KEYS TO VICTORY
3 critical keys to a monster second half for Houston Astros
After an inconsistent first half, the Astros headed into the All-Star break with a 50-41 record and currently sit two games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West.
Although this current Astros iteration isn’t nearly as dominate as last year’s squad, Houston still has a good chance to make the postseason for the 8th time in nine seasons.
With a few roster adjustments, there is reason to believe this team can become title contenders once again.
Fix the starting rotation
The Astros had one of the best starting rotations on paper to start the season, but injuries and inconsistent outings have affected this unit. What once was a strength is now a glaring weakness.
It started when Lance McCullers Jr. was shutdown during Spring Training with a forearm strain which ultimately required season-ending surgery. Then both Jose Urquidy (shoulder injury) and Luis Garcia (Tommy John surgery) went down on back-to-back starts.
These injuries forced players such as J.P. France, Ronel Blanco and Brandon Bielak to be promoted from Sugar Land to fill voids left by the aforementioned trio.
Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown both stared off the season strong but have since cooled off, likely due to their high usage thus far.
The only consistent starting pitcher for the Astros has been Framber Valdez, who leads all of baseball with a 2.51 ERA. But even the 29-year-old isn’t immune to the injury bug, as Houston’s ace is dealing with an ankle sprain.
Fixing the rotation is simple, the Astros need to trade for another starting pitcher.
Names such has Dylan Cease, Lucus Giolito, Marcus Stroman, Shane Bieber and many more could be on the move by the trade deadline and there Is reason to believe Houston would certainly look to acquire any of these starters.
Astros general manager Dana Brown has been on the record suggesting he is in the market for another arm.
“With the pitchers that we’ve had going down, it could put us in a situation where we come up short or we don’t get to that next round of the playoffs,” said Brown. “A good arm would be really, really helpful… The problem is, there are not many good arms out there.”
Another starting pitcher should alleviate pressure from everyone not named Framber Valdez and could turn one of Houston's weakest points into a strength once again.
Stars returning to full strength
Injures are a prevalent theme this year, as franchise players Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez have spent a good chuck of the season on the IL.
Altuve broke his thumb on a hit-by-pitch during the World Baseball Classic, which sidelined him for over seven weeks of the regular season. When he returned the Astros saw substantial offensive improvement. Altuve is currently on the injured list with an oblique strain but looks to potentially return at some point during the team’s current nine-game road trip.
Alvarez has been sidelined with an oblique strain as well for five weeks but looks to be making his way back soon. The 26-year-old was Houston's best hitter and still leads the team in homers. Adding a healthy Alvarez would be a game changer, as the Astros would get their most consistent hitter back in the lineup.
Michael Brantley was another injury casualty thus far. The 36-year-old was on his way to recovering from shoulder surgery last season but has faced multiple setbacks in his rehab process. It seems unlikely Brantley will return this season as Astros’ manager Dusty Baker revealed earlier this month that the veteran hitter had “plateaued” and there is no timetable for his return.
Although Astros fans shouldn’t count on a Brantley reunion this season, having Alvarez and Altuve rejoin the team would help tremendously and solidify this offense, as both players have done in previous years.
Stay the course
Even with all the injuries and inconsistencies, this Astros team is still winning games.
Dusty Baker has instilled a winning culture in this clubhouse and it shows year in and year out.
Houston might be without some of their best athletes on the field, but the Astros are still getting solid production from a multitude of players.
Kyle Tucker made the All-Star team and once again leads the Astros with a .288 batting average. Houston is also getting stellar play out of rookies Corey Julks and Yanier Diaz. Mauricio Dubon has been the biggest surprise to many on this team as he is posting career-high numbers offensively across the board and has filled in nicely during Altuve's absence.
Even after all the adversity this team has faced thus far, the Astros are still nine games above .500 and would make the postseason as the final Wild Card if the playoffs started today.
Players such as Alex Bregman and Jeremy Pena have gotten off to slow starts, but have time to get things right at the plate before the postseason. Jose Abreu is another case where improvement is possible, as he went from posting career low numbers over the first two months of the season to becoming one of the Astros best hitters in June and July.
Assuming the Astros add more pitching, get their star players back and maintain their winning ways, this team should be positioned well to make the playoffs for the 7th season in a row and make yet another run at a World Series title.
Help may come soon as both Jose Urquidy and Yordan Alvarez will begin their rehab assignments with the Sugar Land Space Cowboys Friday night at 5 p.m.
All Space Cowboys games are available to listen to on ESPN 92.5 FM.