The Astros are so good and have such a stranglehold on the American League that it’s almost boring.
With the division secured and the AL’s No. 1 seed all but wrapped up, the stakes are low heading into the final eight games of the regular season. With that in mind, all eyes in Houston are on the postseason.
Being a division winner, the Astros are guaranteed a spot in the ALDS. Game 1 is October 11. Shortly before then, the club will submit its roster for the series. Let’s project which 26 players the organizational brass will include:
- Martín Maldonado
- Christian Vázquez
Synopsis: This will be the easiest decision to make on the roster. Maldonado and Vázquez are each worthy of starting for a playoff-caliber team, so there’s no question that it’ll be just the two of them at catcher. What is in question is how they’ll be deployed.
Since acquiring Vázquez on August 1, the Astros have started him in 21 of 51 games. Though he’s been used fairly regularly as a pinch-hitter, Vázquez still appears to be second fiddle to Maldonado. To be fair, that was more or less expected to be the case, but what wasn’t part of the plan was meager offensive production from Vázquez, who hit .282/.327/.432 in 318 plate appearances with the Red Sox, good for a 110 wRC+.
Through 93 plate appearances in Houston, Vázquez carries a .247/.280/.270 slash line (58 wRC+). Though an experienced and capable defender behind the plate, it’s difficult to envision Vázquez and his presently anemic bat garnering as many starts as the ultra-savvy Maldonado.
- José Altuve
- Alex Bregman
- Jeremy Peña
- Trey Mancini
- Yuli Gurriel
- Aledmys Díaz
Synopsis: The stalwarts — Altuve, Bregman and Peña — will presumably start every game in the postseason. It’s not quite known how Mancini and Gurriel will be used.
Mancini’s markedly better at first base than he is in the outfield and has a superior bat, but Gurriel’s been the Astros’ starting first baseman for the last several years. Despite turning in a poor 2022 campaign, it hasn’t stopped Dusty Baker from continually reaffirming his belief in Gurriel, so the expectation is that La Piña will remain a lineup regular come playoff time.
Díaz quietly owns a 107 wRC+ across more than 300 plate appearances this year and should see playing time in some form, perhaps in left field.
- Kyle Tucker
- Chas McCormick
- Mauricio Dubón
- Jake Meyers
Synopsis: No matter the matchup, Tucker’s another bat that is expected to start every game. McCormick has received more starts in center field over the last four-plus weeks and should see the lion’s share of playing time at the position, though seemingly not when Justin Verlander is on the mound, for reasons.
While he’s been one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2022, Dubón is awfully capable with the glove and can at least produce against lefties (career 112 wRC+). It seems likely he’ll appear in most games — ideally as just a defensive replacement or a pinch runner.
Meyers’ inclusion is purely for his defense and speed. He’s arguably the best defensive center fielder on the roster and would be an effective pinch runner with his 90th percentile sprint speed.
- Yordan Álvarez
Synopsis: This is pretty self-explanatory. Maybe he’ll occasionally appear in left field?
- Justin Verlander
- Framber Valdez
- Lance McCullers Jr.
- Cristian Javier
- José Urquidy
- Luis García
- Ryan Pressly
- Rafael Montero
- Ryne Stanek
- Héctor Neris
- Bryan Abreu
- Will Smith
- Phil Maton
Synopsis: This is what you all came to see, I know. The pitching staff will rightly be the hottest topic of debate entering October.
Verlander, Valdez, McCullers and Javier are likely to be the four that comprise the starting rotation. The back of the bullpen will consist of the usual suspects in Pressly, Montero, Stanek, Neris and Abreu.
Now to the nitty gritty.
Neither García nor Urquidy possess much bullpen experience, but they’ve each made their mark in recent postseasons, and there is perhaps something to be said about having playoff experience in general. Even if they’re not needed in multi-inning stints, the Astros will have that option available to them. García’s velocity could increase by a tick or two and his wipeout cutter should be an even more lethal pitch. Urquidy’s ability to throw strikes could be quite valuable against disciplined hitters, of which there will be many.
Smith’s inclusion is mostly by virtue of him being left handed, though he has bounced back in a big way (2.66 ERA in 20 1⁄3 innings) since coming over from Atlanta. He did not allow a run in his 11 innings during the Braves’ 2021 title run.
In July, there were reasons to believe that Maton could be in jeopardy of losing his spot on the postseason roster. Given his poor peripherals, he was awfully fortunate to have a 3.55 ERA at the season’s halfway point. While that figure has risen slightly to 3.63 in the second half, Maton’s first-half FIP of 5.41 has been replaced by a 2.04 FIP since the All-Star break.
His improved form aside, Maton has a wealth of experience when it comes to inheriting runners and pitched remarkably well during last year’s World Series run, which is why I believe he’ll edge out Hunter Brown. Brown has showcased an unbelievably explosive arsenal and was notably impressive in his last outing (as a reliever) by not allowing a run after loading the bases with none out.
There’s absolutely a case to be made for Brown, whether he’d be taking Maton’s spot or Smith’s, particularly if the opposing team’s lineup is heavily right-handed. Ultimately, I think his lack of experience and his history of control issues leave him on the outside looking in. But just barely.