The Astros' Slow Descent into MLB Mediocrity

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2020

Houston Astros' George Springer holds his left arm as he goes down after being hit by a pitch from Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Jacob Barnes during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/Associated Press

If you're rooting against the Houston Astros, you're not alone.

Yes, the Astros' 2020 heel turn was dulled slightly by the COVID-19 hiatus and the fact that stadiums are filled with silent cardboard cutouts and canned crowd noise rather than jeering, flesh-and-blood fans.

But no one has forgotten the sign-stealing scandal that led to the firing of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, cost the Astros their first- and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and 2021 and tarnished the franchise.

True to form, Houston has been involved in a pair of bench-clearing incidents this season against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's, the latter of which led to a 20-game suspension for hitting coach Alex Cintron.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

But a suspended coach and villain status are the least of the Astros' myriad problems.

Houston is 17-14 after splitting a doubleheader with the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday. It's in second place in the American League West behind Oakland and looks like a safe bet to make the postseason for the fourth straight year.

Yet the team's place among the AL's elite is in serious jeopardy. Instead, the 'Stros appear to be descending into mediocrity.

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First, there are the injuries. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander has logged just six innings this season because of a right forearm strain. He threw a 20-pitch session Sunday and could return at some point, but how effective and durable he'll be is an open question.

Closer Roberto Osuna is lost for the season to an elbow injury. Designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, who won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2019, is likewise out for the year after undergoing right knee surgery.

Third baseman, two-time All-Star and 2019 AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman is on the 10-day IL with a hamstring strain.

And on Monday, outfielder George Springer exited a game against the Angels after he was hit by a pitch on the left elbow. X-rays were negative, but Springer won't return to the lineup until Friday at the soonest.

Second baseman Jose Altuve, a three-time batting champion and the 2017 AL MVP, isn't hurt. But he's hitting just .206. Cue the buzzer jokes.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

With Verlander on the shelf and 2019 co-ace Gerrit Cole on the New York Yankees after bolting in free agency, Zack Greinke is the only proven top-of-the-rotation starter.

The Astros could go shopping before the Aug. 31 trade deadline, but their farm system is thin. Top prospect Forrest Whitley could have been the cavalry, but the 22-year-old right-hander is battling a sore arm, the latest in a series of injuries that have stalled his professional career thus far.

Looking ahead, Houston can't expect to upgrade its MiLB stash anytime soon with no high-round picks until 2022, and it's hard to believe any marquee free agents will want to come to Houston with all the bad vibes and animosity swirling around the organization. The best the Astros may be able to do is retain their own free agents.

That list includes Springer and fellow outfielders Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick. 

There is talent on the roster, to be sure. Outfielder and former top prospect Kyle Tucker looks to be putting it together with an .879 OPS, five home runs and an MLB-leading five triples. Shortstop Carlos Correa remains a high-octane player and is slashing .288/.368/.423. First baseman Yuli Gurriel has an .873 OPS and five homers.

But the red flags are everywhere for a team that won a World Series in 2017, advanced to the American League Championship Series in 2018 and won an AL pennant in 2019.

The Oakland Athletics, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays are all legitimate title contenders, and the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays are young teams on the rise.

The Astros are doing alright in the standings. But while they've gone 10-3 against the lowly Angels and Seattle Mariners and 4-0 against the sinking Colorado Rockies, they've gone 0-8 against the San Diego Padres, A's and Dodgers, all clubs with winning records and serious playoff aspirations.

From champagne-and-confetti heights to this? That's quite a tumble.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly summed up the feelings of many when discussing the eight-game suspension he received (later reduced to five games) for throwing brushback pitches to Houston hitters and getting into a verbal altercation with Correa while walking toward the dugout.

"They cheated. Everyone knows they're cheaters. They know they're cheaters. It's over," he said on The Big Swing podcast. "That's been there, done that. But now they mess it up by ruining other people's lives, so they f--ked it up twice."

We know Kelly is rooting against the Astros. Maybe you are, too, along with many other fans and opposing players.

Right now, though, their biggest problem appears to be themselves.

   

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of Baseball Reference.