I often hark back to something Mrs. Dan P told me about her youth. Her dad would talk to her about this or the other thing to keep communications connected with her as a normal teen girl (crazy with hormones, of course). And she would tell him to not be worried about her, and he would say, I’m not worried, I’m concerned.
Here we are as the Astros are finishing off the second month of the season in second place in their division, three games behind the Rangers, which was only a one game margin two games ago. The Astros had gone on an eight-game run to draw that close and then fell off the last two games against the Brewers to fall back to 28-21 in the division.
Astro fans being normal human beings fall into two categories. There are those who are encouraged, as the team was still under .500 two and a half weeks ago. And there are those who are concerned as they have shown a propensity to crash and burn for games at a time.
So, to feed both types of fans/ humans (Hufans? Fumans?), here are three reasons to be concerned, followed by three reasons to be encouraged.
1) We aren’t in Kansas any more Toto – Other than the 2020 pandemic disaster season, the Astros have not had much to worry about in their division over their recent Renaissance years. They’ve taken their division by between 5 and 21 games since 2017, except for that injury riddled season of 2020 and were never really threatened with missing the playoffs. This season the Rangers look like the real deal and both the Angels and M’s are 1 and 3 games back of the Astros in the AL West. On top of this, with the way the AL East is breaking, it may be tough for the AL West runner-up to even get into a Wild Card spot. The division looks much more competitive and that is something the Astros have not faced much of lately.
2) The wounded aren’t returning on time – The team seemed to get a nice boost out of the return of Jose Altuve to the lineup. But the returns of Michael Brantley and Lance McCullers Jr. seem to be mirages that move a step away for every step you take and the return of Jose Urquidy is equally uncertain. The offense could certainly use the boost that a fully healthy Brantley could bring, but the team like the fans is in a holding pattern.
3) The offense is often truly offensive – We can talk about who has not played, but last season with Brantley missing 2/3 of the season, the team was 3rd in the AL with 4.55 runs/game, .424 SLG and .743 OPS. This season they are 10th with 4.35 runs/game and .381 SLG and 9th with .696 OPS. Those 2023 numbers are worse than they appear as the league average is up (4.62 from 4.22 runs/game, .406 from .392 SLG and .722 from .701 OPS). Yes, getting Altuve back may help some here, but the team cannot be a two trick pony of Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker on the run producing side. This is a critical place for improvement if the Astros want to extend their reign as top dog spot in the division.
1) Beating Expectations – Being 7 games over .500 is darned good considering Jose Altuve has 11 ABs, Michael Brantley has 0 ABs, Jose Abreu has a bunch of ABs and minimal production, Justin Verlander is pitching elsewhere, Lance McCullers has pitched 0 innings, Luis Garcia pitched 27 innings and is gone for at least this season, and Jose Urquidy has pitched 27 innings and is gone at least until mid-season. Maybe they are not beating pre-season expectations, but if you handed this list of facts to someone and asked them where they would be as Memorial Day rolled into view, I doubt they would say seven games over .500.
2) “That Team” – Just like the Yankees, Dodgers, Celtics, Lakers, and Patriots are or have been “that” team, the Astros are “that” team. That is the team that believes in itself based on their success the last 6 seasons and applies that confidence to outplaying the opponent more times than not, even when things (see #1 above) are not in their favor. This also makes them the team that other teams target along the way. But it is also the team that wins sometimes because both they and their opponents expect the Astros to win.
3) Pitching, Pitching, Pitching – Similar to the real estate mantra “Location, Location, Location” (and actually location is important to pitching too), pitching is very critical to the success of any team. The Astros’ starters have the 4th best ERA in the AL at 3.30 and the 4th best in the AL for relievers at 3.16. But that balance gives them the #1 overall pitching staff ERA in the AL at 3.23 ERA.
The bullpen except for the often noted, struggles of Rafael Montero (7.32 ERA) has been very good and of course as expected Framber Valdez (4-4, 2.45 ERA), Cristian Javier (5-1, 3.05 ERA) and Hunter Brown (4-1, 3.20 ERA) have been leading the starting rotation. However, what has helped the Astros the most is that J.P. France (1-1, 3.43 ERA) and Brandon Bielak (1-2, 3.55 ERA) have actually outpitched the men they have replaced – Jose Urquidy (2-2, 5.20 ERA) and Luis Garcia (2-2, 4.00 ERA). Of course, Bielak seems like he is a Wallenda high wire act as he has a 1.539 WHIP, allowing 10.7 hits and 2.1 HRs per 9 IP that he will not be able to sustain. But when your 5th starter (who is actually about 8th in line) is giving you a 3.55 ERA, you take it.
