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I wrote an article that ran May 4, analyzing the Astros as possible surprise sellers on the summer trade market. Eight weeks later, that looks like an awfully silly article, because the Astros are now 41-37. Despite the Rangers leaning way out over their skis and building a 10-game lead in the AL West, Houston is a very legitimate playoff contender.

Let me defend myself, however lamely, by pointing this out: the Astros started this season 17-28. No playoff team last season had any 45-game stretch in which they lost 28 games. Since then, they’ve won 24 of 33, something only one team (the mid-May Twins) managed to do last season without making the playoffs. Highs this high and lows this low usually don’t fit into the same season, let alone the same half of one. Obviously, though, the Astros were always better than their early record showed. They caught some bad waves in the crashing surf of in-season variance, and they simply got aberrant, miserable starts from a few players who are better than that.

Failure to Launch – Early Astros Struggles

Player

Period

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

Carlos Gomez

4/5-5/15

132

.182

.238

.248

Luis Valbuena

4/5-5/22

135

.197

.288

.316

Evan Gattis

4/12-5/6

70

.203

.257

.313

They owe much of their resurgence to those players remembering they’re good.

Blastoff – Astros Strugglers Since Their Struggles

Player

Period

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

Gomez

Since 5/31

88

.282

.364

.449

Valbuena

Since 5/23

114

.344

.447

.604

Gattis

Since 5/19

147

.229

.306

.504

The endpoints here are all chosen arbitrarily; I admit it freely. In the cases of Carlos Gomez and Evan Gattis, the recoveries do coincide with trips to the DL to manage nagging injuries. And in all cases, the forward strides grow not only from better BABIP luck and more balls leaving the park, but from materially better control of the strike zone. All three were genuinely much better players than their poor first months suggested, and all three have proved as much since figuring things out.

That’s far from the whole story. After all, at their very worst, the Astros were good enough at the plate to stay afloat, led by the stunningly consistent and brilliant trio of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. It’s also helped that the wobbly early showings of so many Houston pitchers have stabilized. Ken Giles has 22 strikeouts against four walks since mid-May, and has allowed just one home run over that span. Dallas Keuchel is back on track, if not fully restored to his Cy Young self. Colin McHugh weathered his storm. Lance McCullers is back from injury, and pitching pretty well. Will Harris is great, at least right now.

Through May 5, the Astros had a 4.83 team ERA, had fanned 19.6 percent of opposing batters, and had walked 7.3 percent of them. Since then, their ERA is 3.51, they’ve punched out 22.8 percent of opponents, and they’ve walked 6.6 percent. They now rank 14th in both cFIP and DRA- for the season (and second in relief DRA), suggesting that their true talent has come into pretty close accord with their performance.

Though the Mariners and Rangers both have better third-order winning percentages, and though the Rangers are hilariously outdoing their true talent indicators and making dreams of winning the AL West seem like just that, the Astros are firmly on the buyer side of the fence now. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they had the best rest-of-season record in the American League.

The Astros’ organizational depth is going to become a big deal very soon. As good as this team is, they probably need to get better. If there’s an ace on the market, the Astros should be among the most aggressive bidders for them. There remains a strong chance that they find themselves in the Wild Card Game, and they’re not really built to navigate the path that starts there and goes past Columbus Day. The farm system still has the sort of depth that kind of trade would demand. The trio of upper-minors starters who could get a conversation started (David Paulino, Joe Musgrove, and Francis Martes) are more than almost any other organization would be able to offer.

The way Valbuena has played lately, and with A.J. Reed now promoted to the parent club, there’s a bevy of polished, low-to-medium-ceiling hitters from whom the Astros could allow a trade partner to choose without losing anything at the big-league level (Colin Moran, Tyler White, Preston Tucker, Tony Kemp, Derek Fisher, you get the idea here). That’s without talking about their draft haul from 2015, which includes three extremely talented players (Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Daz Cameron) who could have major trade value for the right suitor, if the right name hits Jeff Luhnow’s ears.

At the end of this year, we might look back at the first six or seven weeks of the Astros' season and shake our heads sadly, because it was a really tough jag on which to start, and it still might cost them dearly. If any team has what it takes to overcome such a rough quarter of a season, though, perhaps it’s this one, led by an elite offensive core, and supported by some of the best depth in baseball.

Thank you for reading

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