The Houston Astros are Still the Team to Beat in the American League

The Boston Red Sox are having an otherworldly season. But their historic success in 2018 doesn’t make them the team to beat in the American League; that team is still the Houston Astros.

No, the notion that the Astros are the team to beat in the AL does not derive from them taking two out of three games from the Red Sox in Fenway Park over the weekend — though, it certainly didn’t hurt it. It stems from the overall makeup and legitimacy of their roster.

Going into 2018, the Astros were the defending World Series champions. They possessed one of the most lethal cores in the game and multiple players who hadn’t hit their ceilings. Granted, there have been some ups and downs, but the Astros have put together another superb season. Currently 92-54, they’re in first place in the American League West and own the second best record in Major League Baseball.

In fact, the Astros have the most complete roster in the AL. In Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers, they have arguably the best starting rotation in the game, as well as a reliable bullpen. Going into Wednesday, they were first in team and bullpen ERA (3.10 and 2.88, respectively). Verlander and Cole have been strikeout machines and are pitching deep into games. And in the postseason, strikeout pitchers dominate. Morton has come into his own as one of the best righties in the game and is en route to his first 200-strikeout season — only adding onto the Astros overpowering rotation. Keuchel has been an innings-eater, and McCullers continues to blossom into a flamethrowing righty.

On the other hand, the Astros offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this season, but they still have one of the most talented lineups in the game. Led by Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel, among others, the Astros went into Wednesday fourth in runs (719), eighth in hits (1253), seventh in batting average (.256), sixth in on-base percentage (.329), seventh in slugging (.431), and fourth in OPS (.760). Altuve, Correa, and Springer are now healthy, and Bregman is flat-out raking, as he has hit 30 home runs and driven in 100 runs this season. Marwin Gonzalez hit .303 in August and Evan Gattis has blasted 25 home runs this season. If their offense can become more consistent, or Correa and Springer get on base more often, the Astros will be even more dangerous in the postseason than they were last season.

Last year, the Astros had a potent starting staff, but adding Verlander put them over the top and ultimately got them to the World Series. In the offseason, they added Cole, and he’s having arguably the best year of his career. The two righties, along with Morton, Keuchel, and McCullers, form a lethal starting rotation. And the Astros bullpen is no longer a weakness. If you look at the other four projected playoff teams in the AL, they have at least one weakness, or worry. The Astros don’t.

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Its’s uncertain whether the Red Sox starting pitching, Rick Porcello and David Price in particular, can change their postseason ways, and manager Alex Cora‘s bullpen has been shaky as of late. The Yankees don’t have a starting pitcher who is dominating every fifth day, and their lineup is prone to strikeouts. The Cleveland Indians have one of the worst bullpens in the game and have epically choked in the postseason in back-to-back years. The Oakland Athletics don’t have a surefire ace, and it’s unknown how their roster will perform in what would be their first postseason appearance since 2014.

There are few teams that can go toe-to-toe with the Astros pitching staff. Once its greatest weakness, their bullpen has become a reliable asset for Hinch and company. And their lineup is more than capable of exploding, and they haven’t even been hitting at the level they did last season.

The Red Sox have the best offense in baseball. They produce runs like it’s no one’s business. Led by Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, and Mitch Moreland, among others, the Red Sox give opposing pitchers nightmares and are first in nearly every offensive category. But their starting pitching is a serious concern in the big moment.

Chris Sale has made just one postseason start, and he surrendered seven runs, including three home runs, to the Astros in that outing. Plus, he’s been on and off the disabled list with shoulder inflammation over the last month. Porcello has been underwhelming over the last two years, and he’s been unable to pitch deep into games and limit baserunners in the postseason. Price is one of the worst postseason starters in MLB history. He has pitched well in 2018, but what guarantee is there that he’ll be better in October this time around? Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez have never made a postseason start.

To say that the Red Sox and Astros are a lock to face-off in the American League Championship Series would be foolish. The Red Sox will first have to go through the winner of the AL Wild Card, and both teams (Yankees and A’s) have played Boston tough this season. Meanwhile, the Astros will have to overcome a starting staff just as good, if not better than theirs in the Indians, and they too own a high-octane lineup. Both series could go five games.

Once October arrives, your regular season record is meaningless. Success in the playoffs comes down to who has the most talent and proven commodities on their roster, as well as which teams can overcome adversity. No AL team fits that description better than the Astros.

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