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Astros Trade Deadline Analysis: Houston Gains Two Arms, Loses Two More

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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.

Who Will The Astros Add At The Trade Deadline?

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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.

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