FALCON POINTS

These 5 teams of interest in Houston have the most to prove in the new year

Astros Hinch Crane and Luhnow
Composite photo by Brandon Strange

As the calendar turns on a new year and new decade, the sports scene in Houston has not changed all that much. The Astros are going to be contenders again (and accused of cheating again), the Rockets will continue to tweak to try to take the ultimate step, and the Texans will be hard to get behind as long as Bill O'Brien prowls the sidelines. Still, when it comes to the local pro and college ranks, these five programs/franchises will have the most to prove in the new year:


1) Can the Texans rise above mediocrity?

They get their first chance Saturday against the Bills. While just winning A playoff game should not be the goal, considering the Texans past postseason appearances under O'Brien, a loss would render the season a major disappointment and call into question the entire operation (again). And make no mistake, the Texans can lose this game. A second-round setback against a better team would not really be a success, either, but it would be an improvement. Getting to an AFC Championship Game should be the minimum goal. Does anyone really believe that can happen? The window is now for the Texans, and a playoff run this season or massive improvement next year might silence some critics. Of all the teams on this list, they have the most to prove.

2) The big state schools

The Texans Longhorns did not proclaim themselves back after winning the Alamo Bowl, which is smart. They did follow up a 10 win season with an 8-win one, and eight should be the floor there. The Longhorns should be serious contenders for the Big 12 title and a playoff berth at worst in 2020. It's time to find out if Tom Herman is the right man to get it done.

In College Station, the Aggies went all in on Jimbo Fisher, and the results have been, like the commercial says, just OK. Fisher has gone 9-4 and 8-5, and this past season they lost to every good team on their schedule. They did play perhaps the toughest slate in the nation, but at some point, Fisher is supposed to win some of those games. It needs to happen this year.

3) Harden and the Rockets

The Rockets more than any other team in Houston keep pushing their chips in the middle and trying new things. The addition of Russell Westbrook is still a work in progress, although the team has shown some signs of life. The Rockets have at least been to a couple Western Conference Finals in the Harden era, but the franchise makes no bones about its goal of winning a title. They still look to be a little short of teams like the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks in the title hierarchy, but they aren't done tweaking, either. Mike D'Antoni's job remains in flux. This latest all-in move has to pay off.

4) UH's bizarre, bold move

When Dana Holgorsen took over UH's football team, expectations were high. But it did not take long to figure out the cupboard had been left awfully bare by Major Applewhite and his staff. So Holgorsen basically punted on the season after the Tulane loss, red shirting some key seniors and limping to a 4-8 record. Star quarterback D'Eriq King was one of those players. If King stays and is joined by a bevy of high quality transfers, the Cougars could be right back in the AAC race next season. If he leaves and the strategy backfires? Holgorsen's job is safe, but this year's moves will be defined by next season.

5) Does a controversial off-season derail the Astros?

The dumb sign stealing saga has dominated the off-season, along with the loss of Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, which makes New York the likely AL favorites. The Astros have not made any significant additions, and do not appear to be poised to do so, suddenly concerned about a bloated payroll. The off-field messes, from the sign saga to the former assistant GM saga to the forcing the Ryans out saga...To the on field: A.J. Hunch's bizarre handling of his pitching staff in the Game 7 Series loss. The Astros will have their lineup intact for another year, but the starting pitching - so strong last season - is a big bunch of question marks. While the off-field stuff should not impact things on the field too much, who knows? The Rangers and Angels will be better. The Astros are still the class of the AL West, but did their title window close? Probably not, but there will be real questions in 2020.

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It's not time to panic, yet. Composite Getty Image.

This is not a column for fanboys or sugarcoating. To this point in the season the Astros stink like rotten eggs. They stink like Angel Hernandez’s umpiring. They stink like Bill O'Brien's general manager skills. The Astros are a bad team right now. That’s notably different from being a bad team. Their 4-10 record is well-earned and it is definitely possible that the Astros’ run of high quality and annual playoff appearances crashes and burns this season. But it’s laughable to declare so after just 14 games of the 162 scheduled have been played.