In the end, the optimists will cling to the last three items, while the pessimists will bemoan the three previous three items. Where do you fall?
I think I fit both categories to a degree.
I think maybe our owner has gotten a bit reckless and has listened to some of the wrong people. There’s a good chance we had a very capable GM who did not get a whole lot of respect. I also think the present GM is not fully on the same page with his manager.
Re-signing Montero, signing free agents Brantley and Abreu, were they good baseball decisions? Did we lack the leadership without a GM on the payroll to fully vet these three key transactions, perhaps disregarding available information along the way?
Have the Astros arrested the development of a highly rated prospect, one many experts, including our present GM have suggested is our future behind home plate?
I’m concerned that our fifth starter will begin to resemble his WHIP. And we don’t have a whole lot of options ready to go, especially if Henry Blanco keeps walking so many guys, even as he’s looked pretty good otherwise.
Offensively, even Tucker is struggling lately. Dubon has likely shown us more than he can long term. I really hoped Pena would continue to improve at the plate. He has not. Bregman continues the worst slump of his career. Even if Abreu does not improve, I think we are looking at him daily at least until the Al Star break. Our team stats are flat out bad.
We’ve got three excellent starting pitchers, one in the early running for ROY. And we’ve got an excellent pen, including Montero. He’ll pitch his way out of his slump, just as Phil Maton can’t continue such a fantastic first quarter.
Jose Altuve will create a spark. And this won’t happen, but I’d put Dubon in the second slot when he plays, moving Bregman to 6th. Maybe that will shake him up.
We’ve got some guys in the minors that can play. And I think we’ll see a couple of them sooner than expected if the present roster does not turn it up and take charge.
We’ve still got the 6th bast record in the American League. We’ll take advantage of the trade deadline. It’s going to be a bigger battle for the Astros this summer than what we’re used to, but we’ll see some interesting stuff and I’m looking forward to it.
Optimist or pessimist, it really doesn’t matter. We need to get our runs-per-game and power rankings up near the top of the league, or we are going to keep getting embarrassed by the league’s Colin Reas [liftime 4.86 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, and .253 BAA – who held us to zero runs on four hits] and Adrian Housers [lifetime 3.90 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, and .249 BAA -who held us to zero runs on 2 hits].
It is not about how the fans feel about the team – it’s about how the team plays against the competition.
Concerns – The Astros just take care of business and win the standard 97-103 they will play October baseball. Can’t worry about the Rangers or Angels or Mariners.
How much better will Altuve be than Dubon? Neither is likely to hit .300 continuing forward, Altuve will have more pop, Dubon plays better D. The confidence that Altuve gives this team though.
Urquidy, Garcia, McCullers and Brantley are all names we hoped to get something from. Abreu has actually been a negative. We would be better off if he wasn’t playing. He has got to find something. Bregman made an adjustment and 3 games later the bat was right back up in the air and he was back to popping up. Lots of at bats to Julks and Meyers – and while they have gotten timely hits they just don’t get on base enough to keep pressure on pitchers.
Encouraged – I am not sure if there are aliens that actually live among us. If there are, prime candidates have to be Elon Musk and Yordan Alvarez. Tucker has been at an all star level. Framber, Reptile and Diesel have had their games where I thought we would get better but they have been overall good even if none of them are going to compete for a Cy. France is a keeper as a 6th man/swing man role though I suspect he will start most if not all of this year. Bielak has been passable but is a ticking time bomb. I think we sometimes under estimate just how much movement he has but the velo is not there and most pitches just look hittable but don’t get hit. Who knows, Urquidy survives looking hittable too.
This bullpen, despite Montero trying to crash it, has been good. I read an article that talked about Cano in Baltimore and how he is probably the best reliever out there and I thought I’ll take that bet and take Abreu any time. Bases loaded, no outs, 8th inning, 1 run lead, and he saves the day. Let’s see Cano do that.
