THE PALLILOG

How Houston Astros resurgence could impact plans for key players

Astros Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Hunter Brown
What does the future hold for Justin Verlander and Kyle Tucker? Composite Getty Image.

It doesn’t quite equate to scaling Mount Everest, but from their shockingly inept 7-19 start to this season and being twelve games under .500 most recently at 12-24, the Astros reaching the break-even mark one game short of the exact midpoint of the regular season schedule is a fine accomplishment. Since 12-24 they have gone 28-16. Of course, that becomes a hollow accomplishment if it's not built upon in the direction the Astros expected to be from the jump.

Less than a week and a half ago, the Seattle Mariners held a 10 game lead over the Astros in the American League West. The gap is now four and a half games. On July 4, 1979 the Astros beat the Cincinnati Reds to build their National League West lead to ten and a half games. The Astros were on pace to win 101 games, the Reds were at .500. Unimpressed Reds’ pitcher Tom Seaver predicted the Astros would “fall like a lead balloon.” He was right. The rest of the way the Astros went 37-42 and the Reds roared from behind to snatch the division by a game and a half. The Astros would have to wait until the following year to make their first ever postseason appearance. Now here they are very reasonably positioned to make a run at an eighth consecutive postseason appearance.

The same night the Astros went to sleep ten games back of the Mariners, they sat seven and a half games out of the third AL Wild Card spot. That gap is now three games. Given how far the Astros are behind the Yankees, Orioles, and Guardians, it's unlikely that the Astros wind up with one of the two best records in the AL and secure a bye past the best-of-three Wild Card round. As such, whether it's winning the West or nabbing any of the three Wild Cards, the point is to make the tournament and take their shot. Remember, last season both the World Series winning Texas Rangers and runners-up Arizona Diamondbacks were Wild Cards. The Diamondbacks squeaked into the postseason with an 84-78 record.

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This weekend, the Astros are in New York for three games against the Mets. Like the Astros the Mets have overcome a lousy start to sit smack-dab at .500 (39-39). Since their bottom of 24-35 the Mets are 15-4. While the Astros have the good fortune of the AL West being the worst division in the Majors, this season and being just four and a half games off the lead, the Mets National League East location means it's pretty much Wild Card or nothing with them 13 games behind the high-flying Phillies.

There will be no Justin Verlander pitching for either team. It's moving toward done deal status that neither the Astros nor Mets will be on the hook for the 17 and a half million dollars each would owe him if Verlander's 2025 35 million dollar option became guaranteed by him reaching 140 innings pitched this season. At just 57 innings banked as the first half wraps up, he's 83 innings short. Verlander's sore neck seems likely to keep him in moth balls until at least the All-Star break. With perfect health from day one after the break, the absolute maximum number of starts Verlander could get is 14.

Other collateral damage with Verlander's repeated physical breakdowns in his 40s: his chance at getting to 300 career wins is fading. Only 24 pitchers in Major League history have reached 300. There will likely never be a 25th member of the club. With just three victories in 2024 Verlander is presently stalled at 260. Squeezing out 40 more seems a Herculean task. The next pitcher on the winningest active list is Max Scherzer with 215, he's followed by Clayton Kershaw with 210. It then drops off a cliff to Gerrit Cole with only 145. Zero chance at 300 for any of them. “J.V.” finished his 20s with 124 wins. Larry Dierker booked all but two of his 139 career wins before turning 30. Roy Oswalt put up 111 wins pre-30. The current win leader yet to turn 30 is German Marquez with a mere 65 victories.

Astros winning despite Kyle Tucker's absence

Before fouling the ball off his shin June 3 that (eventually) put him on the injured list, Kyle Tucker was the Astros' best everyday player this season. In fact, no one else was even close. In the 19 (and counting) games Tucker has missed, the Astros are 13-6. While “Tuck” need not familiarize himself with Wally Pipp, this is the latest example that one player, no matter how great, can only lift a baseball team so far. It probably isn't making Jim Crane think that eight years 240 million or the like is the way to go in a contract extension for Tucker. Crane's dream Astros' outfield in 2026 could have Jacob Melton in center flanked by Luis Baez on one side and Joey Loperfido on the other, with Yordan Alvarez in left of course when not DHing. Melton and Baez may be the Astros' top two minor league prospects. They'll be 25 and 22 years old opening day 2026. Add Loperfido with them and the Astros could pay their whole outfield under two and a half million dollars for the season.

*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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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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