LOOKING AHEAD

4 important steps to improve Houston Astros 2022 trajectory

Dusty Baker finally moved rising Kyle Tucker up to fifth in the batting order. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Talk about a rough stretch of highway. Starting next week, the Houston Astros have back-to-back, home-and-home clashes against the New York Mets and New York Yankees, owners of the best record in the National League and the best record in the American League.

Nine games over 10 days that will show where the Astros stand against baseball’s elite.

Thank you, Mr. Schedule Maker. When the dust settles from boomerang roundtrips to New York, we’ll know if the Astros are built to just make the playoffs or to make a deep run in the postseason. Whether they’re World Series contenders or just the best in the patsy AL West.

Entering tonight’s game against the Texas Rangers, the Astros have a 7.5 game lead over the second-place Rangers in the AL West. Only the Yankees have a larger lead in their division. The Astros’ 37-24 record is second best in the American League. If the season ended today, the Astros would have a bye in the first round of the postseason. Huge in MLB’s new playoff format.

The Astros are so dominant in the AL West that the rest of this season is devoted to setting up the pitching rotation for the playoffs and praying that Yordan Alvarez and Justin Verlander stay upright.

Settling for another division title would be a major disappointment for the Astros’ 2022 season. Frankly, winning the AL West has become old hat in Houston, the Astros have done it four of the last five years. They made the World Series three of the last five, with the one championship in 2017. The Astros standard of excellence is so great that it’s World Series or bust around here.

But there is work to be done, upgrades necessary and tough decisions to make.

First, the Astros have to stop losing to losing teams. They’ve come up short recently – in home series, mind you – against the Mariners and Marlins. Monday night they blew a 3-0 lead to the Rangers in Arlington and lost a shoulda-won game.

Obviously the Astros bats need to wake up. The season is closing in on the halfway mark and while there’s no need to push the Alex Bregman panic button, maybe it’s time to accept that he’s not having the MVP-level rebound year everybody expected (or hoped for). He’s mired in a yearlong slump with only six homers. His best offensive skill is drawing walks. That’s not enough for a 3-hole hitter.

Bregman has hit better in recent games jumping his batting average from.217 to .222. It’s progress but not exactly to infinity and beyond. So far Bregman’s season has been like the Richard Farina novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.

Manager Dusty Baker finally moved rising Kyle Tucker up to fifth in the batting order and dropped suddenly 38 and playing like it Yuli Gurriel to the six spot. That puts slugger Yordan Alvarez and Tucker back to back in the lineup. That’s how rallies happen

The bottom of the order has become a dead end, however. Chas McCormick (.227) and Jose Siri (.193) aren’t restaurant quality hitters. Those two are Ruth and Gehrig, though, compared to the catching tandem of Martin Maldonado, who's recent power splurge has boosted his average all the way up to .150, and Jason Castro at .102. With Bregman and Gurriel flailing, the Astros have more holes in their lineup than a corner Shipley Do-Nuts.

Madonado’s futility at the plate is not surprising. He hit .174 last year. His career average is .209. Maldonado’s .150 actually is closer to his lifetime average than Gurriel’s .217 is to his, though.

This week I heard a few media types discussing the prospect of trading for a catcher with more (any) pop in his bat. But they’re concerned what demoting or losing Maldonado might do to club morale. They said “Maldy” is a leader, he’s a great defensive catcher (he isn’t), the pitchers trust “Machete,” he’s one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse. The problem is, Maldonado and Castro are close to what Little Leaguers call automatic outs. Rally killers. That ain’t gonna cut it against the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, Blue Jays, etc.

You know what’s better for team morale than a likeable fella behind home plate? How about a catcher who hits for average and drives in runs, like the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, who’s batting .267 (more than Maldonado and Castro combined) with 10 homers and reportedly is on the trading block? As Larry the Cable Guy might say to Astros G.M. James Click, let's git’er done.

Then let’s see how things stand in Astros World on July 1.

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The starting pitching for the Houston Astros over this recent stretch has been historically great, but is this the best Astros rotation we've ever seen? This week, we compare this Astros rotation with some of the best in team history and debate whether Houston fans have ever witnessed this many extraordinary performances.

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