THE PALLILOG

The minefield Astros GM must navigate with trade targets now crystal clear

Houston Astros Yordan Alvarez, Dana Brown
Adding another starter pitcher is a must. Composite Getty Image.

Major League Baseball players always enjoy a day off, even guys or teams on a hot streak, since days off are not plentiful over the six months of the regular season. The Astros no doubt savor Thursday’s respite a little more than usual since it comes at the end of a stretch of having played 29 games in 30 days. The Astros went 16-13 over the 29 games, which is okay, but absolutely not a good enough win rate over the remaining 99 games on their schedule to make the postseason for an eighth year in a row.

Failing to finish off a sweep of the Cardinals has the Astros opening the weekend in Anaheim with their record seven games under .500 at 28-35. As I put it on our Stone Cold 'Stros podcast this week, the great golfer/philosopher Ty Webb would characterize the Astros by saying “You're not.....you're not.....you're not good.” The last time the Astros were within four games of even-Steven they were 4-8. They then gave up 36 runs over their next three games in losing them all to tumble to 4-11. Since then the Astros have gone 24-24. Meh. It’s time for the Astros to mount a charge toward the break-even mark if they are serious about getting back to the playoffs. After finishing up with the crappy Angels, the Astros move up the California coast for three at the losing San Francisco Giants. Splitting the six-game trip wouldn’t be awful, but it’s not a good trip unless the Astros take at least four of the six. Six of their next eight series are against an opponent currently carrying a losing record.

No time to waste

Not helpful to the cause, the loss well into the 2025 season of pitcher Cristian Javier thanks to Tommy John surgery. After the usual Astros’ annoying obfuscation in discussing injuries, the reality settles in of a big blow to their starting rotation. Javier is in year two of his five year 64 million dollar contract extension. Jose Urquidy is also done courtesy of his own blown-out elbow, though in his case expecting much this season was more hope than reasonable expectation. Urquidy has no contractual safety net. He is arbitration eligible for 2025, but the Astros could well non-tender Urquidy and make him a free agent.

General Manager Dana Brown should be kicking tires left and right trying to add a back of the rotation starter. Luis Garcia is making strides in his Tommy John recovery, but is at best more than a month away. Quality performance upon return is very far from a given. Who knows re: Lance McCullers. It’s not as if the Astros are inoculated against injury or performance issues with the remaining healthy guys. Regularly starting 41-year-old Justin Verlander on four days rest isn’t a wise plan. Back-to-back poor starts aren’t catastrophic, but regression from Ronel Blanco was inevitable. There was no chance of Blanco pitching to the 1.99 earned run average guy he was over his first nine starts. Hunter Brown has met the definition of “quality start” in his last three outings. Spencer Arrighetti’s command is still not nearly good enough but he shows legit promise. Framber Valdez still induces agita more often than ideally would be the case, but he’s been solid to excellent in five of his seven starts since returning from the injured list.

On the plus side, Yainer Diaz ended a distressingly long stretch where he hit more like Brad Ausmus than the young Mike Piazza power impression he put forth last year. 13 games into his season Diaz was batting .333 with three home runs. 39 games played and 142 at bats later, Yainer was still sitting on three homers with a pitiful .529 OPS over those 39 games. Now Yainer has gone deep in three consecutive games.

Since last week’s column, it’s been another minus week on the books for Jose Altuve. Over his last 28 games Altuve is batting .219. He has struck out a shocking 28 times in those 28 games. Altuve’s OPS for the season has sagged to .783. Excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season in which Altuve was terrible, the last year he finished with an OPS below .812 was 2013 (.678). 2013 is the only full-length season of Altuve’s magnificent career in which he wasn’t a good player. A .783 OPS is good, but also a precipitous drop from the .921 and .915 Altuve posted the past two seasons.

If you knew nothing about the Astros other than that they trotted out a lineup June 5 with Jake Meyers batting cleanup and Jon Singleton fifth, you’d likely think “Yikes!” There they were Wednesday. Get well soon Kyle Tucker and Alex Bregman. Like, immediately. Meyers’s hot streak was a good story but he has flattened out with just five hits in his last 34 at bats (.147 average). The Singleton/Jose Abreu job share at first base is increasingly sad.

Game respects game

It was heartwarming to see Martin Maldonado pay tribute to former teammate Jose Abreu by sinking his batting average to .079 (Abreu wears number 79). No, no, that wasn’t it. Even by Maldonado standards his offense has plunged to new depths of ineptitude. Now batting .076 with the White Sox, Maldonado has seven hits in 92 at bats this season. He has struck out 37 times in those 92 at bats. Maldonado recently started wearing glasses. No punchline attached.

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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The Astros rotation looks like a strength moving forward. Composite Getty Image.

The Houston Astros are coming off a much-needed series win over the White Sox, but have a quick turnaround as they host the Orioles on Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

The 'Stros dropped the first game of the series with Framber Valdez on the mound, but were able to rebound with Hunter Brown and Spencer Arrighetti starting the final two games.

Brown was brilliant once again, and Arrighetti bounced back after a disastrous start against the Tigers over the weekend. Despite all the injures to the Astros staff this season, their young pitchers are stepping up when they need them the most.

Brown has six consecutive quality starts and is beginning to show signs that he can be the top of the rotation pitcher the club always hoped he could develop into.

Arrighetti has stepped in and shown that he belongs in the big leagues, and has provided innings Houston desperately requires with so many pitchers on the injured list.

Speaking of which, with Justin Verlander on the IL, Double A prospect Jake Bloss will make the start for Houston on Friday night. Bloss has quickly progressed through the farm system, having been drafted just a year ago.

We'll see how he performs in his MLB debut, but the club seems to have a lot of quality pitching options moving forward, especially with Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers scheduled to return in late July and early August respectively.

And as we look at the Astros rotation moving forward, perhaps they will go back to a six-man rotation during certain stretches in the second half of the season.

Which could prove to be vital to the team's success. As good as Ronel Blanco has been, he's never pitched as many innings as he'll be asked to pitch this year. Same goes for Arrighetti. And let's face it, sending Verlander out to pitch on four days rest consistently at 41 years old doesn't sound like a wise decision. He's already been on the IL twice this year.

While some see Garcia and McCullers as wild cards to help the team this season, Astros GM Dana Brown doesn't see it that way. He told the Astros flagship station this week that he's counting on those guys to make big contributions when they return. And he's counting on their postseason experience should they get there.

Keep in mind, Garcia has a 3.61 career ERA and has been durable outside the Tommy John surgery. And McCullers has always been good, it's just the health that causes concern.

Garcia is also an example of how a player can skip Double A and Triple A and have success right away in the big leagues. Hopefully, Bloss can follow in his footsteps, since he's bypassing Triple A to make his first start.

So what's the short and long-term outlook for the Astros rotation? And should we expect Verlander to return in 2025?

Be sure to watch the video above as we address those questions and much more!

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