Welcome to the second half of baseball. The All-Star Game has come and gone (the AL won on a thrilling home run by Seattle’s Robinson Cano), and teams across the league have their sights set on the July 31 trade deadline as they look to upgrade their units for a postseason run or sell off stars in return for minor league talent.
Today, the first big domino of trading season fell. Jose Quintana, long considered a top target of the Astros, Yankees, Rockies, and more contending clubs, was dealt from the Chicago White Sox to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for a glut of talented youngsters. It cost the Cubs dearly – they gave up their best two minor leaguers, OF Eloy Jimenez and RHP Dylan Cease, plus a pair of high-upside prospects who could be one or two adjustments away from rocketing up evaluators’ lists.
The Astros have long been connected to starting pitching via the rumor mill, and they still have plenty of options to explore, even with Quintana claimed. The next most likely “ace” to be dealt is Sonny Gray of the Oakland Athletics, and his value is pretty even with that of Quintana. Translating the Cubs’ package onto the Astros’ farm system, netting Gray could mean parting ways with OF Kyle Tucker, RHP Francis Martes, and a couple of interesting names like Daz Cameron and Jandel Gustave.
Gerritt Cole of the Pirates may or may not hit the market later this month. Ditto Dan Straily of the Miami Marlins. Yu Darvish of the Rangers is only under contract ’til the end of the season, and would therefore command less prospect capital as a pure rental option. But an in-division trade between bitter rivals seems unlikely at best. Marco Estrada or JA Happ of the Blue Jays may also be marketed as shorter-term options. Acquiring any of these pitchers, however, would require Houston to part with at least one top prospect. To say nothing of the younger, rawer talent that could bloom into the next wave of elite minor league depth.
All of which begs the question: Is adding a top-flight starting pitcher worth the hefty price? As with any good argument, both sides have considerable merit.
Were the Astros to stand pat this month, their playoff rotation would consist of Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., and Charlie Morton. That sounds pretty strong! But can Houston realistically count on that trio to stay healthy? Each of those hurlers has spent time on the disabled list this season, and each has earned a reputation for fragility.
The recent performances of Mike Fiers and Brad Peacock, both of whom have carried the team at times this season, do help mitigate the injury concerns surrounding the big three. But it remains to be seen whether either veteran hurler can continue their current level of play throughout the summer and into the fall. (Also: Every pitcher is an injury risk, at all times.) Moreover, Peacock in particular has struggled to go deep into starts, indicating that he might be better deployed in the postseason as a shutdown bullpen option à la Devenski.
Consider how the Astros’ starting pitching staff stacks up against the corps deployed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers, the only team that can match Houston’s first-half dominance and the presumptive favorites for the NL Pennant, are lousy with pitchers. Los Angeles boasts as many as eight average-or-better starters, headlined by the lethal Clayton Kershaw. And almost all of them have cycled through the 10-day disabled list this season. Rumor has it that even the Dodgers hope to add another arm or two for the stretch run. So adding an arm could definitely be a good idea.
On the other hand, Keuchel, McCullers, and Morton are really, really good. And Fiers and Peacock, along with Collin McHugh or Joe Musgrove, do give the ‘Stros a backup plan. The Astros can also rely on multi-inning relief ace Chris Devenski, who combines with Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, and Ken Giles to form an impressive bullpen.
On top of that, the Astros’ offense is literally second to none. They’ve bopped the most home runs, whiffed the fewest times, and have generally made life hell for opposing pitchers across the league. Even so, there’s always room for improvement. What if Houston placed its trust in their pitching depth and swung a deal for another big bat?
True, the ‘Stros don’t have many glaring offensive needs. Youngster Alex Bregman has struggled at times this year, but he still looks like the third baseman of the future. Over at first, Yuli Gurriel rode a recent hot streak to an above-average offensive line for the season’s first half. But aging veterans Nori Aoki and Carlos Beltran have left much to be desired at left field and DH. Impact bats like JD Martinez of the Tigers, Jay Bruce of the Mets, and even Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays all figure to be available by trade. And none of them would cost nearly as much as an elite starting pitcher. Could GM Jeff Luhnow be content to bolster his already-excellent offense and trust that their powerful bats will score enough runs to mask any possible weaknesses in the pitching staff?
Only time will tell. Luhnow and the ‘Stros still have two and a half weeks to make their final determinations before the trading deadline. But make no mistake: Houston will add somebody via trade this year. And whenever they do, the best team in baseball will get even better.
Astros Home To Start Second Half
Charlie Morton will lead Houston into action against the Minnesota Twins this Friday at Minute Maid. The Astros will look to enter the second half of the season strong – Minnesota has been a surprise contender this year, and a series victory would give Houston some nice positive momentum. Morton, too, will be looking for momentum – it will be the righty’s second start since being activated from the disabled list earlier this month. Tickets are available on mlb.com/astros.