Tough Stretch Will Test Astros' Mettle

added 6/25/2015 by Bob Hulsey

Back in February, I typed this column in which I said we should stop calling the Astros young. But Jeff Luhnow, by desperation or design, has opened the spigot of young talent flowing to the parent club and it has provided a significant infusion of key upgrades looking to keep the Astros atop the American League West where few expected them to be.

The pitching staff has added 21-year-old Lance McCullers, Jr. (3-2, 2.45 ERA in 7 starts) and 23-year-old Vincent Velasquez (0-0, 4.15 ERA in 3 starts) to the rotation while veteran Scott Feldman (4-4, 4.80 ERA) heals, moving Roberto Hernendez (2-5, 4.74 ERA) to the bullpen. The Astros have also enjoyed the return of 25-year-old Brett Oberholtzer (2-1, 2.81 ERA in 6 starts).

All of this has quieted the talk of Houston needing to trade for a top starting pitcher to match with Dallas Keuchel (8-3, 2.35 ERA) and Collin McHugh (8-3, 4.80 ERA). Overall, the Astros enter the current homestand with a 3.66 ERA, good for fourth in the American League.

When Feldman returns next month, I expect Velasquez to be sent back to the minors unless he finds a way to last deeper into his starts than he has recently. Between Keuchel, McHugh, McCullers, Feldman and Oberholtzer, the Astros have a chance to get dominant pitching on any given night. How much would a Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto legitimately add to their playoff hopes?

Likewise, the Jeckyll-and-Hyde offense received a needed boost with the call-up of 20-year-old Carlos Correa, the former first overall pick of the 2012 draft. Correa has stepped up to the big leagues as if he was meant to be there all the time, hitting .300 in his first 16 games with four homers and 12 RBIs.

24-year-old outfielder Preston Tucker (.250, 4 HRs, 15 RBIs in 37 games) and 22-year-old Domingo Santana (.227, 2 HRs, 6 RBIs in 8 games) have also filled in well since their call-ups. The lefty-hitting Tucker may be a keeper for the rest of the season while I expect Santana to return to AAA Fresno once Jake Marisnick comes off the disabled list.

The youth movement will be tested in the next few weeks as the Astros faces their firmest tests yet. The New York Yankees (aka "The Best Team Money Can Buy") starts it with a four-game weekend series at Minute Maid followed by three games with the Kansas City Royals (aka "The American League All-Stars"). Then, before the All-Star Break, Houston hits the road for 10 games against Boston, Cleveland and Tamps Bay.

If the Astros split their next 20 games, they'll be 52-42 (.553 - a 90-win pace) and should be considered legitimate playoff contenders. However, if there's a point where our Cinderella's carriage returns to a pumpkin as the clock strikes Midnight, this could be that stage where it happens.

Should the Astros dominate the Yankees and Royals this week, we can stop pinching ourselves and recognize that the long slog of desolation is over and the Master Plan worked surprisingly well despite Cardinal attempts to sabotage it.

But that's for another column.

There's bound to be a trade or two before the July 31 deadline to add a few more pieces for a stretch run. The bullpen has been quite good (aside from Chad Qualls who has become the new flashpoint of criticism) but you can see cracks in the foundation from overuse.

The offense could use some better parts but where exactly do you upgrade? At third base where Luis Valbuena leads the team in homers? At DH where Evan Gattis leads the team in RBIs? At first base where Chris Carter could ignite as he did last summer? When Jed Lowrie returns from his thumb injury, he will probably become a "super sub" to spell the rest of the infield and provide some better matchups for the decision scientists to exploit.

The Astros were 13th in the AL in batting average when they left on their road trip (.235) but, coming into Wednesday's game, their team average was up to .242 - still 13th best but a big improvement. The Astros are first in the league in home runs (107), third in runs scored (331) and fourth in OPS (.739) despite so many strikeouts (a league-high 689).

Plus, the minor league cupboards are not bare by any means. More fresh faces are on their way to Houston and it remains to be seen how Luhnow will make room for all of them or if some will become trade pieces for veteran upgrades as they begin thinking about the post-season instead of just the regular season.

Winning in the playoffs is a much harder proposition (ask Moneyball maharishi Billy Beane who still hasn't won one). The next 20 games are the big challenge for now. Turning potential to excellence can wait for another time. The Astros are feeling young again and, for once, that's in a good way.