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

Astros Jose Altuve fans
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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Who's really calling the shots? Composite Getty Image.

Who is actually determining how much Jose Abreu is playing right now? Is it Joe Espada or is someone telling him from the top of the organization to play Abreu and not take him out of clutch moments?

Also, could Espada be sending a message to the front office by giving them a good look at how bad he is, and how much he's hurting the team with regular playing time?

ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham makes that case in the video above, but his radio partner Joel Blank isn't quite buying it.

Don't miss the video above for the full conversation!

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