The odds point to the Astros qualifying for the postseason for the eighth time in nine seasons. Is it a guarantee? No, at least not yet. The distinct possibility of this team not reaching October baseball still exists, which is a relatively foreign thought for this golden era. This weekend's road series against the Diamondbacks, and what happens in the Rangers-Mariners series, will ultimately determine the final result in the AL West and the Wild Card race.
Of this weekend series, I am the most curious to see how J.P. France throws against the Diamondbacks, who could clinch a postseason berth tonight with a win. For better or worse, France is the likely fourth starter in a seven-game postseason series considering Hunter Brown’s struggles in the season’s second half. Of course, the Astros have to get to that point first, but a decent showing against a likely playoff-bound Arizona would go a long way toward building that confidence. The right-hander’s performance this season can’t be overstated enough, especially from June through most of August, when he was a key boost to a rotation hindered by injuries and, most importantly, regression. If the season does indeed end for the Astros this weekend, France has set himself up nicely to assume a key role on the pitching staff next season.
Source: José Urquidy is starting tonight's game for the Astros. J.P. France has been scratched.— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) September 29, 2023
Let’s see what José Urquidy can do, I guess. The same thought process applies and if he pitches well could we see him start a postseason game?
Regardless of this weekend, or any subsequent result for the postseason, additional change is likely on the horizon for the Astros, to some degree. The most obvious place that a change could occur is with the manager as Dusty Baker is only under contract through this season. This fact by itself doesn’t mean much as Baker has been managing on a year-to-year basis with the Astros since 2021. But I do wonder how tenable the situation is with general manager Dana Brown and the front office moving forward.
While Brown didn’t have much input in the offseason considering the timing of his hire, it became clear fairly quickly in the season that he and Baker had some philosophical differences. The most glaring of these situations was how little Yainer Díaz played — as a catcher or anywhere else — when Houston rostered three catchers with Díaz, Martín Maldonado, and César Salazar. Only 83 plate appearances before Yordan Alvarez’s oblique injury in early June. Within the backdrop of a tight division and postseason race, it is easy to point out how extra playing time for Díaz may have swung in the Astros’ favor and there is something to that train of thought. In fact, I think it was arguably the biggest in-season blunder from Baker during his entire time managing in Houston. No, Díaz wasn’t going to catch every single game, as he shouldn’t, but something like an equitable 50/50 split or even 60/40 in favor of Maldonado probably would’ve been fair enough. But as Chandler Rome of The Athletic reported back in early June, the decision to roster Díaz was Brown’s call, but how much he actually played fell to Baker.
Another source of consternation, at least among fans, has been lineup construction. While I think there are instances when lineup construction is given too much emphasis in certain respects, there are sometimes issues worthy of complaint. In addition to Díaz’s playing time, or lack thereof, there was also the occasional absence of Chas McCormick. Sometimes it was expected. In other instances, it felt rather inexplicable, much like not batting your top six hitters together as often as possible. That is why I found the comments that Brown made about the lineup on Sports Talk 790 on Friday so interesting as that same concern appears also to be present within the front office.
"We'll have a high powered offense. Our better hitters in there is what I'm hoping for but Dusty makes the lineups. He makes the decision. I know we need the offense. We need game 1." - Dana Brown asked by @SeanUnfiltered on the lineup on @SportsTalk790— Brian LaLima (@BLima790) September 29, 2023
For a club fighting for a postseason berth heading into the last series, it does feel imperative that the Astros optimize their lineup as much as possible. If not, well, they did it to themselves. At this point, I’d be surprised if Baker is the manager of the Astros past this season. While it is clear that he and Jim Crane have a positive working relationship, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to see Brown push for his own managerial hire. It only makes sense from this point of view and would represent an odd departure in recent baseball history to see back-to-back general managers not hire their own guys. There are clearly some philosophical differences between Baker and Brown, and I don’t think Crane is keen on changing up his front office again so soon.
Lastly, I am left wondering how the offseason will shape the front office. Brown, after all, wasn’t hired until late January and he didn’t really have the opportunity yet to organize his front office as he sees fit. This is more of an offseason discussion, for sure, but it is difficult to ignore the possible ramifications this winter has on the organization, even more so than last year following James Click’s departure. This weekend's series, and possibly the postseason, could well determine the Astros’ exact course of action heading into the winter months.