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Mid-Term Thoughts on the 2023 Houston Astros

A team that has played 91 games to date will generate some thoughts.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

At the All-Star Break, the Astros find themselves in the following situation:

  • Overall Record: 50-41
  • Games back of AL West Lead: 2.0
  • Games back of Lead Wild Card: 5.0
  • Games ahead of last Wild Card: 0.0 (tied with Toronto for the second spot but losing the season tie-breaker 3-4).

In one respect, everything is still in play for Houston. The endgame of a repeat World Series is still available. The team had 3 All-Stars and still gets the fans to the yard. They’ve even seen the Yankees and Dodgers overtake them in the “most hated” team department, so...some expected good.

Yet, this iteration of the Astros is a bit different from previous versions. Notice the whole “games back of AL West lead” thing? Yeah, hasn’t happened in a full season since 2016. Since then, the latest the Astros trailed in the AL West was 2021, when they held second place on June 19th. 2018 also saw Houston in a neck-and-neck struggle before finally asserting divisional control, with that date on the calendar June 13th. They’ve trailed by as much as 6.5 games (their largest deficit in a non-COVID shortened season) in June. In some encouraging news, the Astros have gained on the Rangers, and won a 4-game set recently at Arlington. However, this team is in for perhaps the most significant dogfight to defend a division crown since the start of this run.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Heads, Shoulders, Obliques and Toes, Obliques and Toes, (and Arms):

The 2022 iteration of the Astros didn’t exactly get through the season unscathed, but injuries have done far more significant damage to the roster this season. 40% of the projected starting rotation coming into the season is out for the year. Urquidy has missed most of the season due to shoulder soreness. Even the workhorse Valdez missed time due to ankle issues. Javier is the only starter to not miss a start due to an official injury, but his recent performances are calling that into question.

It is not only the pitching staff wrecked by injuries. Oblique injuries keep Alvarez and Altuve off the field (for Altuve, these come on the heels of missing the 1st eight weeks of the season due to a broken hand). A lingering shoulder injury keeps Brantley off the MLB roster. Chas McCormick lost multiple weeks due to a deadlift-related injury, depriving him of any chance to separate himself. Along with Least-Valuable-Performances from Jose Abreu and Martin Maldonado, injuries factor significantly in the maddeningly inconsistent Astros’ offense. While the runs scored and other metrics are climbing from the start of the season, they remain below Astros’ standards.

(This is the part of the picture where the obligatory bad lines about lack of trash cans/buzzers appear, but for the Astros offense at times, using actual trash cans to bat with might be an improvement (see Maldonando)).

Colorado Rockies v Houston Astros Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

Starting Pitching: Reloading...but for How Long?:

A line from a former Texas-based athletic figure comes to mind; the one about not having to “rebuild, but reload.” While primarily related to Darrell Royal’s Longhorn teams, that is also the mantra for the Houston Astros’ starting pitching. Remember the part about 40% of the starting rotation out for the year and, at times, the team without 80% of the projected starters? How many of you had Hunter Brown as the #3, or heck, the #2 starter in the rotation? Put your hands down unless you are part of the Brown family.

At the start of the season, how many of you saw J.P. France being one of the better starters for the Astros’ rotation. Put your hands down...all of you, even Mrs. France! No way you saw that.

Ronel Blanco stretched out to be a decent starter who can give you 5-6 quality innings? Need I mention the return of Bielak? If you legitimately called all of that, then why haven’t you bought your lottery tickets and retired on the winnings (and offered me a nice bonus for praising your extraordinary skill and luck?)

At this point, if you were a AAA pitching starter to begin the year and showed a modicum of promise, you now log time on the MLB roster. Whitley would have finally joined that line-up, had he actually managed to stay healthy. Perhaps he still will. All of these young arms are dealing like they’re at the high-stakes blackjack tables at the Bellagio, but those arms haven’t faced the conditioning of a full-up MLB season.

Coming into the break, the Astros’ starters, who led the league in ERA at one point, saw that number spike…uh, astronomically (4.27 since June 1st). Javier and Brown could not get through 3-4 innings in their last starts, and with 71 games left, the workload will be a point of emphasis. Perhaps Urquidy can come back and offer some much-needed pitching depth, or maybe a new acquisition? Speaking of which…

Washington Nationals v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

July: The month of fireworks, BBQs, pool parties…and Dana Brown.

We are now in the time of year when many Americans, or at least those that feel like they can for a bit, go off on vacations, winding down during the “dog days of summer.” Then there is Dana Brown. This July will be the biggest month of his thus-far short Astros’ tenure. Signed too late to really do a lot in the off-season; this is now his time of year, or at least the most visible he will ever be in his life.

To start, we just finished up the baseball draft. The strongest part of his CV/LinkedIn profile will be the portion talking about scouting with the Atlanta team, playing a role in bringing into the organization all of that talent that wrecked late Oct-early Nov for the Astros in ‘21—and currently, said team ruling the NL at the All-Star Break. Well, he was drafting, and scouting...and drafting.

While that may pay dividends in the seasons ahead, most eyes will be on what he does for the second half of July. The Trade Deadline is fast looming, and the Astros, like so many other teams, actually have quite the Christmas-in-July wish list. Brown has been upfront about needing another bat, ideally a lefty. Yet, that list has likely expanded to now look for a starting pitcher who is kinda good (see previous discussion points), as well as some bullpen help, especially given the struggles of Montero and a concerning over-reliance on a select few relievers.

While those Astros called up from the minors are giving their all, the baseball world doesn’t exactly view the Astros’ farm system as well-stocked with multiple high-yield prospects. Definitely not of the type that Brown would want to part with or that teams like Chicago (both of them) or St. Louis would eagerly accept without other sweeteners (taking on salary, offering up a major-leaguer, promising firstborns, etc.). It is a balancing act for Brown, as he must maintain the Astros’ status as World Series contenders with the win-now squad but not sacrifice all near and mid-term future considerations. This is especially if he hopes to keep

A) the Astros at the forefront of championship contention and

B) His GM job longer than the last guy.

Still, given all that this team has dealt with in the injuries and ineffectiveness department, they are still very much in the hunt to repeat. They have 71 games to get themselves into position for the playoffs. They will likely have ~50 games to integrate any new acquisitions into the roster. Most importantly, they should be getting back Urquidy, Altuve, and Alvarez by the start of August. If Houston can avoid any other i******s (if you don’t speak it, it can’t happen, right?), especially with the o******s, or any other parts of the b**y, then the game is still afoot for Houston.