It's hard not to get excited about the Houston Astros right now (well, not hard for those actually paying attention, and judging by the attendance, not many of you are). Sure the team has a losing record (11-14) and they're five games out of first place, but the team has won three straight and six of their last ten games. Even better, they're tied for third place.
It's a fun, youthful team embodying the word "compete." Jose Altuve no longer swings at anything close to the plate, and has already drawn more walks this season than he did last. Based on Wednesday's game, Chris Johnson appears to have figured out the whole breaking-pitch thing, and while his defense hasn't been spectacular, it's been average, which is good for Johnson.
Jeff Luhnow mugged the Boston Red Sox in the off-season. Jed Lowrie is hitting from all spots of the lineup (seriously, Brad Mills has moved Lowrie up and down the batting order) while Mark Melancon imploded (as has the rest of the Boston pitching staff) and is in the minors. Jordan Schafer keeps finding ways to get on base (when he's healthy enough to play). The starting pitching staff has been surprisingly good.
But all is not roses for the Astros. There's the fact that they've got a losing record. The catching's not reliable. Brandon Lyon's still in the bullpen. And Brad Mills is still managing the team. Brad Mills managing the team is mentioned primarily for one reason: his handling of the lineup, particularly his handling of the young players in the lineup.
For instance, take last season. At this point last year, Brett Wallace had a slash line of .383/.448/.543, which is pretty good. It was especially good for last year's team. But then Wallace, as happens with young players, particularly rookies, hit a slump. And as Wallace failed to quickly break from his slump, Mills moved Carlos Lee to first base and started playing the immortal Jason Michaels on a regular basis in left field.
Unable to break his slump from the bench, not hitting when he got those few chances to play, and having lost all confidence, Wallace found himself in the minors while the Astros continued to struggle. It's still not known whether Wallace can actually hit consistently in the majors. But last year's team was really bad, and if ever there was a time to just play a youngster and let him fight through his struggles, last year was that time. Mills didn't give him that chance.
The treatment of Wallace is noted because of the play of left fielder J.D. Martinez. Martinez, like Wallace last season, got off to a hot start, but he's hit a slump, and he's now batting just .267/.394/.419. He still leads the team in homers and RBI, but based on Mills's treatment of Wallace last season, it's fair to wonder if Martinez might at some point face that same treatment and start finding himself benched so the immortal Travis Buck can get more playing time.
Now it is important to remember that last season's Astros were run by the Three Stooges of Drayton McLane (Moe), Tal Smith (Larry), Ed Wade (Shemp) and Mills (Curly). This year's squad is being run by adults, especially Jeff Luhnow, who continues to impress as general manager. And while it's a given that the new guys want to win, it also appears evident that they realize this team isn't going to win this season and they want to see just what they have in terms of talent.
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Thus, here's hoping that Luhnow and the rest of the front office keep some sort of leash on Mills, that they don't let him treat Martinez like he did Wallace. Then again, by the proliferation of #MillsLogic tweets, it does appear that maybe the front office is giving Mills just enough rope to hang himself because it's just hard to believe that smart guys like Luhnow, guys steeped in sabermetrics (witness some of the new items you can see on the scoreboard), would actually agree with a manager who continues to ask Altuve, the team's hottest hitter and an on-base machine, to drop down sacrifice bunts.
Then again, you're probably not paying much attention to the Astros. The attendance is way down, which is a shame because unlike the past two seasons, this Astros team is a really fun one to watch. And if that doesn't get you out to the park, maybe this will: This season will probably be your last chance to watch Carlos Lee not run down the first base line.