Hard to believe, but we have been at this MLB-thing for nearly 3 months. We have crossed the 1/3 mark of the season. While that does mean there is still 2/3 of the season left to go (to say nothing of the post-season and all that brings), players, executives and fans will have a far better idea of what a team is and is not. In particular, teams will start taking stock of future outlooks for the rest of the year. The Astros, after a sluggish win/loss record to start the season, are sitting about where everyone figured they would be: Atop the AL West and among the top teams in MLB.
Some of the things seen at the 1/3rd mark have not changed all that much from the quarter mark (the strength of the team is pitching; Alvarez DH dominance; a consistently inconsistent offense). Some of those things, for better or worse, can be expected to continue, and other strengths/weaknesses will pop-up. Here are 3 areas of observation worth tracking for the remaining 2/3rds of the season.
- Inconsistency at the back of the rotation: While the strength of the 2022 Astros is its pitching, this does not mean that all is great with the squad. The back of the rotation, between Odorizzi, Javier and Urquidy, has shown varying degrees of inconsistency. Odorizzi got off to a horrid start to the season, only to turn it around until a strange leg injury shelved him for the past few weeks. Oddly enough, if you thought that this far into the season that the best back-of-the-rotation starter would be Odorizzi, take a bow and buy some Powerball tickets. His rehab is reportedly going well and he should be back in the rotation before too much longer.
This would be a good thing, as the other two back-end starters, Urquidy and Javier, are consistently inconsistent. Urquidy has had a rougher go of the season than Javier, especially in his 3 starts against Seattle. While he was never one to get a lot of strikeouts, Urquidy is seeing an increased ERA and other numbers that you really don’t want to see from your pitchers. Javier started the season out as a stellar bullpen arm, but since he was promoted to the starting rotation, his performances have been inconsistent, as he yo-yos between good and not-so-good starts. Given the issues with the offense, consistency, particularly the good kind, is paramount for this team.
With Verlander, Valdez and Garica manning the top of the rotation, the Astros maintain some quality arms. The anticipated return of McCullers should help out the rotation, perhaps moving Javier back to ace reliever status. However, as the Astros continue to try to hold the AL West lead, the status of the back-of-the-rotation will be worth watching. Do Urquidy or Odorizzi becomes a key trade chip for the Astros?
- What of the AL West?: Coming into the season, the Astros figured to be in a fight with the Angels and Mariners for the AL West. At the 1/4 mark, it looked like the Angels and the Astros would be engaged in a massive duel for supremacy in the AL West, whereas Seattle had the makings of one of the bigger disappointments of the season. At the 1/3 mark, the Astros maintain one of the largest division leads in baseball (between 6-9 games up since mid-May). All other teams in the division are multiple games under .500. The Angels imploded to the tune of a 14-game losing streak that not even an all-Nickelback intro music lineup could solve. (Clearly, they did not take the lessons from the 2019 Nationals, where the correct answer for slump-busting music is “Baby Shark”). The Angels have since won a game or two, but they are on an interim manager and outside looking in for the post-season.
The Mariners, while they did take two straight series from the Astros, are also under .500 and well back of the Astros. The Rangers, of all teams, are perhaps the biggest threat to the Astros’ reign in the AL West at present. While the Astros proved in the past that they could maintain a huge division lead and remain engaged for the playoffs, they can’t get complacent in the regular season, lest they run into trouble, which segues into the next point for watching...
- West vs. East...where the East is feasting on the West: Coming into the season, many figured that the AL East would be an absolute nightmare of a division. 4 of the 5 teams were expected to compete for playoff spots, and no one would be surprised if all 3 Wild Card slots ended up in the AL East. As the season has evolved, currently 4 of the 5 AL East teams are over .500 and if the post-season started today, 4 AL East teams would be in, with the Yankees leading the charge. As brutal as the AL East teams are to each other, they are especially devastating to external rivals. Currently, no AL West team has a winning record against the AL East (27-42 as of 6/14).
Coming into this week, the Houston Astros are 3-6 against the AL East. They went 2-4 against the Toronto Blue Jays, losing 4 of those by 1 run. This was early in the season when the Jays were off to a strong start. Toronto cooled off after that but is on an upswing yet again. The Astros also went 1-2 in a recent 3-game set in Boston. Aside from a 5 homer-in-one-inning outburst, the Astros did not fare quite so well with the bat or the arm. At the time of this writing, the Astros still have a full season series of games to play against the Yankees, the Ray and the Orioles (who, while under .500, did manage to sweep the Astros last year at Minute Maid, and who, this season, appear to be better than the past few seasons) as well as a home series against Boston. While regular-season records are not always indicative of potential playoff success against an opponent, the Astros will need to show that they can play and win against the AL East. This takes on more importance since it is likely that Houston will have to go through an AL East team to get back to the World Series, as they have faced off against at least one AL East team in every post-season trip since they joined the AL.
(FWIW: The Astros are currently 4-4 against the NL East (aka the division that felled Houston in their past two World Series appearances) with match-ups against the division-leading Mets, defending champion, and red-hot Atlanta and suddenly revived Phillies upcoming).
If nothing else, it should be an exciting remainder of the regular season. What will the Astros do come the trade deadline? Will the back-end of the rotation resolve itself? Can the Astros stay strong and frosty surviving what is likely the worst overall division in baseball? What of their battles with the East? Can the Astros avoid also suffering a poor record against the beastly East?