5 things to watch in the second half

5 things to watch in the second half

LOS ANGELES — After a fabulous first half, the Astros’ task is to sustain in the second. FanGraphs gives the club a 98.9 percent chance to capture its second straight American League West title and 14.9 percent odds to win the World Series. No American League team has higher World Series odds. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers have better ones in all of baseball.

At 59-32, the Astros trailed only the 2017 team for the best pre-All-Star break winning percentage in franchise history. All remember how that season ended. Here are five questions to monitor as this club seeks another title.

What happens at the trade deadline?

Juan Soto’s apparent availability will dominate most trade deadline discourse. It would be a dereliction of duty by general manager James Click not to at least make a call to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. Twenty-eight other teams should do the same. The numbers point to the 23-year-old Soto’s being a generational talent.

The Astros do not have the high-end prospect capital or financial might to compete with the likes of the Dodgers, New York Yankees or New York Mets in pursuit of Soto, who, because he comes with two additional years of club control, could fetch the largest deadline trade haul in baseball history.

Teams like the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays are perhaps even better positioned than Houston, given their stacked farm systems. Tampa Bay has six prospects ranked within Baseball America’s Top 100. San Diego has five. Seattle has three, and that doesn’t include Jarred Kelenic, once thought of as one of the sport’s best outfield prospects.

The Astros have one consensus Top 100 prospect — righthander Hunter Brown. Putting together a package compelling enough to compete with others in the Soto sweepstakes seems almost impossible. It would also go against everything Click preaches about sustainability and not sacrificing the long-term future for short-term gain.

Soto seems like a pipe dream, but the Astros do have some financial flexibility and a surplus from which they can trade. According to Cot’s Contracts, the team is $31 million below the competitive balance tax, which it has treated as a salary cap in the past. Soto is making $17.1 million this year, although he figures to get substantially more the next two seasons if by no other means than arbitration.

Instead of splurging on one player, the Astros’ more likely course of action involves looking for a reliever, a catcher to split time with starter Martín Maldonado, and — perhaps of most import — another bat to lengthen a lineup that has struggled at times to produce runs.

Is there a center field conundrum?

Houston still has a hole in center field. Hope that Jake Meyers would run away with the everyday job has not manifested. Since returning from the injured list in late June, Meyers has slashed .243/.289/.357. His 84 OPS+ is 16 points below league average.

Meyers struck out in 13 of his final 23 at-bats before the All-Star break. He is chasing outside the strike zone 29.3 percent of the time and whiffing at a 31.5 percent clip. Both figures are above major league average. Additionally, Meyers seemed shaken up after attempting a diving catch in Sunday’s loss to the A’s, but he finished the game without any outward signs of trouble.

Perspective is important. Shoulder surgery sidelined Meyers for more than eight months. He has taken just 76 plate appearances since his return. Rust should have been anticipated, and this sample size is far too small to draw sweeping conclusions. The calendar may force Click and his lieutenants to try anyway.

Meyers remains an elite defender, crucial for a team predicated on run prevention and carried by its pitching staff. The attribute alone might be enough for the Astros to stick with him even if his offense continues to crater.

Still, the clearest way for Click to upgrade this roster is with another bat. Logic suggests it should be with a corner outfielder, but if a better center field option becomes available before the Aug. 2 deadline, Click might have to consider it.

If one doesn’t, and Meyers continues to struggle, would the Astros explore the possibility of playing Kyle Tucker in center? Both Click and manager Dusty Baker have long resisted the notion — and Tucker is one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball — but if Click can upgrade the lineup with a veteran corner outfielder, maybe it is re-examined.

How does the starting surplus resolve itself?

Beginning with Thursday’s doubleheader against the Yankees at Minute Maid Park, the Astros play 20 games in 19 days. Houston seems likely to stay in a six-man rotation during the stretch, which takes them through the Aug. 2 trade deadline and perhaps closer to Lance McCullers Jr.’s potential return from a flexor tendon strain.

McCullers is scheduled to start a minor league rehab assignment Friday with Class AA Corpus Christi. He is still on a spring training-type buildup, so he will require four or five outings before there can be conversations about returning to the major league roster.

If and when McCullers does, the ripple effects could be fascinating. None of the six men in their starting rotation is pitching poorly enough to warrant a demotion to the bullpen. The man most accustomed to pitching there — Cristian Javier — has prove dhimself too valuable to remove from the rotation.

Presuming he pitches every fifth day, McCullers could make three minor league rehab starts before the Aug. 2 trade deadlines. The data Houston’s front office gathers from them could be crucial in how the team proceeds at the deadline.

If the Astros are convinced McCullers can come back to their rotation and perform at his 2020 or 2021 level, perhaps it makes them even more amenable to trading a starting pitcher from their current surplus.

Is Jeremy Pena reaching the rookie wall?

Jeremy Peña played in 70 games during the first half. He’s never played more than 109 in any professional season. Workload concerns are often reserved for young pitchers, but position players can face the same predicament — especially those at premium positions.

Two short-term injuries and pre-planned rest days allowed Peña some brief first-half reprieves, but he is still poised to play around 130 regular-season games before the playoffs in October. Peña has never carried such a workload. Baker mentioned it multiple times in the first half, and it invites wonder how Peña will handle a grind he’s never experienced.

Perhaps the past two months provided some insight. Peña peaked in May before regressing to a mean in June and July. Across those final two months, a span of 27 games, Peña slashed .239/.282/.404 for a .686 OPS. He hit .281 with an .820 OPS in the two months preceding it.

Baseball is a sport of adjustments. The league made one against Pena after his debut. It’s Peña’s job to adjust back. Pitchers are continuing to attack him with sliders and incorporating more changeups against a rookie who has already proved he can hit fastballs.

Pena is being exploited with pitches both down and in and down and away. Almost all of Peña’s 30.5 percent whiff rate is coming against pitches below his strike zone. He is hitting .148 against changeups with a 41.6 percent whiff rate.

Peña remains an above-average defender — only three shortstops are worth more defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions — and has proved more than capable of compartmentalizing failure. The major league stage does not at all seem too big for him. Whether he can weather it across three and a half more months is a mystery.

Are the Mariners for real?

Seattle has Mariners fever. Perhaps for once, it won’t end in heartbreak.

In pursuit of their first playoff appearance since 2001, the Mariners are riding a 14-game winning streak. Julio Rodríguez is running away with American League Rookie of the Year honors, Ty France is hitting everything, and the bullpen is pitching extremely well. They have closed to within nine games of Houston in the American League West ahead of a crucial start to their second half.

Ten of Seattle’s first 13 games after the All-Star break are against either the Astros or Yankees. Houston plays three games at T-Mobile Park this weekend—all of which are sold out—before welcoming the Mariners to Minute Maid Park next week for a four-game set.

General manager Jerry Dipoto trades at will when his team is out of contention. Imagine his aggression at the Aug. 2 deadline if his team is within striking distance of a division crown. Seattle has one of the sport’s best farm systems and some payroll flexibility.

Winning four or five of these seven games against Houston could only make Dipoto more willing to work his magic and offer the Astros something they rarely had in the first half — a threat to their dominance.

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