It seems yesterday the 2022 MLB season started yet we are almost at the end of September, a time where a lot and a lot of nothing happen at the same time.
Many teams still have the world to fight for, a Playoff berth to clinch, a Division to win in a bloodbath rather than a landslide, miracles that could happen in Baltimore and a cursed streak that finally could come to a close in Seattle.
A lot of other teams don’t have much to play for seemingly: they are either signing off a year of mediocrity with shades of a better future, Pittsburgh among them, or no future at all, sorry Rockies fans.
On the other hand a franchise or two already have plans come October, with the few games remaining nothing more than practice waiting for the Postseason to come: in LA the Dodgers are all but sure of their Division, same can be said for the Yankees although Tampa is putting up a challenge that Aaron Judge could arguably win alone as he did the past month or so.
That applies to the Houston Astros as well: barring a historic demise they are going to win the AL West again and rival NY for the best record in the league, a 6 game lead on them and 11 on those Mariners that are going to savor Playoffs atmospheres for the first time since the Ichiro/Griffey/Edgar days.
If a win or a loss don’t count that much, how players fare in those games does a ton: simply put Houston has one of the deepest rosters in MLB, whether referring to rotation, bullpen or lineup. Mainstays ain’t going to miss the train, Altuve Yordan JV and Framber sitting pretty, but those players on the brink, good but not great enough, do actually have quite the interest in putting up numbers and secure a spot.
In this entry I’ll quickly analyze the most pressing questions come Postseason roster, giving my two cents on how the Astros should look in October.
Rotation: should I stay or should I go now?
Justin Verlander at #1, Framber Valdez at #2…ain’t much better than that, Mets notwithstanding!
#3 onwards though is up for grabs: numbers agree on giving the third rotation spot to Cristian Javier, with a few bouts of wildness and some of the filthiest stuff in all of baseball, a slider that no one hits, .130 xBA, and a fastball no one sees, .190 xBA and both whiffing far above average.
There’s a good problem though: Lance McCullers Jr is back, his stuff as pristine as ever, his command as spotty as usual. History would give #3 to LMJ on account of his Postseason dominance, and his starts since he’s back weren’t bad either, walks aside.
As weird as it sounds, they are both my #3: what in 2017 was the legendary Morton/McCullers piggyback should evolve in 2022 McCullers/Javier, with LMJ getting a couple times through the order and Javi the rest. This is not entirely new, a strategy that the Astros employed from the WS season on, still Javier has never been this good and yet his experience as a premiere multi-inning weapon out of the pen does factor in such a decision.
#4 is anyone’s guess, although a closer look tends to favor Jose Urquidy’s steady barrage of strikes over a good but HR ridden Luis Garcia. The wildcard is baby Verlander, aka Hunter Brown: his debut opened eyes, his stuff is electric and if he can really throw 60% strikes, I’m all for sending him out on the brightest lights. Note than he had his share of bullpen in AAA as 2+ inning bridge, a role he could assume in Playoffs too.
Predicted rotation: Verlander, Valdez, McCullers, Urquidy
Who stays: Javier in a piggyback, Brown as elite long relief
Who goes: Garcia, but he has time to prove me wrong
Bullpen: ain’t no rest for the wicked
This is the area where I’d have no idea what to do in Click and Baker’s shoes: a true embarassment of riches, the Astros bullpen has been the best in MLB all season long and is also 10 units deep…what else?!
Ryan Pressly had his IL stints but he’s been the old same lockdown city and if he’s dinged, both Hector Neris and Rafael Montero, yes he of the Graveman/Toro trade, have closing experience and elite numbers that compare to Press and his dominance.
