The Astros added some important pieces. Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images
With the trade deadline in the rearview, time to reset where the Astros are heading to the regular season’s final two months. This Astros team is fully capable of winning the World Series. This Astros team is also capable of getting shutdown and eliminated in the Division Series. Their pitching is terrific. The best starters’ earned run average in the American League led by a gold standard ace in Justin Verlander, backed up by relievers who have combined for the best bullpen ERA in the AL. Sure the pitching could implode in October but there are no key factors to make one believe it will. Adding lefty Will Smith to the pen could be anything from a non-factor to a serious bonus.
The offense on the other hand is simply mediocre, 15th among the 30 Major League Baseball teams in runs scored per game. The offense could explode in October but there are no key factors to make one believe it will. This despite Yordan Alvarez’s superhuman season to date. The Astros reach the two-thirds mark of the schedule Friday night in Cleveland. Things can turn inside out in two months, and the very nature of postseason baseball means form charts routinely belong in a shredder. But this offense is shaky. Astro apologists might argue that offense is down all across the big leagues this year. Consider the following: In 2021 the Astros led Major League Baseball with a .267 batting average while the other 29 teams combined to hit .243. This year the Astros have fallen sharply to .240, while the other 29 teams have combined to hit… .243.
Alex Bregman has picked it up some but for the third straight season he is not a quality number three or cleanup hitter.
Kyle Tucker has been atrocious the last month. Worse than Martin Maldonado has been overall this season atrocious. After starting the season with just four hits in 46 at bats, Tucker was fabulous for over a month, the guy who emerged as a star level performer last season. Season opening stink mode has returned. July 3 through August 2 spanning 26 games, Tucker didn’t even slug .300 much less bat anywhere near .300. A slash line of .175/.243/.299 is a deep, foul funk.
After a rousing first seven weeks of his big league career, Jeremy Pena has been poor for over two months. Over his last 44 games he’s batting just .216. Managing the strike zone is a big problem as reflected by 48 strikeouts with just seven walks drawn over those 44 games. Better adjustment is needed to counter the league’s adjustments to him.
Yuli Gurriel has had a good couple of weeks. Well, Maldonado had a good July. It’s about full body of work and Yuli’s this season at 38 years old is not good. He should no longer be pretty much an automatically in the starting lineup every day guy. Certainly not after General Manager James Click’s trade deadline acquisitions.
Credit to James Click
Click did solid work given the Astros’ subpar farm system left him without the assets to plausibly reel in any of the biggest fish on the market. He did nothing spectacular like the Padres’ incredible haul and did not make an individual addition as potentially significant as the Yankees adding Frankie Montas, but Click added better players at two of the Astros’ three weak link lineup spots. Mancini’s best position is first base and he has clearly been better than Gurriel this year. Though unless Michael Brantley returns in form (seemingly less likely by the day) Mancini probably plays more corner outfield (played 13 games in the outfield this year, none before that since 2019) and DHs when Alvarez is in left than he plays first.
Christian Vazquez is an obvious upgrade over Maldonado and unless he plays himself out of the role Vazquez should obviously get the majority of starts behind the plate. Right Dusty? As your humble columnist noted weeks ago, Maldonado as defensive Yoda savant is overrated. Yes the pitchers like throwing to him. That’s true for a number of catchers, including Vazquez in Boston. Maldonado leads the league in passed balls and it’s myth that he wipes out opposing running games. “The Machete” has cut down the same percentage (25%) of would be base stealers this season as Jason Castro. Astros’ pitching earned run average is lower with Castro catching than Maldonado. It’s not as if Castro before injured was Verlander’s personal catcher hence skewing the numbers. If Vazquez performs at the level he did with the Red Sox this season, he is a good bottom of the order batter. Maldonado is not. This year’s Astros’ lineup is not nearly as potent as the 2017, 2019, or 2021 versions. It’s not complicated.
Center field remains in the at this point incapable hands of Jake Meyers, the should only play against left-handed pitching Chas McCormick, and I guess occasionally Mauricio Dubon. Hey, no one fields a team devoid of weakness.
And with all these offensive warts, the Astros are still on pace to win 103 games. Bring on October.
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.