HIGH-WIRE ACT

How Astros manager is walking the tightrope with no easy answers

How Astros manager is walking the tightrope with no easy answers
Who's going to step up in the Astros outfield? Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images.

Astros manager Joe Esapda has certainly faced his share of criticism this season. When it was looking like another playoff appearance was out of reach in May, many were putting the blame mostly on Espada (Jose Abreu took his lumps too).

Now that the Astros have crawled above .500 and are in striking distance of the division leading Mariners, a new challenge has emerged.

Who should be playing regularly in the outfield and at first base? It would be nice if one of these options really stood out from the rest of the pack. But that hasn't been the case, at least since Joey Loperfido returned on June 21. So I decided to dive into this minuscule sample size to see who's making the best case to get regular at-bats as of late.

How have the bats fared since Loperfido returned?

When Loperfido rejoined the team, the Astros said they would get him more at-bats this time around. And that did happen for a while. He started five straight games after being recalled to the big league club (June 21).

His first game back was terrific as he recorded 3 hits with 2 doubles and 2 RBIs. But after that, he's done next to nothing as a starter. He did have a huge pinch hit against the Mets, but otherwise he's been pretty underwhelming since his big game against the Orioles on June 21.

So if Loperfido doesn't appear quite ready, what about Chas McCormick? McCormick shares some similarities with Loperfido recording one multi-hit game since June 21. He's started 4 games, plus some pinch hit opportunities. He, too, had a big game against Baltimore, but hasn't done much else in limited chances.

Trey Cabbage has shown some flashes with 1 multi-hit game in three starts. But nothing to write home about.

Mauricio Dubon has 2 multi-hit games with nine starts over this span, splitting time in the infield and outfield.

Jake Meyers appears to be the mainstay out of this group. His offense has been solid, and his defense is Gold Glove worthy. He has two multi-hit games in nine starts.

Jon Singelton may not play the outfield, but he does impact Dubon's playing time at first. He has two multi-hit games in six starts, which includes a three-hit game with a dinger against the Mets.

Let's assess the situation

Okay, we covered all the recent stats for these players and one thing has become apparent. Nobody is doing enough to get regular starts outside of Meyers and Dubon. And that has more to do with their season-long resume.

One could argue Singleton has been okay over this short stretch. But he's almost 33 years old. Expecting him to show much improvement over his career numbers seems unlikely. He'll continue to get chances against right-handed pitching, but that's about as far as it goes. We've already seen him lose playing time to Dubon even with righties on the mound.

Just look at Wednesday's lineup. Espada started all righties outside of Yordan Alvarez against left-handed Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi.

Photo via: MLB.com/Screenshot

Right-handed hittingGrae Kessinger is starting at first base over Singleton and Loperfido. This should tell us everything we need to know about the logjam in the outfield and at first base.

Espada has seemingly made this a full-blown platoon situation. And that's not changing unless one of these players steps up and takes the job.

Over the next two weeks before the All Star break, the sample size will get bigger, and we'll have a better idea of who deserves the most playing time. Hopefully, Kyle Tucker will return around that time, and that will make cracking the lineup even harder for these guys.

That's when predicting the Astros lineup will get a lot easier, in theory. Meyers and Dubon have done enough to play almost every day. With Meyers in center and Dubon bouncing between the outfield and first base. Which means Singleton will start against righties fairly often, and Dubon should play first when a lefty is on the mound.

If that's the case, Espada won't be looking to put Cabbage or Loperfido in left field against a southpaw. Chas McCormick will likely get most of those starts, being right-handed.

What about Yordan?

When he plays left field, we typically see Yainer Diaz hitting DH. I would expect that to continue. When Yainer has the day off and Yordan plays left, expect Espada to play the matchup (shocker).

The other factor to consider is Cesar Salazar. We know he'll get starts behind the plate, spelling Yainer Diaz. So those lineups could be a little tougher to predict depending on if Yainer is in the DH spot.

But Salazar does deserve a quick mention. Espada received some criticism for pinch hitting Cabbage for him in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's loss. This season, Salazar has been money with runners in scoring position. He's slashing .571/.500/.714 with an OPS of 1.214.

Cabbage made Espada look even worse with an uncompetitive at-bat, swinging at three straight high fastballs.

But that goes along with the point of this article. Espada is going to have his hands full trying to predict which player will come through on any given day.

If someone doesn't separate themselves from the bunch, he's going to play the matchups almost exclusively. Which is understandable based on the cards he's been dealt.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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