With ugly start, the Houston Astros' AL dynasty is in danger. But they know 'how to fight back'

WASHINGTON – Their track record is unassailable, the byproduct of seven consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series. Yet this April has proven so grim for the Houston Astros that it’s fair to wonder if their sheen of invincibility may finally vanish once the weather turns warm.

Oh, it’s early, early, early. Early enough that Alex Bregman has yet to hit a home run, something he’ll likely do two or three dozen times this year. Early enough that future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander has pitched just six innings, that the loss of six starting pitchers to the injured list has made an outsize impact on this season.

There’s just no sugarcoating losing 16 of your first 23 games, though, particularly in an American League West that looks more unforgiving this season. At the moment, the Astros are an amalgam of misfiring parts, with the calendar sure to determine if those components are ill-fitting.

For now, their best asset remains what they’ve done, and not what they are.

“Having that experience creates that no-panic zone for our club,” says first-year manager Joe Espada, the club’s bench coach from 2018-2023. “We’ve been in this position before, with our backs against the corner before, and we know how to fight back.

“I expect the guys to continue to fight back.”

The question is how much a gradual attrition from the glory years and a pair of odd expenditures hinder their ability to do so.

Astros first baseman Jose Abreu reacts after striking out.
Astros first baseman Jose Abreu reacts after striking out.

Sunk cost, lineup sinkhole

With each passing year, the Astros look less and less like their 2017 and even 2022 World Series champions, and that’s typically OK. The free agent bleed that saw George Springer and Carlos Correa leave for nine-figure contracts was somewhat inevitable. Bregman, the two-time All-Star third baseman, could join that parade after this season.

The unscripted part of it, of course, was the sign-stealing scandal that forced out GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch after the 2019 season. Former scouting director Mike Elias had already departed to construct what appears to be another monstrous potential dynasty in Baltimore.

Hastily-hired GM James Click and future Hall of Fame manager Dusty Baker held things down just fine, winning the 2022 title with a blend of old and new guard. Yet Click was essentially shown the door by Crane after that season.

And before new GM Dana Brown could be hired, Crane bestowed a three-year, $58.5 million contract on aging slugger Jose Abreu in November 2022.

Abreu was a below-average producer last year, though he did perk up to slug four homers and produce a .945 OPS in 11 playoff games.

This year, however, the bill for Crane’s somewhat impetuous transaction might be coming due.

Abreu, 37, has started this season in a 4-for-59 sinkhole, with one extra-base and 17 strikeouts to three walks. He can't fall much deeper than the No. 8 spot he typically occupies. Perhaps more alarmingly, Abreu's defense at first base has been abysmal, no small factor in his startling -1.4 WAR already accumulated.

Saturday, he bungled an easy foul pop-up, his third error of the season; the extra life granted Washington Nationals catcher Riley Adams resulted in a go-ahead fourth-inning sacrifice fly, and the Nationals scored two ninth-inning runs and won in 10 innings.

Sunday, he was out of the lineup and GM Dana Brown told the Astros' radio broadcast that Abreu is "going to have to climb out of it, or else we're going to have to mix and match because it's tough to keep going in that direction."

Josh Hader is removed from a game against the Braves.
Josh Hader is removed from a game against the Braves.

Hader aid

Jose Abreu's struggles might have been expected. The bullpen's, not so much. Always the most volatile unit of any club, it for now represents another potentially flawed expenditure.

Crane is loathe to give out large guarantees to free agents, or even his own players beyond Jose Altuve, which made the $95 million contract given closer Josh Hader a bit surprising. Reeling in an elite free agent closer rather than a starter is certainly a choice, particularly when Houston’s rotation faced significant injury and performance questions entering this season.

The theory was that Bryan Abreu, erstwhile closer Ryan Pressly and Hader would form an impenetrable wall in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. But the formula has blown up.

It hasn’t helped that six starting pitchers either started the year on the injured list or landed there, resulting in two unheralded prospects – Blair Henley and Spencer Arrighetti - making their major league debuts in a three-day span. The results were predictably brief and grim, throwing a struggling staff into further flux. Houston has already used 22 pitchers, matching its total for the entire 2023 season.

