Here are some refreshingly candid solutions to treat Astros ails

Here are some refreshingly candid solutions to treat Astros ails
The return of Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley can't come soon enough. Photo by Getty Images.
Houston Astros title defense could come down to 3 critical factors

The most important variable in all our lives is health, so it's obviously a massive one for sports teams. The Astros likely feel like that they've had more than their share of reminders about that variable so far this season, since health problems have reduced the Astros as currently comprised to a rather average team. Their 16-15 record reflects that as the Astros hit the road for a three city nine game trip with stops in Seattle, Anaheim, and Chicago.

Losing 40 percent of the starting rotation to injury within 24 hours is a problem even for the best of ball clubs. Frankly, the Astros have to be holding their breath hoping that Luis Garcia isn't done for the season. A pitcher leaving in pain with an elbow injury is always ominous. At minimum Garcia will be down several weeks. Jose Urquidy's shoulder injury doesn't seem quite as scary but who knows. We do know he's out for at least the better part of a month. It is faint consolation that it's Urquidy and Garcia who are sidelined rather than Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier.

Is help on the way?

For several reasons the Astros have one of the weaker farm systems among the 30 MLB franchises. Even at this still early stage of the season it's no fluke that all of the Astros' minor league teams have losing records. They have no replacements in their system presently worthy of spots in a Major League starting rotation, although that doesn't preclude guys from rising to the occasion when opportunity grants one. Brandon Bielak is an organizational depth guy, not a number four starter.

After a couple strong outings at AAA Sugar Land, Forrest Whitley has been poor in his last three getting knocked around for 13 earned runs in 13 innings, leaving the formerly elite prospect's earned run average at 6.00. Maybe a J.P. France comes through. France is off to a good start with the Space Cowboys albeit over just 19 1/3 innings. France is not a potentially blossoming young stud. He's 28 years old with a track record of poor control.

With Lance McCullers still not close to returning (and not exactly a great bet to stay healthy after he does return), if the worst case scenario plays out for Garcia and/or Urquidy is to be out a while, General Manager Dana Brown gets his first real scrutiny since getting the job. Brown has to be in the market for a decent back of the rotation starter.

For all that, plenty of teams would swap their top three starters for Valdez-Javier-Hunter Brown. Many teams, including good ones, scuffle to get good performance from fourth and fifth starters. Still, the Astros' rotation and hence the team are not close to as good as last year's World Series Champions.

On the mend

On the brighter side, Jose Altuve sounds on schedule for return within a month or so. As well as Mauricio Dubon has done while filling in for Altuve, he has truly only been really good when measured against Dubon's own career beforehand. His productivity has not been close to what Altuve has delivered year in year out, with the exception of Altuve's dreadful short 2020 season. Dubon's 20 game hitting streak was fun and impressive, and his .303 batting average entering this weekend is obviously good, perhaps borderline stunning. However, Dubon has drawn a laughable three walks in 114 plate appearances and has minimal power. His .710 OPS is good for Dubon but not good for a lead-off hitter, and more than 100 points lower than Altuve's worst season since 2013 except for 2020.

Michael Brantley's return is imminent, and while expectations need to be reasonable for a guy who turns 36 in less than two weeks, adding a platoon professional left-handed hitter to the lineup should be a boost. Dusty Baker DHing David Hensley and Rylan Bannon over Yainer Diaz in recent days was head-scratching at least and absurd at worst, but it shines a light on the Astros' thinned out depth. Corey Julks has had some nice moments but is another member of the swing at almost anything club. 83 plate appearances, one walk drawn.

All those guys bat right-handed. Brantley probably adds little power at this point but the man knows his way around the strike zone. Save for 2016 when Brantley played in only 11 games because of his prior major shoulder injury, he last produced an on base percentage lower than .357 in 2013. So far this season, among the 10 Astros with at least 50 plate appearances only Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker have OBPs of .340 or better, and both those guys have tailed off lately. Batting Brantley second should also help Dusty grasp that it is daffy to continue slotting Jose Abreu in the cleanup spot most games until/unless Abreu breaks out of washed up mode, which has his OPS at a sub-feeble .531. Alex Bregman hasn't been nearly as bad as Abreu but Bregman batting .212 with a .683 OPS is another lineup problem.

