Creight Expectations

Patrick Creighton: Not likely any tricks up Morey’s sleeve

Patrick Creighton: Not likely any tricks up Morey’s sleeve
Daryl Morey will have limited assets to move at the trade deadline. Rockets.com

The Houston Rockets are currently 35-13, good enough for both the second best record in the Western Conference and the NBA.  Led by their pair of superstar guards James Harden and Chris Paul, the team has been able to take next step in the regular season and has shown they can play with the champs, the Golden State Warriors.

It’s a very good team and I hope you like it, because they won’t be making any major roster moves at the deadline.

Feb. 8 is fast approaching.  Rockets GM Daryl Morey usually has a few tricks up his sleeve, and we know he loves to wheel and deal.

Barring one of the greatest displays of Morey Magic that he can even think up, let alone actualize, the Rockets are going to be standing pat at the deadline, and whatever moves they might make will be minor.

The Rockets have no cap space, and they are over the tax threshold.  They don’t really have tradeable commodities on their roster that aren’t considered key rotational pieces.  Trading an Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, or Clint Capela creates a new hole to fill on the team, and none of those guys are making particularly large money (Gordon $13M this year, $13.5M in '18, $14M in '19, Ariza $ 7.5 this year then UFA, Capela $2.3M this year then RFA). They don’t have a first round pick they can deal this year (dealt in the Chris Paul trade).

So while you see other teams making headlines as the Detroit Pistons did Monday by acquiring Blake Griffin from the Los Angeles Clippers, understand the Rockets made their moves in the offseason in acquiring Paul & Luc Mbah a Moute, and they are going to battle with the guys they have.

Essentially the only position they need help is at the 4/5, where a big man who can bang and play defense against more physical players would be beneficial, as Joel Blank speculated on yesterday.  Capela has shown he can rebound and protect the rim, but he still gets pushed around some by the larger, more physical guys in the league.  Nene is always an injury waiting to happen and can’t realistically give more than 15 mins on  a consistent basis, and Tarik Black just isn’t a good enough player to go against the better PF & C in the league steadily, especially in the playoffs.

With limited bullets for a trade and no first round pick, even a GM as creative as Daryl Morey will find it extremely challenging to make any kind of move with substance.  Their best bet may be to target a player like Knicks C Kyle O’Quinn, a junkyard dog style player who is tough defensively, rebounds well and is efficient with his limited offensive game.  He could be a defensive presence for the team against larger, more physical bigs.  Of equal importance is he has an affordable contract at $4.25M and he is a free agent at the end of the season, which means no long term commitment for the Rockets and a low asking price as he is a straight rental player.

The Rockets wanted that third star to go with Harden and Paul, and thankfully they didn’t pull the trigger on Carmelo Anthony.  The right fit for them wasn’t available this past offseason.  By not making a significant deal this year, they keep their assets for the offseason, when they will need them to try to unload Ryan Anderson’s contract.  Without losing Anderson’s deal (with two more years at $42M total) there is no chase for a Big 3, so trading him is job 1 this offseason.  They will need every asset they have to pull that off.

For this year, however, what you see is what you’re likely going to get.  It will have to be good enough, because help isn’t on the way.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* 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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