Are Astros Nearing the End?

The Houston Astros are a household name in Major League Baseball as a result of reaching the playoffs four of the past five seasons. In 2017, they won their first World Series championship, and last year battled seven games in a classic World Series against the Washington Nationals. This past November came the bombshell revelation of their 2017 sign-stealing scandal, tainting the sole title they have.

After a tough start to 2020, the Astros rebounded from a 7-10 start, climbing to a record of 14-10 going into Thursday afternoon’s game in Denver against the Colorado Rockies. Beating up on bad Giants, Mariners and Rockies teams has propelled them to a seven game winning streak.

All is not well, as José Altuve is barely hitting his own weight with a .180 average and .241 OBP. George Springer is struggling at .215 on the season, while ace Justin Verlander is shelved as a result of a forearm strain. Josh James, a 27 year old with a 100 mph fastball is no longer in the rotation because of inability to throw strikes. James’s bloated ERA of 11.17 has relegated him to mop-up duty. Lance McCullers, Jr’s ERA sits north of 5.00 in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.

Only Zack Greinke and 24 year old rookies Brandon Bielak and Blake Taylor have provided reliable mound-work in Verlander’s absence. On the offensive front, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley have picked up the slack. Josh Reddick is an active contributor to the Astros cause as well.

Yesterday, Astros beat-writer Brian McTaggart announced last year’s rookie sensation Yordan Álvarez is out for the season with a partial tear in his right knee.

The Astros have many questions going beyond this season. Springer (30 yrs. old), Brantley and Reddick (both 33) will become free agents. Behind the plate, Martín Maldonado gives excellent defense and is cheap (3.5 M through 2021), but a poor hitter and better as a back-up.

The aforementioned Justin Verlander, now 37, faces an uncertain future. He went on the shelf after his Opening Day win with a forearm strain. This type of injury to a pitcher is an ominous sign, and often leads to Tommy John surgery. Greinke’s outings are as good as ever, however, he is 36 years old and the velocity is declining. Young José Urquidy (on 10-day IL) is ready for a spot in the rotation. 22 year old Forrest Whitley may be ready sometime in 2021.

The Astros owe Verlander a prorated portion of his 33 million dollar salary for this year and the full amount in 2021. Greinke has a price tag of 35M this year and next. However, 10.33M is paid by Arizona, resulting in a little financial relief. Altuve’s contract runs through 2024 at 29M/year. Gurriel is still productive, but enters arbitration this winter. Because Houston owes so much in active contracts, it may result in them trading the 36 year old Gurriel and go with 23 year old Abraham Toro.

If 2020 were a normal season, the team’s budget would have been just over 230 million dollars. For 2021, eighty-nine million dollars is dedicated to Verlander, Greinke and Altuve. New general manager James Click has decisions to make about Astros future. Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker can fill in if Click moves on from Brantley, Reddick, and Springer,

Will owner James Crane further distance himself and his team from the disgrace from the sign-stealing scandal? Former manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow are history, and letting Springer, Reddick, and Brantley will remove a few more pieces. But Altuve, Greinke and Verlander aren’t likely to go anywhere unless Crane is willing to eat most of their contracts.

Correa and Bregman are young superstars not yet in their prime. It remains to be seen if the Astros keep one or both upon entering free agency. Winning games fixes a lot of problems, moreover, Houston seems to be back on track for the time being. However, if they fall apart, it will be interesting to see what ownership decides to do.

 

What is with Angel Hernandez?

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has been working for some time to improve the quality of games and speed up pace of play. This has been well documented, and Manfred has proposed and added several new rules to “improve” the game.

Another way to speed up MLB games is having consistent and fair umpiring, especially behind the plate. Case in point, yesterday’s game between the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals. Angel Hernandez, everyone’s favorite ump this side of Cowboy Joe West, was behind the dish. Astros pitcher Forrest Whitley threw a close pitch that should have rang-up Harrsion Bader to end the top of the first inning, but Angel didn’t give him the call. Hinch began chirping about the non-strike call. Bader eventually reached base on an error, prolonging the inning. Hernandez, a notoriously terrible umpire, ejected Astros manager A.J. Hinch for arguing balls and strikes. Hinch was so irate and incredulous from being tossed that he had to be restrained.

It’s bad enough that Hernandez felt the need to make himself the “star”, ejecting a manager in a spring training game. Making it worse, Hinch claims Angel “said some condescending things that are inappropriate, unprofessional.”

Believe it or not, when umpires create their own “umpshows”, it adds unnecessary time to a ballgame. If MLB goes ahead and begins use of Trackman doppler radar in the future, some umpires will eventually need to find a new line of work. Angel Hernandez should be among them.