A 7.5-game divisional deficit in mid-May is like a beeping alarm to a burglar: you aren't screwed yet, but there's a sense of urgency that wasn't there a few moments ago.
The Houston Astros are starting to feel that tension. These Astros were supposed to build on last season's momentum; they were supposed to win the American League West (handily, given 76 of the 93 analysts at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs chose them―for reference, the Cubs received just 10 more votes to win their division); and they were supposed to be a year from the World Series, per an old, oft-mocked Sports Illustrated cover. What the Astros were not supposed to do is enter the final weeks of May trying to avoid last place in a division that houses an injury-depleted Angels squad and an Athletics team that looks more bust than boom.
Because we're nearing the quarter mark of the season, it's time to place phrases like "supposed" and "expected to" and all that other preseason nonsense on the shelf until next spring. This is the time of the year where we forget what we thought we knew and begin learning the rules of a new season. How do we do this? By asking different questions―like what's the Astros' deal, anyway?
The simplest answer is the Astros have too many underperforming players, especially pitchers. The more complex, telling answer is that the Astros had a miserable offseason that was guided by a questionable process.
Nowadays, every slight cut against the grain is viewed as a possible market inefficiency. Truth is, the Astros would be known as the cleverest foxes in the league if the results were better. This is a team that spent the winter using more resources on their bullpen than their rotation, and a team that shied away from the great velocity chase when they did pursue starters―no rotation has a slower average fastball velocity than the Astros. Neither approach has paid dividends.
Let's work backward here―much like the pitchers in Houston's rotation. You can succeed without a hot fastball; it just takes more work. Dallas Keuchel was evidence of that last season, as he did his finest Cliff Lee impersonation. Unfortunately, Keuchel has had a poor 2016, leaving the Astros without a bellcow. With young fireballer Lance McCullers only making his season debut Friday night, the Astros turned to a variety of finesse righties to fill out their rotation. But none of Doug Fister, Scott Feldman, Mike Fiers, or Collin McHugh has impressed, and earlier in May, Feldman was bumped for a rookie changeup artist named Chris Devenski. Is velocity to blame for those struggles? Not entirely―though it does limit the margin of error.
Maybe the rotation's struggles wouldn't matter as much if the Astros' vaunted bullpen was pitching as well as advertised. Alas, an unquestioned strength has morphed into a questioned weakness. Ken Giles―the young, elite closer whom the Astros gave up a lot to acquire―has been awful. He's allowed more home runs in a month with Houston than he had in two seasons in Philadelphia, and has allowed nearly half as many runs as well. The Astros signed Tony Sipp to a three-year deal during the winter, but his peripherals have all marched in the wrong direction. As a unit, the Astros relievers have allowed the second-most home runs in the American League; you can do the math if you want, but the implication is obvious: a bullpen that yields a lot of home runs also gives up lots of leads in late-and-close situations.
Here's where we start to talk about the Astros' poor offseason. Jeff Luhnow's biggest non-Giles moves were the retentions of Sipp and Colby Rasmus―who, we are legally obligated to note, accepted the qualifying offer. Luhnow didn't land a legitimate mid-rotation starter, and instead settled on a one-year deal for Fister―whose 2015 season saw him demoted to the bullpen and raised significant questions about his short- and long-term viability as a big-league pitcher.
Even if you pardon the Astros' unwillingness to spend money, it's hard to forgive that Luhnow actively hurt his team's positional depth through a series of small moves. He non-tendered Chris Carter, dumped Hank Conger (who would've been non-tendered otherwise), and traded Jed Lowrie. Individually, maybe you can reason each out: Carter is a highly flawed player; Conger has stunk for Tampa Bay and was a clone of Jason Castro; and Lowrie was probably moved in part as a personal favor to the player.
But think about it this way: the Astros' weakest positions have been (in order): center field, catcher, third base, and DH. Carlos Gomez's prolonged struggles are what they are―Houston can't be held accountable for expecting him to play well. Houston can be held accountable for not having acceptable backup plans to Castro, Luis Valbuena, and Preston Tucker. Hence the Astros scrambling to find a veteran backstop before spring ended (they landed Erik Kratz); hence the recent decision to demote Evan Gattis so that he could move back behind the plate; and so on.
What makes the modern superteams (the Cubs and to a lesser extent the Dodgers) so interesting is the emphasis each places on contingency plans. Their depth charts resemble elaborate spider webs―they have players who can fill in here and there and, in a pinch, there and here. They have top-end, all-star-caliber talent―there has to be for a team to be really good―but that careful roster construction helps in ways we can't account for in forecasting. You would expect the Astros, an organization that put the tired buzzword "Process" on a t-shirt, to approach the game with the same thoughts. Last offseason hints otherwise, however.
Is there some hindsight baked into saying the Astros had a poor winter? Sure; Giles and Sipp should be better. But as a whole, the hype never fit―not when you ridded yourself of the flawed assumption that every Astros player would remain hearty and hale for all 162.