added 06/01/2017 by Greg Thurston
One-third of the way into the season the Houston Astros have been the best team in the major leagues -- and it isn't even close.
As the calendar turns from May to June, the Astros ride into Arlington for a 3-game series with the Rangers having won seven straight and enjoying a 12-game lead in the division standings.
The Astros have played outstanding baseball across the board, leading the majors in almost every offensive category known to man while boasting the lowest team ERA in the American League. The comebacks have been epic and the losses have been few and far between. So far, so good. But is any team really this good?
While everything has gone swimmingly to this juncture, we all know that over the course of a full season, even the best teams will struggle through difficult times. After a somewhat slow start in the first eight games of the season, the offense has been outstanding. Thanks to some key offseason additions that helped add balance to the lineup, the team has been able to avoid any prolonged slumps. The pitching has been equally as impressive to this point, but could turn out to be the team's Achilles heel.
Coming into the season one of the key components to the Astros' success was a return to health for the top two starters in the rotation, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. Both pitchers have been healthy and have produced at an All-Star level so far, (knock on wood) helping the rotation to overcome the loss of Collin McHugh, who has yet to pitch this season.
In addition to McHugh, who is working his way back from an elbow impingement, starters Charlie Morton (strained lat) and Joe Musgrove (sore shoulder) have landed on the disabled list in recent days. The club is hopeful that Musgrove will miss only one start, but Morton figures to be out for several weeks.
Meanwhile, Mike Fiers has struggled to keep the ball in the park and was headed to the bullpen before the injuries to Morton and Musgrove saved his spot in the rotation. Brad Peacock has been lights out since February and had already vaulted ahead of Fiers on the depth chart. David Paulino was brought up from AAA to start on Wednesday and to temporarily fill the last spot in A.J. Hinch's makeshift rotation.
Another injury to a starting pitcher would almost certainly spell trouble for the Astros. Offseason trade rumors involving Jose Quintana and other starting pitchers never came to fruition as Jeff Luhnow determined that the asking price was simply too high. But, one has to wonder if the Astros' G.M. is suddenly back in the market for an arm, given the recent developments.
Luhnow has successfully turned the Astros from a laughing stock into a juggernaut in basically five years; expertly using the draft, trades, and free agency to build a winner. Luhnow found a couple of gems on the waiver wire in Will Harris and Collin McHugh. But, with the exception of Lance McCullers, has yet to draft and develop a starting pitcher.
Luhnow stole McCullers with the 41st pick in the 2012 draft and the rest is history. Other pitchers selected by the Astros in Luhnow's first year include Jordan Jankowski and Brady Rodgers. Both have had a cup of coffee in the big leagues but have failed to impress. Jankowski was recently sent back to AAA and Rodgers is out for the remainder of the season with an arm injury.
The Astros used their first three picks in the 2013 draft on college arms, drafting Mark Appel, Andrew Thurman, and Kent Emanuel. Appel, the first overall pick figured to be on a fast track to the big leagues with Thurman and Emanuel following close behind. But, four years later, none of them has walked onto a big league mound and Emanuel is the only one still in the organization. The 25-year old lefty has yet to advance past the AA level. No real help in sight here.
The 2014 draft brought us the Brady Aiken saga. The Astros tabbed the high schooler with the first overall pick but failed to sign him at a discounted price after scans revealed a faulty elbow ligament. The blowback cost the Astros a chance to sign two other young pitchers as well. Dean Deetz, an eleventh round pick, could be the boon of that draft. Now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Deetz is having a big year at Corpus Christi and could be in Houston this year or next.
Thomas Eshelman, the 46th overall pick in 2015, accompanied Appel in the trade to Philadelphia that netted Ken Giles. Trent Thornton, a fifth-rounder, was recently promoted to AAA and is looking good for a September call-up.
In 2016, the Astros spent eight of their first twelve picks on pitchers. Forrest Whitley, the 17th overall pick, was the only high school arm in the bunch. Obviously, Luhnow is still trying to stock up on arms. Only time will tell if he has been successful.
Coming into the season the club was extremely high on 21-year old Francis Martes. But the big right-hander acquired from the Marlins system has struggled mightily in his first season at the AAA level. As for this season, it looks like the Astros may need to trade for an experienced starting pitcher in order to stay at the top of the heap.