These thought-provoking answers could kick-start Astros rally

We're not willing to go there. Composite Getty Image.

Here’s the good news for the Astros so far this 2023 season.

Things can’t get any worse.

Has there ever been a defending World Series champion so beleaguered with injuries to important players?

But let’s keep calm and carry on. The Astros, despite injuries and roster shakeup from last year, still have their heads above water at 16-15. And while fans are wringing their hands, Las Vegas doesn’t seem worried. The Astros still are 11-2 betting favorites to win the 2023 World Series. The Braves are second at 13-2 odds, followed by the Yankees (15-2) and Dodgers (17-2).

Next time you’re singing the Astros blues, think of the Seattle Mariners. They were picked to challenge the Astros for the American League West title. The Mariners are sucking at 13-16 with most of their team intact – at least not as devastated as the Astros.

Yes, things sure have changed from last season. In 2022 the Astros’ starting pitchers were best in the American League with a 2.95 earned run average. That was then.

Framber Valdez was the 2022 Opening Day starter. Yuli Gurriel was the first baseman. La Pina is gone. Chas McCormick played center field and got two hits. He’s on the injured list (back pain).

Jake Odorizzi started Game 2 of the 2022 season. Odorizzi is gone. Jose Altuve led off the game with a home run. He’s currently on the injured list (fractured thumb during the World Baseball Classic) and hasn’t played a single game this season. Aledmys Diaz homered in the 4th inning. He’s gone. Michael Brantley hit a double in the 7th driving in Jose Siri. Uncle Mike is on the injured list (shoulder surgery), rehabbing in Sugar Land. Hey, Siri is gone.

Justin Verlander pitched Game 3. JV is gone.

Jose Urquidy started the Astros fourth game of 2022. He’s on the injured list (shoulder inflammation).

Luis Garcia started Game 5 of the 2022 season. He’s on the injured list (elbow discomfort).

Let’s go to the tote board. Eighty percent of the pitchers who started the first week of Astros games last year are either gone or currently on the injured list.

Lance McCullers began the 2022 season sidelined with a flexor tendon strain. He rejoined the team in August and went 4-2 the rest of the way. He’s currently on the injured list (right arm muscle strain). It’s pretty incredible that the Astros have a winning record – though barely.

What to do? Oh what to do?

The Astros will dip into their minor league system for Band-Aid pitchers until Garcia, Urquidy and McCullers are ready to return. The Astros may consider signing a free agent veteran. Madison Bumgarner recently was released by the Diamondbacks and is available.

Fans on talk radio were fretting so much about the Astros dilemma that some raised the thought of signing notorious MLB exile Trevor Bauer, who is pitching for the Yokohama DeNa BayStars in Japan.

Bauer was accused of allegedly assaulting a woman in 2021. MLB placed him on administrative leave. The Dodgers removed all his merchandise from the team store and 86’d his bobblehead night. During MLB’s investigation, other women came forward accusing Bauer of violent behavior. MLB announced that Bauer would be suspended for 324 games, which was later reduced to 194 games. Although no criminal charges were filed, publicity about the case was so lurid and sordid that the Dodgers released him last January.

Bauer is considered the most talented available free agent. He is allowed back in MLB but it appears that no team is willing to go near him. Earlier this week, the former National League Cy Young winner (2020) made his pitching debut for the BayStars and beat the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, 4-1. Japanese teams have amazing names.

Given his salacious reputation it is doubtful that the Astros would have any interest, but perhaps not for the reasons some fans suggested on talk radio. Fans said, “Oh, the Astros are like a family of good guys, outstanding citizens and fine family men. They wouldn’t stand for someone like Bauer with his horrible reputation.”

A more likely reason would be the torrent of bad blood that’s existed for years between Bauer and the Astros. After details of the Astros sign stealing scandal broke, Bauer, more than any other MLB player (except maybe Cody Bellinger) shot his mouth off with comments like, “I’m not going to let them forget the fact that they are hypocrites, they are cheaters, they’ve stolen from a lot of people and the game itself.”

He said that the Astros scandal was equal to the 1919 Chicago Black Sox who threw the World Series in exchange for money.

Bauer added “You can be contrite about it, speak honestly about it, but even now we don’t have a freakin’ apology that means anything from any of them.”

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Numbers don't lie. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros better be mindful. The Texas Rangers are better than the Astros right now because while the Rangers’ offense has been awesome, the Astros’ attack continues to rate as screamingly average. The Rangers have opened up a four and a half game lead over the Astros in the American League West. 27 games represent one-sixth of the regular season schedule. Over their last 27 games the Astros have gone 19-8. Extrapolated over 162 games that’s awesome 114 win baseball. Over those 27 games the Astros have gained zero ground in the standings on the Rangers.

