By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
If the Oakland Athletics didn’t exist, the Houston Astros would have the best record in baseball. But unfortunately for Houston, the Oakland A’s do exist, at least as far as a 38-63 MLB team exists.
The defending American League champions are inexplicably 6-6 against the team currently carrying the worst record in the AL. After emerging from the All-Star break hotter than a restaurant plate you’re told not to touch, bopping the Yankees and Mariners for five straight wins, Houston was beaten three times in a row by the lowly A’s.
But still, this is a team destined for October. The Mariners are good and fun, but barring an Astrodome-sized collapse by Houston, they won’t make up a 10-game deficit in the next two months.
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So with Tuesday’s deadline fast approaching, let’s take a look at where the Astros could stand to improve and how they could solidify their roster for a deep October run.
The current situation: The top of Houston’s lineup is as fantastic as it has ever been. Yordan Álvarez is one of the three best hitters in the known universe, Kyle Tucker and José Altuve are both no-doubt All-Stars, Alex Bregman is more good than elite nowadays, but he’s still good, and Jeremy Peña has been one of the best rookies in baseball.
But beyond that top core, it has been a tough scene. Time is finally starting to wear down Yuli Gurriel, defensive specialist Martin Maldonado is one of the worst regular hitters in baseball, and there has been a revolving door of mediocrity in center field. Michael Brantley’s injury issues have forced some part-time players into bigger roles, leaving a big void at the bottom of Houston’s lineup.
Maldonado isn’t going anywhere and will continue to get the majority of starts behind the plate, but the Stros could stand to add one more bopper or a no-doubt, league-average center fielder.
The options: Josh Bell is the big one. The switch-hitting first baseman might be the player most certain to be dealt before Tuesday’s deadline. He’s a free agent at year’s end, the Nats are 28 games back in the division and Bell is in the middle of a phenomenal season (.302/.387/.490 with 13 homers and 23 doubles). If Juan Soto doesn’t move (and for what it’s worth, I don’t think he will), Bell is the best bat available, and Houston should and will be in the mix for him.
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The only big name traded so far, Andrew Benintendi, wasn’t a great fit for Houston; he’s exclusively a corner outfielder at this point in his career. Another Royal, Michael A. Taylor, is in the midst of a career offensive year, is an above-average defensive center fielder and is a free agent after next season. Bryan Reynolds and Ramón Laureano are two other potential fits, but both might have too much service time left.
Teams don’t usually like integrating a new catcher in the middle of a season. It’s difficult and time-intensive, and most pitching staffs have been building a rapport with their lead backstop since February. Still, Willson Contreras is one of the best catchers in baseball and is a lock to be traded by Chicago before he hits free agency.
Would Houston forge the connection between Maldonado and his hurlers? Is it worth having Contreras DH if it means putting Álvarez in the outfield? All I know is Houston’s catchers have been the second-worst group of catchers in the league, and Contreras will most definitely be traded.
The current situation: Houston has the second-best team ERA in baseball, behind only that of the Dodgers. They have one elite starter (Justin Verlander), two other very good ones (Framber Valdez and Christian Javier) and three perfectly sufficient, completely dependable ones (Jake Odorizzi, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy). Lance McCullers Jr., who has missed the entire season thus far due to a forearm strain, just made a second rehab start and is expected to rejoin the big-league club in the near future.
The Astros’ outstanding rotation, the impending return of McCullers and their notably deep bullpen (go look at Ryne Stanek’s numbers) mean GM James Click likely won’t add another arm at the deadline. But as George Washington once said, “a team can never have too much pitching depth,” so who knows?
The options: Did you not read what I just wrote? Maybe Contreras gets to pitch an inning in a September blowout or something.
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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