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.

 

Joe Kelly Fight Club V2.0

Last night, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros began a two-game series in their first meeting since the Astros sign-stealing scandal news broke in a story by The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich.

The game was relatively uneventful until the bottom of the sixth inning, when Joe Kelly entered the game for the Dodgers. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with Mr. Kelly.

 

In April 2018, Kelly threw at then-Yankees hitter Tyler Austin in retaliation for a hard slide into Brock Holt (now of the Brewers). All hell broke loose and Red Sox Nation created “Joe Kelly Fight Club”, complete with t-shirts and all.

Back to last night, there were signs in that sixth inning that something was going to go down. Kelly walked a couple hitters, and was missing inside a lot. He walked Alex Bregman, with several pitches inside before he buzzed ball four behind his head. He missed inside to Yuli Gurriel in the next at bat before walking him on four pitches. Kelly went to 2-0 on Carlos Correa, missing with a head-high off-speed pitch before striking him out on the next three pitches to escape the inning. Video in this tweet by Rob Friedman, the Pitching Ninja (recommended follow on Twitter) captures the moments.

 

Needless to say, the Astros were not happy with Kelly’s pitching last night. The usual “you’re risking ending a guy’s career throwing at someone’s head” kind of stuff. This is true and I don’t condone throwing at a person’s head, but the Astros HAD to know some kind of retaliation was coming. To a man, Kelly handled the postgame questions perfectly.

 

It will be interesting to see if anything goes down tonight when these two teams square off again. They have three more games remaining against Houston, including a pair at Dodger Stadium September 12 and 13. Tonight’s game-time is 9 PM eastern-time.

UPDATE: Joe Kelly has been suspended for eight games by Major League Baseball. Very harsh punishment.

Mike Fiers was the First to Speak-up but not the Last

Unless you have been living under a rock since mid-November, you have heard about the 2017 Houston Astros using technology to steal signs to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents.

When former Astro and current Oakland A’s staring pitcher Mike Fiers went on record with The Athletic’s Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal, speaking out on how his former team stole catchers’s signs, it turned the baseball world on it’s ear (the Drellich/Rosenthal piece can be read here).

Needless to say, Fiers’s former teammates are upset that he broke an unwritten code of clubhouse culture. Major league clubhouses are sacred. What goes on in a clubhouse is supposed to stay in a clubhouse. Fiers may never be fully trusted again by some current and future teammates because he went against the grain, letting team doings become public.

On social media, the reaction has been mixed. Many folks are calling Fiers a hero (including this writer), and many are destroying him, calling him a rat, a bad teammate and many words unsuitable to repeat here. Reactions from many ex-players, including Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez had this to say:

 

Mike Fiers was the first former Astros player to speak out, but I don’t think he will be the last. Players are human beings, and many human beings have consciences. Fiers proved he has one by going public. But he can’t be the only one who feels the same way about his team’s cheating. Immediately after Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, former Astro Gerrit Cole distanced himself from the team.

This is certainly not to say Cole will say anything at all regarding the Astros’s indiscretions, but it makes me question whether he agreed with what his former teammates were doing.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the current Houston squad was cleared of any wrongdoing, but let’s remember how Jose Altuve jumped all over a slider thrown by New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman to end the ALCS, and had a look of terror on his face as he told his team not to rip off his jersey. He did that for a reason.

Two days ago, Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, a member of the Astros from 2012-18, gave something of an apology, saying he is “sorry for the situation”, but also pointed out they didn’t cheat every game.

But make no mistake, Keuchel wasn’t happy the aforementioned “clubhouse code of silence” was broken.

 

This isn’t over by any stretch, and I think as time goes by, more people will shed light on what really happened. It’s just a matter of how long and how many people have a conscious. Stay tuned.