KEYS TO VICTORY

3 critical keys to a monster second half for Houston Astros

Astros Kyle Tucker, Ryan Pressly, Yordan Alvarez
Yordan Alvarez is working his way back with the Space Cowboys. Composite Getty Image.
How Rangers' big gamble could pay huge dividends for 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.

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96 games down, 66 games to go as the Astros tackle a fairly significant series in Seattle to open up the figurative second half of the season Friday night. It’s actually just over 40 percent of the schedule remaining. With the Astros having closed within one game of the Mariners in the American League West it’s the biggest series possible for them as the season resumes. But it’s not remotely make or break. Measuring by run differential the Astros should already be out front. They have outscored their opponents by 49 runs while Seattle is just plus-19. The actual standings can be explained in no small part by this comparison: in one-run games the Astros are a pitiful 7-17 while the Mariners are 19-14.

The spectrum of outcomes this weekend ranges from the Astros sweeping and leaving the Emerald City two games on top, to getting swept and heading down the coast to Oakland four games behind. Of note, the Mariners beat the Astros in five of the seven meetings to date this season. So if Seattle wins this series it clinches the season series and playoff tiebreaker should a spot come down to it. The Astros and Mariners have another series to come after this one, three games in Houston the final week of the regular season.

Trade deadline looming

What may be even more important than this weekend’s games is who gets what done between now and the July 30 trade deadline. With Justin Verlander clearly not close to returning, Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss both performance question marks, and both Ronel Blanco and Hunter Brown being asked to handle unprecedented workloads for them, the Astros’ rotation needs obvious fortification. The Mariners’ rotation is second to none in the American League and their bullpen is good. Seattle’s lineup is atrocious. The Chicago White Sox are on pace to be one of the worst teams of all-time. The ChiSox’ offense is a joke with a team batting average of .220. The Mariners’ team average is .219. Only the White Sox and pathetic Marlins are scoring fewer runs per game than the M’s.

The Mariners have 11 players with at least 100 at bats this season. Eight of them have an OPS of .690 or lower. Cal Raleigh has the highest at .734. The Astros have 12 guys with at least 100 at bats including Jose Abreu. Abreu, Chas McCormick, and Mauricio Dubon are the only .690 or worse OPS guys. Kyle Tucker is the Astros’ OPS leader by a significant margin, .979 to Yordan Alvarez’s .912. What’s that you ask? Who is this Kyle Tucker? 35 missed games and counting for “Tuck” with his leg bone bruise, with return not imminent. T-Mobile Park is a notably better pitchers’ park than is Minute Maid Park, but not enough to shrug off the Mariners’ offensive ineptitude. The Mariners team payroll is more than 100 million dollars below the Astros’ payroll. The Mariners have the clearly better farm system from which to deal. If Seattle doesn’t add offense, its ownership and front office will deserve a continued fade in the second half, on top of the Mariners’ 8-15 gimp into the All-Star break.

Don't forget about the Rangers

With the Astros and Mariners going at it this weekend with the division lead in the balance, a reminder that this is not a two-team race. The Texas Rangers rallying to take the final two games at Minute Maid Park last weekend sent up a flare that the reigning World Series Champions are definitely still in the picture. The Rangers sit four games behind the Astros, five back of the Mariners. If the Rangers manage to win their series in Arlington with the Orioles this weekend, they are guaranteed to gain ground on at least one team ahead of them. The Astros-Rangers season series sits tied at five wins apiece with three games left, it will be decided in Arlington the first week of August. The Rangers and Mariners play seven more times.

In broader view, as measured by opponents’ records, the Astros have the toughest remaining schedule among the three. Among the 30 big league clubs the Rangers have the fourth easiest slate left, the Mariners have the fifth easiest, the Astros have the 15th easiest. If the Astros ultimately are not to win the West, there is the Wild Card race to keep in mind. The Astros are seven games behind the Yankees, four behind the Twins, and three and a half back of the Red Sox. Those three currently hold the Wild Card spots. The Astros are also a game and a half behind the Royals. The Astros have already lost the season series and tiebreakers to the Yankees, Twins, and Royals. The Astros and Red Sox have all six of their meetings yet to come.

Remembering Ken Hoffman

This is my first column since the passing last Sunday of my friend and eventual colleague Ken Hoffman. I originally learned of Ken’s quirkiness and wit through his columns at the Houston Post. He was a big sports fan. Our friendship was driven in part by our shared passion for tennis. We played probably more than a thousand times over nearly 20 years. Tennis and baseball were Ken’s two favorite sports. His two favorite athletes were Roger Federer and Jose Altuve. Well, after he and his wife Erin’s son Andrew, who was a pitcher on Trinity University’s 2016 NCAA Division Three national championship-winning team.

*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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