Some things to talk about while we prepare for this weekend with a case of beer and a bottle of bleach...
1) Back to the NL
Don't adjust your sets this weekend. The Astros are playing in their most pivotal series since Hurricane Ike and they're back in the National League. What's been happening in the NL since you last paid attention to it?
The Cubs are good!
The Pirates aren't terrible!
The Marlins are still bad!
The Mets may be the best team in baseball!
Unless the Cardinals are!
Some of this may seem familiar. Some of it may not. Let's run through some things you may want to know when watching the Astros sweep the Diamondbacks this weekend.
First of all, there is no designated hitter in the NL. This is probably a bad thing for Houston, as it means pitchers will have to hit. This is generally seen as a bad thing, aesthetically, since pitchers cannot generally hit. It also means Evan Gattis will not have a place in the lineup and may play some left field. This is also less than optimal.
The last time the Astros were in the NL, the Diamondbacks were terrible. They've been terrible for a good while. But, this year, they're not as bad. They have one of the best offenses in the National League, led by perennial MVP candidate and The Woodlands native Paul Goldschmidt. He's joined in their offensive fireworks display with 27-year-old left fielder David Peralta, who's having a breakout season, and center fielder A.J. Pollock, who's finally tapping into his potential.
Catcher Welington Castillo is also gone crazy this year, though he's cooled off in a very tepid September after insane splits in July and August.
Also, Chase Field used to be considered one of the better hitters parks in the NL. That was true back when the Astros were in the NL, like in 2002, when Chase Field had a batting park factor of 111. Now, though, that park factor is down to 103, which is only a few points higher than MMP. So, don't expect a ton of runs this weekend just because of the field.
Why did I spend time going on a tour of the NL? Because it's weird that the Astros are finishing the season with an interleague series. In a time when a lot of other teams are playing meaningful series in their own divisions (see: Rangers-Angels), the Astros are traveling to the desert to play a team that had the first pick in the draft last year. Not every schedule can be perfect, but you'd hope the Astros could be more involved with their actual division race this weekend. Instead, they have to hope for whatever outcome you want out of Arlington.
And the Astros get to revisit the land of the double switch and more frequent pinch hitters.
2) Holy crap, Trogdor awakens
Ryan covered most of this in his post on Carter's game-tying home run from Wednesday. What I wanted to pose is a question: what if Carter's mini hot streak continues? What if it's a sign that he's getting July 2014-level hot? What if Chris Carter morphs into Trogdor for an extended time?
His timing could not be better. If he helps the Astros make the playoffs and then continues that hot streak in the postseason, I wonder how it will affect perception of him. Will fans forgive his horrible, terrible, no-good, very-bad year? Or will they roll their eyes and wish that Jon Singleton or A.J. Reed had been given a chance to get hot instead?
On a bigger team level, Carter's mini streak is fascinating. Heading into the winter, the Astros have a couple of glaring question marks on this roster. None may be bigger than first base, where they don't need to find an option. Instead, they need to pare down the crowd there and figure out who gets playing time next year.
It'd be easy to write off Carter, to say he needs to be traded or cut or run out of town on a rail. He's been awful for a year. Yet, he still has had an average offensive season, per wRC+, and didn't look terrible at first base. Well, not Carlos Lee-level bad, anyways.
So, what do the Astros do? Can they go into next year saying that this year was the abberation and that Carter will bounce back to burninating baseballs next year? Is he the guy that gets thinned when the herd at first base clears?
An extended run in the playoffs complicates those questions. How many of you would change your feelings if Trogdor burninates a swath of the postseason?
3) Who starts Sunday?
The only bit of mystery surrounding the Astros this weekend (besides the whole "Will they make the playoffs?" thing) is which pitcher will start Sunday's game. The way the rotation lines up, Lance McCullers would close out the regular season.
However, the Astros have not announced him as the starter. There are a couple reasons for this.
First, they could be holding off on announcing him in case they clinch the Wild Card before then. The Astros could lock that up by Saturday night, so McCullers may not be needed Sunday. In that case, the Astros probably want him starting the Wild Card Game against the Yankees on Tuesday.
Of course, if the Astros win out and the Angels win out, Houston ties the Rangers for the division lead and they'd play a tiebreaker game on Monday. But, to get there, they'd probably start LMJ on Sunday to do everything they can for the division lead.
In that case, you'd probably see Mike Fiers on Monday and Scott Kazmir (yikes!) on Tuesday.
The Astros *could* bring back Dallas Keuchel on short rest, but the whole point in him starting Friday is that he's more comfortable on his normal rotation. Would they risk popping him out of that comfort zone for a do-or-die game like the Wild Card Game?
I guess we'll find out!
The scenario that makes the most sense, though, is for the Astros playoff fate to be decided by Saturday and Fiers starting Sunday, with LMJ starting against the Yankees.
What do you think? How will Houston structure the rotation after Keuchel and McHugh? How will the different playoff scenarios factor in?