For a couple of hours, Houston Astros fans got a reprieve from the reality of the rare valley in which they've found themselves during a season full of peaks, as Jeff Bagwell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Bagwell spoke of family, former teammates and coaches going all the way back to high school, and we all got to relive the magic of the ugliest über-effective swing in baseball history.
While Bagwell and fans in Cooperstown celebrated his ascent to baseball's mountaintop, the Detroit Tigers were administering a 13-1 thrashing on the Astros in Detroit, the final stop in a ten-game road trip during which the Astros leaked oil in varying amounts over the last week or so.
The overall standings still do little to make Astros fans concerned about anything pre-October, but recent reality for the team shows some warts that must be addressed if October is going to actually be enjoyable. To wit, consider the following:
— The Astros’ two best hitters-not-named-Jose-Altuve — George Springer and Carlos Correa — are both on the disabled list, Springer for another week or so with a pulled quad muscle and Correa until sometime in September with a torn ligament in his hand. If the regression to the mean comes anytime soon for Marwin Gonzalez or Josh Reddick, scoring runs could become a bit tougher.
— Also, may I just say right here, "Thank God for Jose Altuve!!" I just wanted to say that. He is this team's most irreplaceable player. Okay, back to lamenting...
— Lance McCullers had another bad outing on Sunday, giving up five runs in five innings in the 13-1 loss. The Astros have lost McCullers's last five starts, and his ERA in those five games is 8.63. Hideous and scary.
— Dallas Keuchel gave up three runs in three innings in his return to MLB action on Friday. The Astros' bats bailed him out in a 6-5 win, but Keuchel looked far from what we had become re-accustomed to in April and May.
— The Astros have lost thereof their last four, including a 9-0 loss to the Phillies, baseball's worst team, and the aforementioned 13-1 loss to the Tigers. It has not been fun.
Most troubling of all, while the starting pitching remains inconsistent at the top and the bullpen is routinely imploding, general manager Jeff Luhnow continues to clutch his top minor league prospects as if they are all can't-miss. The big league club is (and has been, for a while) in obvious need of an arm in the rotation and in the bullpen, and while patience is afforded Luhnow thanks to the gigantic lead his team has built, some big names have come off the board in the past few days, as the list of significant trade targets shrinks.
A couple of weeks ago, it was the Cubs trading for starter Jose Quintana, and it appears Chicago struck again on Sunday night, landing reliever Justin Wilson from the Tigers for prospects. Indeed, it's the Cubs, the defending world champions, handling their business like a team that's never won a title (like, um, the Astros). The Yankees have won a few dozen titles and they seem to be on every top trade prospect. The Dodgers are kicking tires on Yu Darvish.
So perhaps most disturbing is this report from ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick:
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"The Astros continue to explore the pitching market — starters and relievers — as the trade deadline approaches. But executives from other clubs say Houston GM Jeff Luhnow has been reluctant to discuss any of his top prospects. Luhnow will probably have to bend if the Astros are going to make an impact acquisition at the deadline."
Again, on the surface, everything seems to be okay. The record is 68-36 and nobody in the American League is within ten games of the Astros right now. But if the postseason started today, the top two pitchers on the staff, one has spent more time dealing with a neck issue than actually pitching and the other is unraveling like a cheap sweater. The other All-Star pitcher for the Astros, Chris Devenski, has given up a run in three of his seven appearances since the break, and gave up the hit on the go-ahead run on Saturday against the Tigers.
Luhnow has the currency in the minor leagues to address these issues. Whether he chooses to use it is another question entirely, and the answer may very well dictate whether or not the Astros live up to the mountain of hype they've earned over the first four months of the season.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.