, or of the following night’s distribution of their World Series rings. That said, losing Jose Altuve for at least the first two months of the regular season comes about as close as any Astro or fan would want to get. It’s a major blow to the Astros on multiple levels, but definitely not devastating to their chances of making a run at becoming the first back-to-back World Series champs since the Yankees won three straight in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Yes kids, a looooong time ago the Yankees actually used to make the World Series.
Altuve had his surgery Wednesday (March 22) with the Astros saying he is at least two months away from resuming baseball activities. He won’t need a full spring training length of preparation, but it will certainly take at least a week. If offered June 1 as Altuve Opening Day with good health the rest of the year, the Astros would be silly not to pounce on such an offer. Let’s say he’s ready June 1, though that’s probably a shade optimistic. The Astros have 55 games scheduled through May, that’s one more than one-third of the 162 game regular season slate. So as collateral damage to the injury, as unlikely as Altuve was to put together a 200 hit season anyway, now there is zero chance. Unless he wins the vote to be a starter, a ninth All-Star team selection is basically a goner too. We’ll see down the road what losing 50 or 60 or 70 hits means in a possible chase for 3000 career hits. What matters most though is the impact on the 2023 Astros.
Altuve had a fabulous 2022, the third-best season of his career. Still, even if he was to play at that level again this year, it’s not as if missing Altuve for a third of the season costs the Astros 10 wins. He was a little over a five Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR) last season. WAR meaning if a guy was replaced by a borderline Major Leaguer how many wins would the team lose. Five wins is a little under one per month, so in theory, replacing Altuve with a fringe guy for two months should hurt the Astros roughly two games in the win column. Intuitively that seems low, but the methodology is sound, though I won’t go deep diving into it here.
Anyway, if Mauricio Dubon is to get the bulk of the playing time at second while Altuve is out, yikes. Dubon offers little hope for much better than replacement level. A versatile defensive reserve, offensively he’s not umm….. he’s not umm…he’s not good (a tip of the ballcap to Ty Webb). Dubon has a .653 career OPS. That’s better than Martin Maldonado. That’s damning with faint praise. Dubon also isn’t some prospect with seemingly unfilled potential. He turns 29 in July. The Astros don’t have a prototypical leadoff hitter without Altuve, but it’s managerial malpractice if Dusty Baker puts Dubon atop the lineup, as he did four times last season.
David Hensley isn’t a major prospect either. He turns 27 next week. His Major League resume is wafer thin (34 regular season plate appearances), but there is virtually no doubt he would provide better offense than Dubon. Hensley had a .420 on base percentage at AAA last year, .369 at AA the year before. Could Hensley handle the defensive end of things well enough, especially as the “no more shifts” era begins? It’s not as if Dubon has the defensive chops of Roberto Alomar.
In losing Altuve for an extended period, the Astros lose their leadoff hitter, and I’ll say their soul. They still have plenty of heart. And talent. Better that he suffered the injury March 18 than August 18. Another possible silver lining: Altuve had a couple of leg issues last season. It’s not the worst thing in the world that Altuve will have two fewer months of wear and tear on the legs when he first takes the field this season. Altuve turns 33 May 6.
Their margin for error is now less but the Astros' regular season goals remain unchanged and very plausibly attainable. First, again win the American League West. Second, secure one of the best two records among the three division winners to avoid the best-of-three Wild Card round. Third, again put up the best record in the AL for homefield advantage through the AL playoffs.
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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as: