MILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION

These thought-provoking answers could kick-start Astros rally

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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*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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