Changes have already begun for Houston Astros scuffling offense
The hiccup of losing two out of three at home to Seattle this week aside, the Astros roll merrily along with a beyond robust nine game lead atop the American League West. That is thanks to their own fine play and the utter implosion of the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels’ franchise record 14 game losing streak cost manager Joe Maddon his job and saw the Halos plunge from 27-17 and just one game behind the Astros, to 27-31 and nine and a half back. Basically, the AL West race looks over with the Astros to win it for the fifth time in six years. Still, the Astros are no unstoppable juggernaut. They’ve been whipping up (to their credit) on an amazingly soft schedule. There are issues that should be addressed. As covered last week, Yuli Gurriel has played so far this season as if washed up. The Maldonado/Castro catching combo continues to be worse than sub-pathetic at the plate. General Manager James Click should be pursuing upgrades at both spots. Then there’s the more perplexing plight of Alex Bregman.
At the end of the 2019 season the then 25-year-old Bregman had booked the early phase of what could viably project as a Hall of Fame career. No Astro has ever been better over his first full three seasons in the Major Leagues. In 2017 he merely helped the Astros win the World Series, highlighted by the game winning hit in the incredible game five against the Dodgers. Bregman’s 2018 was tremendous with him earning a first All-Star spot and finishing fifth in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. He was the most swaggering Stro. Remember his thing of getting into the dugout after a home run trot and doing a snap head turn and stare into a dugout camera? 2019 was even better with another All-Star spot and a runner-up finish to Mike Trout for AL MVP. Now when Bregman looks into a mirror he could understandably be thinking “I'm only 28. What the heck has happened to me?”
It's not as if this Alex Bregman is an absolutely lousy player, but he is currently closer to one than rating with the elite third basemen of the game (presently Jose Ramirez, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, and Rafael Devers, and maybe Austin Riley). This is the third straight season with Bregman’s decline in status a simple fact. He had hamstring problems in both 2020 and 2021, and wrist surgery last November. If there is some ongoing cumulative toll from his injuries, that’s the way it goes. Bregman has been healthy so far this year, missing just two games. He just hasn’t been good. “It’s still early” isn’t true anymore. He’d never been this unproductive for two straight months. A .220 batting average with underwhelming power numbers add up to a soft .377 slugging percentage. About three weeks ago Bregman thought he’d identified a mechanical flaw in his swing. Since then he’s been worse. Bregman’s major offensive positive this year is he draws a lot of walks. So while his .220 batting average stinks, his .339 on base percentage is higher than Jeremy Pena’s (average .277, OBP .330) and fairly close to Jose Altuve’s (average .280, OBP .355).
The way the Astros backloaded the five year 100 million dollar extension Bregman signed before the 2019 season, they owe him 28 and a half million dollars cash on the barrelhead in both 2023 and 2024. Ouch. A dramatic turnaround for the better could happen, but that one is inevitable is silly. No doubt plenty will note that Bregman has not been a big-time player since the cheating scandal came to light. Part of that is you reap what you sow. However, there was no finding of Astros' illegal activity in 2019, which was Bregman's peak season.
Dusty Baker occasionally does some exasperating things with his batting order. EVER batting Niko Goodrum second or third, or Jose Siri at the top of the order leap to mind. A positive this week: he finally moved Kyle Tucker ahead of Gurriel in the lineup. Ideally Bregman would be dropped to sixth or seventh in the order, but with the sinkholes that are Gurriel, the catchers, and on balance the centerfielder production (Chas McCormick not so bad, Siri yuck), Dusty is not blessed with obvious solutions. Pena is having a terrific rookie season but has cooled off the last couple weeks.
Again, James Click should be in the market for improvements. Other than Jake Meyers perhaps boosting output from center field, internal help is almost certainly not there for this year. Top Astros’ catching prospect Korey Lee is batting .207 at Triple-A Sugar Land. Lee can get his shot in 2023. Cubs’ catcher/free agent-to-be Willson Contreras would be a fabulous rental and massive upgrade. Nationals’ switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell would be an interesting pursuit, also a free agent-to-be but a re-sign candidate with the 38-year-old Gurriel’s contract up after this season and no heir apparent in the organization. The Astros’ farm system is not strong, but has enough that Click can and better competitively bid on at least one significant move.