The Astros are in a bit of a slump. The team’s lost seven of its last 10 games. The starting pitching has been pretty solid, but the hitting has disappeared. Yet the Astros do have a winning record since the All Star break, and then there’s the important thing: Despite how badly the Astros have been playing this month, the team is still in first place because, no matter what, the American League West is the worst division in baseball.
There’s nothing that should be surprising anybody about the Astros right now. The problems the team’s having scoring runs are the same it has had all season. The offense is built to hit home runs. And to hit multiple home runs a game. But it’s not really an offense that is good at generating runs without homers. So when the balls are flying out of the ballpark, the team wins. But when they don’t, the team loses. It’s just that simple.
The pitching has been so good that the team’s able to stay in games even when there aren’t any home runs. So the inability to generate offense without home runs has been rather frustrating, even though, remember, the Astros aren’t built to generate offense without home runs. And frankly, there’s nothing more frustrating than watching Chris Carter flail away at pitch after pitch after pitch, hoping that the next pitch is the one where he’ll actually make contact. (This line of thinking also applies to Luis Valbuena and Evan Gattis).
The Astros keep hanging onto the hope that Carter will return to the hitter that he was during the second half of last season. It’s apparent that this isn’t going to happen, but there are no better options since Jon Singleton doesn’t appear to be able to hit in the majors, Valbuena’s not much better than Carter, and any team that has Marwin Gonzalez in the lineup on a regular basis probably isn’t a playoff-caliber team.
But if there’s anything that has been learned in this recent batch of baseball, it’s got to be that George Springer is the team’s most important player. Sure, the fans love Jose Altuve, and Chris Correa is in the running for Rookie of the Year, but is there any doubt that it’s Springer who makes the team go?
Springer’s absence forces the Astros to continue using players like Colby Rasmus and Jake Marisnick on a regular basis. Springer’s absence makes it harder for the Astros to hide the black holes of suckitude in the batting order that are Carter, Valbuena, Jason Castro and Gattis — and come on, A.J. Hinch, there is no legitimate reason ever to play Gattis in the field on a defensive basis (at least Carter has actually worked to become a decent player on defense, not that he’ll ever be classified with the likes of Jeff Bagwell when it comes to defensive excellence).
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The Astros attempted to fix the Springer problem by trading for Carlos Gomez from Milwaukee. But Gomez has been pretty useless with the bat since arriving in Houston (so he’s fitting right in with the rest of the lineup), with a .234/.265/.340 slash line and only four RBI, and he hurt his right knee making a catch the other night and is questionable for this weekend. Which means the Astros might possibly be playing Rasmus and Marisnick at the same time, which is not something a fan hoping for wins should want to see.
The Astros are hoping that Springer’s able to return soon, and when he does, the team should be immediately better since that means Rasmus and Marisnick are pretty much permanently on the bench. And since Springer’s actually a halfway decent base runner and seeing as how he can get on base, which is something not most of the rest of the team can do, there’s some hope that maybe the Astros will be able to generate some offense without having to hit home runs.
But no matter what happens for the rest of the season, just remember this: The Astros don’t suck anymore. The Astros are no longer the laughingstock of baseball. The team has won more games this year than most fans expected. It’s loaded with talent, with a great core of Springer, Correa, Jose Altuve and Preston Tucker. And then there’s the pitching staff led by Dallas Keuchel with Lance McCullers, Collin McHugh, with the hope that Scott Kazmir can be signed to a new contract this offseason.
So don’t give up hope. The playoffs might not happen this season. But baseball's fun again, and damn it, the Astros don't suck anymore!