It wasn’t the trade deadline most Astros fans were expecting.
Houston did swing a pair of minor moves today, including one trade before the 3 PM cutoff. But Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and company abstained from the big-name targets they were rumored to covet. Their lone trade acquisition? Left-handed starter Francisco Liriano, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The 33-year-old free agent-to-be has endured a rough 2017 to date, limping to a 5.88 ERA across 18 starts amid lower-than-usual strikeout totals. That’s a far cry from his customary production – for his career, Liriano has authored a solid 4.15 ERA in the role of a #3 starter with more than one strikeout per inning.
Current struggles notwithstanding, the veteran southpaw offers the Astros considerable upside if he can recapture the form he flashed earlier in his career. He’ll have to find that form in the bullpen – Luhnow indicated that the longtime starter will be deployed in relief as a power lefty capable of neutralizing same-handed batters.
Houston must believe in Liriano’s ability to get back on track – they parted with left fielder Nori Aoki and center field prospect Teoscar Hernandez to facilitate the exchange. Aoki has put together a characteristic high-average, low-power season as Houston’s fourth outfielder, but he’s ceded some playing time lately to talented rookie Derek Fisher. Meanwhile, Hernandez’ value is artificially depressed by the current logjam in Houston’s outfield – George Springer is a budding superstar, and he’s flanked by talented options like Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick, and Marwin Gonzalez. That’s not even mentioning Fisher or Kyle Tucker, Houston’s toolsy top prospect. Still, Aoki and Hernandez could slot straight into the Blue Jays’ major league roster – a high price for three months of Liriano.
In another minor move, the ‘Stros signed former Cincinnati and Tampa Bay reliever Jumbo Diaz to a minor league contract. Diaz pitched well as recently as last season, when he compiled a 3.14 ERA across 43 innings for the Reds. He was released by Tampa Bay earlier this season after losing his command and stumbling to a 5.70 ERA in 30 innings.
That Houston opted to add a pair of arms before the postseason is unsurprising. But the bigger story might be who the Astros didn’t acquire today – namely Sonny Gray, Yu Darvish, Addison Reed, or Justin Wilson. Still more troubling is which teams did acquire those star pitchers: The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Cubs, respectively. All four figure to be postseason contenders, with the Dodgers widely favored to represent the National League in the World Series.
The lack of a big splash may come back to haunt Houston in October – in fact, Luhnow himself has already expressed a sort of non-buyer’s remorse, admitting to the press that he was “disappointed” not to land any of his top targets.
To make matters worse, Houston lost a pair of effective pitchers to the disabled list today. Sophomore starter Lance McCullers Jr. finds himself on the shelf for the second time this season. The young hurler has enjoyed stretches of dominance this year, but has struggled with his command since returning from a previous injury. In his six starts since returning to the Astros’ rotation, McCullers ran an unseemly 7.45 ERA. Joining McCullers is setup man Will Harris, who was returned to the DL with lingering shoulder soreness days after returning from the same injury.
There’s still time for Houston to land an impact talent through an August waiver trade. But losing McCullers and Harris stings. Acquiring Liriano and Diaz – and watching Gray and Darvish head elsewhere – does little to ease that pain. As luck would have it, the Astros’ roster actually got worse today. Hardly the outcome Houston had hoped for.