added 7/30/2016 by Bob Hulsey
This year's Astros team is stuck in a mudhole. I forecast they will reach the playoffs despite having spent only one day all season in a playoff spot had the regular season ended that day. Fangraphs shows them at 59.2% likely to be in the playoffs.
They have three young stars who can explode on any given day - Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer - plus several nice role players to provide offense. Despite Friday's meltdown, they have the American League's second-best team ERA (3.83). So why the gloom?
This was a roster crafted so there were several players who were going to make great deadline trading pieces to add what they needed for the pennant stretch and, instead, they find themselves unable to unload anyone they thought would entice other general mangers.
Last year at this time, the Astros dealt for Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers and Scott Kazmir. This year, they could dangle Gomez, Colby Rasmus, Doug Fister and Scott Feldman (all end-of-the-year free agents) for the pieces that they needed.
Well, Gomez (.216 batting average, .610 OPS, 66 OPS+, $9 million salary) hasn't been good enough to trade and Rasmus (.227, .681, 84 OPS+, $15.8 million) hasn't been either. Fister (10-7 W-L, 3.73 ERA, 111 ERA+, $7 million) has been too good to trade and Feldman (5-3, 2.40, 172, $8 million) would be ideal to trade if he weren't buried deep in the Houston bullpen.
The Astros hoped by this time they would have settled their first base situation and found a replacement for Luis Valbuena at third base bubbling up from the minors among Matt Duffy, Colin Moran and Alex Bregman. Neither has happened.
So the Astros this year are a good team incapable of making the sort of move they imagined to get better at the trade deadline. While there are still whispers, the odds are better than 50% they will stand pat.
While they have a solid enough pitching staff and adequate hitting to reach the playoffs despite their brutal 7-17 start, they lack the type of pitching that would take them far in the playoffs. Would a post-season rotation of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Fister and Lance McCullers scare anybody?
All four are adequate to win in the postseason but you want excellent, not adequate. You want an ace with some "nobody's going to beat me" swagger like Keuchel had last year but lost this year.
The Royals made a winning formula out of adequate starting pitchers, a lights-out bullpen and hitters with an amazing knack for late-inning rallies. While the Astros bullpen has been very good, this isn't the sort of Lidge-Dotel-Wagner bullpen that could guarantee a sixth-inning lead would last to the end. While the hitters have had their moments, comeback wins have been fairly rare.
They're a very good team but they just don't have the roster to get better. Even if they added a Chris Sale to get them through the final weeks of the season, this isn't the sort of roster who will dominate in a short series against the top teams (the Astros are 11-19 this year against the AL's top teams so far). They are the type to dominate the weak teams like the ones they faced most of June and July.
I imagine Fister will want a huge raise to stay for next year and the other big contracts that are becoming free agents are apt to be elsewhere in 2017. There is plenty of talent rising up from the minors to take their place but, unfortunately, they just didn't emerge in 2016 when given the chance. Besides, the Astros will need to start making room for larger salaries for Springer, Keuchel and McHugh in the near future and could they also see fit to pay Altuve far closer to what he's worth?
While I enjoyed the big comeback into playoff contention, 2017 might have been better if 2016 were worse - they could have unloaded some players they don't dare unload for now and they could have allowed players like Bregman and A.J. Reed a fuller trial at the parent level to adjust to big league pitching.
Plus there's danger now in offering players a qualifying offer they don't want accepted just to get the high draft pick when that player signs elsewhere. Rasmus taught the Astros a hard lesson last winter - one they won't repeat on Gomez and possibly not even Fister. Guys they expected to get some return on investment from when their contracts expired are instead more apt to walk with the Astros getting nothing in return.
So, enjoy the playoff run and enjoy a meaningful season but don't expect this team to be around when the World Series starts. They simply aren't built yet for it.