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How Rockets blast into free agency has reshaped Houston's roster

How Rockets blast into free agency has reshaped Houston's roster
The Rockets made a flurry of moves in free agency. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The Rockets went into the 2023 free agency period with money to spend and positions they wished to fill. When you're making the transition from perennial tanker and want to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, you need better players. Whether they're drafted, signed, or traded, acquiring better talent is key. When adding veteran talent to a young team that isn't used to winning, you have to add the right kind of vets. Guys who are used to winning, that'll help change the culture. Guys who work hard and take being a pro seriously.

Out the gate, the Rockets handed out the first max contract of the free agency period, signing Fred Van Vleet to a three-year deal worth $130 million. Some will say they overpaid, but I think they paid close to fair market value for a guy who was a key cog on a title team not long ago. He was third in steals per game last season, and shoots 37% from three for his career. Add that he's a good distributor and constant professional, it's easy to see why they paid him what they did. I said a couple weeks ago that Van Vleet was a stable option whose price would go up if others were interested. They had to throw big money at him to lure him away from the only NBA home he's known.

The Dillon Brooks signing was one I was conflicted about. Sure, he can be a three and D wing, but this team has guys who can play that role. Yes, but they don't have a guy who's proven in that role. The guys they have, haven't grown to this level yet. However, Brooks wasn't welcomed back in Memphis due to his antics this postseason. Poking the bear and dodging the media after games where you performed poorly was enough for them. Include his other goofball tendencies, and it's clear why they moved on. Brooks won't be allowed to get away with things like that under Udoka. That's why I'm warming up to the idea of having him on this team. Come in, be a pro, do your job, and STFU. I'll reserve the nickname I have for him until he messes up.

“WHO?!?” That was my legit reaction to hearing Jock Landale's signing. I looked him up and realized it was the guy I saw play some okay minutes for the Suns. He's not going to stick out in any one category. What he will do is be a solid inside presence on defense. Having him playing inside in tight games down the stretch will prove valuable because he can also hit his free throws since he's a career 77% from the charity stripe. Tough mentality, doesn't need plays called for him, and the Suns actually played him over Deandre Ayton at times.

Jeff Green is a pro's pro. The guy thought his career was over at one point with a heart condition. He took time off, got healthy, and resumed his career. This past season, he was one of the key role-playing vets on a Nuggets team that won the title. Green wore a Seattle Supersonics hat to the parade because that was the team that drafted him out of Georgetown. He's a guy that knows the game and knows what it takes to be an NBA player for over ten years. I'd want a Jeff Green on any team I'm coaching, regardless of the sport.

When Ime Udoka said this, people read all sorts of things into it. One thing is for sure, they stuck with this plan. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Zion Williamson did not fit this description. Dillon Brooks doesn't fit this description in my opinion, but they obviously feel otherwise. One of the smartest things the team did was getting a team option for Van Vleet's third year. They have to approach free agency with another boat load of cash to spend in two years when Jalen Green and other guys are eligible for rookie extensions. While Jeff Green is an older vet on a one-year deal, the other contracts aren't as outrageous as we might think. Brooks' deal can be moved, so can Landale's. They got better while maintaining flexibility. I may not agree with everything, but I understand why they did what they did. Phase Two, here they come!

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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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