Culture / Sporting Life

RIP, Astros

The Season’s Dead, But GM Jeff Luhnow’s Process Isn’t Broken Despite a Jose Altuve MVP Waste

BY // 08.08.16

The end came shortly after 5’o’clock on Sunday, August 7, 2016. It arrived with one final futile swing — George Springer’s bat finding nothing but air for strike three — and the sound of Texas Rangers fans gleefully cackling. As Astros fans headed for the Minute Made Park exits, amid a sea of high-fiving Rangers fans, the fatal diagnosis could no longer be denied.

RIP, Astros. See you next year.

The Astros’ 2016 season is over. A.J. Hinch’s squad is dead and buried in the standings — and even deader and buried in reality. This season of supersized World Series expectations has come down to a sobering reality: The 57-54 Astros now have a better chance of finishing below .500 this season than they do of making the playoffs.

Mull that over for a minute. Anyone still in denial can get back to me in early September.

Jose Altuve’s MVP-worthy year is going to end up with a whole lot of October nothing to show for it. Through no fault of Altuve’s, his team will be golfing during the playoffs. And please, let’s not hear how there are still 51 games left, time aplenty … yada, yada, yada. These Astros are a dead team swinging. They simply don’t have enough to compete in 2016.

Houston’s now in third place in its own division, a full seven and a half games back of a reinforced and revitalized Rangers team. The Astros are four games back of the last American League wildcard spot, but there are four teams ahead of them in the Wildcard Standings. There are simply too many better teams to climb and not nearly enough impact Astros to do it.

The math is still possible for this most Sabermetric of sports organizations, but the reality’s far bleaker. This isn’t The Houston Chronicle calling off the Astros season when there were still 111 games left in what turned into a World Series season in 2005, back when newspapers still carried a majority of a city’s media weight. Things have already been decided for the Astros this time.

Wherever you happen to fall on the debate over whether the Astros should have used pieces in their farm system to acquire Major League difference-makers at the trade deadline as the Rangers did — and it’s a very debatable issue with valid points on both sides — the result of not doing it is unmistakable. The 2016 Astros are being passed by and left on the side of the road. The Astros are playing like a team that hoped for reinforcements that never arrived.

Altuve and Co. are essentially experiencing what Jon Snow would have in that battle with Ramsay Bolton if Sansa hadn’t worked out that brilliant secret side deal with Littlefinger.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow was no Sansa Stark this season.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow was no Sansa Stark this season.

They’re still valiant. The Astros crawled back again and again against the Rangers on Sunday, coming from 3-0 in the bottom of the eighth, surviving bases-loaded jams and Preston Tucker’s anything-but-smooth fielding, even putting two on in the bottom of the 11th. They made the Rangers sweat. But in the end, this team doesn’t have enough to legitimately frighten — let alone topple — their 65-win I-45 rivals.

This doesn’t mean Luhnow’s process (not to be confused with former Philadelphia 76ers general manager’s Sam Hinkie’s horribly marketed, but equally smart Process) is flawed. It doesn’t even mean this season is a complete failure. Luhnow may be right to prize Alex Bregman and Joe Musgrove over a real (though still not guaranteed) shot at getting a puncher’s chance in this year’s playoffs.

Musgrove made Luhnow look good on the very day the season died, crafting seven innings of one-run ball. Expecting this 6-foot-5 right-hander to be another Lance McCullers is still farfetched. One could argue that Musgrove got a little lucky on a few Rangers swings on Sunday. Of course, one could also legitimately argue that he may have given up no runs if Preston Tucker wasn’t playing left field.

I wasn’t as enamored with Hinch’s work with a worn-down roster on Sunday as some (a few pitching changes seemed to be several batters too late in the moment). The Astros still try to bunt too often for a modern-thinking, analytics-grounded organization. If Hinch had anything to do with Jake Marisnick’s late-game offering, Luhnow or Brian Kenny need to have a chat with him. But there’s no doubt Hinch is capable of orchestrating a second playoff run in three years in 2017.

This isn’t an embarrassingly horrific fall from grace that signals a rotting core and a systematic failure — aka the 2015-2016 Houston Rockets.

These Astros are still a fun team to watch — and Bregman figures to make them more fun for years to come. Even underdog Astros farm system guys like Tony Kemp (“He’s a hit machine!” my 10-year-old son gushed as we watched the diminutive outfielder’s late-game run from the stands Sunday afternoon) bring reason to care about a team going nowhere in 2016.

Still, the end is here. Yes, Jim Crane’s big-money splurge, Cuban standout Yulieski Gurriel, is still coming this season. A cynic might think that the Astros timed Gurriel’s promotion to Double A Monday to deflect a little attention from the Major League team’s current reality. But that’d be wrong, right?

Gurriel is legit, and he’ll help even more in 2017. You know, when the Astros have a real pulse again.

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