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The Astros' season is already a success, even if the ending is threatening to be really, really cruel

The Astros are still ahead of schedule. Don't let the fast start trick you into forgetting that.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Think of baseball as William Munny, who emerged from chaos, tried to find order and predictability and was sucked back into chaos because that's the only order and predictability he would ever find. Baseball tries to be good, tries to be fair, but it always ends up splattered with rosin and blood, sucked back into the chaos that it created, reminding us that deserve's got nothing to do with it.

The Astros weren't the favorites this year. They spent the offseason building a solid roster, devoid of any major, glaring holes, and they were expected to be okay. They were leagues above their 111-loss nadir, with a team that looked like a fair bet to be .500 or better. Teams like that can ascend into the postseason with just a couple unexpected developments -- a top prospect transitioning to the majors here, a surprisingly good season there -- which meant the Astros had a chance.

But if you polled the fans and front office in February, an 83-win season would have seemed like a substantial accomplishment. It would have been the bridge season they were planning for, a way to suss out what the final pieces were, a way to figure out just how much they could expect from the farm and what they would need from outside the organization.

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Imagine, then, it's the end of April. The Astros are 10-16 and in last place again, but they're showing signs, man. Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers are already looking like future stars, George Springer is coming into his own and the organization is figuring out exactly where everyone from their vast reserve of minor league talent fits. Why are they losing games? Pfft, because of their bullpen, but that doesn't even count because a smart team can figure that out when they're contending. The record would have been disappointing, but the trajectory would have been pointing up.

Now imagine it's May and they're winning. June, they're winning. All the way to September, where they make an improbable charge up the Wild Card standings, going 15-7 in the final month. The Astros would have been hot, baby. Even if they fell short of the postseason, the late surge would have emboldened the front office, rousted the fan base. The rebuilding plan would be 50 stories high, with the steel girders hidden and strong behind the fresh exterior. The Astros would have been the it-team of the offseason, a trendy pick for 2016.

Instead, they're in danger of entering the offseason with a burnt taste in their months, with five months of "what if" marinating in the root cellar. And marinated what-if stinks.

Four games against sub-.500 teams, while the Rangers and Angels beat each other up? The season's not over for the Astros, not even close. This isn't a postmortem. It's just a tiny fist shaking at the cruel sequencing that's threatening to make the Astros season look like anything other than an unqualified success.

The Astros' season has absolutely been an unqualified success, regardless of what happens.

Take the Twins, for example, who weren't expected to contend for the division title, and didn't. Except they started strong, faded in the middle, and finished strong, somehow hanging around the race for the second Wild Card. If they just miss the postseason, their fans will be crushed and disappointed, don't get me wrong. But there won't be that same feeling that they blew it -- just a feeling that they're ahead of schedule and ready for 2016.

It's different for the Astros because they were leading their division for so long, with an automatic entry into the real postseason, not needing the coin flip of a Wild Card Game. They dealt prospects away for a rental because it made sense at the time, making a strong team even stronger. The arc of the season is what's going to be the ultimate disappointment if they can't climb back, not the season itself.

The worst aspect of all this is a two-parter:

  1. They're collapsing because of their bullpen, which is always the most erratic part of a big-league team

  2. They spent money on the bullpen, just in case, this offseason

Getting Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson showed fantastic foresight and planning, and both of them came at reasonable prices. Other rebuilding teams would have traded Chad Qualls years ago, trying to get that prospect-for-closer swap that's so easy to love. Instead, they figured a strong bullpen would come in handy if they exceeded expectations. They were right. Just with the wrong pitchers. Or maybe the right pitchers, but not for long enough. Or maybe the right pitchers, just with lousy luck at the worst possible time.

It's a mess, but the good news is that the Astros are still ahead of schedule, to the point where they can still make the postseason with a strong finish. They've come a long way since the string of No. 1 overall picks, since the snafus with the players they selected, since the think pieces about how it's bad to treat baseball players like numbers. The Astros are here. They've arrived. It would be a shame if we couldn't see that because baseball stacked the dominoes up in the cruelest way. The Astros don't deserve to leave 2015 feeling like something went wrong.

But, well, you know what they say about deserve.