The 2016 Houston Astros haven't started the season as expected. In April, Houston was 7-17. This is a far cry from the Astros' historic start in 2015 of 15-7. Last year's start for the Astros was a major key to Houston reaching the postseason.
So, what is wrong with the Astros? It's time for the TCB staff to take a crack at fixing the problems.
If you were the Front Office, what would you do to fix the Astros in 2016?
What can be done? Dallas Keuchel has imploded (8.7% of his career walks have come in his six games this season). McHugh has been bad. Hell, the whole rotation has been bad. Good hitters aren't hitting. The bullpen is shaky, and the shakiest has been the guy we gave up a stud starting pitcher to get. When one thing goes right, everything else goes wrong. The Astros have won two games in which their starting pitcher has allowed more than two runs. Rasmus is slumping now. White fell apart after the first week. Correa hasn't homered in almost a month now. The bottom of the lineup is pathetic.
Seriously, what can be done? There's no replacing what Keuchel was to this over-achieving team last year. James Hoyt is doing well in Triple-A, but call-ups are no sure thing. Call up Musgrove? Okay, maybe he breaks out...but that breakout is going to have to be about a 2.00 ERA for it to matter. The offense could turn around at any moment, or they could just continue to stink. Logic says the former, half a century of Houston sports failures make you want to think the latter.
What no one is talking about, though, is that things might actually get worse. All this has happened while the team is relatively healthy. McCullers is the only major player on the DL right now, and he's your #3 starter. If you had shown me this record at the beginning of the year, I'd have assumed that Keuchel, Altuve, Correa, Rasmus and McHugh were all in a bus accident together or something. We're 8-18...what are we going to be if Altuve blows out his ACL or something?
So the answer, I guess, is to invent a time the machine, tell Luhnow back in November to sign Jordan Zimmermann and not to trade for Giles, and do trade Carlos Gomez for, well, something. Anything. On Quick Pitch the other day they said Velasquez is the only pitcher in the Majors so far with three games of no runs, three or fewer hits, and six or more strikeouts. He has a 1.44 ERA and an 11.2 K/9. You don't even want me to tell you what Chris Carter's number are with the Brewers right now. Literally everything that could have gone wrong so far has, outside of injuries. Maybe that means the only want to go is up. I sure hope so. But this team looks so utterly snake-bit right now it's getting hard to even imagine it. There's no time machine. Waiting and praying the all you can do.
I think the only thing that fixes this team is time, and patience. This season looks more like 1995, not 2005. We have to take a step back and remember that less than thirty games ago, this team was playing in an( unexpectedly early) playoff berth, and not clamor for silly things like firings. Those ideas are just nonsense. Time, and patience. Maybe we're not going to the playoffs after all. That's okay. The big picture is too important to make panicked, knee-jerk decisions.
The only answer is to move the team the Nashville. Burn it all down and start over.
But realistically I have a hard time seeing Keuchel continue this trend. If he doesn't buck it, I imagine it might be the worst season following a Cy Young ever. I think eventually Musgrove will get a call-up, as well as Moran/Reed.
If the old guys are performing get rid of them. We are looking less and less like a contender, so might as well start reloading for 2017. I.e. Valbuena/Feldman/Gomez
Last year the AL West champions had 88 wins. To get to 88 wins, the Astros would now have to go 80-56. It's not impossible, but that's the hole this early season dive has put them in.
I think the veterans get another month to turn things around. I still think they're looking at the extra year of control for Reed, Moran, and others, so that means early June. One more month for Valbuena, Gattis, Gomez and the rest, and if there isn't dramatic improvement they are all shipped out and the kids play.
They could make minor moves right now. Send White down and give Singleton a shot. DFA Fields and bring up Hoyt. I don't expect anything major until June.
There is no magic fix. There is still a lot of talent on this team, so I would stick to small tweaks like they already did by letting Devenski start and moving Feldman to the bullpen. You don't want major disruption in the clubhouse because that just gives guys, even more, reason to press. The first non-pitcher move I'd make is to give Moran a chance. I'd favor a similar approach to the Devenski-Feldman switch, though. Don't just cut Valbuena from the team. Let him start at first occasionally against RHP and he can also still be used as a PH and defensive sub at 3rd (the implication being that Feliz would get sent down to make room for Moran). I'm not sure if that should happen now or in 3 weeks, but I'd favor sooner rather than later.
Some will argue (looking at you, Mr. Perry) that Moran only hits singles. My first response would be that singles are better than no hits at all. My second would be to compare their slugging percentages. Valbuena slugged .435 and .438 in 2014 and 2015 respectively, although he has only slugged .380 since his monster June last year when he had 9 homers. Moran slugged .397 in 2014 and .459 in 2015 in the minors. Do I believe that Valbuena has more power right now? Yes. Is it enough of a power advantage for me to stick with him over Moran? No.
Lastly, at the risk of being cheesy, I think a personal visit from Mr. Luhnow couldn't hurt. In 2005, I remember that Purpura made an appearance in the clubhouse to tell the guys that he still had faith in them and they didn't plan to make any major changes. I remember hearing players say that really made an impact on them. Maybe Jeff could do something similar and it would put the kids more at ease so they wouldn't be pressing so much. Hey, at this point it can't hurt, right?
Good teams can have bad months.
Bad teams can have bad months.
Good teams can just be bad. Look at the Oakland A's of last year.
Good teams can just be bad, but then turn good in time to make the playoffs. Look at the Texas Rangers of last year.