But Bryan Abreu, Pressly and Hader have simply been bad; Pressly (8.31 ERA) and Hader (8.38) have given up runs in five of their first 10 and 11 outings, respectively. Friday, Hader had the sort of night that leads to bullpen arrhythmia: He recorded his second save but allowed three baserunners and required 30 pitches to do so.

That rendered him unavailable Saturday, and the formula collapsed. So it goes.

“We're going to continue giving them an opportunity,” Espada told reporters after Saturday’s loss, “because we need those guys to win.”

Relief, in the form of more viable starting pitching, may be on the way.

Ronel Blanco: From inspiring to essential

The quintet of Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers are well-decorated. All have notched playoff wins, with four of them claiming World Series victories during the Astros’ dynasty.

And all have been shelved for most or all this year – which made Verlander’s Friday return so key.

His right shoulder inflammation set off alarm bells at the start of spring training, but the 41-year-old’s meticulous rehab paid off, and his 2024 debut exceeded expectations: Six innings, one run, a win.

For a club scuffling in almost every department, the vibes might have been just as important.

“Having him come back helps us turn the knob up a little bit,” says veteran left fielder Chas McCormick. “With the sense of urgency, the juice, everything.

“When he’s out there, it’s go time.”

Valdez should return this week at Chicago after a bout with elbow soreness that mercifully revealed no structural damage. Urquidy, McCullers and Garcia should return in roughly that order over the next several months as they recover from various elbow and forearm maladies, including Garcia’s May 2023 Tommy John surgery.

Yet the attrition just doesn't stop: Sunday's projected starter, Cristian Javier, was scratched due to neck discomfort and placed on the 15-day IL. His emergency replacement, second-year right-hander Hunter Brown, posted a 10.54 ERA in his first four starts and was in a 3-0 hole before recording an out in an eventual 6-0 loss to the Nationals.

Suddenly, the Astros' lone feel-good story has gone from inspiration to essential asset.

Ronel Blanco, 30, made headlines in the industry when he threw a no-hitter against Toronto in just his eighth career start. His stunning rise – Blanco only snared the last rotation spot due to the aforementioned injuries – continued when he no-hit the Rangers into the sixth inning of his next start.

Ronel Blanco has a 1.33 ERA IN four starts this season.
Ronel Blanco has a 1.33 ERA IN four starts this season.

Now, he's a crucial piece of Houston's viability: Blanco has a 1.33 ERA in four starts, a guy they now lean on rather than hope he can come through.

“He’s been huge,” says Espada. “Now, the expectation is for him to go out there again and give us a good, quality start.

“The work he’s done has been remarkable. I expect him to continue being a winning part of our ballclub.”

His turn every fifth day gives his teammates a little more to root for, as well.

“He deserves this,” says McCormick, who first played behind Blanco in 2016, for the Astros’ then low-Class A Quad Cities affiliate. “I’m so happy for him. Because I know how hard he works. Everybody loves him. He’s all about his business.

“I always knew he had a chip on his shoulder and that he worked really hard. He’s a beast, man. I knew eventually, he was going to stick.”

Not getting easier

Whether Blanco becomes another part of the franchise’s October lore is up to the other guys in his clubhouse. Losing 14 of their first 20 put the Astros in unenviable company: Just two teams – the 1981 Royals and 2002 Angels – won the World Series after a 6-14 start.

The three available wild-card berths help. Yet the cracks in the Astros’ AL West dynasty started to appear last year, when what was once an annual runaway came down to the season’s final weekend, when they held off the Rangers thanks to head-to-head record.

That only set up Corey Seager for his epic clapback to Bregman after the Rangers emerged from the wild card round to win their first World Series.

The Astros might take that bargain – a final-weekend shot at the postseason – right now. They know experience matters – but performance trumps all.

“We know where we need to be. And we have a lot better baseball to be played,” says McCormick. “You just gotta know that everything’s going to be all right.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Houston Astros' AL dynasty in danger with ugly start to 2024