The Houston Astros' 2015 feel-good narrative took a hit before the All-Star break, when they lost six straight games and relinquished first place in the American League West to the Los Angeles Angels. To the outside world, the Astros showed signs of being the overinflated balloon that's leaking air, one perilous day at a time.
Inside the clubhouse, the outlook is more sanguine. The Astros aren't buying any of the excuses granted them, from youth to baseball's second-smallest Opening Day payroll to the perception that they're still a year or two from legitimate contention. They're awash in optimism -- and swagger.
"We don't lack for confidence,'' manager A.J. Hinch said during the All-Star break. "It's a free-spirited group. I haven't sensed a ton of stress or anxiety, but I have sensed some guys are genuinely disappointed and are feeling we let a few games slip away.''
After a break in the schedule to hit the reset button and add some length to ace starter Dallas Keuchel's beard, the Astros wake up in a good place. They're a half-game behind the Angels in the division, and they currently stand as the first of the American League's two wild-card entrants. The longer the Astros stick around, the more agita they're giving the bookmakers in Las Vegas.
Above and beyond the challenge of going from a record of 51-111 in 2013 to vying for a postseason berth two seasons later, the Astros are an intriguing club because of their strange offensive makeup. They lead the majors in home runs (124) and strikeouts (838) and rank sixth in walks (379), so they have a virtual monopoly on the "three true outcomes'' portion of the game. They're also first in the AL with 69 stolen bases.
And, confidence notwithstanding, they're still learning on the fly. Infielder Jed Lowrie, who went down with a torn thumb ligament in April, is the team's only position player age 30 or above. (He's 31.) A 162-game season is educational enough the first time around, but it's doubly so when a playoff berth is at stake. The young Astros are going to be tested by the rigors of August and September.
Houston's season unfolds against a backdrop of old-guard resistance and skepticism. Long before the St. Louis Cardinals were under federal investigation for hacking into the Astros' computer database, GM Jeff Luhnow elicited some eye rolls in the industry when he hired former NASA engineer Sig Mejdal as the team's "director of decision sciences.'' Sports Illustrated ramped up the stakes with a June 2014 cover proclaiming the Astros "Your 2017 World Series Champions.''
"For whatever reason, we're somewhat of a polarizing team,'' Hinch said. "We went from minimal expectations to high expectations, and the ebbs and flows of a natural season create a stir of emotions in a lot of people. That's sort of where we landed at the All-Star break.
"Everyone sets in stone what you are in the middle of what you're doing. When you're going well, you're the best team in baseball and you're highly praised. When you go through a tough stretch, the sky is falling and the season is ending. But when you wake up the next day, you still have 70-plus games left. It's important for us to stay balanced with that.''
Bring on the kids
The Astros are certainly attentive to detail. They're fourth in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings, and the bullpen is fourth with an aggregate 2.67. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek have justified the $31 million the Astros spent on them this past winter. But Houston is also receiving a monster contribution from righty Will Harris, a 30-year-old baseball transient who was released by Colorado, Oakland and Arizona in a 19-month span in 2013 and 2014. Harris' array of cartoon numbers includes an ERA of 0.87, a WHIP of 0.72 and a .116 batting average against forged on 16 hits allowed in 41 1/3 innings.
Beyond the metrics, the Astros have displayed a strong will and lots of heart to overcome injuries to Lowrie, outfielder George Springer, reliever Chad Qualls and starter Scott Feldman. Much of the credit goes to Hinch, who has done a terrific job working with the new-age front office while instilling confidence and finding a message that resonates with the kids on Houston's 25-man roster.
The "next man up'' credo has been big in Houston. It came into play recently when Springer suffered a fractured wrist when he was hit by an Edinson Volquez pitch two weeks ago. He's not expected to return until late August.
"It's had an impact because of how much of a role George plays with his all-around game,'' Hinch said. "I know it's easy to throw out superlatives, but he's a Gold Glove-caliber, electrifying defender in right field. And he brings a ton of energy to our team, stealing bases, hitting for power and being a catalyst at the top of the order. You miss all of that when he's gone for an extended period of time.''
