Given that the Astros tend to play deep into October/November, and that they get off to slow starts, an ambivalent attitude about the first 1/3 to 40% of the season is understandable. Granted, most fans prefer the team to play well at all times. Still, the mantra of “talk to me about the Astros in June” applies.
Over the past few seasons, by June (excluding the bastardized 2020 season) the Astros started hitting their stride on the field. From there, the Astros fan can ascertain the overall outlook of the team. At present, the Astros, who started 7-9 for the 4th straight season, and checked in at 17-18, sit at 36-28, behind last year’s pace but still in the playoff discussion.
What can be said about the Astros now that it is June:
What, you mean you didn’t have Hunter Brown as the #3 starter for this team?
Coming into the season, it figured that the team's strength would remain its pitching staff. Perhaps the strongest 1-5 starting lineup (even sans an AL Cy Young winner) and a powerful bullpen returned to terrorize MLB batters. Included in those plans: Heralded rookie Hunter Brown.
Yet, much of that discussion centered on whether he would lock down a starting spot as the #5 guy, or would he be the swing pitcher, alternating between starts and long-relief. However, with 60% of the pre-season projected starting pitching lineup currently injured, Brown got pressed into middle-of-the-rotation action rather quickly. Brown’s arm responded and rates as a Rookie of the Year candidate. However, with his current projections to log almost 170 innings, to say nothing of potential post-season pitching, can he hold up under the strain? Perhaps when Urquidy comes back around the All-Star Break (hopefully), this can lessen the burden on Brown’s young arm, but until then, Brown is not just a luxury, but a necessity.
Astros Pitching Coaches...MLB Assistant/Bench Coaches of the Year
Baseball doesn’t have a coordinator/assistant coach/bench coach award like it does for managers, etc. Yet, if they did, then the clubhouse leader has to be the Astros’ pitching coaches. Already lauded for their work replacing legend Brent Strom last season, Joshua Miller and Bill Murphy have the Astros once again among the pitching leaders in MLB. While blessed with talents like Valdez, Javier, and Pressly, they have gotten incredible performances from less recognized players, from minor leaguers call-up starters JP France and Brandon Bielak, to stellar bullpen performances from Maton and Abreu. All of this amid extensive injuries and regression/bad performances (Montero, Stanek). Will have to see if that continues, but as of now, the pitching coaches should be earning some major bonus money...and possibly a boatload of better coaching job interviews in the off-season.
The Hottest Seats in the Organization...Strength and Conditioning/Medical Personnel:
Injuries tend to be fickle mistresses. In some seasons, they’re manageable. In others, they destroy more dreams than a Monday morning alarm clock. For the 2023 Astros, they are causing some major chaos. The starting rotation got upended within the 1st month of the season with McCullers (out since spring training...and perhaps longer), Urquidy (previously mentioned) and Garcia (UCL injury, out at least until 2024 All-Star Break) on the IR.
While not the sole reason for the offense’s struggles, injuries deprived Houston of Altuve’s bat for the 1st eight weeks of the season, as well as Brantley’s sweet swing. Not even the organizational reserves can escape the injury plague, as Whitley, Wagner, and Gilbert are all out due to various ailments. Given the pitching staff attrition, Whitley’s injury is especially impactful.
The situation is not helped much by apparent rehab setbacks to Brantley, who was on the verge of joining the MLB squad in early May, and McCullers, who was primed to throw against live bats at one point. While teams generally don’t like to discuss injuries, getting straight answers from Astros’ leadership is proving quite difficult. Most authoritarian states are more forthcoming about the ailments of their leadership than the Astros are for their players. Sometimes, injuries happen, and no rehab or treatment will quickly resolve the issues. However, if the team’s injury woes continue and it keeps the Astros from their ultimate goals, then the strength and conditioning/medical personnel will pay the price.
Trade Deadline: A Ginormous Milestone for Dana Brown
Dana Brown didn’t enter the picture until the tail end of the off-season. Yet, he will be the man of the hour come the trade deadline. Houston is winning more than losing, but there are some glaring roster issues. Starting pitching depth is a major “Check Engine” flashing light for the squad. Relying on Brown and two players who started the year as AAA stalwarts and a converted reliever to hold the line on the starting rotation for the rest of the season is a significant gamble.
Urquidy will return, but maybe not with McCullers. That does not account for other potential injuries on the staff. For the offense, it can best be described as inconsistent...at best, between injuries to Brantley and poor to mediocre production from Jose Abreu and the Catcher position. The Astros aren’t loaded with extensive/prime minor-league talent (even if Houston is getting the most from it), so Brown must make some tough decisions.
Last season, the trade deadline was all about shoring up the bench and bullpen. Even though the team ultimately won the World Series, those individual players yielded so-so results. However, this trade deadline will have far more significance. The likely starting pitcher brought in will need to hit the mound running. The hopeful bat upgrade needs to swing well and actually take advantage of the Crawford Boxes. If the Astros want to make any noise in late summer/deep into fall, Brown will need to hit on those trades.
The Most Important Division Games will be Against the Rangers...and the As
Currently, the Astros find themselves looking up in the AL West standings. The Rangers, yes, the Rangers, lead the AL West at the start of June, and hold the 2nd best record in the AL. It isn’t just beating up on bad teams, as they logged series wins at Baltimore and against New York. Even with DeGrom injured (again), they lead the AL in run differential, Eovaldi is a legitimate Cy Young contender, and all the bats, from the pricy free agents to the unheralded youngsters, are raking. Plus, the Rangers won their first series in Houston (2-1, albeit in the early part of the season) since 2018. Houston and the Metroplex have ten more dates this season.
Yet, perhaps just as important as logging wins against the Rangers, the Astros have to bank all wins possible against the As. The soon-to-be-Vegas As are setting futility records not seen since the 19th century. At the time of this writing, Houston owns a 6-0 record over Oakland, with seven dates remaining. Given the deficit to the Rangers, who, as of now, don’t appear likely to falter that much, Houston must do all it can to win games. It may come down to who has the better record against the As. The Rangers currently hold a 5-2 record over the As. Sweeping a full season series against a team is very difficult, even one as bad as the As. Yet, the pressure to do so for the Astros against the As is almost as great as the pressure to win those matchups against the Metroplex, especially if considering the battle royal the Astros find themselves in with the AL East for the Wild Card slots. The Astros might require 21 or more wins between the Rangers and As...a task that is never quite as easy as it seems.
Still Early...and Who Really Wants to Bet Against Houston?
Perhaps Houston is not the super-team of the late-2010s, or even the dominant force of 2022. They may yet stumble down the road of more catastrophic injuries (see Yordan Alvarez on the IL), and perhaps, the ALCS will go on without the presence of the Astros for the first time since 2016—certainly many outside of Houston long for that. Yet, not even the national media is not yet ready to bury the Astros, even with their limitations, so-so play at times, and the rise of the Rangers. It is a long season, and with the expanded playoffs, the Astros still possess a 92% chance of making the postseason. Even the squad’s “weakest” team during this dominant run, the 29-31 2020 iteration, still got into the post-season and forced the eventual AL pennant-winning Rays to go the full seven to thwart them. Some will paraphrase the great Ric Flair, that “to be the [team], you gotta beat the [team],” but deep down, no other AL playoff aspirant really wants to see Houston as their playoff opponent if they can avoid it. Until mathematically eliminated, or until the final out of a playoff elimination game goes against Houston, figure on them having a major say in who will win it all in 2023.
Just a few of the observations to make about this team now that we’ve crossed the June horizon. This is not meant as an all-inclusive list of perspectives. If you have your own, feel free to share with your fellow web denizens below: