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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.

Arms Race

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With just over a week to go until the Major League Baseball trade deadline, a growing consensus is emerging: The best team in baseball will get even better. Sources around the industry are buzzing with reports that the Houston Astros are aggressively pursuing pitching upgrades.

With a 17-game division lead, the ‘Stros’ spot in the playoffs is all but guaranteed. But GM Jeff Luhnow and the rest of the Houston front office sense a special opportunity this year. The Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, last year’s pennant winners, have struggled to gain their footing. The Texas Rangers have faded, and the Boston Redsox don’t look like the juggernaut pundits expected. The New York Yankees have cooled off, and the Washington Nationals are plagued by an ineffective bullpen. The biggest obstacle standing between the Astros and October bliss is the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers are a dominant force in the National League, and their greatest strength may be on the mound. Fronted by Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet, the Los Angeles pitching staff is long on star power. Houston’s pitching corps isn’t so bad itself – in fact, it’s one of just a few staffs around the league that could arguably measure up to Kershaw and company. But adding some extra firepower may give the Astros a crucial advantage in the playoffs.

So who will be the next great hurler to don Houston’s signature navy and orange? Let’s meet a few of the most likely candidates.

Sonny Gray (RHP) | Oakland Athletics
Gray is the biggest name still available on the trade market, and rumor has it that he’s at the top of Houston’s wish list. That’s exciting news for Astros fans. Gray flashes true ace potential and comes with two and a half seasons of team control. There’s cause for concern, though, too. Gray has struggled with injuries and periods of ineffectiveness, and he’d cost multiple top prospects. That said, he might be worth the risk – Gray has a 1.62 ERA across his last five starts with 27 strikeouts against only 7 walks.

Jaime Garcia (LHP) | Atlanta Braves
A flurry of reports linking Garcia to the Minnesota Twins emerged late last week. Those talks appear to have cooled, though, and Mark Bowman of reported that the Astros are among Garcia’s other suitors. The talented lefty carries injury risks of his own, and he’s more “solid” than “spectacular.” But he has a neat 3.65 career ERA over parts of nine big league seasons – those kind of results are difficult to quibble with.

Justin Verlander (RHP) and Justin Wilson (LHP) | Detroit Tigers
How about shoring up two needs at once? The Tigers are in sell-mode this season, and they have no shortage of top-flight talent. The big prize here is Verlander, a longtime ace in the midst of a disappointing (by his standards) season. The righty costs a pretty penny, but indications are that the Tigers are willing to pay some of Verlander’s remaining contract. Meanwhile, Wilson would give the Astros an elite left-handed bullpen weapon to pair with Chris Devenski and Will Harris.

Jeff Samardzija (RHP) | San Francisco Giants
The results simply aren’t there for “The Shark” this season – he’s limped to an ugly 5.05 ERA across 20 starts with San Francisco. But the former Notre Dame standout still possesses considerable upside. He’s striking out 9.7 batters per nine innings, and walking just 1.1. He’s run into trouble with home runs this year, and the San Francisco defense has let him down, too. FIP, an advanced metric that attempts to predict pitcher performance on an ERA-like scale, places Samardzija at a much more palatable 3.60. He could be an ideal buy-low candidate who could flourish with a change of scenery.

Yu Darvish (RHP) | Texas Rangers
Let’s get this out of the way: Darvish plays for the Texas Rangers, mortal enemy of the Astros. An in-division trade is likely to cost more in terms of prospects, and the fanbases of both franchises could feel betrayed by such a dramatic move. Swinging a trade for the Rangers’ ace is a long shot. Even so, Astros scouts were in attendance for Darvish’s last start. And there’s no denying his electric talent – Darvish is running a 3.44 ERA and he’s among the league leaders in punch-outs. Fans may not be able to imagine him in Houston orange, but he’d look awfully good mowing down Dodgers in October.

Moran’s Milestone
Infielder Colin Moran was called up from AAA to help the Astros weather Carlos Correa’s thumb injury. He got the start at third base last night, and made it one to remember. Moran collected two hits in four at bats and launched his first major league home run. His other base knock? A triple. No surprise that he’s back in the lineup tonight.

McHugh In, Guduan Out
Houston’s starting rotation is set to get an internal boost, as Collin McHugh will make his 2017 debut tonight against the Baltimore Orioles. McHugh was electric for the ‘Stros in 2014 and 2015 before stumbling a bit last season. To make room for McHugh, lefty ‘pen piece Reymin Guduan was optioned down to AAA Fresno.

Coming Up
Houston plays its second of three games in Baltimore tonight. The team will then travel to Philadelphia for a three-game set before closing out their road trip with three in Detroit. When they return to Minute Maid Park to host the Tampa Bay Rays on July 31, they’ll likely be sporting a new player or two. Get your tickets for their return here.

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