These major season milestones will test Houston Astros resolve and leadership

Houston Astros Yordan Alvarez, Michael Brantley, Justin Verlander
The Astros have some injuries to overcome. Composite image by Brandon Strange.
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The All-Star break is approaching at a good time for the Astros. That may seem an odd assertion for a team that has won 13 of its last 16 games, is 58-30 overall and could well be 61-30 after a three game home weekend series with the awful A’s. However, the injury bug has repeatedly bitten. Yordan Alvarez is out with a sore right hand. Michael Brantley continues to be sidelined by a bad shoulder. And then Thursday night the first pitch of the game drilled Jose Altuve in the left shin and forced him from the game. The Astros have enjoyed a ridiculously easy schedule the last two-plus months. They will reach the break having faced an opponent with a losing record in 50 of their last 59 games. The schedule stiffens after the break, so a few days off to get some key bodies healthier is well-timed. Because of the lockout-delayed start of the regular season, the Astros’ break is shortened a day with a doubleheader against the Yankees slotted in Thursday. Then it’s the long flight to Seattle for three against the rampaging Mariners, winners of 11 in a row.

The Astros enter the weekend having closed within three and a half games of the Yanks for the best record in the American League. Home field advantage guarantees nothing (see World Series 2019 and 2021) but the Astros sure would be better off having it than not. The Yankees have finally hit their first lackluster stretch of the season, dropping four of their last five games. After taking the first two games of a series at Fenway Park the Yankees blew leads in losing the next two, then lost two out of three at home versus the lowly Reds. Panic time in the Bronx! While the Astros should be slapping around the A’s this weekend, the Yankees see the Red Sox again.

The plan for Verlander

Some interesting and smart maneuvering of the Astros’ starting rotation. Currently with six healthy starters, Dusty Baker and the rest of the braintrust made a tweak for the weekend. Jose Urquidy opens the Oakland series Friday night with Verlander held back until Saturday. Multiple layers to this. Verlander has been stupendously good and is a finely-tuned pitching machine. Nevertheless, he is 39 years old and off Tommy John surgery. Backing JV down from a 200 inning season pace, muy inteligente. Verlander’s last start came on seven days rest, his outing Saturday will be on eight days rest. Going Saturday means Verlander will have two days off before being part of his ninth American League All-Star team. He should not pitch in the game. Heck, ideally he'd take part in the pregame pomp and circumstance (if he desires) then pass on the game itself and fly back to Houston. Verlander would have his preferred four days rest from Saturday to Thursday, perfect for starting one of the games against the Yankees, one would think the 5:40 start (rather than the 12:10). How about Cristian Javier to start the just after nooner? He did most of the work in the Astros’ combined no-hitter at Yankee Stadium. Whether Framber Valdez gets to throw an inning in the All-Star Game, let him fly from Los Angeles to Seattle ahead of starting against the Mariners either Friday or Saturday.

If the Astros sweep the pair from the Yankees they become the clear favorite to punk New York for the number one seed. While the Astros’ after the All-Star break schedule is tougher than the before, it’s still easier than what the Yankees face. The AL West is grossly inferior to the East, meaning the Yankees intradivisional slate is much harder.

The trade deadline is less than three weeks away (August 2). Just as the Astros are a playoff lock but still should be in the market for an upgrade over Martin Maldonado or Yuli Gurriel, the Yankees are a lock but could use a starting pitcher and left-handed hitting outfielder. Two months ago I suggested Cubs’ catcher Willson Contreras and Nationals’ first baseman Josh Bell as guys who should be objects of Astros’ desire. Still holds. The sleeper acquisition would be an outfield bat, particularly if Brantley’s shoulder is a serious problem. At this point neither Chas McCormick nor Jake Meyers has the look of a plus centerfield stick. Jose Siri is not a legit Major League hitter. If there is no landable centerfielder but a quality rightfielder is obtainable, shifting Kyle Tucker to center is viable if not optimal for the Astros’ defense. Remember, in 2018 Jeff Luhnow came close to dealing for Bryce Harper. Could/would James Click try to sell Jim Crane on a similarly OMG pursuit? The Astros don’t have enough to bid seriously on Juan Soto, should the Nationals entertain offers. Unless you’d be okay trading Javier and/or Luis Garcia, top pitching prospect Hunter Brown, and much more.

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Justin Verlander is heading to the injured list. Composite Getty Image.

Astros ace Justin Verlander missed his start over the weekend due to neck discomfort, which had many fans concerned. The last Houston pitcher (Cristian Javier) to miss time with the same injury would end up out for the season and having to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like that will be the case for JV, and the team didn't anticipate having to put Verlander on IR. They hoped he would be able to start Thursday's game in Chicago.

But manager Joe Espada told the Astros flagship station on Tuesday that his progress “is slower than we expected.”

Fast-forward a few hours and JV is headed to the IL, with Nick Hernandez joining the club from Sugar Land.

Hopefully, this is just a short stint on the injured list for Verlander. Quite frankly, the Astros are running out of big league caliber starting pitching options.

One has to wonder, how many more injuries the team can sustain in 2024? The injury bug is biting hard, and the club is currently nine games behind Seattle in the AL West.

Up next

Framber Valdez takes the mound for Houston against the White Sox on Tuesday night.

The Athletic's Chandler Rome shares some possibilities the Astros might explore to replace Verlander in the post below.

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