NL Central Report: Surprising Pitching Keeps Houston In The Hunt

The Houston Astros are one game under .500 coming into Saturday’s games, and while some of that can be attributed to the benefit of just playing the hapless Chicago Cubs this week and sweeping them three in a row, let’s remember this—at the start of the season it was supposed to be the Astros who were the hapless team that everyone fattened up on. Not only are they better than that, the ‘Stros are just three games out of first place in the NL Central as we approach Memorial Day. And if that weren’t surprise enough, it’s pitching that’s getting it done.

Lucas Harrell’s outing Friday night in Dodger Stadium, where he outgunned Clayton Kershaw 3-1 is the latest in a solid year for the Houston starters. Harrell’s 4-3 with a 3.72 ERA. Wandy Rodriguez is even better, going 4-4 with a 2.14 ERA, while Bud Norris is sitting on 5-1 and 3.14. Norris and Harrell are the young arms and the building block of the future, while the organization will have a decision to make regarding Rodriguez. The odds are heavy that the best decision will be to trade him in July, but if this three games out of first stuff holds, it’s going to be tough to justify that. J.A. Happ, the #4 starter could make the decision a lot easier by pitching better, as he’s 4-3, but with a 4.56 ERA. To put the ERAs in context, while they do come against National League lineups in a weak division, Houston’s Minute Maid Park is also a very hitter-friendly environment.

If Happ and fifth starter Jordan Lyles (5.29 ERA in three starts) can start pitching better, it can settle the decision on what to do with Rodriguez. If Houston has three or four solid young starters to build with, they can deal Wandy and still compete this season.

The bullpen was an abomination a year ago, but has turned into a reliable unit this time around, with Wilton Lopez being that “comes out of nowhere” arm for manager Brad Mills. Lopez has appeared in 25 games, is averaging about an inning per outing and the ERA is a buck-75. Brandon Lyon has been equally lights-out in another setup role at 1.65 in 16 innings pitched. Both are setting the table for Brett Myers, who’s closed 12 of 13 chances at 1.59 ERA.

Myers is a similar decision to Rodriguez as a trade chip, and I suspect dealing him would be even easier for Houston, so long as Lopez keeps pitching well. Lyon’s got experience as a closer, so Mills could use a Lopez-Lyons combo in the final two innings and trade Myers for more young talent, and given the way the market for quality relief pitching opens up at the trade deadline as injuries pile up, I think it’s safe to say Houston could command a hefty return.

On balance, the Astros pitching is better than anyone could have expected. The young arms are pitching well, they have two quality trade chips to invest for the future and the present still has them competitive.

Houston’s 22-23 mark is good for third in the NL Central. Here’s how the other five teams stack up…

Cincinnati (25-20): Even with Johnny Cueto getting hit by Colorado last night, the Reds have passed St. Louis, thanks to winning a weekend interleague series in New York last week and then sweeping Atlanta four straight. Their own pitching has come around, with Homer Bailey delivering three straight solid starts, all against either the Yankees or Braves. Bailey’s performance is critical for the long-term success of the staff, as he’s one of the arms that provide depth in the rotation. The offense lacks similar depth, as was seen in the last week when a 1-for-21 stretch from Jay Bruce meant the team finished in the NL’s bottom half offensively.

St. Louis (25-21): Injuries are piling up in St. Louis, with Lance Berkman out until at least late July, joining Chris Carpenter and the Cards are also missing John Jay, though he’s expected back pretty quickly. The good news is that Mike Adams, the young first baseman who steps into the void left by Berkman has gone 7-for-22 and Adam Wainwright threw a complete game shutout against San Diego, continuing the gradual improvement that has marked his May. A ten-game road trip starts Monday and includes the Braves and Mets, so the Cards have a testing time ahead of them.

Pittsburgh (21-24): The no-hit/good-pitch paradigm continues to define the Pirates, even in the short-term. Clint Hurdle is trying some new things, inserting 24-year-old Josh Harrison at third base in place of Pedro Alvarez and Harrison ripped off a .360 on-base percentage /.565 slugging percentage in the last week. He was the only one who hit though, and in spite of good pitching from A.J. Burnett and James McDonald the Buccos continue to wallow along. They’re hosting the Cubs this weekend and the Reds early next week.

Milwaukee (19-26): If it’s not injuries, the Brewers are hit by bad luck elsewhere. In spite of a stretch where they’ve been 4th in the NL in runs scored and 6th in ERA, that’s not translating into wins, as they’ve gone 6-8. Yovani Gallardo dominated Ian Kennedy in a game at Arizona last night and Zack Greinke continues to be sharp. The lineup’s had hot stretches from Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez. In short, this is everything Milwaukee needed to win games and they still struggle. The counterpoint to this—when that 6-8 stretch includes the Twins, Cubs and Astros, you lose all rights to speak of bad luck. Just get it done.

ChiCubs (15-30): The Cubbies have lost ten straight. Bryan LaHair, the first baseman who was off to such a hot start has just one single in his last 15 at-bats. Darwin Barney at second base is 3-for-18. Starlin Castro at short is 7-for-26, which doesn’t sound awful until you add in that there’s no walks and ten strikeouts. The Cubbies have the worst offense in the league over the last week and starting next Friday they begin a 10-game road trip that takes them up to interleague play. All of which is going to make dealing the team’s major pieces—i.e., Matt Garza—all the easier for new GM Theo Epstein.