Early leader in Houston Texans quarterback competition revealed

Rookie CJ Stroud is playing with the second-team offense at OTAs. Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images.

The Houston Texans are still months away from opening the 2023 season against the Baltimore Ravens, but that is not stopping fans and media from talking about the quarterback position as the team gets into voluntary organized team activities, or OTAs.

Houston opened its first OTA session to media on Tuesday and while a lot of the work on the field was as basic as vanilla ice cream, it was quarterback Davis Mills that was going first in the team’s reps ahead of No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud.

“I’m competing for that starting job,” Mills told reporters on Tuesday. “Since I’ve been drafted in the NFL, I have been in a competition. I don’t think anything is going to change. It’s been great getting to know C.J. so far. He is an extremely hard worker. It will be good to see how we go out there and compete every day and make each other better.”

Before sounding any alarms or creating the headlines, it is still way too early before any unofficial depth charts get released. Almost every player top to bottom on the Houston roster is learning the quirks and intricacies of the new offensive and defensive schemes.

For both Stroud and Mills, there is a lot to be determined between now and Sept. 10 when the Texans kick off the new year.

“I’m loving it man,” Stroud said. “This team has been very [accepting] of me, very honest and very transparent. What I love about it is nothing has been given to me. I have to earn everything, which I love, so it has been like that my whole career. It is nothing new.”

While Texans fans might have penciled in Stroud as the team’s QB1 since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called his name in Kansas City, inside the building at NRG Stadium there is a lot more nuance to naming a starting play caller.

The focus for both quarterbacks right now is not on who is going first in OTA drills, but rather improving each day. Mills said he has been focused on himself and putting a lot of work into addressing his weaknesses.

Stroud said right now he wants to learn as much as possible including what his receivers like, timing on routes and absorbing Bobby Slowik’s offense methodically. Both play callers also have the benefit of learning from veteran Case Keenum.

“It is a blessing,” Stroud said. “It has been something that I definitely knew that I needed it. Just that guidance and that confidence that [both Mills and Keenum] had because they have both played in the league and have been starters. They have been very helpful.”

With first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans tasked to oversee everything revolving around the Houston Texans, his advantage is that players seem to respect his perspective as a former NFL player and his experience as a former Texan himself.

“He knows what comes with playing here and I mean he has just been great,” Stroud said. “Very vocal. He is really funny too, so it is cool to have a coach that is not all stuck up all the time or super mad. He has been amazing. Very transparent, communication has been great. He’s going to be a great head coach.”

When Ryans speaks, players listen, and his youth doesn’t hurt either when it comes to connecting with the current players. Coming out of Tuesday’s availability, it appears that Stroud is already two feet in Ryans’ vision for the Houston Texans.

“I think I am a natural-born competitor, so that is what I am here to do,” Stroud said. “But at the same time, being a great teammate is more important. So that is what I have been on just trying to embrace the relentless swarm that coach Ryans wants us to be on. That is what I plan to do. Just be a great teammate, be a great leader, be vocal [and] be confident.”

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Numbers don't lie. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros better be mindful. The Texas Rangers are better than the Astros right now because while the Rangers’ offense has been awesome, the Astros’ attack continues to rate as screamingly average. The Rangers have opened up a four and a half game lead over the Astros in the American League West. 27 games represent one-sixth of the regular season schedule. Over their last 27 games the Astros have gone 19-8. Extrapolated over 162 games that’s awesome 114 win baseball. Over those 27 games the Astros have gained zero ground in the standings on the Rangers.

While 19-8 is an impressive stretch no matter what, it is notable that within that stretch the Astros went 11-1 versus the A’s, Cubs, and White Sox, three bad teams. Winning five of six from the mediocre Angels was good, particularly beating Shohei Ohtani twice. The Astros lost two out of three to the Brewers, lost two out of three to the Twins, and need a getaway win in Toronto to gain a split with the Blue Jays.

