Can The Houston Astros Still Make Playoffs?
Can the Houston Astros still make the Major League Playoffs in 2016?
The Astros, who were 7-15 on Friday, heading into their three-game road series against the Oakland A's, are in last place in the American League West.
No, it hasn't been a kind first month for the Astros, who were the preseason World Series pick of many, including Sports Illustrated.
The Astros, who went to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2005, are tied for the worst record in the American League, and tied for the second-worst in all of baseball.
Let's answer the 'can the Astros still make the playoffs?" question first. Of course they can!
They're 5 games out of first place, with about 140 games remaining.
So, that's kind of a silly question. Of course they can!
Remember 2005? That year, the Astros began the season 15-30, and then went on to make it to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
Just last year, the Texas Rangers, after an 8-16 start, came back to win the AL West.
Maybe a much better question would probably be; How can the Astros make the playoffs?
First, they need to have a really good month, something they haven't had in awhile.
Last season, the Astros finished 86-76, and got off to a good start, going 15-7 in the month of April.
From May 1-the end of the season they went 71-69, going 16-13 in May, 15-14 in June, 12-12 in July, 15-13 in August, 11-16 in September, and 2-1 in October.
So, from May-end of the season they were pretty much a .500 club.
A concerning stat is that their 7-15 record this season gives them a record of 78-84 record from the beginning of the last May until now.
That's 162 games, over the course of two different seasons, and they compiled a record that put them 6 games under .500.
Certainly, April games count, but was last season, a mirage, or was it simply part of a large sample-size 162 schedule that just happened to work out in the end?
Secondly, they have to play better on the road. Last season, the Astros went 33-48 on the road. Believe it or not, that was the worst road record in the entire American League.
This season, they're off to a 3-9 record on the road.
They can't rely on playing exceptionally well at Minute Maid Park, such as they did last season. They just have to find a way to play better on the road.
Finally, and this sounds very generic, but they just have to play better baseball.
Offensively, the Astros have struggled through the first month, with only second baseman Jose Altuve hitting over a .286.
Where the Astros have really struggled is with runners in scoring position, hitting a paltry .197, which ranks 28th in baseball.
The Astros have also struck out far too often, whiffing an MLB high 224 times.
But that's the Astros. They're going to hit a lot of homers, but they're also going to strikeout a lot.
When things are going good, they're going to be fun to watch.
When things are not going good, they're going to look ugly.
Centerfielder Carlos Gomez and catcher Jason Castro have struggled mightily, and the third base position has been less than productive.
Altuve, along with shortstop Carlos Correa and right-fielder George Springer, are star-type of players who you figure will provide production throughout the year.
You would also think that Gomez and Castro will hit at a higher level as the year progresses., and that somebody will provide some type of productive at third base, whether that be Luis Valbuena or Marwin Gonzalez, or even Colin Moran, who could be up in June.
Colby Rasmus is off to a hot start, while Evan Gattis is not.
Rasmus may cool off, a little, but he's a veteran, and he'll likely be productive throughout the year, as he was in 2015.
Gattis missed all of spring training, and the first week of 2016, and was behind, so look for him to help the offense.
Besides, Gattis started slow last season, then finished as the team leader in home runs and runs batted in.
One of the keys to the offense could be first base, where rookie Tyler White started off red hot in the first couple of weeks, but has recently cooled off.
Is White going to play closer to the level that he played the first 11 games, or more to the level that he's played the last 11 games?
If the answer is the latter, will the Astros call up prospect A.J. Reed in June?
The offense will get better. There are too many good hitters not to get better.
That being said, there are holes, and a few reasons for concern.
Pitching-wise, the Astros rank last in the AL, and 26th in all of MLB with a 4.97 ERA.
The first inning has been an issue for Astros' starters, allowing an MLB worst 28 first-inning runs.
It's hard to win when you're almost always playing from behind.
No Houston starter has an ERA. under 4.41, and three have an ERA. over 5.00.
You would have to think the pitching will improve.
Dallas Keuchel, who won the AL Cy Young Award last season, has an ERA. of 4.41 and a WHIP of 1.41.
Both of those numbers will drop, significantly, over the course of the season.
Collin McHugh, a 19-game winner a season ago, has a 6.65 ERA. so far, but he struggled early last year too, with a 5.08 ERA. in May.
A key for the Astros getting better is Lance McCullers, who has top of the rotation type of stuff, back on the mound, which should come in May.
McCullers, along with Keuchel and McHugh, pitching at top form, gives the Astros a formidable top 3.
If they get better result from the likes of Mike Fiers, Scott Feldman, and Doug Fister, the starting pitching can get a lot better, real quickly.
The bullpen has been good, with Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Will Harris, and Tony Sipp all solid, while Chris Devenski, who will get a start this weekend, has been a pleasant surprise.
Of course, Ken Giles has struggled out the gate, and that has put a damper on things.
Giles, who the Astros acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies, along with a minor league pitcher, for five pitchers during the offseason, was expected to be the Astros' closer, but has just not got going.
Still, he has an elite arm, and wipeout stuff, so you just have to believe he'll get better, making the bullpen that much better.
The Astros are 7-15 for a reason, they just haven't been very good.
To get better, they need to improve in most areas, but the most specific things you can point to are putting together a big month like they did last April, playing better on the road, hitting better with runners in scoring position, striking out less, and decreasing the number of runs in the first inning that they've allowed.
They were arguably this bad just last year. Remember that 11-16 September?
Maybe they're just getting their bad month out of the way early this season.
You know they're going to be better. They have too much talent not to. Altuve, Springer, Correa, and Keuchel are as good of a nucleus as there is to build around.
You just have to wonder if they're good enough to dig themselves out of the hole that they've dug for themselves.
History says they can rebound. They certainly have to talent to rebound. It's just that now, there's a lot less margin for error.