There hasn't even been a real Major League Baseball regular season game played yet this week, and yet this has been a pretty damn good week to be an Astros fan. Alex Bregman was one of the featured stars on Home Run Derby day on Monday, and even gave eventual runner-up Kyle Schwarber a run for his money in the first round, losing 16-15. Not bad for the longest shot on the odds board.
Then, on Tuesday night, the Astros were the focal point of all the chaos that ensued from the ninth inning on in the MLB All-Star Game. After Seattle closer Edwin Diaz coughed up a two-run lead (and a potential Charlie Morton win!), Alex Bregman and George Springer bailed Diaz out in the top of the tenth with back to back home runs, en route to an 8-6 win. Yeah that's right, it was time for the Astros to bail out the entire American League with clutch hits, because that's just what they do!
Finally, on Wednesday night at the ESPY's, the Houston Astros were named Team of the Year over a deep and crowded field of champions that included the Golden State Warriors, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Villanova men's basketball team. Here is the acceptance speech:
So tonight the figurative second half of the season begins, and it begins with the Astros looking down at the rest of the American League West, five games ahead of the Seattle Mariners and eight games ahead of the Oakland Athletics. The Astros are 4.5 games back of the Boston Red Sox for home field advantage in the playoffs, an advantage which was necessary in the ALCS last season.
So let's identify a few things to watch for in Astro-land as the second half unfolds:
4. Does General Manager Jeff Luhnow have another deal up his sleeve?
Barring some catastrophic injury (knock on wood), there really aren't any major holes on this team right now, but the one area of concern, if there is one, is the bullpen. Nobody has really asserted himself as the closer for this team yet, and the one guy they've been counting on to be THAT guy the last THREE years is pitching in Fresno right now (shout out to Kenneth Giles!). So, like last season, the Astros should be after Baltimore's Zach Britton. In fact, Richard Justice of MLB.com makes the Astros the front runner to land the Oriole closer, and has this scouting report:
The O's should have gotten the hang of things by now after listening to offers for Machado and Britton for the past 12 months. Even the teams bidding for Machado could turn their attention to Britton, because he could upgrade every contender. He has looked more and more comfortable since returning from the disabled list on June 12. The impending free agent begins the second half having made seven straight scoreless appearances.
One thing I'm guessing will be different this season than last season — if no deals are made at the trade deadline, I'm fairly certain there won't be any grumbling by the players about the front office's not making moves.
3. Who becomes the odd man out in the rotation?
Hey, speaking of Dallas Keuchel (see what I did there?), as of right now, the Astros have perhaps one of the best problems you could have in team sports — if things hold up in this starting rotation, they'll have to figure out which of their five All-Star-within-the-last-twelve-months starters they will need to relegate to the bullpen come playoff time. Here are the ERA's for the starting rotation as of this morning:
* Verlander 2.29
* Cole 2.52
* Morton 2.96
* Keuchel 3.75
* McCullers 3.77
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Pretty salty! Verlander and Cole are obvious locks to be in the rotation at playoff time, and if Keuchel's turnaround lately holds, he, too, will be in there. That leaves the two guys who were bullpen heroes last postseason in Morton and McCullers. Both have shown comfort in either role, so I'm not necessarily rooting for one over the other. (I will make my proclamation here, once again, that I think McCullers would be a dynamite closer, if his career ever needed to go in that direction.)
2. When will Carlos Correa be fully healthy?
The second half of the season begins with us waiting to see just how healthy Carlos Correa is, as he's missed the last few weeks with back issues. A.J. Hinch is fortunate enough to skipper a team where you don't have to rush Correa back from injury. Just make sure he's ready for October. That said, with every little pull, break, and tear that results in a multi-week absence, the questions will continue to abound about Correa's ability to remain healthy, which will someday directly affect Jeff Luhnow's calculus on a big ticket contract for the uber-talented shortstop. This just in, the Astros' third baseman is actually a natural shortstop. Just sayin'. Speaking of which.....
1. How high can Alex Bregman climb?
The latest MVP odds, pre-All Star break, don't even have Bregman on the board. Jose Altuve (+1000) is fourth behind Mike Trout (-350), J.D. Martinez (+400), and Mookie Betts (+800). Other Astros on the board include Carlos Correa (+4000) and George Springer (+5000). Bregman is nowhere to be found, but I would expect that to change after (a) winning AL Player of the Month in June, and (b) an All-Star week in which he was highly featured and won MVP of the All-Star Game. If I had to bet YES or NO, even money, on Bregman finishing in the top 10 for AL MVP, I'd bet YES without hesitation.
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.