Houston Astros second half preview
On Opening Day it seemed laughable that Houston fans would be entertaining playoff hopes at any point this season. Yet here we are at the All Star break and the Astros are right in the thick of things. After tallying 100+ losses in three of the past four seasons it seemed more likely that fans would have checked out and started talking about that unattainable “next year”. “Next year” had become a state of being for the Astro faithful, and day dreaming had become much more pleasant a pastime than watching the product on the field.
Earth to Houston (and the rest of the baseball world): “Next year” is here. For nearly the entirety of the 2015 season the former cellar-dwellers reigned supreme atop the American League West. How did the Astros go from zero to hero? Management stuck to their guns and built from the ground up. The Astros’ farm system ranks in the top 10 in baseball, boasting four of the top 100 prospects, three of which (Correa, Santana, Velasquez) have already spent a decent amount of time in the big leagues.
Injuries and inconsistent bats have plagued the team all season, but an elite bullpen (2.67 ERA – 4th in MLB), a few All-Stars (Keuchel and Altuve), and one of the hottest young prospects (Carlos Correa) have kept the Astros in the conversation. Now that Houstonians have had a taste of what it feels like to be good, they’ll want more.
In order to truly have staying power, Houston needs to shore up some holes in their starting pitching. Unfortunately, Dallas Keuchel can’t pitch every night. Rookies Vincent Velasquez and Lance McCullers have been a godsend, but manager AJ Hinch seems intent on keeping their innings down. The back end of the rotation has been cobbled together, seeing starts from Brad Peacock, Asher Wojciechowski, Dan Straily, Samuel Deduno, Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Roberto Hernandez. Reading through the list alone is exhausting.
If the Astros want to contend, they’ll need someone else they can rely on. Who do they go get? My money is on Reds righty Johnny Cueto. So far this season Cueto has a 2.73 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP. He hasn’t posted an ERA above 2.80 since 2010. The Reds simply don’t have enough firepower to contend this year. Even with 2015 Home Run Derby winner Todd Frazier, Cincinnati’s 3.85 runs per game is 25th in baseball. Plug in Cueto to this rotation and you have enough pitching depth to make a post season run.
Stellar pitching can’t win the game on it’s own, and it won’t be worth much if the lineup doesn’t start to produce again. The Astros are a feast or famine team. They lead the majors in both home runs and strike outs and it’s not a close race in either category. After George Springer went down with a hand injury on July 1st, the Astros topped four runs just twice with a pair of shutouts in their final 10 game road trip. A rehab stint for Jed Lowrie should begin in the next week or so, while Springer’s return is less defined. Lawrie is thought to be a potential member of the first base platoon along with Jon Singleton and Chris Carter. He could also get a few starts at third.
The Astros open the second half of the season with a 49-42 record, half a game back from the Angels in the AL West. Tonight they will try to snap their six game losing streak (longest in the MLB) against the division rival Texas Rangers who are 42-46, 6.5 games out of first. Looking beyond this weekend, what can Houston fans dare to expect going forward?
Worst case scenario: Carlos Correa can’t find a way to hit the fastball inside and continues to regress from his electrifying start. Jon Singleton, Chris Carter, and Luis Valbuena hit .150 collectively as the Astros offense continues to struggle barely scratching out enough runs to win 31 of their remaining 71 games. The team finishes, 80-82 well behind the Rangers and Angels, and third in the division. Finishing 2 games shy of .500 would be much more than expected, but it likely wouldn’t be enough to reach the playoffs. After the start this team has had, the fanbase would be more than disappointed.
Best case scenario: The Astros post an MLB-best team ERA of 2.15, smash 250 homers, and eclipse 96 wins for just the second time in franchise history. George Springer has the highest OBP in the American League, Jose Altuve exceeds 220 hits, and Lance McCullers throws a ho-hitter. The perfect combination of hitting and pitching proves unstoppable on their way to a poetic 4-1 World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
My Prediction: The Astros add another starter and the lineup returns to form, buoyed by the reinsertion of Springer and Lawrie. For the remainder of the year neither the Angels or the Astros have more than a five game lead in the division as first place in the AL West goes back and forth constantly. With the division on the line, the Astros take a two and a half game lead into their final series of the season against the New York Mets. Houston takes the series, edging out the Angels for the AL West crown. The team rides it’s momentum through the ALDS, before faltering in the ALCS against a quality opponent. The Astros end their regular season with a 93 wins, a division title, and impressive showing in the playoffs.
The most beautiful (and frustrating) thing about baseball is that any of those scenarios are plausible to some degree. At the end of the day Houston fans can hang their hat on wildy exceeding expectations and doing it with young players that will be around for years to come. The Houston Astros are relevant again. Better yet, they are capable of going out and taking a series from the best in baseball (already defeating the Yankees, Royals, and Twins). They may not win it all, but the Astros are certainly not a team that anyone will look forward to seeing on their schedule for the foreseeable future.
Follow Matthew on Twitter @Hou_Launchpad