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Orioles first trip out of the Eastern time zone gives another look at the surprising Astros

One of these two teams has been in first place for most of the year. It's not the one you'd expect. Some thoughts on the Astros from Ryan Dunsmore, who runs The Crawfish Boxes on SB Nation.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The team that might be the most surprising through two months of the season is the Houston Astros. They are on the 2012 Orioles path to success in that they are very abruptly good after having been bad for a long time. They've skipped over the slow ascent to contention and just jumped right to the top. Not even the 2012 O's managed to pull off that trick early in the season.

With another series coming up between the O's and the Astros, I checked in with my counterpart over at the Astros blog The Crawfish Boxes, Ryan Dunsmore, to get some thoughts on the Houston team from an Astros fan perspective. You can check out my thoughts on the Orioles on their site here.

1. The Astros have been one of the surprise teams of the year, at least to someone like me who doesn't follow other teams closely. Were you expecting this kind of success? How far do you think they can go?

Ryan: I expected the Astros to be better but not this good. Taking a lead in the AL West was really the absolute top of the outcome spectrum. It's probably more surprising the rest of the West has gone in the dumpster than the Astros being successful. Houston was closer to league average at the plate and in the field in 2014.

Putting Jake Marisnick in center set the defense, rebuilding bullpen made it a strength, and adding Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis added even more power to the lineup.

Strikeouts, ground balls out, and offensive home runs will always play in the playoffs. So they if they can hold on to their division lead, I believe the Astros can make some noise . But, Houston will need to solidify the starting rotation if they hope to go deep in the playoffs.

2. In the Bud Norris trade a couple of years ago, the Orioles surrendered a local Maryland prospect, Josh Hader, in the deal. How has he done in the Astros system?

Ryan: How quickly do we forget Washington D.C. native, L.J. Hoes? Hader had a spectacular 2014, posting 9-2 record with a 2.70 ERA in 103 1/3 innings at Single A Lancaster. A phenomenal feat in Lancaster, which basically a launching pad with thin air. Hader was named California League Pitcher of the year.

Thus far in 2015, he has been solid at Double A Corpus Christi. Harder has a 1-2 record with a 3.60 ERA in 9 games.

3. With the lowest team batting average and the highest strikeout percentage for hitters in the AL, but also the most home runs in the major leagues, Houston seems like a very feast or famine team. Does it seem that way to a fan? If you don't really notice thanks to all the winning, I'd understand.

Ryan: The Astros have been in the top two in strikeouts during the previous three season, so that part isn't noticeable anymore. The home runs have been noticeable. Jeff Luhnow appears to have found his market inefficiency with power bats. It's a trend not just in the majors, the Astros have drafted players like J.D. Davis and A.J. Reed with a major power tool.

It's honestly just been fun to watch, who doesn't like watch home runs?

4. One area that's been less successful so far seems to be the starting rotation, at least other than Dallas Keuchel. Do you think the team needs to do anything to address the rotation? Is there hope any of the underwhelming guys will turn it around

Ryan: Collin McHugh is dealing with some regression after a breakout season, but I'm less worried about him. If McHugh returns to form, the Astros have two fine pieces at the top of the rotation. Rookie Lance McCullers has been solid, giving up 4 earned runs over 15 innings. I would suspect he's on an innings limit. Roberto Hernandez has given up 11 runs over his last 10 ⅔ innings. The Astros just lost former Orioles pitcher, Scott Feldman until after the All-Star break with knee surgery.

Yes, the Astros starting rotation situation is not the best at the moment. But Houston does have options to try out first before they look outside the organization. Brett Oberholtzer is starting on Monday, has been battling a blister since Spring Training. A few writers on TCB pegged him as breakout candidate after making 24 starts in 2014. Dan Straily appears to be turning a corner in Triple A, he has allowed just four runs in his last 19 innings with 23 strikeouts and 2 walks.

Now I won't be surprised if the Astros try to go after a pitcher or two but don't expect them to bet the farm for a rental.

5. It helps to have an amazing bullpen to paper over any rotation deficiencies. From my calculations I gather that the Astros relievers have struck out approximately the entire population of Texas. What was the secret to putting this unit together?

Mark: The Astros turned away from the internal, young talent they used in 2014 in the bullpen. General manager Jeff Luhnow picked up veterans left and right. The Astros made a claim on Will Harris, Harris (per fangraphs) has fourth-highest WAR (0.6) amongst Astros pitchers thus far.

Houston failed to sign former Orioles reliever Andrew Miller during the Winter Meetings, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise. The Astros filled that money into two players Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Gregerson and Neshek have stabilized the Astros bullpen.

Along with healthy Josh Fields and Joe Thatcher, the Astros have turned a weakness into a strength.

**

Thanks, Ryan, for the insight. The Astros are a great story this year and if they keep on winning after they're done playing the Orioles, that would be fine with me.

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