The Astros are loaded but they keep losing. Could they become sellers?

NEW YORK — The last time the Houston Astros traveled to the Bronx, they were 15 games over .500, No. 2 in the American League wild-card race and two games out of first place in the AL West. Their starting pitching was the catalyst in a tight four-game split with the Yankees, in the midst of Houston dropping just one of nine successive series. 

But that was last August. In the first of a three-game set at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, the Bronx Bombers were on fire as they happily hosted a crestfallen Astros club. The barrage of runs was nothing new for the Juan Soto-powered Yankees, the team with the fourth-highest OPS in MLB. And the near-complete absence of activity from the Astros lineup was nothing new this spring, either.

Following a demoralizing 10-3 loss to the Yankees — on a night in which Justin Verlander took the mound, no less — Houston fell to 0-5 against its intraleague rival in 2024 and last place in its division. Right now, the only thing the Astros are competing for is the worst record in the American League.

“You don’t expect to see them in the standings where they are,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Houston. “But it’s baseball, and it’s a stretch. So you still expect them to get it going. Hopefully, we can push that off for a few days. But they have all the players and the talent and guys who have been through the grind and have been kind of the standard over the last several years. 

“They’ve had three-week stretches where they haven’t played really well, but it’s obviously magnified at the start of the season. And it’s probably a longer stretch than, certainly, they’ve been used to. But I know a lot of the guys they have over there, they’re built to get through this.”

Boone said it best. We just don’t expect the Astros to be basement dwellers at any point in the season, let alone a week into May, which must have rival executives beginning to wonder whether Houston will be a seller ahead of MLB’s July 30 trade deadline.

Sure, there’s more than two months remaining for the 12-23 Astros to make the answer to that question much clearer. Their track record alone — let’s not forget this franchise has appeared in seven consecutive ALCS — has convinced the Yankees and Boone that the Astros will turn it around. “I’m sure,” Boone said, “at some point we’ll see them flying high.” 

But when does it’s still too early to tell — a common sentiment around the league about the future of this Houston club — become it’s too late

“We haven’t executed enough as a complete unit,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman told FOX Sports. “Some days we execute well at the plate, sometimes we execute well on the mound. Sometimes we execute well on defense. We just gotta put the whole thing together. We will.”

Typically, Memorial Day weekend is a good time to look at the standings with more purpose. For renowned baseball executive David Stearns, the president of baseball operations for the Mets, the initial barometer for a team’s outlook is about 45 games into a given season. By that standard, the Astros have roughly 10 more games to show us who they really are — and likely will be — this year. They’re scheduled to face the Yankees, Tigers, A’s and Brewers in that stretch. They’ll then play the division rival A’s, Mariners and Angels 14 times before the calendar flips to June, creating a substantial opportunity to climb up (or continue to sink) in the AL West standings.

Highlights from Yankees’ 10-3 win vs. Astros

Highlights from Yankees' 10-3 win vs. Astros

But even if they’re not contending by the summer, don’t assume they will part with any of their best players.

“No. No, I can’t envision that,” Astros general manager Dana Brown told MLB Network earlier Tuesday. “I think this team is too good. I think the production’s coming. I can’t predict any scenario where we become sellers.”

In their series opener versus the Yankees, that “production” consisted of three hits, matching a season low. It’s got to be odd for the former two-time champions to be facing immense pressure to elevate their performance just one week into May. But they’re certainly feeling it, with every game a new opportunity to win and begin building off a feeling that is something different from the one they experienced Tuesday in the Bronx. 

That feeling — the one that accompanies a pitching staff giving up double-digit runs for the fifth time this season — can only be described as tense. The Astros clubhouse was mostly empty and completely silent after their latest defeat to New York (and third in a row overall). Only a few players took interviews at their lockers, and when they spoke, it was in a whisper.

The way things are going, it seems like every result that ends in a loss will only put Houston more on edge and unnerved about its mediocrity, particularly because Tuesday night was presumed to be the game the club would win. 

“[Verlander] was not as sharp as previous starts,” Astros skipper Joe Espada said. “But his stuff is still good enough to get some good lineups out, for sure.”

Verlander was supposed to set the tone in the series opener. That’s what his first-year manager expected of the veteran ace. Espada said there was no other pitcher he would rather give the ball to than Verlander when the team needed a win most. Instead, it was Alex Verdugo who set the tone, crushing a three-run home run off the right-hander in the first inning. Verlander missed his location to Verdugo, and he lacked pitch deception throughout his entire outing — all of which contributed to its brevity. 

The three-time Cy Young winner’s streak of 19 consecutive regular-season starts going six or more innings was snapped as he was pulled after completing five innings (and allowing three home runs). For a clue into how he was feeling, Verlander charged into the clubhouse and threw baseballs against a couch in the clubhouse afterward.

Given his pending free agency and Houston’s rough start, there’s already been some early trade chatter surrounding Verlander. There have also been some concerning trends from his 22.1 innings this year. The man with the second-most career strikeouts among active pitchers registered just two strikeouts for a second consecutive start. His fastball velocity was down. Verlander wasn’t fooling anyone while he generated just six swings and misses. Last year, he tallied six or fewer swings and misses in just three of his 27 starts. This year, Verlander has already registered two such starts (out of four total).

So, yes, the tone was certainly set for the Astros, but it was one of misery. If their future Hall of Famer can’t get the Yankees out, who can? Perhaps Verlander’s ceiling, in his age-41 season, isn’t to be elite but rather good enough.

“If anything, I figured out that I need to be better,” Verlander said. “Starting tomorrow, I have a lot of work to do. Been here countless times in my career. I think one of the things about being a veteran is you know yourself, and you know when you’re right. You don’t just throw away games like this and say, ‘I’ll be better next time.’ There’s a reason. You gotta start turning over stones and find the reason.”

There are several reasons for Houston’s hapless start to 2024, and we’re approaching the point in the season where it’s no longer just a stretch. Around the league and within the Astros’ clubhouse, the thought of what they might do at the trade deadline is buzzing louder with every loss. Houston’s GM might not be able to envision this club being a seller, but after its lopsided loss to the Yankees on Tuesday, the rest of us sure can. 

“We’ll see what we’re made of,” Bregman said.

And who.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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