Houston is in first place and at least a couple of the pistons in the eight-cylinder engine are buzzing. Keeping those two going and trying to get the other six working will be the challenge of the 2015 season. At present, the season is young — only one tenth complete — but there are several questions that may well linger and recur often for Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch.
1. How can Houston overcome streaky hitters?
It’s a fact. With the exception of a few hitters, Houston’s major league roster is streaky. Yes, it will be nice if Jake Marisnick has turned into the next Jose Altuve, but don’t bank on it happening. Chris Carter, Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie and even George Springer are capable of running off long stretches of .300+ averages. Unfortunately, they likely won’t sustain it, though the streak of Ks will be constant. The challenge for Hinch will be to manage the day-to-day, week-to-week lineup, keeping today’s hot hitters in productive places in the lineup. Face it, putting together an effective lineup is Hinch’s #1 challenge.
Oh, and don’t blame the Astros’ hitting coach (what’s his name again?). These guys have long-established swings, patterns and habits. You can’t change a stance at this stage of a career and you can’t teach hand-eye coordination. It is what it is. A season-long question and dilemma.
2. How does A.J. Hinch keep the back-end of the rotation relevant?
Dallas Keuchel. Check. Collin McHugh. Check. Scott Feldman. Umm, checking. Those three gentlemen likely have spots in the 2015 rotation for as long as they want them. The remaining two spots are reserved for those pitchers who are most effective, perhaps at any given time. To be sure, Roberto Hernandez has earned his spot early on, and Asher Wojciechowski is the fifth starter. For now. Hernandez has a strong history and could go wire to wire this season. The fifth spot could see a revolving door, but here’s the truth: Houston’s season (whether a .500 plus team or a struggling coulda, shoulda, woulda team) may ride on the success of its fourth and fifth starters.
Before October arrives the list of players on the merry-go-round (read: getting starts for Houston) include: Brett Oberholtzer, Sam Deduno, Jake Buchanan, Dan Straily, and don’t rule out Alex White or Thomas Shirley. Mark Appel? We’ll discuss him later. Also wouldn’t be surprising to see Luhnow pick up another waiver wire claim or add another start via the trade route this summer.
3. What to do with Carter, Gattis and Jon Singleton?
Could this be a season-long juggling act? The response could be mitigated by others (e.g. Springer) picking up the pace, but Cartis and Singleton could cause Hinch great heartache this season. Does Singleton have what it takes to be a big league hitter? He’ll likely get one more good shot to make that claim. Perhaps in June. Carter is out of options, but he’ll also have a longer leash because of potential upside (37 home runs in 2014). Gattis — remember those prospects? — is probably in the lineup no matter what happens. But here’s a thought: Gattis hasn’t played one game in the field. Thus, he is the designated hitter. Now, it probably wouldn’t take much to get him ready for left field or first base, but the Astros have given no indication they’re moving in that direction. If that would be in the thinking, you’d figure he’d get a game in left or be taking ground balls at first. Nada. Zilch. Zippo. Have the Astros already given up on Singleton as a solution? Are they content to run with Cartis until all of Hinch’s hair either turns gray or is gone completely? Could the Astros still be searching for an answer at first base and DH in September?
4. What happens at the July 31 deadline?
In the next few weeks, the holes in the lineup will solidify. Currently, right field, center field, third base, shortstop, second base and catcher are spoken for. Not to mention a couple of bench roles. Beyond that, the rest are question marks, at least from the day-to-day perspective. The trade deadline question is no longer will the Astros be sellers or buyers, but how will the Astros improve and which prospects will they use to better the major league roster? That’s the scary part. As deep as the organization has been the last two years, Luhnow has thinned a lot of fat. There are still some position players who may make good trade candidates, but the pitching depth is gone. Can you picture the names Appel, Vincent Velasquez or Michael Feliz in a July 31 trade?
5. How much patience do the Astros have?
I mentioned recently the Astros may not be in a win-now mode, but they are certainly in win-soon phase. That means patience with a .100 hitter won’t go as far as 2014 (see Jonathan Villar). It means a fourth or fifth starter may not get those two extra starts to get his game together. Patience also is a factor for prospects, in the form of restraint. Luhnow and probably Hinch will be tempted to rush along some players, especially if the product at the major league level is suffering. Do they rush — or even push — players like Preston Tucker, Singleton, Carlos Correa or even Appel? Could be tempting come July or August, especially when you measure that against using prospects or others to upgrade through trade. For example, if you want to trade for a starting pitcher, might you choose instead to promote Appel or even a Brady Rodgers or Josh Hader if they pick their games up? Preston Tucker, Matt Duffy or Domingo Santana (again)? Patience, they say, is a virtue the Astros may have tested later this summer.
Questions for your weekend consideration.
- What question above, or other question you may offer, may be a season-long headache for Houston?
- If the Astros need a shortstop this summer, would you consider jumping Carlos Correa from Corpus Christi?
- If it came down to it, would you prefer to use Appel in a trade to upgrade the rotation? Or just push Appel into Houston’s rotation?
- Is the answer at first base currently in the Astros’ organization?
- What is Hinch’s biggest challenge? Rotation? Streaky hitters? Keeping bullpen healthy? Something else?