Maybe the Rangers will be akin to the 1979 Astros, rising but not quite ready yet. July 4, 1979 the Astros led the Reds by 10 and a half games in the National League West. Reds’ pitcher and top 10 greatest pitcher ever Tom Seaver said no worries, the Astros would “fall like a lead balloon” in the second half. The Reds won the division. Here is one stat that points toward Rangers' slippage: as a team they are batting a preposterous .335 with runners in scoring position. No way that holds up all season. The Astros and Rangers have a four game series in Arlington starting June 30. That series looms as much more important to the Astros than one would have thought back in spring training.

Here's the catch

Dusty Baker this week offered his most elaborate explanation for his playing time split at catcher. It was largely balderdash. Thursday’s series finale in Toronto is Martin Maldonado's 45th start behind the plate. Yainer Diaz has 15 starts, Cesar Salazar three. Dusty talked of how there is more to the catching position than hitting. Fair point. His “points” deteriorated from there. It’s definitely attention getting that General Manager Dana Brown has publicly acknowledged talking with Baker about Diaz playing more. Good for Dana.

Let’s leave aside that Maldonado is a lousy offensive player, while Diaz brims with potential and recently has translated some of that potential into results. The Astros’ record is better with Diaz catching than with Maldonado. The pitchers’ earned run average is better when Diaz catches. The “Machete” blade has dulled. Maldonado has thrown out just six of 28 base stealers. Diaz has nailed seven of 18. Maldonado has three passed balls (and at least a couple more that were generously for him scored wild pitches), Diaz has none. All upside growth lies with Diaz.

Dusty sees it as tough to have rookie pitchers throwing to a rookie catcher. I guess if they stink that’s true. Especially dubious is Dusty’s “point” in having Maldonado catch Hunter Brown’s last six starts so that should Diaz get hurt, Maldonado wouldn’t have to start catching Brown with little familiarity. How about the inverse? Diaz catching all the other starters more so that should the approaching 37 years old Maldonado break down, Diaz is more up to speed. Oh, Brown’s earned run average over those six starts with Maldonado is 4.81. Over his first six starts, five of them pitching to Diaz, Brown’s ERA was 2.60.

Wednesday Dusty gave Alex Bregman and Jeremy Pena the night off. Nothing wrong with that. The 29-year-old Bregman had played in all 61 games this season to date, the 25-year-old Pena in 60 of 61. Meanwhile, 36-year-old season long disaster Jose Abreu was penciled into the starting lineup for the 60th time in 62 games. Abreu’s ended the night with his OPS at .534. He is the worst player in the Major Leagues getting everyday run. Thursday marks his 61st start in 63 games. Another spot where Diaz should be getting more time.

All eyes on Texas

Some more on those Rangers, who last season finished 68-94. They are now 40-21, and that with their desperate five year 185 million dollar contract dice roll on pitcher Jacob deGrom crapping out. deGrom finishes with all of six starts and now faces a second Tommy John surgery that could sideline him until 2025. One of the very few pitchers to ever pitch viably again after two Tommy John surgeries is Alvin native Nathan Eovaldi. The Rangers gave him 34 million guaranteed for two years, which so far is the best signing of the offseason. Eovaldi has been every bit as good as Framber Valdez.

Will he hold up is a very fair and very important question. Since 2015, only in 2021 has Eovaldi topped 125 innings in a season. He’s on pace for about 200 this year. Overall, Rangers’ starting pitchers have a lower ERA than Astros’ starters. The Rangers weakness is their bullpen. There is virtually no doubt they will strengthen it by the trade deadline. Their offense has had no weaknesses. Only one team since 1950 (1999 Indians) has amassed more than 1000 runs in a season. About 40 percent of the way through this season the Rangers are on pace for 1025. Going position by position, Yordan Alvarez remains the only Astro who would crack the Ranger lineup so far this year.

Reminder that there are no one game tiebreakers to decide division titles or wild card spots. Season series winners win out. Astros-Jays Thursday outcome decides the season series. It’s conceivable that could be very important come season’s end.

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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 a first video segment goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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