In Springer's absence, the Astros are leaning hard on another elite prospect with talent and charisma to burn. Shortstop Carlos Correa has amazed everyone with his maturity and abundant skills at age 20, planting himself firmly in the AL Rookie of the Year conversation even though he didn't arrive from Triple-A Fresno until June 7.
Correa is so advanced at an early age, he makes the Astros' beat reporters and media relations people scurry to look up obscure records, including this one: In June, he became the first rookie shortstop since 1914 to amass nine doubles in his first 20 big league games.
"He brought something very important to the team with his attitude,'' said second baseman Jose Altuve, Correa's double-play partner. "For me, he's one of the best players in the big leagues already.''
Said Luhnow of Correa: "He's the whole package. He's so young, yet he's able to handle all the pressure and attention. He plays the game so effortlessly. He makes the hard plays look easy.''
Bring on the trade rumors
The Astros are likely to add a bullpen arm by July 31, and they'll also scour the market for a bat. But Lowrie is expected to return soon, and he could log some time at third base and give Hinch the flexibility to slide Luis Valbuena (who has a team-leading 19 homers) across the diamond to first. Chris Carter (.185 batting average and an MLB-high 115 strikeouts) and young Jon Singleton have yet to provide the desired production there.
A starting pitcher is first on Luhnow's wish list. With Feldman coming off a knee injury, Lance McCullers Jr. and Vince Velasquez being monitored closely in their rookie seasons, and Keuchel on a pace to sail past his career high of 200 innings last season, Houston is looking for a veteran to provide some reliable innings down the stretch.
The Astros were interested in Oakland's Scott Kazmir, but his recent bout of triceps tendinitis is likely to make them and other teams wary. They like Jeff Samardzija, but the Chicago White Sox still have two weeks left to decide whether they'll be buyers or sellers at the deadline.
Houston has been mentioned in speculation as a potential landing spot for Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto. But Luhnow and Reds general manager Walt Jocketty had a notoriously icy relationship from their stint together in the St. Louis organization, so they're not exactly working from a solid base of communication. One scout said the Reds might "double the ask'' if the Astros approach them about Cueto.
Baseball America ranked Houston's farm system as the 10th best in baseball entering 2015, but that was before the Astros sent pitcher Mike Foltynewicz to Atlanta in the Evan Gattis trade and promoted Correa, outfielder Preston Tucker, Velasquez and McCullers to the big league roster. ESPN's Keith Law has two players (outfielder Brett Phillips and pitcher Mark Appel) on his midseason top 50 MLB prospect rankings, and it's difficult to envision them being a part of any deal. Second baseman Tony Kemp, who stands 5-6, weighs 165 pounds and played well enough in the first half to earn a spot in the Futures Game, might have some appeal to a team in search of the next Altuve.
"We knew there would come a time when we needed to trade prospects for players who could help us win immediately,'' Luhnow said. "We didn't necessarily expect it to be this summer, but I'm happy it is. We have to figure out where to place our bets and how to potentially turn some of the prospects we have into immediate help.''
McCullers and Velasquez have helped plug holes in the rotation, and Dan Straily, Brett Oberholtzer and eventually Brad Peacock (intercostal strain) can parachute in and out of the Nos. 4 and 5 spots if necessary. The other possibility is Appel, who has encountered his share of growing pains since the Astros chose him with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. During the Futures Game in Cincinnati last weekend, Appel conceded that his route to the majors hasn't gone as smoothly as some people expected.
"I was the first overall pick, and there were high expectations,'' Appel said. "I get it. With early picks in the draft, everyone expects things to happen so quickly. For some it does, and for some it doesn't. When it doesn't, people are like, 'Wow, it's been two years and he's not in the big leagues yet?'''
Young teams tend to progress at different rates, and the Astros have expedited the organizational timetable in a way that forces players to produce or risk getting left behind. The pennant race will show whether their surprising start was a false alarm or they're truly ready for prime time.