It finally happened!

Perhaps it is forced irony that the week some of the roof caved in on the Astros' starting rotation, it was about darn time that the Astros had Minute Maid Park's roof open Tuesday for the first time all season. They lamely wasted multiple nights of gorgeous weather earlier this season. That home field advantage is greater with the roof closed is a dubious claim to begin with, absolutely dubious on a weekday evening in April or May.

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Allen had high praise for Diggs. Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images.

Impersonal as it might seem to have their dynamic on-field relationship end with an exchange of phone texts, Bills quarterback Josh Allen made it clear on Thursday how much receiver Stefon Diggs meant to him during their four seasons together in Buffalo.

Allen made no mention of Diggs’ mercurial temperament or the occasional sideline flare-ups by expressing only praise in his first opportunity to discuss his now-former teammate being traded to the Houston Texans earlier this month.

“Just thanking him for everything that he did for me, and (I’ll) always have a spot in my heart for him. I’ll always love that guy like a brother. And I wish him nothing but the best,” Allen said, in disclosing what he texted to Diggs. “My lasting memory of Stef will be the receiver that helped me become the quarterback that I am today.”

Brought together in March 2020, when Buffalo gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire Diggs in a trade with Minnesota, the duo went on to re-write many of Buffalo's single-season passing and scoring records, and lead the team to four straight AFC East titles.

Diggs, now 30, also brought an inescapable sense of drama with him in raising questions about his commitment to the Bills and whether his tight relationship with Allen had soured.

A day before being traded, Diggs posted a message, “You sure?” on the social media platform X in response to someone suggesting he wasn’t essential to Allen’s success.

Whatever hard feelings, if any, lingered as Buffalo opened its voluntary workout sessions this week were not apparent from Allen or coach Sean McDermott, who also addressed reporters for the first time since Diggs was traded.

“Stef’s a great player, really enjoyed our time together. Won a lot of games and he was a huge factor in winning those games. We’ll miss him,” McDermott said. “You never replace a player like Stef Diggs, and we wish him well.”

Allen turned his focus to the future and a Bills team that spent much of the offseason retooling an aging and expensive roster.

Aside from trading Diggs, salary cap restrictions led to Buffalo cutting respected center Mitch Morse, the breakup of a veteran secondary that had been together since 2017, and the team unable to afford re-signing No. 2 receiver Gabe Davis.

“I don’t think it’s a wrong thing or a bad thing to get younger,” said Allen, entering his seventh NFL season. “I think it’s an opportunity for myself to grow as a leader. And to bring along some of these young guys and new guys that we’ve brought in to our team. And that’s an opportunity, frankly, that I’m very excited about."

Despite the departures, the Bills offense is not exactly lacking even though general manager Brandon Beane is expected to target selecting a receiver with his first pick — currently 28th overall — in the draft next week.

Receiver Khalil Shakir enters his third year and tight end Dalton Kincaid enter his second following promising seasons. Buffalo also added veteran experience in signing free agent receiver Curtis Samuel and Mack Hollins.

While Beane acknowledged the Bills lack a true No. 1 receiver, he noted there’s less urgency to fill that spot now than in 2020 because of how much the offense has developed under Allen.

“Now that Josh has ascended to the player he is, is that a requirement? I don’t think so,” Beane said.

Diggs’ role also began diminishing in the second half of last season, which coincided with Joe Brady replacing Ken Dorsey as offensive coordinator. Brady placed an emphasis on adding balance to a pass-heavy attack and getting more receivers involved, which led to an uptick in production for Shakir and Kincaid.

While Diggs’ numbers dropped, Buffalo’s win total increased.

With the Bills at 6-6, Diggs ranked third in the NFL with 83 catches, seventh with 969 yards and tied for third with eight TDs receiving. Buffalo then closed the season with five straight wins in which Diggs combined for 24 catches for 214 yards and no scores.

”(Diggs) meant a lot. You look at the statistics, they don’t lie,” Allen said, in referring to Diggs topping 100 catches and 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons in Buffalo. “I don’t get paid to make changes on the team. I get paid to be the best quarterback that I can be and try to lead the guys on this team.”

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