While 19-8 is an impressive stretch no matter what, it is notable that within that stretch the Astros went 11-1 versus the A’s, Cubs, and White Sox, three bad teams. Winning five of six from the mediocre Angels was good, particularly beating Shohei Ohtani twice. The Astros lost two out of three to the Brewers, lost two out of three to the Twins, and need a getaway win in Toronto to gain a split with the Blue Jays.

Maybe the Rangers will be akin to the 1979 Astros, rising but not quite ready yet. July 4, 1979 the Astros led the Reds by 10 and a half games in the National League West. Reds’ pitcher and top 10 greatest pitcher ever Tom Seaver said no worries, the Astros would “fall like a lead balloon” in the second half. The Reds won the division. Here is one stat that points toward Rangers' slippage: as a team they are batting a preposterous .335 with runners in scoring position. No way that holds up all season. The Astros and Rangers have a four game series in Arlington starting June 30. That series looms as much more important to the Astros than one would have thought back in spring training.

Here's the catch

Dusty Baker this week offered his most elaborate explanation for his playing time split at catcher. It was largely balderdash. Thursday’s series finale in Toronto is Martin Maldonado's 45th start behind the plate. Yainer Diaz has 15 starts, Cesar Salazar three. Dusty talked of how there is more to the catching position than hitting. Fair point. His “points” deteriorated from there. It’s definitely attention getting that General Manager Dana Brown has publicly acknowledged talking with Baker about Diaz playing more. Good for Dana.

Let’s leave aside that Maldonado is a lousy offensive player, while Diaz brims with potential and recently has translated some of that potential into results. The Astros’ record is better with Diaz catching than with Maldonado. The pitchers’ earned run average is better when Diaz catches. The “Machete” blade has dulled. Maldonado has thrown out just six of 28 base stealers. Diaz has nailed seven of 18. Maldonado has three passed balls (and at least a couple more that were generously for him scored wild pitches), Diaz has none. All upside growth lies with Diaz.

Dusty sees it as tough to have rookie pitchers throwing to a rookie catcher. I guess if they stink that’s true. Especially dubious is Dusty’s “point” in having Maldonado catch Hunter Brown’s last six starts so that should Diaz get hurt, Maldonado wouldn’t have to start catching Brown with little familiarity. How about the inverse? Diaz catching all the other starters more so that should the approaching 37 years old Maldonado break down, Diaz is more up to speed. Oh, Brown’s earned run average over those six starts with Maldonado is 4.81. Over his first six starts, five of them pitching to Diaz, Brown’s ERA was 2.60.

Wednesday Dusty gave Alex Bregman and Jeremy Pena the night off. Nothing wrong with that. The 29-year-old Bregman had played in all 61 games this season to date, the 25-year-old Pena in 60 of 61. Meanwhile, 36-year-old season long disaster Jose Abreu was penciled into the starting lineup for the 60th time in 62 games. Abreu’s ended the night with his OPS at .534. He is the worst player in the Major Leagues getting everyday run. Thursday marks his 61st start in 63 games. Another spot where Diaz should be getting more time.

All eyes on Texas

Some more on those Rangers, who last season finished 68-94. They are now 40-21, and that with their desperate five year 185 million dollar contract dice roll on pitcher Jacob deGrom crapping out. deGrom finishes with all of six starts and now faces a second Tommy John surgery that could sideline him until 2025. One of the very few pitchers to ever pitch viably again after two Tommy John surgeries is Alvin native Nathan Eovaldi. The Rangers gave him 34 million guaranteed for two years, which so far is the best signing of the offseason. Eovaldi has been every bit as good as Framber Valdez.

Will he hold up is a very fair and very important question. Since 2015, only in 2021 has Eovaldi topped 125 innings in a season. He’s on pace for about 200 this year. Overall, Rangers’ starting pitchers have a lower ERA than Astros’ starters. The Rangers weakness is their bullpen. There is virtually no doubt they will strengthen it by the trade deadline. Their offense has had no weaknesses. Only one team since 1950 (1999 Indians) has amassed more than 1000 runs in a season. About 40 percent of the way through this season the Rangers are on pace for 1025. Going position by position, Yordan Alvarez remains the only Astro who would crack the Ranger lineup so far this year.

Reminder that there are no one game tiebreakers to decide division titles or wild card spots. Season series winners win out. Astros-Jays Thursday outcome decides the season series. It’s conceivable that could be very important come season’s end.

Get your Astros fix every Monday!

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 galore. Such as:

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