Houston is 3-1 but the future is uncertain

Here's where the Astros stand after the first series of 2020

The Astros are 3-1, but are down Justin Verlander. Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The first five days of the 2020 MLB regular season has been anything but ordinary, or uneventful. From the first game between the Yankees and Nationals going final after six innings due to rain to the empty stadiums slowly getting filled with cardboard cutouts of fans, this year's baseball is not what anyone expected to be watching at the beginning of this year.

The Astros find themselves navigating these uncharted waters, and now have four games under their belt after completing the four-game set with the Mariners at Minute Maid Park. They were able to take the series 3-1 and outscored Seattle 29-16 over that span.

You can't replace Verlander, but don't count the Astros out

The season started, in terms of starting lineup, as expected on Friday, with the potent offense starring George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman slotted 1-3 in the order, and Houston's ace, Justin Verlander on the mound. Though he allowed a couple of early runs, Verlander looked mostly sharp on his way to his first win of the early season.

Unfortunately, everything must not have been fine for Verlander, who would be part of a sport-wide shocking announcement on Sunday that he was going to miss time with a forearm injury. Although the initial reports varied in terms of length, from a few weeks to the whole season, Verlander's missed time will undoubtedly have a significant impact on this Astros team.

The rotation was already somewhat shaky beyond the top three, with Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Lance McCullers Jr. being followed by Josh James, who had a rough start on Monday against the Mariners, in the fourth spot and the fifth spot currently filled with Framber Valdez. Valdez will start on Tuesday in the opener of the quick two-game set. He had nearly an even split in 2019 between filling in as a starter and coming out of the bullpen. As a reliever, he had an ERA of 4.63 with 29 strikeouts and 21 walks over 35 innings. As a starter, he recorded 35.2 innings with an ERA of 7.07, 39 strikeouts, and 23 walks.

Dusty Baker and the Astros have not yet named who will start in Verlander's place on Wednesday against the Dodgers. The pressure will be on Houston's young arms, who will likely have to provide a lot more innings this year than initially expected. Fortunately, many of the new faces on the mound for the Astros looked effective over the first four games. Here is a quick recap of how some of the debuting pitchers did this weekend:

  • Blake Taylor: 2.1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 K
  • Enoli Paredes: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 K
  • Cristian Javier: 1.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 K
  • Brandon Bielak: 3.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 4K

So while we'll wait and see who starts Wednesday, it could be that one of these arms needs to go just a few innings before making way for several others to finish the game, bullpen-style.

Potential reinforcements on the way

It's not all bad news, either. After a time of mystery surrounding when Yordan Alvarez and Jose Urquidy would be available, both have reported to Corpus Christi to start ramping up activities with the alternate squad. The change means that the already potent lineup will get another dose of power in Alvarez, while Urquidy will help bring in more talent to the pitching staff. Urduidy, though, will likely need some time to ramp up, while Alvarez could join the team relatively soon.

Another notable arm currently waiting for the call in Corpus Christi is Forrest Whitley. While the logical move would be to bring your best pitching prospect up after losing your veteran ace, the reality is it's just not that easy of a decision, for several reasons that Charlie Pallilo does an excellent job of explaining.

Even further, the Astros showed on Monday that even if their starter falters, the offense is more than capable of compensating and still winning games. Sure, you can't expect them to do that for each of Verlander's remaining starts of 2020 if who replaces him struggles each time, but by no means does this put the Astros out of contention.

The road ahead

Looking at the schedule ahead, the Astros will, as mentioned, have a tough matchup with the Dodgers on Tuesday and Wednesday, then take their first trip on the road, starting with a trip to Los Angeles to face the Angels who have gotten out to a slow 1-3 start. They'll stay on the road for two more series, three-game sets against the 1-3 Diamondbacks in Arizona and the 3-1 A's in Oakland.

So while they face a tough test with the Dodgers, the upcoming schedule can be navigated, even without their best pitcher, to come out with a strong record intact. Furthermore, it's important to keep in mind that the expanded playoffs could not have come at a better time for the Astros, who could falter without Verlander and still have a favorable chance to make the 16-team playoffs.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF O'BRIEN'S COACHING

Not my job: Texans no match for the Ravens

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

The Texans fell to the Ravens 33-16 in a game they had a shot at winning. Most of you reading this will probably think I'm crazy for saying that. I assure you, I meant what I said. One of the reasons they didn't was because Bill O'Brien made a few questionable decisions that cost this team.

The first was the 4th & 1 decision. Deciding to go for it was bad enough. They were down 3-0 near the end of the first quarter with the ball on their own 34-yard line. This is not a situation that calls for a gamble or statement play. The play call itself was okay I guess: a play action bootleg with two short options. It was read and played perfectly by the Ravens defense. Deshaun Watson had nowhere to go with the ball and had to throw it at Darren Fells' back before getting sacked. That led to a quick Ravens touchdown and an early 10-0 deficit. I seriously think he has PTSD after that playoff loss to the Chiefs when it comes to fourth down calls. Bumbling Bill strikes again!

When they got the ball back, they scored a touchdown thanks to more play action passes and pre-snap motion. It was as if Bumbling Bill realized his offensive line was outmatched by the front seven they're opposing. Sure Watson is mobile and looks like a magician escaping sacks, but misdirection helps throw the defense off and keeps Watson from breaking into 177,000,000 pieces. Oh, and the quick reads were a good idea as well. Too bad Bumbling Bill went away from that and opted for longer developing routes. Or will he blame it on Timid Tim Kelly? Or was Waiting Watson holding onto the ball too long? I blame all three.

Also, can we stop starting drives with the predictable run, run, pass combo please? First down should be play action rollout with Watson having the ability to choose to run if it's there. More run/pass/option plays need to be called as well. Incorporate more things that we saw when Watson was on his way to winning rookie of the year before his knee was sacrificed for the Astros.

Credit where it's due: the end of the first half to get a field goal with a minute and change left was good to see. Typically, these situations tend to make Bumbling Bill come out. I liked the quick slant to Cobb with no timeouts. They were able to spike the ball and get the field goal up.

The game was still within reach at 23-13 in the beginning of the fourth quarter. On a 4th & 1, they gave up a 30 yard touchdown run on a direct snap to Mark Ingram. I saw gaps on both sides of the defensive line pre-snap. Sure enough, Ingram got a lead block from the Ravens human plough of a fullback and that effectively put the nail in the coffin at 30-13. I know the tendency is to quarterback sneak or run up the middle, but don't leave gaps along the defensive line trying to stack the middle. First time defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver will take the L on this one.

Overall, I'll give O'Brien and his coaching staff a C- this game. Mistakes were made that could've cost them a legit shot at winning, but the Keke Coutee fumble return for a touchdown wasn't their fault. The play calling menu was brought to us this week by Craft Pita via the "What's Eric Eating" podcast. Tune in next week for another "Not my job!"

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