added 7/2/2016 by Bob Hulsey
Yes, I know it's been a long time since I've offered you a column about the Astros. While there have been other issues in play, one reason was that, frankly, it took this long to figure this year's Astros out. In a nutso year where a reality television star can win a major party presidential nomination, the Cubs are the best team in baseball and our government sends out ultimatums about who can use which bathrooms, conventional wisdom has been sent a beanball. Nothing can be taken at face value.
That includes the Houston Astros, who looked like a solid playoff team and division favorite in March only to stumble out of the gate with a 7-17 record in April, causing fans to scratch their heads and wonder what the Sam Hill was going on. After a furious 18-8 comeback in June, we can see that part of April's failure was a temporary problem and some of it is still a cause for concern.
It can no longer be used as an excuse though. As I write this, the Astros have scrambled back into owning the last playoff spot were the season to end today, so - beginning July 2nd - the Astros are in the race as planned and have a clear path to the postseason if they are willing to take it.
So what went wrong? Minor injuries to Lance McCullers and Evan Gattis figured into it but what better explains the early stumbles were certain hitters not pulling their weight (principally Carlos Gomez and Luis Valbuena) plus the perpetual black hole at first base, trusted starting pitchers (Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh) performing below expectations and the Ken Giles fiasco rocked this team and made them lose the swagger they had built up over the spring.
Another hidden factor was April's tough schedule but I'll get back to that in a moment.
First Valbuena then Gomez caught fire in June and I think both will be solid contributors the rest of the season. Colby Rasmus was hot in April but has since dropped off. Carlos Correa seems to have picked up a second wind recently after facing a sophomore slump.
Then there is the flip-flop in the batting order of George Springer and Jose Altuve which seems to be working well in spite of itself. Springer ought to be a three-hitter given his home run power and RBI ability. Altuve ought to be a leadoff batter with his high on base percentage, improved pitch selection and ability to steal bases.
The Astros have tried a number of fixes at first base but have finally turned to top prospect A.J. Reed who wasn't a high-average hitter even at Fresno but, should he not catch fire, expect the Astros to find one in trade or make Marwin Gonzalez their full-time guy.
I'm not sure what bug bit Keuchel but he hasn't been the same since pitching Opening Day in frigid weather in New York. If he can't return to ace form, it means the Astros will have match-up problems come the postseason and will need to win games with a sometimes streaky offense.
Doug Fister and Mike Fiers have been admirable in picking up some of the slack but somebody needs to step up and become an ace when October comes around.
After deciding that Giles and Luke Gregerson were both too shaky as closer options, the role has been handed to Will Harris who has been a revelation since being claimed on waivers two winters ago. Rookies Michael Feliz and Chris Devenski, erstwhile starting options back in March, have both become dependable bullpen pieces so the Astros now have an abundance of relief options, though they could use a more dependable lefthanded reliever than Tony Sipp.
With Pat Neshek getting nosed out of the set-up role and versatile Scott Feldman also finding he has to pick up innings here and there, I would not be shocked to see a trade in July using our surplus of relievers that will get us another lefty and/or a hitter who can man first base.
The Astros are a lock-solid wild card contender for the rest of the season but I would not hold out much hope for them to win their division away from the Rangers. First, Houston is 1-9 head-to-head with them so far and they have matched the Astros' hot month almost stride-for-stride. I don't see them slowing down much in the coming months.
The wild card, though, is a fascinating situation with eight teams (that's over half the league) bunched in a dogfight over two spots. The good news is that Houston's schedule favors them.
The Astros will spend a lot of time the rest of the year challenging the faltering Angels, Mariners and Athletics. Among the tougher interdivision opponents, they're already done with Boston and Kansas City. They'll be finished with the White Sox after this weekend. They have one series left with New York (home), Detroit (road), Baltimore (road) and Cleveland (road). They still have all seven games remaining against Toronto. There are nine games left against the Rangers, six of them at home.
The Astros went to the playoffs last year with 86 wins. They're on pace now for 87 and it will probably be better when you factor that they won't be as bad as April again even if they can't sustain the winning streak they did in June.
Early tombstone talk has been mothballed. Just keep an eye on the wild card race. If the season plays out as expected, Houston should be in the one-game playoff. But, then again, not a lot has gone as expected this year. That's why they still play the games on the field.