How the Houston Astros can punch their postseason ticket right now

The Astros open a three-game series with the Mariners on Friday night. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The Astros can essentially wrap up a playoff spot over the next week. The big goal is still to shoot past the Texas Rangers and win another American League West championship, but job one is making sure that at bare minimum a Wild Card entry into the postseason tournament is a certainty. The Astros start the weekend trailing the Rangers by two and a half games. They are also two and a half games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the top Wild Card.

They are three games up on the Toronto Blue Jays for the second Wild Card, three and a half games ahead of Seattle for the final Wild Card, with the Red Sox three games behind the Mariners. Well lookee here. The Astros play host to the Mariners for three games this weekend before the Red Sox are in town for four. The Astros winning both series would just about deal death blows to the M’s or BoSox making the playoffs at the Astros’ expense. Conversely, a losing homestand would make things uncomfortable for the Astros, especially with series in Boston and Seattle still remaining.

Three starts in to his second time around with the Astros Justin Verlander has been rather average, with mini-trending going in the wrong direction. He’s made one excellent start (seven innings two earned runs at the Yankees), one okay start (six innings three earned runs vs. the Angels), one poor start (five innings, four earned runs at the Marlins). It is evident that his stuff has fallen off a half notch, generating swings and misses and strikeouts at a much lower rate than pre-2023 JV. The Astros tweaked their rotation so that Verlander could make his Miami start on his preferred four days rest. That should not be the norm. He’s 40!

Verlander and others might argue that last season he was awesome on four days rest with a 0.90 earned run average over five starts. Well guess what, he was even better on six or more days rest with a 0.63 ERA over seven starts. After the All-Star break last season Verlander’s only start on four days rest was the start when he strained a calf and went on the injured list. Verlander’s meticulousness and competitiveness have been part of his greatness. Those traits shouldn’t be allowed to become stubbornness to a fault. Extra days rest for him make sense. After next week the Astros are off the final five Thursdays of the regular season. Building around Verlander going on four days rest would be foolhardy.

Jeremy Pena is having a good August but overall his second big league season clearly remains disappointing to this point. Pena’s 2023 salary is $754,900. Carlos Correa is having a massively disappointing season for Minnesota and has been no better than Pena. Correa is in the first year of his six year 200 million dollar with the Twins. That’s 33.333 million dollars per season. Pena turns 26 September 22, the same day Correa turns 29.

Chas McCormick’s salary is $752,500. In late May Chas endured a one for 20 slump that dropped his batting average to .211 and OPS to .663. Those numbers could have warranted a demotion to Sugar Land if the Astros had quality alternatives. They did not, and since then Chas has been spectacular. In a stretch of 57 games covering 54 starts the 28 years old McCormick is batting .315 with a whopping 1.015 OPS. Last season Yordan Alvarez finished with a 1.019 OPS. George Springer has 2024-2026 left after on the six year 150 million dollar contract he signed with Toronto. Springer has been absolutely mediocre this year. He turns 34 next month.

Moral of these stories? Regardless of what Dana Brown says publicly, keeping guys as “Astros for life” is generally empty chatter. Unless Jim Crane has a bizarre change of heart, Alex Bregman can forget any long term huge dollar extension. Bregman is merely a good player at this point, from 2020 forward just a .257 hitter with a .792 OPS. That’s not remotely elite, and is clearly inferior to where Springer and Correa were when they left via free agency. When Bregman can hit the market after next season, he will be 30.

Jose Altuve is also free agent-eligible after next season. He’ll be 34 and the risk factors of more injuries and performance fade are real, but a healthy Altuve remains a remarkable player. If there is one guy who “Astro for life” should apply to, it’s Altuve. But business is business. The discipline that has served Crane so well will be tested.

Then there’s Kyle Tucker. He ended May with a rather meh .267 average and .775 OPS. Since then, a phenomenal performance with a .320 batting average and 1.001 OPS that probably has vaulted Tucker into the top five for AL Most Valuable Player. Tucker is the guy with whom Crane needs to show some intelligent contractual flexibility. Tucker turns 27 in January. There is very little chance that Jacob Melton, Colin Barber, Joey Loperfido, or any other outfielder in the Astros’ minor league system becomes as good as Tucker is now and should remain for the next three to five seasons. “Overpaying” Tucker on the back end of a seven or eight year deal that takes him through his age 33 or 34 season to secure the entirety of his prime would not be bad business. Damn sure not in comparison to signing a declining 36-year-old “slugger” to a three-year deal. Not mentioning any names (Cough. Jose Abreu. Cough.)

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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:

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The Houston Astros are coming off a big win over the Orioles and hopefully things are getting back on track as the club makes their final push for the playoffs with only nine games left.

While we're all excited about the latest walk-off win, we can't ignore the fact that the team has dropped three straight series. Two of which were against the two worst teams in baseball (the Royals and A's).

We've all heard the reports about Chas McCormick's playing time, the batter's eye in center field causing the Astros to struggle, and three team meetings over the past month.

With that in mind, are these distractions a factor in how the team is performing on the field?

Be sure to watch the video as we break it all down.

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