The Definitive Guide to Houston

‘Pen Aces Stress Test

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For a first-place team, the Astros sure have been unlucky. That may sound glib in reference to the best team in baseball, but there aren’t many other ways to describe the litany of injuries that have beset the Houston starting rotation. At present, staff anchor Dallas Keuchel is keeping fellow hurlers Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh company on the disabled list. Meanwhile, Lance McCullers Jr. returned to duty just last week.

That sort of thing takes a toll on a team – even one as filthy in depth as these Houston Astros. To wit, Houston currently sits in eighth place in the major leagues in the number of innings pitched by the bullpen. Whittle out the National League, and the Astros rise to fifth – higher than any other contending AL club. (Contrast this with the bullpen of the Washington Nationals of the National League East, a popular speculated post-season foe. The Nats’ bullpen is decidedly mediocre, but it’s pitched the fewest number of innings in the majors.)

It’s worth noting that Astros relievers have thus far responded to the unusual workload with grace and aplomb. Their 5.0 fWAR paces all of baseball, per fangraphs.com, thanks in no small part to the sensational contributions of Chris Devenski and Will Harris. (Before joining the starting rotation in a pinch, strikeout-machine Brad Peacock was no slouch in the ‘pen, either.)

Case in point: The Houston bullpen delivered seven dominant shutout innings against the Mariners in Seattle on Sunday, sealing a series win after starter Francis Martes struggled to find the zone for two uneven innings. Not many teams boast a relief corps that could measure up to that kind of performance.

But it’s irresponsible to assume that Devenski and Harris – to say nothing of key supporting pieces like Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson – can maintain their current pace over the rest of the season. Almost to a man, doing so would mean exceeding career highs in appearances and number of innings pitched.

Which puts the ‘Stros in an interesting position entering baseball’s trading season. While popular punditry has tied the Astros to any number of high-profile starting pitchers, one has to wonder if GM Jeff Luhnow might instead look to bolster his beleaguered bullpen. With McCullers back in the fold, Peacock and Fiers pitching well, and Keuchel, Morton, and McHugh all working their way back, the Astros’ rotation is already poised for a performance upgrade. Meanwhile, relievers generally cost less to acquire than starters, and the right piece could help the ‘Stros effectively shorten post-season games to a measly five or six innings.

Watch this space – we’ll be back with trade rumors and analysis as the July 31 deadline approaches.

Fiers Aims to Flame
The Astros welcome the Athletics to Minute Maid Park tomorrow night, just days after sweeping the A’s in Oakland. Game one features a rematch between Mike Fiers and Sean Manaea. Fiers emerged victorious last week, using his retooled repertoire to hold the A’s to one run on three hits over six innings. There are still plenty of tickets available for the series.

Stargazing
A trio of Astros position players – Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer – are in line to start this summer’s All-Star Game in Miami. And they may not be the only ones to make the roster – Keuchel, McCullers, and Devenski are all making strong cases to represent Houston at the midsummer classic, too. The 2017 All-Star Selection Show kicks off this Sunday.

Marwin On The Mend
Astros utility man and unexpected power source Marwin Gonzalez is still day-to-day after suffering a strained right oblique during batting practice in Seattle. While the Astros surely miss his potent bat, expect them to exercise caution – a week of rest now could help keep Gonzalez fresh down the stretch.

Noah is a Houston-based writer and photographer. You can find him exploring Houston's restaurant and museum scenes with his wife or catching a game at Minute Maid Park.

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