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Whirled Series: Astros’ Last Hurrah?

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros
“It is high! It is far! The Yankees lose! The Yankees lose! Tha-a-a-a-a Yankees...looooooose!!!!”
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As a fan of ABY (Anybody but the Yankees) I much enjoyed last night’s ALCS game 6, which went down as a truly bad night for alleged domestic violence perpetrators. (Not only did each closer, once banished under MLB’s domestic violence policy, serve up a crippling 2-run HR, but agent Matt Sosnick was being arrested as well.) On the field, though, the big hits were from D.J. Lemahieu and Jose Altuve.

Before delving deeper into the World Series bound Astros, let me make a quick observation around perhaps my favorite non-A’s player, Altuve. Upon hitting a clutch and somewhat improbable blast off of elite closer Aroldis Chapman that sent his team to the World Series, Altuve simply put his head down and circled the bases before finally gesturing, as he approached the plate — a gesture simply pleading with his teammates not to rip off his jersey, because apparently it got him in trouble with his wife last time it happened.

No over-testosteroned gyrations or drunken frat boy whooping and gesturing, as the defeated Yankees glumly exited the field. It was a refreshing show of professionalism and sportsmanship, and just another reason I admire and respect the biggest 5’6” player in the game.

This brings me to another digression (to the extent you can digress before you have even begun the main point), and that is the conundrum Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone faced in the bottom of the 9th. In a sense it was a “no brainer,” with George Springer at 1B and 2 outs and the score tied in the bottom of the 9th.

No manager in his right mind issues an intentional walk in that situation, pushing the winning run into scoring position. No analytical metric would suggest that the batter at the plate was more likely to get an extra base hit than the next batter was to get a hit. Only a manager fully committed to following his gut over every existing metric would even entertain such an idea.

And yet somehow it would not have been crazy had Boone put Altuve on and let Chapman go after Jake Marisnick, who was only in the #3 spot because he had come in as a pinch runner and defensive replacement for Michael Brantley. You could almost see a dramatic Altuve blast coming off the bat of one of the game’s premier hitters (who was 3 for 7 career against Chapman), and while Marisnick hits LHPs best you could easily see Marisnick being overmatched by the electric Chapman.

Just interesting to ponder that a crazy move might not have been that crazy (unlike the IBB to Adrian Beltre that backfired when Marc Rzepczynski proceeded to hit Rougned Odor to force in the winning run — not that I’m still bitter). Not that you can blame Boone for using the strategy he used; you can just appreciate both Altuve’s mad skills along with his lovable demeanor.

Anyhoo...looking ahead to 2020 it’s hard not to be highly fearful of a team that won 107 regular season games and is now advancing to the World Series. This is a great team that is not going to be crumbling any time soon. And yet what we have observed in the post-season so far does offer a glimpse of perhaps troubles to come going forward.

If they lose Gerrit Cole the Astros’ rotation is going to be anything but “sure dominance”. Verlander continues to be Verlander, and I am not inclined to think that Father Time is catching up to him yet, but you can see Zack Greinke relying more and more on precision and guile with scattered results and trouble as he gets through the order a third time. Wade Miley faded so badly that he was left off of the ALCS roster and will be a free agent.

As for replacements, most of the current options are far from overwhelming. Brad Peacock and Lance McCullers Jr. will be important potential returnees to the fold, but Josh James looks sometimes dominant and at other times utterly erratic, without much ability to right the ship when it veers off course. Jose Urquidy did a yeoman’s job last night, thanks in part to his defense and some good fortune on Brett Gardner’s near HR and Lemahieu’s drive to the deepest part of the park, but has also proven to be “intriguing but erratic”. Forrest Whitley, Houston’s prized pitching prospect, had a terrible season (try a 7.99 ERA with 44 BB in 59.2 IP across 4 levels) in that has lowered his stock considerably.

It’s a rotation that could be very good but it’s also one with the potential to suddenly become strikingly mediocre. We will see what the Astros do in the off-season to add talent, but they may be starting from a very precarious place.

Meanwhile, the stunning rookie Yordan Alvarez has seen a steady diet of changeups that have revealed holes in his swing and approach. Alvarez is far better than his post-season ledger, but this stretch has shown that he is also not quite the wunderkid he was his first time through the league (.313/.412/.655, 178 wRC+).

Another huge loss would be if the Astros do not re-sign Will Harris, a very “A’s-y sneaky great” reliever eligible for free agency. I could see, and would love to see, the A’s targeting Harris this off-season but if he goes anywhere else he will leave Houston’s bullpen with more than a few question marks.

As we have seen, A.J. Hinch tends to trust only Roberto Osuna, Harris, and Joe Smith — also a free agent — and absent Harris (as well as possibly Smith) Hinch might find himself with precious few reliable options to get games to the house. We know all too well how volatile bullpens can be, and if the Astros find themselves struggling to hold leads, then as the A’s saw in May, 2019 and really throughout the season, that alone can flip the standings in a hurry.

Bottom line? Houston isn’t going to fall from 107 wins to 81. They are going to be a very good team favored to win the AL West going into 2020 and they have earned that prediction. But will the 2020 Astros be great, or merely very good? They have advanced to the World Series while displaying some of the reasons they may be peaking with a bit of a fall to come.

See you Tuesday night for game 1! Scherzer vs. Cole — it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.