Now that the All-Star break is officially behind us, the Astros return to action on Friday against the Angels.
All things considered, the Astros resume their regular season in a good spot. A 64-35 record with a +188 run differential thus far in the 2018 season puts Houston squarely as one of the best teams. While the offense hasn’t recaptured its all-time form from 2017, the lineup (114 wRC+) has been really good. The pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation (3.02 ERA), has been tremendous. The bullpen has been through peaks and valleys, but the unit (2.75 ERA) is a quality one.
The Astros could be considered one of those “boring” contenders. Even without the first paragraph, we all know what the Astros are in 2018. But there are various points to interest to watch for the remainder of the season.
Point of Interest #1: The health of Carlos Correa
Correa, who is only in his age-23 season, has been on the DL for roughly a month with back issues and the timeline for his return has continuously been pushed back. That signals a moderate alarm in my headspace. In the Astros’ defense though, the team is likely being cautious with Correa, as they should be. When the issue began to surface, it was the latter half of June. It pays to be cautious early in a long season.
Before his trip to the DL, Correa posted a 128 wRC+ with a 2.4 fWAR. Obviously, the Astros are a better team with Correa active than without his services, and that is why the back issues are a concern. That said, I would caution fans to not equate his thumb ligament injury from last season in conjunction with the current back issues as a sign that Correa is prone to injuries. The thumb injury and subsequent surgery began when he slide headfirst into home plate, which allowed the thumb to be jammed on a catcher’s shin guard. Fast forward two weeks and Correa takes a swing of a bat that forced action. But if the back issues become a recurring theme in the future, then it would be fair to speculate on his durability.
Point of Interest #2: Reinforcements at the trade deadline?
The All-Star break was essentially the “true” trade deadline in terms of notable acquisitions. Manny Machado was clearly the best player available, and Brad Hand was arguably the best reliever on the trade market. The Dodgers and Indians clearly improved their chances for this season, while the Orioles and Padres figure to improve their long-term outlook. Unless the Mets start shopping Noah Syndergaard and/or Jacob deGrom, the actual trade deadline looks to be quite boring. But the Astros still have options to improve their club, specifically the bullpen and catcher.
Names like Raisel Iglesias and J.T. Realmuto have been linked to the Astros in the past, and I look for those rumors to continue. Adam Conley could be an interesting alternative for a left-handed reliever under club control in the foreseeable future. Even with Hector Rondon performing well as the primary closer, the absence of Ken Giles puts stress on the bullpen. Iglesias, who has closer experience, would fit the bill as a pitcher in Giles’ role. But the progress of Giles and the rehab from knee surgery for Brian McCann will likely determine how aggressive the Astros are in pursuing reinforcements by the trade deadline.
Point of Interest #3: The efficiency of the starting rotation
Like I mentioned earlier, the Astros’ starting rotation has been one of the best in baseball, but there have been signs of cracks. Slight cracks, mind you, but cracks indeed.
Starting rotation ERA by month for Houston
Mar/Apr: 2.54 ERA
May: 2.82 ERA
June: 3.17 ERA
July: 3.59 ERA
I know that I am likely splitting hairs here as a starting rotation with those numbers is a quality one. Across numerous metrics for rotations, the Astros perform favorably, but we’ve seen their starter ERA rise by one full run since April. Sure, regression is likely a key reason and maintaining a mid-two ERA is unrealistic for an entire season in today’s game. And to Houston’s defense, the starters have kept their opponents wOBA anywhere from .260 to .284 when broken down by months.
But the Astros would like to give their starters a bit of rest as the postseason comes into closer view. Management may not have that luxury if the Mariners and A’s continue to make up ground, though. It’ll be interesting to see how the team approaches August and September in terms of workload.