Monday, July 17, 2017

Will Beltran Finally Nab Elusive Title With Houston?

By Steve Brenna

Carlos Beltran is one of three remaining active players (along with Adrian Beltre and the immortal Bartolo Colon) to have appeared in a major league game in the 1990s. Now in the 20th and likely final season of what many consider a Hall of Fame career, Beltran finds himself on an AL-leading Houston Astros team that appears to be on a collision course with the ALCS, and possibly the World Series.

A former Rookie of the Year, three-time Gold Glover, two-time Silver Slugger, and nine-time all-star, on an individual basis the 40-year-old has done it all in his major league career. He has more than 500 doubles, 400 home runs, 300 stolen bases, and 1,500 RBIs. The only accomplishment that has eluded him is a World Series ring, but it certainly hasn't been for lack of effort on Beltran's part. 

Beltran has appeared in the postseason on six occasions for five different clubs, and has a staggering career .323/.432/.646 slash line in 55 career postseason games. Beltran is a veteran of four National League Championship Series, and appeared in the 2013 World Series as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, who fell to Boston in six games. He most recently appeared in the postseason last year with the number one seeded Texas Rangers, who were swept out of the first-round by bitter rival Toronto. 

The 2017 Astros are well on their way to 90 wins for the first time since 2004, ironically the same year they acquired Beltran from Kansas City in a midseason trade, and fell to St. Louis in a legendary seven game NLCS in spite of Beltran putting up one of the greatest postseason performances in major league history. 

That was a dynamic 27-year-old Carlos Beltran however, not the 40-year-old designated hitter currently hitting .231. If Houston would like to join it's most senior player in capturing a fall classic for the first time, they're going to need to rely on the young core that's led them to the best start in franchise history. 

When we look at team statistics, it's easy to see why this Houston team — the most impressive example of tanking-gone-right we've witnessed in recent memory — has been entrenched in first place since early April. On the offensive side of the ball, the Astros have been downright silly. They closed the first half leading all of baseball in:

* Batting Average
* Home Runs
* OPS
* Hits
* Runs
* Doubles

What's been most impressive of all is the incredible continuity this team has had throughout their starting line up and bench. They've used just 16 position players overall, and of those, 12 made more than 150 plate appearances in the first half. Essentially, Houston has rolled out the same starting nine and three-man bench for the entire season thus far, and have seen incredible production from nearly all of them. 

The Astros boast a whopping eight players with an OPS+ of 120 or higher, with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Marwin Gonzalez all posting an OPS+ over 160. By comparison, the East-leading Red Sox, owners of the second-best record in the AL, don't have a single regular with an OPS+ of 120. It's safe to say that no American League pitcher is excited to enter Minute Maid Park amid a sea of bright orange this October. 

On the starting pitching side, Houston has managed to put up numbers nearly as impressive as their juggernaut offense while enduring a slew of injuries. Collin McHugh, one of the team's top starters the past two seasons, has missed all of 2017, and after a dominant start to the year, ace Dallas Keuchel has missed the past month with a pinched nerve in his neck. Third starter Charlie Morton has also missed significant time, and No. 2 man Lance McCullers had a DL stint of his own for a back issue. 

Still, the club's starting pitching AL ranks are nothing to sneeze at:

* 1st in ERA
* 1st in opponent's average
* 1st in ER allowed
* 3rd in HR allowed
* 3rd in strikeouts
* 3rd in WHIP

McCullers DL stint proved to be a short one, and he's assumed the ace role in Keuchel's absence. He's been joined by Mike Fiers and the surprising Brad Peacock in filling the void, which will soon become smaller as Morton makes his return to begin the second half. Keuchel recently threw a simulated game, and the club hopes he will be able to return within two weeks. 

In short, this rotation might become whole in August without any deadline additions.

That being said, if they can acquire a quality middle rotation starter to replace the struggling Joe Musgrove, any inkling of a second-half swoon may dissolve in a hurry. And if the club can land a front end starter along the lines of a Sonny Gray or Johnny Cueto, we may simply wish the American League the best of luck in taking down Houston. 

If you have to pick an area Houston may be vulnerable, it could be the bullpen. It's all relative however, as a team that's 32 games over .500 clearly has no glaring issues. Still, Luke Gregerson has the highest ERA of his stellar career by a wide margin, and the Astros bullpen trails AL contenders Boston, New York, and Cleveland in several key categories. 

Next, I'll begin drawing up the list of clubs who would fall over themselves to have Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, and Will Harris in their bullpen.

As I said, a team with 60 first-half wins has no red alert issues. 

So we come back to Beltran, who in all likelihood will surpass 11,000 career plate appearances this season. That's more than Correa, Altuve, Springer, and Josh Reddick have in their careers combined. Alex Bregman was four when Beltran made his debut. Manager A.J. Hinch made his debut the same season, and the two were teammates in Kansas City in 2001-2002. These guys are going to be here for a while. 

What better way to usher in a dynasty than by sending baseball royalty into the sunset with a championship. 

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