- By Kirk Bohls American-Statesman Staff
It’d be wrong to suggest the Houston Astros brass didn’t see this coming.
They kind of did.
Astute general manager Jeff Luhnow and savvy manager A.J. Hinch knew their club was going to be good in 2017. Maybe not 44-22, best-in-the-big leagues good. But good. Really good.
“I always liked this team,” said Hinch, Houston’s boyish-looking manager, before a game with the in-state rival Texas Rangers. “But I liked them last year.”
He liked them a whole lot better after their 7-17 start in April, especially since they still found a way to flirt with the post-season by going 67-50 after late May and finishing third in the American League West.
“I still liked them,” he insisted. “I just didn’t like the way we started.”
He did this spring. The Astros have sprinted out of the blocks and have threatened to lap the field. They rode one of the league’s most feared offensive lineups and a breakneck pace of 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to the best record in the majors and not long ago a whopping 14-game lead over the rest of the division.
In truth, there’s always been a lot to like about this franchise. And even more in June, some devastating injuries to the pitching rotation notwithstanding. That’s a lot of withstanding. But they’ve withstood it so far.
Houston had no idea its pitching would be this good.
And now after losing its entire rotation to injuries, Houston had no idea its pitching would be this fragile.
Even with two straight losses to the Rangers and six defeats in their last eight games have trimmed their huge AL West lead to 11 games, the Astros are counting on this being only a bump in the road. As Hinch said, “I didn’t show up a week ago puffing my chest. You don’t plant a flag in June. If a team hasn’t gone through this, and they will, I wish them well. Actually I don’t wish them well, especially in the American League.”
Still, Luhnow should be in the running for executive of the year after bolstering the club with veterans like catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki and former Astro Carlos Beltran through free agency, waivers or a trade. Those moves, coupled with probably the best core of young players in the game, have fueled this amazing start, but his best move may be to come in July because of who’s not yet here.
“Jeff moved really early last year and got veteran pieces,” Astros president Reid Ryan said. “And all our young guys got on-the-job training. The big surprise was how good our pitching has been.”
And now how hurt they are.
Four-fifths of Hinch’s rotation, including Keuchel for a second time, are on the disabled list. That would ruin most teams, but Houston’s stable of arms and strong bullpen have been deep enough. Hinch is trying to patchwork his team until his regulars come back.
He got almost five strong, 10-strikeout innings from converted reliever Brad Peacock on three days’ rest Tuesday when the offense produced only two runs, and enormously talented but raw 6-foot-7 Francis Martes took the mound Wednesday night in his first major-league start.
And don’t look for the brain trust to stand pat. Anything but.
In fact, it won’t surprise at all if Luhnow pulls off a deal not just for a back end of the rotation pitcher but a first-line arm that could complement Keuchel and the electric stuff of Lance McCullers Jr. for a serious playoff run.
Don’t look for him to sit on his hands, even after Keuchel (pinched nerve in his neck), McCullers (back strain) and Charlie Morton (right lat strain) come back. Joe Musgrove returned from the DL and pitched decently on Monday, but Collin McHugh remains on the 60-day disabled list.
A power arm at the top of the rotation would be a godsend for this team if it wants to contend with clubs like the Nationals, Rockies and Dodgers for the city’s first World Series title.
So you can expect Luhnow to reach out, if he hasn’t already, to fading clubs’ pitchers like Kansas City’s Jason Vargas, the White Sox’s Jose Quintana or the Phillies’ Jeremy Hellickson. Of course, he may shoot for the moon and aim higher for a Sonny Gray, Chris Archer or a Gerrit Cole.
It wasn’t long ago that the Astros had a weak farm system, but moves to replenish it have stocked it with young talent like outfielders Kyle Tucker and Wednesday arrival Derek Fisher (the latter had 16 homers this year at Triple-A) and stud arms already called up in 6-7 David Paulino and Martes, who is built like a linebacker at 6-1, 225 pounds.
“We don’t want to watch this opportunity slip away,” Luhnow said. “If we can make the big-league club better, we will. But it’s not going to be today.”
There’s no real reason to make a move today because of the size of the Astros’ lead. Besides, as Luhnow reminds, if he reached out this far in advance of the July 31 trading deadline, his competitors will smell desperation and make Houston pay far more than it’s comfortable.
The flipside is Houston could land a sizable chip and have it for much longer than just the final two months of the season. The Astros are in it for the long haul.
“We’ll react,” Luhnow vowed. “This organization is strong, and we’ll react.”