The Houston Astros enter the figurative second half of the baseball season with the second best record in the American League, within shouting distance of the league-leading New York Yankees, and conveniently enough, with an opportunity to pick up two games in one day on the Yankees if they can sweep the hated New Yorkers in a day-night doubleheader today at Minute Maid Park.
If the Astros' play thus far this season against the Yankees is any indicator — the Astros are 3-2, with two late inning collapses accounting for the two Yankee wins — this race for best record in the American League is about to get tighter in the next 24 hours!
Let's face it, as far as Astros drama goes, the best record in the AL is about all that's left. The Astros are running away with the AL West crown. Not even a recent 14 game winning streak has allowed the Seattle Mariners to get into the same area code as the Astros in the standings. So what are the big questions that we hope to get answers for over the course of the remaining 71 games? How about these four:
Will the Astros be active at the August 2 trade deadline?
Because of the lockout that postponed the start of the regular season by a week or so, the trade deadline, which is normally July 31, has been pushed back a couple days. Of course, the Astros have made history in recent years at the deadline, trading for Justin Verlander in 2017 and trading for Zack Greinke in 2019. Those deals were made back when the Astros had a burgeoning minor league system, though. While the Astros' system has provided some nice pieces for the big league ball club over the last few years, the fact of the matter is the punishment for sign stealing (forfeiture of 1st and 2nd round picks in 2020 and 2021) really put a dent in the depth of the system. If the Astros do make a deal, it will likely be some slight tweaking, as opposed to a swing for a future Hall of Famer. The team doesn't really have a ton of needs, to be honest, but you can never have enough arms.
What about Lance McCullers?
Speaking of arms, the most mysterious arm in Houston right now belongs to sometimes-ace starting pitcher Lance McCullers. Who knew that when the Astros moved McCullers up a day in the rotation in the ALDS against Chicago that the ripple effect on McCullers' arm would still be felt at the All Star break the next season. But that's where we are. All signs SEEM to be trending positively for McCullers, who continues to throw simulated games every few days, upping his pitch count more and more each time. The biggest question is "When will he be back?" The next question is "If he IS back in 2022, what is his role?" The team is rolling with a six man starting rotation already, but I can't imagine they are going to put McCullers on the unpredictable schedule of a middle reliever or late inning set up guy. At this point, I've written off McCullers until 2023. It's the easiest way to cope with his injuries, as a fan.
What will the starting rotation look like come playoff time?
With McCullers in mind, the next logical thing to wonder is exactly which of the six (seven, if McCullers is back) starting pitchers are viewed as rotation guys in the postseason, when teams generally whittle their starting rotation down to four guys. Obviously, for the Astros, the two locks are All Stars Verlander and Framber Valdez. From there, it will be based largely on performance the remainder of the season. If I had to predict the other two spots, I would say Luis Garcia, last season's runner up for AL Rookie of the Year, will grab one of them, and give me Cristian Javier for the other one. I could also see Dusty Baker using some permutation of Javier, Jose Urquidy, and Jake Odorizzi in a "piggy back" type situation, where two of those guys each pitch 3 to 4 innings one after the other, in the same game.
How's the overall health heading into October?
As I said earlier, there isn't much relevant drama in the standings right now for the Houston Astros. Even the race for best record in the American League, while it would be fun to attain that, isn't the end all and be all. If the Astros have to win a game at Yankee Stadium in the postseason to take home field advantage in, say, the ALCS, they've shown they are capable of doing just that.
Instead, the biggest issue for the Astros in the final two months of the season is health. Making sure that all the arms, especially Verlander's, have been managed properly. Making sure that Alex Bregman stays in the healthy lane he has been in all season (knock on wood). Most importantly, the team needs to keep a VERY close eye on whatever this hand issue is for DH Yordan Alvarez. He is the one guy in this lineup who can singlehandedly win a series for you with his bat, like he did in the ALCS last year versus Boston.
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