By: Chris Larson
The Houston Astros, reigning World Series Champions, have had themselves quite a season once again and that should come as no surprise. After all, this is a team that is loaded and locked with talent from players like Justin Verlander to Jose Altuve to Carlos Correa to George Springer and everyone else in between those four names. Houston has proved all year long that they are a strong team and are not stepping down from their chance to compete for another World Series title anytime soon.
So far this season, the Astros lead all of baseball in team ERA with a cumulative ERA of 3.10 over 956 and 1/3 innings. In that span, the team has recorded 1,114 strikeouts and held their opponents to a .214 batting average. In terms of offense, the Astros haven't really missed a beat either. To date, the Astros lineup has combined for a team batting average of .257 (3rd best in the American League) and a .332 on-base percentage (2nd best in the American League). All of that has combined for a +180 run differential, the best run differential in all of baseball.
While the Astros are a strong club, they have hit a few bumps in the road, especially yesterday, when it was announced that Jose Altuve would be sidelined on the 10-day DL. Internally, the organization is hoping that Altuve is sidelined for only the minimum, 10 days, but given that it is a knee injury, you never know how quickly someone is going to recover from something like that or get back to full health. In terms of Carlos Correa, who was placed on the DL at the end of June with back problems, that is also a lost for the Astros, who at the time, were hoping that, Jose Altuve, could cover the void lost by his absence, but that is no longer the case.
In addition, Houston has also had problems with their bullpen at various points throughout this season. Let's not forget about the struggles of Ken Giles, dating back to last postseason, which ultimately ended up in him telling team manager, A.J. Hinch, off and resulted in a demotion down to Triple-A where he could work on his mechanics in a less pressurized environment. In addition, Chris Devenski simply hasn't been as impressive as he was last season either. So far this year, Devenski has a 4.19 ERA over 38.2 innings of work and has allowed 18 earned runs over that span. Over the past month alone, Devenski has seen his ERA ballon to 23.40 over 5 innings of work.
Furthermore, both Joe Smith and Will Harris have also struggled to date with ERA's over 4 and Hector Rondon, who the team signed as a free agent this past off season, has had to assume closing duties due to the absence of Ken Giles. Rondon has been effective overall with a 2.41 ERA over 37.1 innings pitched and has the highest strikeouts-per-9 rate of his 6-year big league career (11.33). However, don't let that fool you from the fact that since the beginning of July, Rondon has also struggled posting a 6.14 ERA over 7 and 1/3 innings with 5 earned runs.
Beyond the DL stints of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa as well as the bullpen problems, the Astros have also experienced some issues behind the dish. Houston's primary catcher, Brian McCann, was placed on the DL at the end of May with right knee soreness, came back to the big league club, and a little over three weeks later, was put back on the DL before having knee surgery. Presently, the time table on McCann's return is unknown, but his absence has also been a bit of a loss for the team as well. Also, the organization would rather have Evan Gattis spend time in the Designated Hitter role due to the offense that he provides as well as due to the fact that it benefits his long-term health.
That is one reason why the Astros made a move with a team in their own division, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, this past week to acquire starting catcher, Martin Maldonado. The acquisition is one that went under-the-radar and likely won't receive nearly as enough attention as it should, but that was a very bold move by Jeff Luhnow & Company. Maldonado has long been known as a defensive first catcher and will be a huge addition for the Astros down the stretch.
Currently, the Astros rank 7th, at the catching position, with a Defensive value of (9.2). In addition, the team ranks fifth in Defensive Runs Saved (5) at that position. So the acquisition of Maldonado wasn't necessarily a, must-do otherwise the team is doomed, type of move, but rather something that strengthens an area of strength already. Internally, the Astros view Maldonado as someone who can help Max Stassi during his development and teach him the defensive ropes behind the dish.
In addition to the acquisition of Maldonado, the Astros also made another under-the-radar move on Friday when the team acquired reliever, Ryan Pressly, from the Minnesota Twins. Pressly didn't have a very good debut for the Astros on Saturday, but nonetheless, is a valuable asset to add to their bullpen. Among qualified relievers this season, Pressly ranks 9th in strikeouts-per-9 rate (12.95) and has the 6th highest swing-and-miss percentage among relievers this season (37.3%). He joins the likes of Josh Hader, Edwin Diaz, Craig Kimbrel, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman in that category.
Essentially, Pressly adds another nice strikeout/swing-and-miss guy to the Astros bullpen to compliment two other guys who have done very well this season: Colin McHugh and Brad Peacock. Colin McHugh ranks 6th in left on-base percentage (93%), while Brad Peacock ranks 10th in that category (90.7%). In addition, McHugh ranks 6th in BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) with a value of .214, which is why acquiring someone like Pressly is important. Now, manager A.J. Hinch, has the ability to matchup all three of those relievers along with the other bullpen guys in different situations and maximize their full potential.
Now that the Astros have made two very good moves on the surface to improve their ball club even more, could they potentially make yet another big move or two before the bell rings on Tuesday? The answer to that is yes and don't be surprised if the team remains aggressive on all fronts. They likely won't look to acquire a starting pitcher because their starting rotation is already stacked, but Houston has been linked to almost every reliever available on the trade market and could look to even try to acquire middle infield help depending on the timetable for both Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.
The Astros were in pursuit of Jeurys Familia and Zach Britton and while those two arms are no longer available, don't be surprised to see them try to get a back end piece before all is said and done. It may not be someone who can only close, but rather another addition that adds length to the pen and an individual that can be used in different situations. The last thing Houston wants to do is to lose out in the postseason because Altuve and Correa aren't fully healthy or due to bullpen struggles which have plagued the team at different points this season, but especially over the last month.