How these 4 Astros season-defining factors are setting the stage for major late-season drama
For the first season since 2016 the Astros resume play after the All-Star break with there being serious doubt as to whether they make the playoffs. Clearly the Astros can win the American League West for the sixth consecutive full-length season. Once six and a half games back of the Texas Rangers, the deficit is a mere two with the Rangers having staggered into the break losing 11 of their last 16 games. Going back longer over their last 31 games, the Rangers caved to 12-19. It’s not as if the Astros surged. They went just 14-17 over their last 31 games, finishing by dropping three of four at home to the Mariners.
Seattle could be in this also, especially if it can add an impact bat by the August 1 trade deadline. The Mariners are just four games back of the Astros, six back of the Rangers, but have better looking pitching than both of them. 2015 is the only other season the Astros and Rangers were both strong contenders in the AL West. In 2015 the Rangers held off the Astros by two games with the Astros getting a Wild Card. In 2016 the Rangers ran away with it as the Astros missed the postseason. Since then it's been all losing seasons for the Rangers while the Astros have had their dynastic run. Runs end. Whether for the Astros that means in 2023 plays out over the next two and a half months.
Then there’s the Wild Card picture. At the break the Astros would have been the AL’s third and last Wild Card, since they lose the tiebreaker to the Toronto Blue Jays. They’re just one game ahead of the Yankees, two ahead of the Red Sox, and four ahead of the Mariners who lead the Astros 5-2 in the season series. From August 3 through September 3 the Astros play 29 games, 14 of them against the Yankees or Red Sox. There are also six games ahead with the Orioles who are five games ahead of the Astros. The AL East is by far the best division in Major League Baseball. There is less intra-divisional play this year than ever before (13 games vs. each division opponent down from 19), so while AL East cannibalism should help the Astros, it’s not as big an aid as it would have been in prior years. The Astros simply have to win their share overall. It will be a compelling remaining 71 games.
Path to the playoffs
The Astros’ outlook largely hinges on a couple of factors. On offense, getting back Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve and having them stay healthy is vital to an offense that without them simply isn’t that good. Alvarez is an irreplaceable monster when batting third in the lineup. Altuve is an elite leadoff hitter in contrast to Mauricio Dubon who for all he has contributed is a poor leadoff hitter. Maybe Dusty Baker awakens and cuts into Martin Maldonado’s playing time. Maybe Jeremy Pena picks it up in what has basically been a no-improvement sophomore season. Maybe Alex Bregman starts hitting like someone worth remotely close to the 28 and a half million dollars he's pulling down this season and again next. Catching Yainer Diaz a greater percentage of the time shouldn’t even require a decision. There is not much reason to expect Pena and Bregman to have fabulous finishes. If the Astro offense is to be grade-A or close the rest of the way, it needs Alvarez and Altuve.
Then there’s the pitching, especially the starting pitching. The Astros ended May with the staff earned average at 3.25. From June 1 on it’s 4.27. If it’s not better than 4.27 the rest of the way, the Astros season probably ends October 1. Framber Valdez has been fantastic and gives no cause to believe he’ll wilt. Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown have both already wilted. Javier’s career-high innings total of 2022 and a first half pace to top it in 2023 probably caught up to him. Javier has been clobbered over his last five starts to the mess of a 9.14 earned run average. Brown, on pace to shatter his career innings high, sagged to a 5.70 ERA over his last seven starts. At least one better catch a second wind.
J.P. France has been a hugely welcome surprise, but is within about a month of topping his previous season innings high. Brandon Bielak and Ronel Blanco simply aren’t good enough. Jose Urquidy’s expected August return could help. Could. Urquidy’s ERA was 3.92 last year, 5.20 this year before his arm injury knocked him out. Urquidy’s return isn’t like the Astros’ adding Justin Verlander in 2017, Gerrit Cole in 2018, or Zach Greinke in 2019.
Trade deadline looming
As for the trade deadline now under three weeks away, we’ll see if rookie General Manager Dana Brown adds a quality starting pitcher (the clear top priority now) and/or an impact bat. Brown is hamstrung by the Astros’ weak farm system. Many contenders (Rangers, Rays, Orioles, Dodgers, Diamondbacks…there are more but you get the idea) have vastly superior prospect talent to deal and could do so without leaving their cupboards bare. If fantasizing about addressing both pitcher and hitter in an all-timer move by having the buckling Angels put Shohei Ohtani up for bid, there is essentially no way the Astros can make a competitive offer even if willing to gut their already relatively fallow pipeline.
Drew Gilbert is the lone Astros’ minor leaguer considered a top 100 prospect. Corey Julks and Jake Meyers have negligible trade value. If the Cubs sell, pitcher Marcus Stroman is probably beyond the Astros’ grasp. Probably the same with the White Sox’ Lucas Giolito. One hitter who would make oodles of sense in a Cubs’ sell-off is Cody Bellinger (as many Astros’ fans shriek in horror!) who is having a strong bounce back season on a one-year contract. Bellinger is a left-handed bat who would be an excellent alternative to Jose Abreu at first base, and is also an outstanding outfielder.
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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 a first video segment goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets such as: