by: Mike Meltser (@MikeMeltser)
As the dog days of summer move through Houston the Astros are sitting pretty on top of the MLB Standings and look poised for a deep run come the postseason this Fall. Even though they are a powerful force right now there are a few things I’d like to see them do better to ensure success in the playoffs.
More innings out of the starting pitchers – Right now, the Astros bullpen ranks 14th out of the 30 major league teams in innings pitched, which is fine. The team is currently playing without its projected 1-3-4-5 starters, with Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, and Joe Musgrove on the DL (Musgrove may return this week). That plays a significant factor into this point because they’re aiming to get 5-6 innings out of the Brad Peacock and David Paulino spot starts, and getting Mike Fiers to pitch effectively deep into games is asking a lot.
What I want the team to avoid is piling up too many innings on their high-leverage setup relievers, specifically Chris Devenski, Will Harris, and Luke Gregerson. Hopefully, as the normal starters return to the mound and the team possibly adds a starting pitcher, the bullpen usage remains steady and does not increase.
Trade for a starting pitcher – My sense right now is that the consensus viewpoint is that the Astros need to/should trade for a high level starting pitcher. I’ve heard a few conflicting opinions, including a conversation on The Ringer’s MLB Show podcast last week, where some analysts believe the team can get by with what they have.
That doesn’t give me a lot of comforts. To me, the goal of a postseason starting pitcher is a guy you “want” to start, not a pitcher you think you can merely survive with. If McHugh returns and pitches like he did in 2015, I’m fine with him as a postseason pitcher, but more ideally as a potential 4th starter than a 3rd.
The names you see thrown around as possible targets include Chris Archer, Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, Gerrit Cole, and more. The Astros are certainly doing their due diligence:
Archer and Cole are appealing to me because of the combination of their abilities and contracts. Both are under team control for a few more seasons, and I believe the Astros could certainly use another quality starting pitcher for this “window,” and not only the 2017 season. Quintana has been a horse and also has a very affordable contract, but his season game log reflects a struggling pitcher with major consistency issues. He needs to start pitching better before I feel confident in trading for him.
I’ve always thought Gray is talented, but his injury history is something that scares me. The big question with trading for one of these pitchers is whether or not GM Jeff Luhnow will give up Kyle Tucker, the #5 pick in the 2015 Draft who was recently promoted to AA. I would imagine that Tucker will be one of the most asked-for prospects in any trade discussions.
Alex Bregman improving to his potential – It’s not easy to pick apart an offense that was first in runs, home runs, batting average, OBP, and SLG as of Thursday morning, but this is a spot where I think we can see more.
Right now, Bregman is slashing .249/.314/.398. As the #2 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft and a player who was terrific after a very slow debut last year, I think he can perform better. Part of this may be the fact that it’s still early in the season, despite Houston’s scorching hot start. In the month of May, Bregman hit 6 HRs and put up an OPS of .839.
Every team who traded or considered trading a starting pitcher this past offseason asked about Bregman, and the Astros refused to trade him. I personally believe they were wise to do so, but I want to see more May Bregman for this offense to approach its ceiling.
Limiting Lance McCullers’s innings total – 2017 has gone as well as anyone could have conceived for the 23-year-old righthander. He’s 4th in the American League in ERA (2.71), and settled down after an early rough start on the road.
SI’s Tom Verducci has written a lot about the dangers of young pitchers increasing their innings totals rapidly year-to-year. In fairness, there is some conflicting evidence on this point, but I think it’s reasonable to say that keeping a close eye on McCullers’s innings total is important.
In 2015, he made 22 starts and pitched 125 2/3 innings. In 2016, he made 14 starts and pitched only 82 innings. Before this Friday night’s start, he has made 12 starts and pitched 69 2/3 innings. That’s on pace for about 189 innings this year, a fairly big leap from 2015’s total.
I would imagine that the organization would want to keep that innings total at around 150-160 or so, even before accounting for a playoff run. If the team can maintain a commanding lead in the division and a decent cushion in the American League, the Astros can afford to skip a few McCullers starts later in the year, to ensure that he is fresh for the postseason.