Maybe this Astros season is all the fault of Cole Hamels. Maybe if Hamels hadn't rejected a trade to the Astros last year — invoking the dreaded no-trade clause — then the Astros wouldn't have scrambled and traded for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers. Instead the Astros would have acquired a bona fide rotation ace and missed out on the disaster that the Gomez trade became.
The Astros were demolished by the Baltimore Orioles last night, 13-5. The game got so out of hand that position player Tyler White came and pitched the eighth inning for Houston. It’s not the first time this season that the pitching staff has faltered; this time rookie starter Joe Musgrove got shelled. But maybe if the Hamels trade had happened, then Musgrove and Chris Devenski wouldn’t be picking up spots starts and Mike Fiers would not be going out on the mound time after time.
The Astros have fallen to 61-60 on the season, losers of five straight games. The team has fallen 10.5 games behind the Rangers and now sits behind four teams for the final wild card team spot. It’s not the season most fans expected. Not coming off of last year’s playoff appearance.
One of the team’s major weaknesses this year appears to be the pitching — just look at last night’s 13-5 loss. Yet the stats show a somewhat different matter. The Astros possess the eighth-best team ERA in the majors and 23 teams have surrendered more runs than the Astros. The Orioles bashed five homers last night, but overall this season, there are 20 teams in the majors that have given up more of the long balls. But the record would be much better if the bullpen hadn’t blown 16 of 46 save opportunities.
The numbers are good, but could still be better. Last year’s Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel, has yet to recapture the magic he’s had the past several seasons, and Collin McHugh, the number two guy in the rotation, has disappointed as well. The less said about Mike Fiers the better. Doug Fister, a guy the Astros took a flyer on this offseason after he floundered with the Nationals last year, has been fantastic for most of the season, but he only signed a one-year deal. When that's over, the Astros might have to fork over a ton of cash to get him back.
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What’s been missing from the team for most of the season has been Lance McCullers. While Keuchel might get the press, if any pitcher on the Astros is going to turn into one of those losing-streak-stopping, big-game-winning aces, it’s Lance McCullers. He’s thrown only 81 innings this season, but he struck out 106 batters in that period, providing an electric fastball that routinely reaches the high 90s in speed, and a nasty breaking pitch that's a cross between a curveball and a slider.
So maybe just getting a healthy McCullers for an entire season is all that the Astros need to break out of a funk. And if it can get Fister back next season, then the Astros should have a better rotation. And unless there’s a miracle of some kind involving another team's putting one of its aces on the trade block, about the only thing that can be done to improve the rotation is to get everybody healthy. Getting pitchers from the free agent market is always a crapshoot, and it’s even more so this offseason, which features no standouts — the biggest names are Fister, R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon. There might be a better chance of getting a closer off the free agent market — Mark Melanin and Kenley Jansen are available (so is Aroldis Chapman, but it’s hard to see the Astros aiming for a guy with his issues).
It’s fun to think about what could have been had Hamels agreed to a deal with the Astros last season. A Hamels, Keuchel, McCullers, McHugh and Fister rotation would have been nasty — that is if the Astros still pursued Fister after adding Hamels. But that didn’t happen. And now the Astros limp home, hoping to at least finish the season with a winning record while beginning to look forward to what can be next season.