Astros Questions Answered: Rotation, Lineup, Singleton, Diaz and More

AL Player of the Week, Framber Valdez.
AL Player of the Week, Framber Valdez. Photo by Jack Gorman
When one goes on vacation, it is expected things will happen in sports, but holy moly, did things ever change when this writer decided to take a trip "off the grid" last week. In addition to the trade that brought Justin Verlander back to Houston after half a season in New York, Framber Valdez tossed a no-no (and was named AL Player of the Week as a result) and, on Monday, Corey Julks was sent back to Triple A Sugar Land, a precursor to a promotion for the hot-hitting former top prospect Jon Singleton, who, like JV (albeit it far less successfully) just made his way back to the Astros. Oh, and Jose Urquidy, who missed a boatload of games with a shoulder injury was back on the mound Sunday in New York against the Yankees.

It's...a lot.

One thing is clear and that is the Astros are all in on winning and keeping that winning window open as long as possible. Throughout the first half of the season, they have had to do it through bailing wire, spit and prayer thanks to a slew of injuries to Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Urquidy, Lance McCullers, Jr., Luis Garcia and Michael Brantley. There has been speculation from around baseball and hope inside the Astros clubhouse that health would right what has been a rocking ship. Some even believed the Astros would take off almost immediately upon Verlander's arrival and blow past the continually potent Rangers who made a couple of major deals of their own.

A split with the Yankees served to show that this AL West race is far from over and there are still plenty of questions to be answered. Let's look into a few of them.

How does Verlander's arrival impact the rotation and J.P. France?

His first trip to the mound back with the Astros looked a lot like all of Justin Verlander's other outings with the team. He was effective and got very little run production. Welcome back! JV certainly will help anchor a team of young players who have put in a TON of innings. France is already pushing up against the most innings pitched of his career with two months to go (not counting the postseason). Hunter Brown is well over his career best in IP and Cristian Javier is rapidly approaching it. Once Urquidy is fully healthy and stretched out, it would make sense that the team could give spot rest to their starters and/or use a six-man rotation for a while.

There are few downsides to the extra padding in the rotation, particularly when it comes in the form of a horse like Verlander. This added to the fact that Valdez seems to be rounding back into shape giving the team two legit aces at the top of the rotation. Hopefully, it can help the Astros get to the finish line healthy and without significant dead arm issues from some of their younger players.

Can the bullpen stabilize with the addition of Kendall Graverman?

The Astros have remained one of the best 'pens in the majors thanks to quality depth, but it has been a rocky ride. Both Phil Maton, stalwarts of the bullpen brigade have had massive issues with control. Maton, in particular, has had an ERA over six during the last 20-plus appearances with 14 walks. In that same time period, Bryan Abreu, who had quite the blip in June, has a 3.32 ERA with 28 strikeouts and 12 walks. Likewise Rafael Montero, who was in danger of losing a spot in the 'pen, has a 2.84 ERA in his last 10 games while Ryan Pressly's ERA is over five in the same span. It's been wild.

Graverman should add some stability by simply giving guys a break from high leverage situations. He can take some of the pressure off guys who are struggling to keep their arms fresh in a year when they have been pretty significantly taxed. Also, don't discount someone like Ronel Blanco getting time in the 'pen as the year goes on.

How does Yainer Diaz fit in with Alvarez and Singleton?

Manager Dusty Baker has taken quite a bit of flack from fans this year over his sometimes confusing lineup choices. Perhaps no bigger complaint has been the lack of opportunities for Diaz despite his ascendant numbers. This was magnified recently when he chose to start Grae Kessinger and Martin Maldonado instead of Diaz at either first or catcher. His argument was that Kessinger was a better defender and Maldonado was better against left-handed pitching. Kessinger and Maldonado went a combined 0-5 (Maldy is only hitting 30 points better than Diaz against lefties by the way).

Now, the team adds a much desired left handed bat in Singleton, a guy who really can only play first and DH. Unless Baker decides to give more split time to Diaz behind the dish, it seems likely he is only going to lose opportunities at the plate. It's important to note that EVERYONE believes Diaz is the catcher of the Astros future, just not the present, mainly because Maldonado is considered one of the best managers of pitchers in the game. Clearly that is keeping him in ballgames because his numbers, offensively and defensively, are not close to Diaz.

Jon Singleton is back with the Astros. Can he finally play well at the major league level?
Photo by Tom Hagerty
Will Singleton finally be effective at the major league level?

The biggest knock on Singleton throughout his career is that he absolutely mashes in the minors but cannot seem to be an effective hitter at the major league level. In 2014, his first full season with the Astros major league club, he slashed .168/.285/.335/.620 with 134 strikeouts and 30 walks in 362 plate appearances over 95 games. Most recently, he had 32 plate appearances this season in Milwaukee with a .103 average before being released.

Conversely, in the minors, he's a star. For his career spanning 11 seasons, he has slashed .254/.378/.459 with an .838 OPS. In 33 games for the Space Cowboys since rejoining the Astros organization, he has 12 homers and 28 RBIs with an OPS of 1.138, which is no doubt why he is getting a shot on a team that could use another bat from the left side, but if history is ANY indication, no one should be penciling Singleton's name into more than a bit role over the next couple months.

How long will it take for the Astros to adjust to all the players returning?

As per usual, Yordan Alvarez has returned to rake. In the 10 games since coming back, Alvarez is slashing .361/.439/.750 with a remarkable 1.189 OPS and four homers. In those same 10 games, Altuve is slashing .333/.409/.562 with a .973 OPS and two homers. So, to answer the question for those two: not long.

It might take a little time for Urquidy to be up to a full game of pitching, but the rotation can live with even a few more piggyback starts if necessary.

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Will Abreu ever come around at the plate?
Jack Gorman
Should we expect more days off for Jose Abreu?

One would think, but that hasn't been the case. Mired in a 2-22 slump, Baker recently gave him an unscheduled day off, but it didn't really appear to help. The big name free agent acquisition this offseason is suffering through one of the worst years of his career. Despite a very good June, Abreu continues to struggle. His batting average is nearly 30 points lower than his worst year, slugging nearly 100 points lower and his OPS is just .641 with his worst season previously being .820.

It's been an awful season, but the Astros cannot really afford to pull the plug entirely, and they don't have a guy to fill the gap at first base. It's a problem.

Is Jeremy Peña going to turn it around?

The biggest problem facing Peña this season is expectation. The World Series MVP has had to face what many young players do early in their careers. Pitchers have adjusted and he hasn't been able to catch up. Through 102 games and roughly the same number of plate appearances last year, Peña as a rookie was slugging better (.416 to .368) with a higher OPS (.704 to .668) and more home runs (16 to 10). But his average, strikeout and walk numbers are comparable.

It was during the last couple months of the 2022 season and, in particular, the postseason when Peña became the superstar we saw win the World Series MVP. He is still a VERY good defensive player. He just hasn't made the leap in year two that many hoped he would. The problem is the expectation that he would be significantly better when he's been only marginally worse.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke