Aug 21, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira (25) is forced out by Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) who throws to first for a double play on New York Yankees second baseman Martin Prado (not pictured) during the fourth inning of a game at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees defeated the Astros 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians (64-62) vs. Houston Astros (54-74)

Much Improved Astros Looking to Play Spoiler’s Role

During last season’s magical run to the Wild Card Play-in game, the Indians were the beneficiary of the easiest remaining schedule among playoff contenders. If you recall, one of the key players in last season’s drama were the Houston Astros. Owners of the worst record in baseball, they were the team that sparked the Indians’ unbeaten streak over the final two weeks.

This season, the Astros will once again play a role in the success or failure of a late season playoff push. The primary difference, however, is that this is an Astros team that has made significant improvements and, while the record might not show it, is much better than the 2013 version. In other words, the next three days won’t be easy.

The Astros enter tonight’s three-game series opener with a record of 54 wins and 74 losses. Not exactly world beaters by any stretch of the imagination, they are no longer the lowest common denominator in Major League Baseball, or the AL West. That honor goes to their in-state rivals, the Texas Rangers.

The reason for the improvements from 2013 to 2014 is due largely to the success of the Astros youth movement. Opting to go for a full rebuild a few seasons ago, they have foregone high-priced free agent pick ups and instead focused their efforts on the draft and acquiring as many top young prospects as possible. So far the results of this decision have been fruitful. Even more important, they have even more young studs lurking in the shadows of the minor leagues just waiting for the chance to shine.

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Jul 9, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Houston Astros center fielder George Springer (4) bats during the game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Most notable of the Astros top young players has been their diminutive all-star second baseman, Jose Altuve. Since his debut during the 2011 season, the 24-year-old Altuve has been among the most productive top of the lineup hitters in all of baseball with 2014 being his best yet. With a slash line of .338/.375/.445, he has been one of the top run producers in baseball. Helping this has been his ability to steal bases, 46 so far this year, and his hustle. Both of which have led to 68 runs scored. He is the heart and soul of the Astros, and their leader.

In addition to Altuve, the Astros have also found another fledgling super-star in George Springer. After being called up mid-way through April and getting off to a slow start, Springer exploded in the month of May. Despite injury problems which have him on the DL at the moment, Springer has put together a season worthy of rookie of the year honors, .231/.336/.468 with 20 homers and 51 RBI.

Another player that is quietly making a name for himself this season is Chris Carter. With 30 home runs and 72 RBI, Carter has established himself as one of the better power bats in all of baseball. And while he may not do much of anything else well, thus limiting his overall value, he is still a force to be reckoned with at the dish, particularly in run scoring situations.

Rounding out the Astros lineup has been former all-star catcher Jason Castro, top prospect Jon Singleton, and former Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler. All solid players that are capable of so much more than they have shown in 2014. Knowing what we know now, it’s also crazy to think what might have been had the Astros not given up on J.D. Martinez for literally nothing.

From a pitching perspective, it’s been an up and down kind of season. Dallas Keuchel has established himself as a top of the rotation starting pitcher, especially after his successful run of pitching performance prior to the all-star break. Jared Cosart was also having a solid season as a former high ranked prospect, but a midseason trade sent him packing to the Marlins, leaving a whole that has yet to be filled.

As a result of the Cosart trade, the rest of the Astros rotation has been less than spectacular. Brett Oberholtzer, Scott Feldman, Brad Peacock, and Collin McHugh have all tried, but results have been mixed. It should come as no surprise then that the Astros rank near the bottom of the big leagues in most of the major pitching statistical categories. Help will be on the way soon, however. Hopes are high for former #1 draft pick Mark Appel that he will one day turn into the Astros top starter.

Despite the notable improvements the Astros have made, the fact remains that this is a team that still isn’t ready for the big time. They’re 20 games under .500 for a reason and that reason is, they aren’t good. I know this goes against the praises I was singing at the beginning of this article, but praise for a process that is showing positive signs through the course of 162 games is not the same as saying that a team is good. The Astros have good pieces. They are not a good team.

That means this is an excellent opportunity, much like their previous series against the Twins, for the Indians to not just keep pace, but also gain ground on the teams ahead of them. Of course, it would significantly help if the teams ahead of them would lose on a more consistent basis. Despite their success over the past two weeks or so, the Tribe has made very little progress in the standings. Hopefully this weekend will prove to be different.

Tags: Cleveland Indians Popular Dallas Keuchel George Springer Jose Altuve

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