Last June the Astros had a lousy window in which they went 3-10. In August they had a 4-8 funk. In September it was a 3-9 stretch of collapse. The 2022 World Series Champions had a 3-8 hiccup in April, and a 2-6 blotch overlapping July and August that included getting swept in a three-game series by the then and now awful Oakland A’s.

Now the Astros are back home (Oh No!) for six games, three vs. the Rangers then three with the Braves. The Rangers lead the American League West but are just 7-6, so despite their cellar-dwelling status, the Astros are just three and a half games out of first. A winning homestand is obviously the goal. No, really. 3-3 would be ok, even though that would just about clinch a losing record heading into May.

Mandatory aside: spectacular weather is the Friday night forecast. Stop being stubborn and lame, Astros. Open the roof! I don’t mean just for the postgame fireworks.

On the mend?

The Astros’ track record of downplaying pitching injuries that turned out to be major certainly causes angst as we await Framber Valdez’s return from a sore elbow. If Valdez ultimately winds up out for months, the Astros’ starting rotation is in deep trouble. Even more so if upon the approaching delayed start to his season, 41-year-old Justin Verlander pitches to his age in terms of results and/or durability. However, if Valdez is ok within a month and JV is solid, those two, and Cristian Javier can stabilize the rotation quite nicely.

The Astros started three guys in the last four games who belong in the minor leagues. It was a sad sign of the times that the Astros were reduced to calling up Blair Henley to make the start Monday in Arlington. Except for Rangers fans and Astros haters, it grew uncomfortable watching Henley give up four hits, walk three, record just one out, and wind up charged with seven earned runs. But it’s not Henley’s fault that he was thrust into a role for which he was utterly unqualified.

Last season at Double-A Corpus Christi, Henley’s earned run average was 5.06. Because of the crummy state of the Astros’ farm system, Henley failed up to Triple-A Sugar Land to start this season. After one not good start for the Space Cowboys, “Hey, go get out big leaguers Blair!” Henley turns 27 next month, he is not a prospect of any note. If he never again pitches in the majors Henley forever carries a 135.00 ERA.

But you know what? It was still a great day for the guy. Even if undeserved, Henley made “The Show.” For one day on the Astros’ 26-man roster, Henley made over four thousand dollars. To make him eligible for call up, the Astros first had to put Henley on their 40-man roster and sign him to a split contract. That means that until/unless the Astros release him, Henley’s AAA salary jumps from approximately $36,000 for the season to over 60K.

Lastly, while Henley’s ERA could remain 135.00 in perpetuity, at least he’s no Fred Bruckbauer. In 1961 Bruckbauer made his big league debut and bade his big league farewell in the same game. He faced four batters, giving up three earned runs on three hits and one walk. Career ERA: Infinity! Bruckbauer is the most recent of the more than a dozen pitchers to retire with the infinity ERA.

Spencer Arrighetti’s debut start went much better. For two innings, before it unraveled in a seven run Royals third. Arrighetti has good stuff, but not great stuff. Control has been an issue for him in the minor leagues. Without better command Arrighetti cannot be a plus starter in the majors.

Then there’s Hunter Brown. We could go decades without seeing another pitcher give up nine runs and 11 hits in two-thirds of an inning as Brown did Thursday. It had never happened in MLB history! To this point, Brown is an overhyped hope. ERA last July: 5.92, August: 6.23, September 1 on: 8.74. Three starts into 2024: 16.43.

Jose Abreu watch

It's still early enough in the season that even just a couple of big games can markedly improve a stat line but Jose Abreu continues to look washed up at the plate. Three hits in 37 at bats (.081 batting average), with the most recent hit a questionable official scoring decision. Manager Joe Espada has already dropped Abreu from fifth in the lineup to sixth, then seventh, then eighth. Two more slots down to go, Joe! Continuing to act like Jon Singleton could be a competent bat in the lineup is just silly though.

Catch the weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week now generally goes up after Sunday’s game (second part released Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTubewith the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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