Astros fact & fiction: why these players’ spots should be locked

Astros fact & fiction: why these players’ spots should be locked
Astros number crunching. Composite Getty image.
Here’s what is finally sparking Houston Astros offensive ascent

The late Astro pitcher Joaquin Andujar once said “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is ‘You never know.’” Joaquin was quite a character. In baseball, you never know how a game or series will play out regardless of what past performance and obvious talent discrepancy suggest. Therefore, it was suboptimal though not wholly unpredictable for the Astros to settle for splitting two games at the team with the worst record in the National League (Colorado) while the Texas Rangers were sweeping three games from the team that had the best record in the American League (Tampa Bay).

As Hall of Fame Astro Craig Biggio said many, many times over his career, “That’s baseball.” So, the Astros open their four game series in Oakland Thursday night four and a half games behind the Rangers in the American League West.

The A’s are historic-level pathetic. 27 wins and 71 losses has them on pace for a 44-118 finish. Yet last month the A’s had a seven game winning streak. The Astros’ longest streak this season is eight. The Rangers’ is six, and current. The A’s did the Astros two solids Tuesday and Wednesday in beating the Red Sox, which has the Astros holding a two and a half game lead for the last American League Wild Card spot. The Astros are 6-0 vs. the A’s this season. They need to take out the trash in Oakland, while Astros’ fans can choke down their bile and root for the Dodgers to provide some help this weekend by beating the Rangers in their three game set in Arlington. Plausible upbeat Houston case scenario: The Astros wipe out the A’s four straight, while the Rangers lose two of three to the Dodgers. That would have the Rangers’ lead down to two games as they hit town for a huge three game series at Minute Maid Park.

Close call with Framber

Framber Valdez makes the start Friday night after a poor outing against the Angels last Saturday which ended with him leaving with what verrrrrrry fortunately turned out to be nothing more than a calf cramp. It better turn out that way. The Astros’ rotation is presently shaky with Framber, without him, it would be untenable. Hence, with the trade deadline inside two weeks away, General Manager Dana Brown’s chief objective is clear: trade for a starting pitcher.

Reminder that with the Astros’ minor league talent pool in the bottom quarter of the 30 Major League franchises, a raft of likewise contending teams can choose to outbid the Astros for any particular pitcher or “position player.” As noted in last week’s column, there is zero chance the Astros’ could put together a winning offer for Shohei Ohtani should the Angels’ come to their senses and put him up for trade. Always remember, rumors and click bait stories are overpriced at a dime a dozen this time of year. With the deadline approaching, there have still been no other moves of consequence since the Rangers added Aroldis Chapman to their bullpen. The Rangers presumably aren’t done. Ideally for the Astros the Rangers don’t make another bolstering deal until after they leave Houston next week. Valdez pitching Friday has him on schedule to start the Wednesday Astros-Rangers finale.

With Yordan Alvarez getting some game action in with the Sugar Land Space Cowboys, barring a setback, he should be in the Astros’ lineup against the Rangers Monday. Jose Altuve answering that bell doesn’t look so promising. When the Astro Al-phas (Alvarez and Altuve…work with me!) are both back, the batting order isn’t a given, but eight of the nine primary guys in the lineup should be obvious (Dusty…?). Until/unless he slumps, the erupting volcano that is Chas McCormick has locked down an outfield spot alongside Kyle Tucker. Yordan plays left or is the designated hitter with Corey Julks or Jake Meyers slotted accordingly. Martin Maldonado should become the number two catcher behind Yainer Diaz.

Here's a batting order: Altuve, Alex Bregman, Alvarez, Tucker, Jose Abreu, McCormick, Diaz, Julks/Meyers, Jeremy Pena.

Pena is a flat out offensive liability these days, who should be batting ninth with Maldonado out of the lineup. Pena is three for his last 32 at the plate, and before that, no one was confusing him with Bo Bichette. Counting the March 30 and 31 games as part of the season’s first month, Pena’s numbers have gotten worse every month this season. He hit one home run in June and has one thus far in July. His last double was June 9. Let me type that again. His last double was June 9. Since June 1 Pena’s OPS is a hideous .545. Maldonado’s OPS for the season is .539. It’s been a very disappointing follow-up campaign to date for the 2022 postseason superduperstar. So much so that Pena would not start for the majority of Major League teams right now.

Maldonado vs. Diaz truths

Slash line (batting avg, on-base %, slugging %): Diaz .267/.287/.487 Maldy .168/.244/.295

OPS: Diaz .774 Maldy .539

Pitchers’ ERA with catcher: Diaz 3.52 Maldy 3.83

Vs. base stealers: Diaz thrown out 9 of 24 (37.5%) Maldy thrown out 9 of 54 (16.7%)

Passed balls: Diaz 0 Maldy 7 (most in MLB)

Won-loss record in starts: Diaz 13-8 (.619) Maldy 38-33 (.535)

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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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