In a perfect world Pressly closes, Montero sets up and Neris bridges the 7th but what if help is needed in the 4th or earlier? Enter Bryan Abreu: what was a wild flamethrower has become a top 25 reliever with heat, a disgusting slider and the ability to go multiple innings. Oh, did I mention Hunter Brown too?! Man, good luck about that…
Specialists? Got them too: past year’s foes are this year’s friends, so welcome Will Smith to get those LHB out, a feat he has been quite good at since he came to Houston for Jake Odorizzi. If a bit more length and equal lefty disruption is needed, the always expressive Phil Maton should be able to fit the script.
Against righties you say? Have your go at Ryne Stanek’s absurd 2022, a should-be All Star that only walks can hold, his heater touching upwards of 100 mph and a splitter that barely spins as it dives down to the plate. More innings? Seth Martinez and his sub 3 ERA at your disposal!
Honestly I don’t know who’ll get axed come the Postseason but every single component of the Astros pen should be invited to the party: for lack of experience I’d say Martinez is the odd one and considering both Javier and Brown’s existence, Maton could also not be penciled in the ALDS, and both are well deserving of such an honour.
Wicked: the Astros bullpen
Lineup: with or without you
There’s not much real estate available in the Astros diamond and outfield: with Bregman, Pena, Altuve and Gurriel as the set infield the only riddles are the LF/DH revolving door of Yordan/Mancini and why should anyone else play CF that is not named Chas McCormick.
Alas, problems do exist and they already should have been solved by now: first off, it has been memories Yuli, but time is over. If the only thing he’s bringing to the table are his scoops and the occasional double, that doesn’t cut it, and a sub .300 OBP with no slug and negative defense is more than enough a reason to let him ride the bench and off the sunset.
Don’t say that to Dusty Baker though: for some reason he stuck with Yuli instead of trying out any kind of other possibility, from Mancini to breakout rookie Yainer Diaz, not only that he also set Gurriel at #2 or #6 in many lineups, because his ABs are worth more than those of Tucker and McCormick right?! With no one else having enough 1B exposure it’s going to be Yuli ride or die, and dying it will be, via the groundball.
Center field will also show you the most ridicolous thing since the 10-man infield squad: a personal CF. Nothing wrong with Mauricio Dubon, the guy battles his ABs, rarely strikes out, makes a ton of contact and plays a good to great defense almost everywhere, but his contact is abysmal and his production close to null. He’ll start when Verlander pitches though, because…reasons?
In what has been a disastrous lineup construction all season long for Dusty Baker, and a clear show of lack in harmony with Click and analytics, let’s close things out with a hard truth no one wants to hear: Martin Maldonado shouldn’t start a single Playoff game until Christian Vazquez exists in the Astros roster.
Maldy sure is fun and can erase baserunners with the best of them, but everything else has been almost criminal: his bat has more holes than a golf course, occasional pop and frequent chases on pitches below the dirt and above the ump’s head, his blocking and game-calling nothing to write home about if not suspect, note the Fastball% for many Astros pitchers in x-2 counts.
Vazquez has been nothing short of solid since his Boston heyday: his bat is above average for a catcher, a rarity, he can also gun down a basestealer and framing is on par. Admittedly he started off slow in Houston but he’s the superior catcher and more importantly the superior bat, which is what really counts in October.
Actual lineup: Altuve, Pena, Alvarez, Bregman, Tucker, Gurriel, Mancini, McCormick, Maldonado
With: Vazquez at C, McCormick at CF, Mancini at 1B, Yordan at DH with Diaz LF
Without: Dubon, back to a UT role, Gurriel, back to the bench, Maldonado, back for the 3rd game of the series
Another year, another Astros postseason: if in the past couple of years Houston was hard driven by a juggernaut offense, this time around it’s pitching that is carrying the Astros to the promised land, from a superb rotation to a cast of relievers that is full of above average actors as in an Ocean’s movie.
The offense, sputtering all year long due to injuries, slumps and comical lineup decisions, has all but the duty to show up and guarantee 4–5 runs of support per game, a margin that should be more than enough for JV, Framber and company to carry home wins and book a ticket for another go at the World Series.
The stage is set and waiting, the music is on, time for another Houston run at the trophy!