Make no mistake. The Astros are in the hunt for 2015. Someone tell Jim Crane to go ahead and get the checkbook ready.
So, a little check up on this Tuesday following Marvelous Monday in which two top prospects joined the Astros and Houston had a landmark draft which could mark its final Top 10 selection for some time.
Jeff Luhnow patch worked a roster over the winter that had Ks and holes written all over it, but new manager A.J. Hinch has used his needlework craft to piece together the quilt like an ol’ grandma using her unique skills.
The goal has always been 2017…or has it? Let there be no doubt, however, that 2017 has come early. This. Is. 2017.
But is it enough? Can Correa lead the Astros to the promised land this year? Will Tucker, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Jose Altuve, George Springer be the catalysts for victory? Or will someone else or “elses” need to be added to the mix?
In other words, what’s missing? Are the Astros one player, two players, three players away from a division title in 2015?
This is no secret. Luhnow’s #1 goal between now and July 31 is to find another quality starter. It does not have to be a #1, top-of-the-rotation guy, but he should be Keuchel-McHugh like or capable. No more stop gaps. No more retreads. No more years-past prospects. It’s time for a real-deal, bona fide, proven starter to add to the mix. Can the Astros win the division without that pitcher in the mix?
To be sure, McCullers and newly promoted Vincent Velasquez could team to provide that one pitcher, but they’ll tire over the summer because of the workload, so it’s unlikely they are the long-term answer for 2015. Yes, the can be a factor and a huge one at that. But Luhnow will need one or more answers in this category. Sorry, Brad Peacock, you’re not the guy we’re looking for in this role. Thanks Asher Wojciechowski, we’ve loved playing with your name and hoping against hope you can realize your greatness, but you’re just not there yet. Robert Hernandez, thanks for filling the gap for a couple of months, you’ve provided some time for Velasquez and McCullers to incubate a bit longer…hopefully, you can hang around and give us some more innings like April.
Decision time: First base.
While the Astros were winning with Altuve, Springer, Jake Marisnick and a handful of stars for a day, the Astros could tolerate a less-than-mediocre first baseman. Now, the time has come for a decision.
As difficult as it may be, the Astros — Luhnow and Hinch specifically — will need to gamble. Chris Carter may need to go. Frankly, if there had been a viable option, he would probably be gone or benched already. Will he heat up in the second half? Perhaps, but a championship team simply cannot have a half-year guy at such a key position. No platoon will help as Carter is as bad against lefties as he is righties. No, Houston needs to pull the trigger. Maybe it will not happen until Jed Lowrie returns next month (hopefully) or maybe the team starts to work out another player there to fill the gap. Houston could do worse than an outfield of Colby Rasmus, Marisnick and Springer with Tucker at first. Or maybe it’s time for another Jon Singleton audition.
Either way, Houston will need an upgrade at first to contend into September. That’s just a fact.
This has been a revolving door after the excitement of a possible game-changer arriving in the form of Luis Valbuena. But a .184/.253/.398 line does not portend the second coming of Alex Rodriguez, much less even Morgan Ensberg. The Astros will likely await the return of Lowrie, which will also give them time to evaluate Correa (is he really here for the long-term right now?), but the team may be stronger by going outside the organization and using Lowrie either at first or as that super sub. The last option is the least likely as Lowrie’s bat could help on an everyday basis. Third base would seem the most likely option. Still, this team cannot contend without a viable, good-hitting third baseman.
So those are three upgrades the Astros may need to make in order to contend into September. Yes, catcher is still a question almost every day and Marisnick has come back to earth at the plate, but his defense is still huge for Houston.
Regardless, the time is now and Luhnow’s finest hour may be just ahead. Indeed, how he navigates the next 30-45 days will answer many questions. No pressure though Jeff.
So, what must the Astros do? Are they one player away? Two players? Three players? Too far to gamble in 2015? Get you pencil and paper out and dig deep. It’s crunch time for Houston.