While the first half of the season actually ended about a week back, the unofficial start to the second half of the season begins on Thursday, just days after the All-Star game in Cleveland. With a seven-and-a-half-game lead in the division and only two losses separating the Astros and the best record in the American League, a team that struggled mightily with injuries remains in the thick of the race for another World Series title.
Despite their outstanding first half, there are questions to be answered for the Astros heading into the stretch run. Here are some keys to the push for the postseason.
Get pitching help.
Note, we didn't say make a trade, though that might be the most likely option. The Astros certainly could mine the depths of their own system...if they were healthy, which they aren't. Instead, they will probably look to the trade deadline — about three weeks away — to bolster what could be a deadly rotation. Their one-two punches at the front end of the starting rotation and the back end of the bullpen are as good as it gets. Now, they could use another starter who could be a legitimate third arm, as well as some stable middle relief. They have the assets to make it happen and our money is on GM Jeff Lunhow making a move before the deadline.
Figure out the most productive lineup.
With the emergence of young star Yourdan Alvarez, A.J. Hinch will be forced to find playing time for a lot of guys. Tyler White, as if sensing his days are numbered, has been good lately. When Carlos Correa returns — and Aledmys Diaz for depth — there will be an embarrassment of riches at the plate. Someone will need to go, but who exactly? That decision will be difficult and important for their postseason prospects. But, that's not a bad problem to have.
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Clinch the division early.
One of the real advantages during the 2017 season was a huge division lead that allowed the Astros to coast into the playoffs. More importantly, it gave them the opportunity to rest key players and get everyone healthy heading into the postseason. If they can push their lead out to 14 or 15 games, they would have the same advantage as they did the year they won it all. Almost the entire month of July's schedule matches them with AL West rivals. Time to make hay.
It probably should be get healthy first, but we'll assume that Correa, Diaz and Brad Peacock will get back to full strength soon. Once they do, remaining that way will be critical as it is every season. Injuries are the great equalizer and while the Astros may have weathered their share of them this season relatively unscathed, any additional prolonged absences would be pushing their luck. Yet another reason to wrap up the division as quickly as possible.