The problem with the Astros right now is pitching. Well, the problem this year has been pitching. Lately, the offense has also cratered, but that is probably more about a team-wide slump than anything permanent. Altuve, Springer, Correa, Rasmus are all having good seasons. Luis Valbuena has been incredibly unlucky. Jason Castro seems to be heating up (to a lukewarm 74 degrees). Tyler White was hot, isn't hot now but should be hot again. If Carlos Gomez comes down with a case of Ian Desmond-itis, Preston Tucker looks pretty capable out in left field.
Which brings us back to the pitching staff. Keuchel hasn't been good. McHugh has been inconsistent, as has Mike Fiers. Doug Fister has been terrible but seems to be improving. Scott Feldman may be done. That rotation sure could use Lance McCullers back and healthy. But he doesn't fix all the problems.
To my unprofessional eyes and without doing a bit of Pitch F/X work to back it up, the problem seems to be how the umpires are calling the strike zone this year. Seems all the Astros pitchers have struggled to get strike calls on pitches that they were getting in years past. We heard that the umpires may not call the zone the same way this year, but it seems to have affected more than just the bottom of the zone.
The Astros pitching staff has a pretty successful philosophy on how to attack the strike zone. If suddenly that strategy isn't working as well, because of how umpires are calling games, it may take the time to adjust. How soon can they do that? Will they adjust based on one month of data? Three months?
That's why there's no good answer to how to fix these Astros. We just know they're bad and that sucks.
Um, David, I sure HOPE Gomez comes down with Ian Desmond-itis. Over the last 2 weeks, Desmond has a .462 OBP, .659 SLG%, 14 runs, 3 HR, 10 RBI, and 3 SB. Over the past two weeks, he has been the best player in baseball, bar none.
Reed has a .260 ISO, 14.3 BB%, and a 19.8 K% in AAA so far this year - all better than his 2015 AA numbers. He also has a .390 wOBA and a 138 wRC+, and a .882 OPS. Not necessarily saying "CALLAMUP!" either, but he's performing really pretty well right now.
That's sort of my point? I think Gomez is a good player. He's just having a terrible walk year like Desmond did last season. Of course, it's also possible that he's contracted Denard Span-itis, in which he's hurt and bad this season, signs a reasonable deal in the offseason and then is just average-to-mediocre next year.
It's obvious that Gomez will sign with the Mariners next year and morph into a 30-30 guy again.
The way the front office fixes the Astros is to not freak out and cater to the masses. Continue on with the same plan that put together a team that made the playoffs well ahead of schedule. Sports Illustrated said we weren't actually supposed to win it all until 2017 anyway. They changed their story to cater to the masses and you see what happened!
Stick to the plan... or stick to the "process." Oh... and call up Joseph Musgrove.
First the Rockets, and now the Astros. What have Houston fans done to deserve such mediocrity this year?
Truly, the only thing to do is to wait this out. The team has started off awful, but there have been small rays of light peeking through the clouds every now and again.
Are the Astros hitters really this terrible? Most definitely not. They'll start hitting again, but whether that's this week or a month from now is unclear. Individual hitters have put together streaks, but not the collective. I'm optimistic that they'll overcome this setback.
Is the Astros rotation really this weak, after a really solid 2015? It's certainly within the realm of reason that last year was the best we'd see them pitch. However, their numbers supported the results. Maybe things have just fallen apart, but I'm not convinced we'll see this type of performance all season long... Hopefully.
I wish there were an easy button or, even better, a reset button (start + select, anyone?). However, this is baseball. Weird stuff happens every year. Hopefully, we turn things around soon, and I think it's possible. We just have to wait things out and pray we didn't catch Athletics it is.
My main concern is pitching. I always liked Earl Weaver's quote:
"The only thing that matters is what happens on the little hump out in the middle of the field." The Astros had the best pitching last year, and the pitching results have been the worst so far this year. That pretty much explains why the team is where it's at. Team hitting will always go through cycles of slumps, but I'm not worried about it right now. The pitching problems can range from "fundamentally flawed" (injury, velocity loss, etc.) to fixable. Hopefully, it's not too much of the former. At this point, there isn't a whole lot that can be done other than redoubling efforts to identify and fix pitchers' issues (whether it be delivery or sequencing). I think fixing Keuchel is a priority. The Astros count on him to soak up a lot of innings with great run prevention--which he hasn't done. The Astros really don't have a way to replace their ace--and that's true of almost all teams. So, here is hoping he turns it around.
Just to follow up with the pitching point: the Cardinals are also having a bad start to the season. They're also not pitching nearly as well as they have in the past. They have their highest ERA and xFIP since 2011.
If we assume their pitching approach is similar philosophically to the Astros, I wonder if that's a sign that something has changed in the system of umpiring or strike zone management and they will have to adjust.
This is impossible to answer. I say that because we still don't know the full story. Yes, starting pitching has suffered, yes, offense has been intermittent. But I'm horribly suspicious that there's a problem in the clubhouse, and can't confirm that. If it's a personnel problem that's causing ripples, throwing them all off, we won't know about until someone leaks. And the last leak got traded. :)
This team has all the pieces, all the talent. There's a magical thing that happens with chemistry that could make them unstoppable, but how do you create chemistry? Ask the folks over at match.com, I suppose.
In the meantime, all I've got is this: high socks win games. The more high socks on the field, the better their odds.
I would drink. In fact, I believe so strongly in that answer that, despite not actually being in the front office, I've adopted the policy, anyway.
One of two things is going to happen if you ignore the problem and focus, instead, on the inside of a bottle of Tin Cup bourbon: Either 1) The Astros will get better without you meddling and micromanaging, or 2) they won't, and there very likely wasn't a lot you could do about it, anyway.