During the game the other night they mentioned that Altuve led 2B in HR last year. My standard complaint about him is that he’s decided he wants to be a slugger and is sacrificing hits and batting average for it. With the new rules in place, I’d be trying to get on base as much as possible instead of going for solo shots. Baserunners lead to long inning with crooked numbers.
I like it, a little Willie “Mayes” Hayes reference, though Altuve does a little better than the warning track lol.
Jose put up a 159 OPS+ in 2022. It was the second highest of his career, only behind the 160+ in his MVP year of 2017. With maybe a half dozen exceptions, any team at any position would take that 159+ from any guy on the field.
He was healthy and put up a .300 batting average with a .387 OBP last year – those are numbers I’m certainly not complaining about. It’s all situational though. His numbers were better in the second half when he only hit 11HR v. 17HR in the first. I also think he had some bad luck and probably should have had about 10% more of his line drives fall in for hits.
Another Houston sports journalist hitting the road from chron.com (spit!!)
I’ve always leaned on the encouraged side even back to the days of dealing with bopert who did not think the Astros would ever make the playoffs with Crane as the owner.
I am a little more pessimistic this year just because the team was overtly healthy last season. That rarely happens multiple seasons in a row and the problem is the Astros have a smaller margin for error this season with JV gone and Luis (no longer two step) Garcia out with TJ surgery.
If we do get Urquidy, McCullers and Brantley back by mid season I think we will be in good shape – but I’m worried about all three of them.
Just can’t take any more long term injury hits right now.
And Abreu and Bregman need to be better – they both need to drop way back in the lineup
Dropping them is tough. Where do they bat? Who bats 2nd and 4th?
Chas had a great start but is down to .296 OBP. Pena is at .286 OBP with 48 K’s in 49 games. Dubon just isn’t going to play every day. Julks is at a .285 OBP. Meyers could be a candidate at .343 with some speed, but he K’s at a high rate and nothing is more frustrating then following a leadoff hitter getting on base with a K.
Bregman draws walks, doesn’t strikeout a lot. I know we are all frustrated as fans with the popups, it just seems everything is a mile high to LF or CF. But he still walks more than he K’s and that needs to stay in front of Alvarez.
Abreu though I have no answer. I personally think he is toast, or at least needs to make a serious adjustment to a diminished skill set. The bottom line is even if Dusty thinks the same thing I do, and in a vacuum he would probably admit he is seeing a hitter behind everything and getting killed by fastballs, he can’t publicly say it and he can’t drop him in the lineup. The hope HAS to be that we are just wrong, it’s way too early in the contract to hope for anything else. As much as I hate it, Brantley returning is the only thing that can probably push Abreu down the lineup.
Steven here is what I would do to at least partially take care of the problem.
– I would figure out how to get Dubon about 5 starts a week. Sub for Pena one day, sub for Altuve one day off, have Altvue DH another day and Dubon play 2nd, have Dubon play CF one day.
On those days I would have a lineup like this
2) Dubon – great in the 2nd spot – loves to hit to right behind the runner
7) McCormick or Meyers – the day Dubon is playing CF this could be DH
9 Maldy or Diaz – I would like to see Diaz get at least 2 or 3 starts a week
On the two days that Dubon isn’t starting
2) Alvarez – get him and Tucker as many ABs as possible
6) McCormick or Meyers
There will be some movement depending on which days Yordan is DHing, but you get the general idea.
Maybe hitting 8th will wake up Abreu to listening to his coaches about adjustments.
Steven, I think Chas will shake off his month on the shelf. He’s unremarkable (except against lefties) but puts up consistent number s overall historically.
