1st world probs: 2 best teams in MLB sh​are same impossible dilemma

How long can the Astros wait for Yuli Gurriel to start hitting? Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

In case you missed it on YouTube, New York sports talk host Don La Greca unleashed an epic rant after a caller said one of La Greca’s comments was “moronic” and a gravy trainer off co-host Michael Kay.

Initially the caller said that the Yankees should, take your pick, trade, bench or cut outfielder Joey Gallo, who’s hitting an anemic .166. La Greca disagreed with the caller. He said that Gallo wasn’t hurting the team, after all the Yankees are leading the American League East by 14 games. So why sit Gallo if the Yankees are winning with him in the lineup?

I’m with the caller – a moronic comment.

You could practically hear the caller shaking his head. The caller then sent La Greca over the cliff by saying La Greca would be a total dud on radio if not for his co-host. That’s when La Greca lost his, ahem, mind and created six minutes of insane radio magic … if you like that sort of thing. I happen to love crazy.

Here’s the video. You won't be disappointed.

We have a similar controversy in Houston without our sports hosts popping a vein in their forehead. What to do about Yuli Gurriel? The Astros veteran first baseman is hitting a puny .230 with only seven homers and 26 RBI. That’s after 80 games and 314 plate appearances, so we’re not talking early in the season and surely he’ll snap out of his batting funk. Gurriel is becoming what the kids call an “automatic out.”

Thankfully, none of Houston’s talk hosts are using La Greca’s idiotic logic that Gurriel’s batting woes aren’t a problem because the Astros are winning and they’re up double-digits over the second-place Mariners.

Sure the Astros are winning despite Gurriel’s frustrations at the plate, but we’re in the dog days of summer when the Astros are playing the Angels, A’s and Mariners over and over. Fourteen of the Astros next 16 games are against those three teams. And didn’t we just get through a series against the A’s? It’s a weird schedule.

But wait until the playoffs, when the Astros will be playing only the top teams in baseball. If Gurriel still isn’t hitting, can the Astros afford to keep him in the lineup? They already have a sub-.200 hitter behind the plate. Two automatic outs may be one too many.

It’s the elephant in the lineup. Is it time for the Astros to cut their losses with Gurriel and give a younger player the rest of the regular season to prepare for the playoffs and next season and the season after that? What do you think? And remember, use your indoor voice.

In case you’re wondering …

Let’s say Gurriel finishes the season at his current .230 batting average. That would be 87 points off his American League-leading .317 from 2021. He still won’t come close to the biggest one-season drop-off for a batting champion.

That unenviable record belongs to former Detroit Tiger first baseman Norm Cash, who won the AL batting crown with .361 in 1961 and followed it with a .243 average next year - a dip of 118 points.

Cash’s 1961 season was one of the best all-around hitting seasons in modern baseball. In addition to batting .361, he belted 41 homers and drove in 132 runs. Cash was money in the field, too, leading the league in put outs at first base.

Cash later admitted that he used an illegal bat in 1961, hollowing out several inches toward the barrel and filling it with sawdust, cork and glue.

That was a pretty wacky year, 1961. Cash hit .361 and Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s homer record with 61 in ’61.

Cash has another record that is hard to imagine happening again. In 1963, he played an entire 9-inning game at first base and never touched a live ball – no assists, no put outs, no errors, no dropped foul balls, no pick offs or pick off attempts.

One more weird stat on Cash’s register: in 1960, he played 121 games, came to the plate 428 times and never hit into a double play.

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When will Jose Altuve return? Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images.

Come Thursday, there is nothing that can wreck the joy for the Astros and their fans of the unveiling of the 2022 World Series championship pennant inside Minute Maid Park, or of the following night’s distribution of their World Series rings. That said, losing Jose Altuve for at least the first two months of the regular season comes about as close as an any Astro or fan would want to get. It’s a major blow to the Astros on multiple levels, but definitely not devastating to their chances of making a run at becoming the first back-to-back World Series champs since the Yankees won three straight in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Yes kids, a looooong time ago the Yankees actually used to make the World Series.

Altuve had his surgery Wednesday (March 22) with the Astros saying he is at least two months away from resuming baseball activities. He won’t need a full spring training length of preparation, but it will certainly take at least a week. If offered June 1 as Altuve Opening Day with good health the rest of the year, the Astros would be silly not to pounce on such an offer. Let’s say he’s ready June 1, though that’s probably a shade optimistic. The Astros have 55 games scheduled through May, that’s one more than one-third of the 162 game regular season slate. So as collateral damage to the injury, as unlikely as Altuve was to put together a 200 hit season anyway, now there is zero chance. Unless he wins the vote to be a starter, a ninth All-Star team selection is basically a goner too. We’ll see down the road what losing 50 or 60 or 70 hits means in a possible chase for 3000 career hits. What matters most though is the impact on the 2023 Astros.

Altuve had a fabulous 2022, the third-best season of his career. Still, even if he was to play at that level again this year, it’s not as if missing Altuve for a third of the season costs the Astros 10 wins. He was a little over a five Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR) last season. WAR meaning if a guy was replaced by a borderline Major Leaguer how many wins would the team lose. Five wins is a little under one per month, so in theory, replacing Altuve with a fringe guy for two months should hurt the Astros roughly two games in the win column. Intuitively that seems low, but the methodology is sound, though I won’t go deep diving into it here.

Anyway, if Mauricio Dubon is to get the bulk of the playing time at second while Altuve is out, yikes. Dubon offers little hope for much better than replacement level. A versatile defensive reserve, offensively he’s not umm….. he’s not umm…he’s not good (a tip of the ballcap to Ty Webb). Dubon has a .653 career OPS. That’s better than Martin Maldonado. That’s damning with faint praise. Dubon also isn’t some prospect with seemingly unfilled potential. He turns 29 in July. The Astros don’t have a prototypical leadoff hitter without Altuve, but it’s managerial malpractice if Dusty Baker puts Dubon atop the lineup, as he did four times last season.

David Hensley isn’t a major prospect either. He turns 27 next week. His Major League resume is wafer thin (34 regular season plate appearances), but there is virtually no doubt he would provide better offense than Dubon. Hensley had a .420 on base percentage at AAA last year, .369 at AA the year before. Could Hensley handle the defensive end of things well enough, especially as the “no more shifts” era begins? It’s not as if Dubon has the defensive chops of Roberto Alomar.

In losing Altuve for an extended period, the Astros lose their leadoff hitter, and I’ll say their soul. They still have plenty of heart. And talent. Better that he suffered the injury March 18 than August 18. Another possible silver lining: Altuve had a couple of leg issues last season. It’s not the worst thing in the world that Altuve will have two fewer months of wear and tear on the legs when he first takes the field this season. Altuve turns 33 May 6.

Their margin for error is now less but the Astros' regular season goals remain unchanged and very plausibly attainable. First, again win the American League West. Second, secure one of the best two records among the three division winners to avoid the best-of-three Wild Card round. Third, again put up the best record in the AL for homefield advantage through the AL playoffs.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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