Five Astros Things To Watch In the Second Half

Candlesticks make a nice present...

Since we just played the Pirates two series ago, I don't want to bore you with more Pirates facts. Instead, let's look at five things the Astros will be facing post-All-Star Break.

1) All those games against the NL Central - That's right, 24 of the Astros next 27 games will come against the National League Central. That's significant for a number of reasons. First, the rest of the Central is pretty bad. Oh, sure, St. Louis and Cincy can hold their own. Other than that, the rest of the teams have had disappointing seasons. 

Did you know, too, that the Astros only have a losing record against one team in the Central, the Reds? They're 4-2 against the Cubs, 5-4 against St. Louis, 6-0 against the Pirates and 3-3 against Milwaukee, but 1-5 against Cincy. Not only that, they've outscored Milwaukee and Pittsburgh in their matchups, have tied the Cardinals with 31 runs and are only one run behind the Cubs. Going further, they've scored 115 of their 307 total runs against the NL Central also-rans. That's an average of 4.2 runs per game, almost a full run higher than their season total. Small sample size aside, the Astros figure to hold their own over the coming weeks.

Add in the fact that this team has been playing .500 ball for the past 40 games and things could at least be tolerable until the second week in August. On top of that, the Astros will only play 11 out of 23 remaining series against teams with a winning record. Three of those come against the Reds with two each against St. Louis and the Mets. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that it's unlikely that the Astros will finish the season with 100 losses. 

2) Will Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris stay healthy? - An interesting side effect of Brad Mills deciding to push Roy Oswalt back a few days is that he's not only sandwiched Bud Norris between Brett Myers and Oswalt, but also put Felipe Paulino between Wandy Rodriguez and Myers. While he admitted here that it was a strategy to not only break up Myers and Oswalt, but also to help the bullpen out. Since Norris rarely pitches past the fifth inning, but both Oswalt and Myers do, it's a good plan.

In fact, breaking up Paulino and Norris is probably a pretty good strategy, too. But, that's not the question I posed here. Will the two young guns stay healthy? When I looked at their projected innings totals, it doesn't seem like they will suffer from excess innings, but I can't speak for the stress they may face when they are in a game. Both have already been on the disabled list once this season, but neither have shown signs that the injury could recur. In fact, Norris has pitched pretty well since his stint and Paulino appears not to have lost any velocity in his rehab start.

I'm not going to jinx either of them by saying that they won't be injured or that there's a good chance they will. Instead, I'll say I feel good about watching both of them in the second half.

3) September call-ups may come early  - Depending on what happens with trades in the coming weeks, the Astros roster could be turned over pretty significantly. After all, there could be two spots in the rotation to fill, one on the middle infield and possibly one or two on the corners. So, someone must replace them, right? Let's look at the likey suspects.

Josh Banks - Though his first and only start in the majors was pretty disastrous, I have to think Banks would be the first pitcher called up to take a vacant rotation spot. I'm not impressed with his numbers this season, but he does have a knack for generating ground balls. I could see him putting up replacement-level numbers.

Polin Trinidad - After uncharacteristic control problems in April and May, Trinidad is back on track in June and July. His strikeout rate has stayed pretty consistently low since being called up to Triple-A last season. I don't have a good read on how the Astros view Trinidad, but I imagine he'd have a shot at filling the rotation if there is more than one opening. 

Drew Locke - Don't forget about our favorite non-Smoke Monster, non-philosopher. After suffering through a bad April, Locke has bounced back with a solid season. The power is there, as his slugging percentage is just a shade under .500 for the season. While he's played a lot in the outfield, I expect the Astros would call him up and install him at first base if Berkman is traded.

Ramon Vasquez - As you'd expect from a guy who's spent time in the majors, Vasquez is hitting well at Triple-A. It's a small sample size, though, and he didn't hit at all in Tacoma earlier this season. His versatility and track record probably mean he'd be a good candidate to replace Jeff Keppinger at second if needed.

Edwin Maysonet - He's been injured a bit this season and isn't hitting when he has been on the field, but Maysonet has experience with the Astros and a little versatility on the infield. With the good impression he made in spring training, you have to think he's got a chance to be called up if one of the infielders gets moved. 

Danny Meszaros - This is just a pipe dream, but I do think that Meszaros has to be in the running if there is an opening on the bullpen. He's done good things in the Hooks bullpen, is older and probably is ready to make the leap if needed. I just don't see any spots for him outside an injury.

Of course, the thing this doesn't take into account is that the Astros are likely to get big-league ready prospects back in most of the deals they do. That means they may not have to supplement from the minors. 

4) The middle infield logjam - Tommy Manzella. Jeff Keppinger. Angel Sanchez. Geoff Blum. Oswaldo Navarro. Five guys up for two spots on the infield. Two can be optioned to the minors (Manzella and Navarro), one is out for another three weeks (Blum) and one could be traded (Kepp). What happens with this surplus of middle infielders will be one of the most intriguing subplots of the next few weeks. Manzella will soon return from his injury, meaning someone will be dropped off the roster. I can see that being Navarro, but what happens when Blum is back?

The funny thing is Houston has a similar problem at Triple-A. They've gone through some injuries there, but the club clearly values talent up the middle. There will definitely be a roster crunch soon, though. Since they recently traded for Sanchez, I don't know that he will be moved. Does that mean Kepp gets dealt when Blum is ready to come back? It probably makes more sense for Wade to cut someone like Pedro Feliz instead. The Astros could replace Feliz with Blum as the backup third baseman without messing with the present makeup. I really like what Sanchez has brought as a backup and could see him splitting starts with Manzella once the former Green Wave returns.

5) Records that could fall - The most obvious one here is the all-time wins mark. One victory and Roy Oswalt will tie Joe Niekro for the club lead and two gives him the lead outright. That's a good thing, since he might not have many starts after that to set the record. Even if Oswalt only takes the lead by a game, he should maintain the record for a while. The next highest player on the list is Wandy Rodriguez, who is currently in 14th at 57 wins and could move up to 13th with four more victories. He'd have to win 15 more games to reach 12th place and 22 more to put himself in the top 10. 

On the other hand, Wandy should make some rather dubious history in the second half. With four more losses, he'll tie Woody Williams for the most losses in the past decade. He's seven losses away from the most losses (18) since Doug Drabek in 1993 and is nine away from being the second pitcher since Turk Farrell in 1962 to lose 20 games in a season.

The offensive records are a lot harder to predict. For instance, Jeff Keppinger could crack the top 30 single season doubles totals, if he hits 14 more in the second half. That would tie him for 27th with Jeff Bagwell ('93, '00), Craig Biggio ('97) and Rusty Staub ('68). 

Berkman should move into fourth place on the all-time hits list, passing Cesar Cedeno with 19 more hits. That's pretty much the only record he's in reach of this season, though he still sits atop the career on-base percentage leaderboard at .410. 

Michael Bourn is moving up the Astros career stolen base list. He's currently in 12th with 130 steals, but should have a shot at moving into the top 10 by catching Gerald Young's 153 steals. It'll take him more than this season to move up more, as Jimmy Wynn sits in ninth at 180. Oh, and lest I forget, the Astros are on pace to score 558 runs this season, which would be the team's lowest total since 1968.

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