I’ll get crazier Dan (since we are saying what we want not what we think we will get) –
Framber pitches – DH Altuve, 2B Dubon, LF Alvarez, RF Tucker, 1B Diaz, 3B Bregman, SS Pena, CF McCormick, C Maldy
Javier – 2B Altuve, LF Dubon, DH Alvaraz, RF Tucker, 1B Abreu, 3B Bregman, SS Pena, CF Meyers, C Diaz
Brown – 2B Altuve, CF Dubon, DH Alvarez, RF Tucker, 1B Abreu, 3B Bregman, SS Pena, LF McCormick, C Diaz
The point is, Framber is a groundball guy, and it gives you an excuse to get Altuve some time at DH and put the better defender in Dubon out there. Javier is a flyball guy – Meyers, Dubon and Tucker give us our best OF defenders out there. I would assign Salazar either the duty of catching Bielak or France, and he catches them that one day a week. That way he knows in plenty of time what team he is catching against to prepare for those hitters and baserunners, and he works with the same guy and their report together. I would split Diaz and Maldy in the other 2 games, and play Diaz just a little at 1B and DH to get his bat in there 4 times a week. You can mix in Julks to give Alvarez or Tucker the very occasional day off. I’m sure Julks infield glove is also in his locker, so if want to put him at 3B once every 2 weeks, you can do that too.
I also don’t think he does enough rotation through a game. Jump out to a 6 run lead in the 5th inning, make defensive subs. Started McCormick today in CF but jump out to a big lead, put Meyers out there. Rotate Salazar in games where its out of control either for us or against us, keep his head in it and get him an at bat on a day he doesn’t start. Spell Altuve by sending Dubon out there in the 7th if the game isn’t that close.
Sometimes I can’t make rhyme or reason of his lineup. It seems like he just jots down names. There isn’t enough consistency. McCormick should be playing against lefties, whether its LF or CF. He should know this. He should be coming to the park today having spent the post game the night before preparing to face Joe Lefty, not doubting his name is even in the lineup.
These are just ideas I’ve had watching games. Dusty does at times rotate guys on blowouts, but I think he waits too long. Keep the catchers fresh, use all 3, fairly often. Or send Salazar down and let him play.
In the end, we can all live in fantasy land. My head is in a world where I wouldn’t have even signed Abreu, but I would have given Diaz the 1B job with JJ as my fall back, or even just brought back Yuli to share time with Diaz. But Dusty is going to do what Dusty is going, and that probably does not include dropping Abreu in the order, at least for now.
It’s so frustrating to continually lose posts, especially as my eyes get worse and worse! It’s either a word limit or a time limit on this MacBook when interacting with WorldPress.
Dan, as I noted above, I fully agree with Dubon ( when he starts) following Altuve. But Dusty could be on his deathbed with a guarantee of full recovery and still refuse to sign either one of your line ups cards.
Dan, I think Dusty could be on his deathbed with a guarantee of complete recovery and still refuse to sign either of your two line up cards.
I meant to attach this above when I was talking about another Houston sports journalist leaving
One more try. We all knew this team would be a contender in 2023 unless we somehow got decimated with injuries. So we did. Then we’ve been blessed with the bonus of Abreu and Bregman being pretty much hopeless.
So if we wash out, there should be no shame. I’m not saying we’re going to crash and burn, but we could miss the post season.
I’m already looking at 2024 though. We’ve got several guys in AA that might even factor in this year. And unless someone decides to give Maldy another extension, we’ll have a big change in the catchers role. And, I think we’ll find at least another starter for 2024. I look ahead and already see a really good, younger club.
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The Astros have delivered for the last six years and beyond. Even losing a lot of good players to free agency.
I’m satisfied and look forward to the future with the Astros replacing bad players with better players. I look forward to seeing good players who care more about money leaving and younger players ready to play for Houston staying.
If Crane has screwed up, I look forward to him fixing it.
I wish I could click like 1oldpro.
And to add, an interesting line up tonight. Although it becomes more and more apparent to me that Chas has become a part timer, Dubon is where I think he can help, Bregman is sandwiched in between our best bats and Abreu has been moved down! Has he hit 6th all year?
Abreu has hit like a nine spot hitter all year.
After Hogan Harris finishes his relief appearance, The A’s will be turning the ball over to a new septuagenarian lefty named Zanuda whose is expected to rack up 9 Ks in his initial appearance. When asked about his opportunity to pitch against the Astros he stated “I haven’t thrown a baseball in over 50 years so I’m in a perfect position to pitch against the Astros.
The “Z” man was scratched at the last minute and replaced by May. Zanuda was heard to say “Aw Shucks” in response to his being pulled at the last minute.
In spite of our agonizingly frustrating offense, our Astros have won 13 of their last 16. The competition has been mediocre overall, but we seem to beat the tough teams too. Hard to figure, especially when we thump teams like the Rays and Braves.
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