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Houston Astros: State of the Squad

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With a little more than 20% of the season in the books, let’s step back and assess where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going.

MLB: World Series-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Life goes fast, you blink and your kids are taller than you.

Or in the case of baseball, you blink and the season is 20% over.

How do things look for the hometown heroes? The Houston Astros are 18-16, two games back of the Athletics. They have the third best run differential in baseball, and have not dug themselves in a hole (despite a putrid ten-game stretch) during an “upside down” first fifth of the season, where the Dodgers, Yankees, Twins, and Braves have a combined record of five games under .500.

Let’s take this “State of the Squad” one department at a time:

STATE OF THE OFFENSE:

The state of the offense, in one word, is STRONG. For such an established group, there were a lot of unknowns coming into the season. How would a core with respond after an alarmingly mediocre in 2020? What about Yordan Alvarez and his knees, and the less-proven Kyle Tucker, not to mention the unproven Myles Straw?

While not firing on all cylinders, this team has already answered questions, with Yuli Gurriel and Alvarez leading the way. Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman are also putting up strong opening numbers. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, while under their career norms, are still above average hitters by wRC+ (110 and 105).

Tucker, it must be mentioned, is putting the ball in play (18% K rate), and hitting with power (.205 ISO), with much noted bad luck (.180 BABIP). No need to worry.

The team’s wRC+ is 114, 2nd in MLB. The non-pitchers have generated the 3rd most WAR per Fangraphs. They strike out so little, that the distance between them and the 2nd-least-likely-to-K team is as great as the distance between the 2nd and 20th teams. That’s what I call making contact.

STATE OF THE ROTATION:

The starting rotation has been better than expected, and is holding on for reinforcements. The guys who are striking out batters (Lance McCullers, Jr., Luis Garcia, and Cristian Javier) are walking too many. And the guys who aren’t walking anyone (Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy) aren’t striking anybody out.

Still, Jake Odorizzi and Framber Valdez should be back in the next 3-5 weeks, and as bad as Jake seemed in his few appearances, his xFIP in two starts was slightly better than Javier and Greinke’s. The team has about six guys who are solid 3-4 starters. And between Framber, McCullers, and Greinke, there are enough starters with the stuff and moxie to be top-of-the-rotation types in the postseason.

Gone are the days of Jusitn Verlander & Gerrit Cole headlining the rotation, but the team is 7-deep with starters. Luis Garcia continues to be incredibly enticing, especially if one throws out the first start in Anaheim.

STATE OF THE PEN:

No part of the team has provoked more gnashing of teeth than the bullpen. Just what do we have? Two reliable back-end arms (Ryne Stanek, Ryan Pressly), two monster arms that look like closers if they can be consistent (Andre Scrubb, Bryan Abreu), and a lot of pieces that are hurt or recovering (Pedro Baez, Enoli Paredes, Josh James, Blake Taylor), unlucky (Brooks Raley, Joe Smith? [.442 BABIP]), unusual (Brandon Bielak, Kent Emanuel), or maybe washed up (Smith?).

The good news is that the team doesn’t need all of them to be good all of the time. The bullpen won the game yesterday with 5 shutout innings (0 BB, 7 K), against a really good lineup. Paredes will be back by the end of this home stand. And with this offense, the bullpen should have a margin of error.

STATE OF THE MANAGER:

Dusty Baker is a head-scratching manager. I’ll give him a pass on bullpen usage.

But what is going on with the catcher situation? Why sign Jason Castro and employ him like a bottom-barrel backup when he’s at least platoon worthy? Why run Martin Maldonado into the ground? And why not play to their hitting splits?

Maybe Dusty was worried about the Jays on the base paths, but there are 46 catchers with more PAs than Castro, who has produced 0.4 WAR in only 14 games.

Lineup creation has also caused heads to be scratched. He may be fantastic in the clubhouse, but he’s hurting the team’s chances of winning with unfortunate lineup construction and by not recognizing that the two catchers are equally worthy of time.

STATE OF THE FARM:

In terms of helping the team this year, it’s not good. There are a few arms that might help this year (Peter Solomon, Hunter Brown, Frances Martes, Tyler Ivey), but very few bats.

Pedro Leon and Jose Siri have the athleticism to play center field, and if Straw continues to hit .204, I imagine Houston will roll the dice when Siri fixes his contact problems (he’s slugging .800 through 4 elevation-inflated games).

Aledmys Diaz is Marwin 2.0, essentially giving you the offense of a regular who can play passable defense at six positions.

Beyond that, the player-depth bottoms out, especially now that Jeremy Pena is gone for the season. I don’t see the Astros being able to improve much at the deadline. The team is what it is; the best hope is for injured guys to get healthy, esp. Valdez and Verlander.

This should not be a problem in the division; the A’s are cheap. But the elite teams will patch a major injury or a weak spot with an acquisition. I imagine the front office will look at creative ways to flip an arm for a cheap centerfielder around July.

CONCLUDING REMARKS:

This team has played 11 series. After sweeping the first and splitting the second, it dropped four straight. It has now won 4 of 5 series. It has seven dynamic hitters, no garbage starters, and a bullpen poised to improve. It is the best team in the AL West, and it’s not close. It plays the next 13 games within the division, and it should emerge two weeks from now in first place, with room to breathe.