As we enter the functional second half of the Major League Baseball season, coming off Tuesday night's All-Star Game, it is abundantly clear that the Houston Astros' star power in the MLB galaxy matches their on-field prowess, where their 60-29 record is the second best in all of baseball and the best in the American League.
From a glitz standpoint, the All-Star Game broadcast on FOX served as a mini-infomercial for baseball's next big team — George Springer was miiked up for an in-game interview while playing left field, Jose Altuve was the centerpiece of numerous
short-shaming group photos of All-Stars, and there were at least a couple of commercial breaks that transitioned out with the trio of Astros starters clowning around with bats and helmets and whatever else they could get their hands on.
The message is clear — the Astros, and all the record-breaking offensive exploits that come with them, are now resonating far beyond the city limits of Houston, Texas. The Astros are a national thing. They're also a virtual lock to win the AL West and head to the postseason. As of the All-Star break, Bovada had the Astros as a 1/250 shot to win the American League West. That's greater than a 99.5 percent chance of winning the division. These are good times!
So with that in mind, there are a few questions whose answers are crucial to the Astros’ chances of hoisting a trophy at the end of the season. Let's briefly examine a few of them....
5. What happens at the trade deadline?
The city of Houston is on pins and needles right now waiting for SOMEONE to make a trade. If it's not Daryl Morey chasing Carmelo Anthony, then it's Jeff Luhnow chasing (presumably) another arm. We've discussed extensively the list of potential targets in this space. Of those names, Gerrit Cole has pitched better of late. Jose Quintana, too. However, there's no real hammer out there available right now. Certainly, there is nobody on the market pitching any better than Brad Peacock and Mike Fiers have pitched in their triage roles, and likely nobody who would compel Luhnow to deal one of their top outfield prospects (Derek Fisher, Kyle Tucker).
4. Is there a regression coming up from any of the big hitters?
The hitting has been so good, top to bottom, that there is less than a zero percent chance of the Astros trading for a bat. Including Marwin Gonzalez, utility player extraordinaire, six of their regulars are hitting .297 or better. It's hard to call anyone in the lineup or on the bench a bitter disappointment, other than Carlos Beltran, who is the lone player well below career averages, hitting just .227 and with an OPS of .690. Perhaps all that leadership he is bringing to the clubhouse is translating into the equivalent of about 250 points of OPS. Here's one tricky thing, if we are looking for potential gotchas — there is some serious daylight between current numbers and career numbers for most of these guys:
2017 OPS Career OPS
Springer .993 .852
Reddick .880 .759
Altuve .968 .807
Correa .979 .867
Gurriel .813 .771
Gonzalez .967 .723
We will exclude Gurriel, only because his career body of work was done almost entirely outside MLB, so that .771 is based on a very small sample size. The rest of the guys are all hitting more than 100 points higher than their career OPS. If this is who they are — a distinct possibility for Altuve, Correa and Springer — then great! If not, there's a backslide coming at some point.
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3. Will Alex Bregman be as prolific at the plate as he's been skewering fans on Twitter?
One name not on the list above is Alex Bregman. Coming up on his one-year anniversary as a big leaguer, I think most Astros fans would probably fall into the category of "slightly disappointed" so far in Bregman's 2017 season. His line of .256/.338/.419 is fine, and is actually outstanding for a team's number nine hitter. You'd just hope for more from a guy who probably could have fetched a big arm last season in a trade. (Appropriately, it was discussion over that exact topic that led to Bregman's feuding with a fan on Twitter, and eventually deleting his Twitter account.)
2. Who will be pitching ninth innings in October?
The answer is probably Ken Giles, who's been fine as the closer, for the most part. Flawed, but fine. My issue with Giles is that he straddles the line sometimes, putting runners on base frequently and giving up runs that are meaningless to the final outcome but slightly disturbing in the grand scheme of things. Chris Devenski is superior in virtually every statistical category (ERA, WHIP, K/9), and superior in the "eye test." However, A.J. Hinch is unlikely to move him out of his current role of "high leverage situation extinguisher."
1. Will Dallas Keuchel stay healthy?
This is the biggest October question facing the Astros. Keuchel was great enough in his 11 starts so far to make the All-Star team, with a 9-0 record and a 1.67 ERA. He hasn't started a game since June 2 with neck issues, but is slated to make a couple of rehab starts in the minor leagues before returning to the big league rotation. Last season, this injury to Keuchel would have been a body blow to the team's postseason chances. That they've cruised along without him says everything you need to know about the dominance of the offense and the resourcefulness of the pitching staff. However, October is about barely existent margins for error. The Astros will need a healthy Keuchel to get to the World Series.
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.