A way-too-soon celebration is already in order for the Houston Astros

The Astros’ schedule is really soft. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Congratulations to the Astros for wrapping up a playoff spot for the sixth year in a row! Obviously with two-thirds of the season still to be played there’s nothing official about it and it's a bit early for a magic number countdown, but we’re just past Memorial Day and the Astros are basically a cinch. It remains to be seen whether the Angels will be legitimate season long challengers for the American League West title (doubtful), but even should the Halos swipe the division crown it would take a string of horrific developments for the Astros to not land a Wild Card berth, especially with there now being three of them in each league.

With the owners watering down the postseason field for additional revenue, the third-best division winner in each league now has to survive a best-of-three series against the third wild card qualifier. An awful team can take down a great team in a two out of three, so the third wild card taking out the third-best division champ would be no big upset. The third division champ is the home team for all games vs. that third Wild Card but that is no insurmountable obstacle, so the Astros have a clear objective of not just winning another division title, but securing one of the two best division winning records in the AL.

It’s not quite ironic, but for all the sturm and drang and wrongdoing involving the Astros and trash cans a few years ago, it’s at least amusing that the Astros are in the midst of an epic stretch of sanitation engineering. They are taking out the trash left and right. Since finishing off a sweep of the Twins in Minneapolis May 12, the Astros’ schedule has been an absolute marshmallow and will remain so until the back half of June. When the Astros get home from their current road trip they will have taken the field 22 consecutive games against an opponent carrying a losing record. Then they’ll quite likely play at least nine more against losers! Next week’s homestand features three games vs. the Mariners and three vs. the Marlins. Then the Astros pop north for three with the Rangers, who while the Astros roll toward postseason number six in a row, are on target for their sixth straight losing season. Home from Arlington the Astros play the White Sox who are presently 23-23, so conceivably the Astros could make it 34 straight games vs. losing teams. I don’t know what the record is (get cracking Elias Sports Bureau!) but 34 is quite a number. The Mets are here June 21 so at the latest that would end the streak.

The Astros don’t/won’t win every series they play against crappola competition, but they’re simply vastly better than the majority of teams they face. Their measuring stick is the good teams, the kind of teams they’ll face in October.

What's going on with Yuli?

While the Astros are rolling merrily along it’s not all peaches and cream of course. The offense has been a mediocrity. The putrid catcher combo plate of Martin Maldonado and Jason Castro wasn’t expected to be good. Yuli Gurriel on the other hand… La Piña has been El Limón so far in 2022. Gurriel was wretched in 2020, but that 60 game short COVID season produced a lot of eyebrow-raising stats that could be asterisked. Jose Altuve’s performance was god-awful in 2020 too. Both were excellent in 2021. Altuve remains excellent in 2022. Gurriel has fallen off a cliff in what is his final season under contract. He’s fallen, will he get up? Yuli turns 38 next week. It’s plausible that Father Time has made a big move.

Gurriel’s plate discipline has eroded badly this year. Before winning the American League batting title at .319 last season, Gurriel three times came close to hitting .300 without doing it (.299, .291, and .298). No doubt a big part of the leap last year was swing selection. Gurriel drew 59 walks last season. Previously he’d never drawn more than 37. So far this season Gurriel has walked a woefully puny seven times. He’s striking out at a higher rate than in any prior season. He just has not made consistent good contact with the baseball. Even with the Astros lineup diminished elsewhere, the clock has to be ticking toward Dusty Baker stopping slotting Gurriel fifth in the batting order. Right Dusty? There is time to turn it around, but know that since joining the Astros late in the 2016 season, Gurriel had never gone consecutive months batting below .256. April this year: .224. May: .213.

This Astros’ squad clearly has World Series winning potential but it is not an unstoppable super team that should play a pat hand. If Gurriel doesn’t pick it up significantly, General Manager James Click should get after landing an upgrade for the stretch drive, postseason, and beyond.

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Nick Caserio's history of drafting injury prone players has become a problem. Composite Getty Image.

Nick Caserio was hired to serve as the general manager (GM) of the Texans on January 7, 2021. Some saw it as another nod to the organization's obsession with the Patriots. Others saw it as the team finally getting their guy after pursuing him previously. They were even hit with a tampering charge while trying to talk to him about the job. Since he's been on the job, there have been highs and lows.

Recently, the news about Kenyon Green and Derek Stingley Jr put a stain on his tenure. Green was placed on season-ending injured reserve (IR) and Stingley Jr is expected to be placed on IR, likely missing six to eight weeks, per Aaron Wilson. Both guys were Caserio's 2022 first rounders. Both guys are starting to look like busts and have fans a little more than just upset.

Green's case was curious because he was said to have needed surgery before he tore his labrum during the Saints preseason game. He had knee surgery this past offseason. There were knee injury concerns when he was coming out of A&M. Adding to his injuries, Green has played poorly. To make matters worse, the Chargers drafted fellow guard Zion Johnson two picks later. Johnson played all 17 games last season as a rookie at right guard and has moved to left guard this season. The pick used to draft Green was part of a trade back with the Eagles. They used the 13th overall pick to take Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis, a guy at a position this team could desperately use.

Stingley Jr was a highly touted recruit coming into LSU as a freshman. He played as well as any corner in the country that year. Oh, and they won a national title with arguably one of the best teams in college football history. His net two years in Baton Rouge were marred with injuries. Some believed his junior year was more him holding back to stay healthy for the draft. It worked because he was taken third overall, one spot ahead of Sauce Gardner. Gardner went on to be an All Pro as a rookie. While he's surrounded by more talent on the Jets' defense, people will forever link them because Stingley Jr hasn't lived up to expectations. He missed six games last season and is set to miss at least that many this season. When he has played, he's looked okay. “Okay” isn't what you want from a guy drafted third overall ahead of the other guy who was widely considered better than him.

For the 2021 draft, Caserio was handcuffed. He had no first or second rounders, and made a few trades that lessened his draft pool from eight to five picks. Of the five guys drafted that year, only Nico Collins seems to be a player. The 2022 draft was more productive. Although Green and Stingley Jr were the headliners and haven't played up to the hype, the others are carrying the load. Jalen Pitre and Dameon PIerce alone make that draft class dope. This past draft was seen as the one to save the franchise so to speak. Getting C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr got the team a franchise quarterback and edge rusher with picks two and three overall. The price paid to move back up to three was hefty and puts more scrutiny on Anderson Jr. They appear, so far, to have also found a couple other nice players. Tank Dell being the hidden gem of this class.

While people can't, and shouldn't, base Caserio's performance strictly off of the guys he's drafted, one must call it into question. The '21 draft was a wash. The '22 draft looks suspect, but has some redeeming qualities. The '23 draft will most likely be his saving grace. But should it? Former Texans GM Rick Smith nailed almost every first rounder he drafted. Even he was almost run out of town because folks didn't like what he did. Why should Caserio be any different? So what if he cleaned up the mess by the previous regime! That's what he was hired to do!

“Keep that same energy!” That phrase is used when people try to hold others to different standards. Where's that energy everyone had for Bill O'Brien, Jack Easterby, Rick Smith, Gary Kubiak, David Culley, and Lovie Smith? When others weren't performing well, their heads were called for. I see some people holding Caserio accountable. For the most part, it appears as if he's getting a bit of a pass. I'll be interested to see if this continues should the team has another subpar season. If that pick they traded to the Cardinals is another top 10 pick and the Browns pick the Texans own isn't...if Green can't come back and/or Stingley Jr doesn't show any signs of being a lockdown corner...then what? Let's hope none of this comes to fruition. If it does, we'll have to revisit this conversation.

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