Aug. 13, 2017
Did The Trade Deadline Doom The Astros?
Deadline day. The Houston Astros were 68-36 entering play that night against the Tampa Bay Rays. They were 68-36. But the day before the Astros were clubbed by the Detroit Tigers 13-1 where Justin Verlander, a possible trade candidate, dominated. It was also clear in that series against the lowly Tigers that they did not have the pitching that sets themselves from the likes of the other contenders like New York, Boston, and Cleveland, who have pitching. Dallas Keuchel was just off the DL and people wondered what he would be coming back from injury. Lance McCullers, who got drilled by Detroit opposite of Verlander that day, was put on the DL on the 31st.
It seemed like a natural fit Houston would be in the mix for a front-end starting pitcher in case Keuchel was not 100% when he returned and McCullers would not be relied on. After all the rest of the rotation is of Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton, and Joe Musgrove. Serviceable, but not the likes of Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz or Syndergaard/deGrom/Harvey (when healthy). And honestly, if it was October baseball, I'd take the likes of Cleveland, Boston, or even New York over Houston in terms of starting pitching.
Leading up to the deadline, the hope in the Astros clubhouse was they would net that starting arm. That one BIG arm that would put them over the top. Jose Quintana was available. Sonny Gray was available. Yu Darvish was put on the market as Texas conceded 2016 wasn't their year. Justin Verlander was on the block. Getting one of those guys would just rev up the team, the fans, and the city for a possible world championship run.
Most of the times we see the whole bit where a team makes a trade for that ace starter in the middle of a heated race for the division and it puts them over the top. Milwaukee did it in 2011 with Zack Greinke. Kansas City did it with Johnny Cueto in 2015. Toronto did it with David Price in 2015. Cole Hamels did it with the Rangers in 2015 as well. Yeah, only Cueto won a World Series with his new team, but the Blue Jays pulled away from the Yankees and others in the AL East. Texas pulled away from Houston with Hamels that year. The Royals had a nice lead when they got Cueto but everybody knew it was a move to play late October baseball.
Houston seemed to be a logical fit for an ace.
First, Jose Quintana got traded from the White Sox to the Cubs. Of course, it was a steep price the Cubs paid in terms of prospects, but the Cubs didn't care. They wanted their man.
Then came the Sonny Gray sweepstakes. The Astros were in the mix, but with the Yankees, Brewers, Dodgers, and Braves also interested and all of them have top farm systems as well as Houston, it was who would be willing to pay a price. The Yankees were the winners. So Yu Darvish was put up by Texas. If the city of Chicago can play nice and trade with each other, why couldn't the Lone Star State do the same? Well, Texas must have had a better offer from the Dodgers because Yu became a Dodger.
The last major arm standing was Justin Verlander. However, Verlander is out of his prime and has an insanely high salary that doesn't run out until after the 2019 season. It didn't make contenders too happy that Detroit wasn't really willing to foot the bill of Verlander's contract after this season. And it was a problem where the Tigers, who are in dire need of prospects, also had a high asking price. But Verlander in the 2nd half and has been the case the last two seasons has been reminiscent of his old Cy Young winning self (3-1 with a 2.04 ERA, WHIP of a 0.94 and a 9.8 K/9 ratio). Would the Astros have paid a major price for Verlander? Yes.
So instead the Astros made a trade: trading for Francisco Liriano. We are not talking the Francisco Liriano who was 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting behind Justin Verlander & Jonathan Papelbon in 2006. We are not talking about Francisco Liriano who was stout with Pittsburgh in 2013-2015. We are talking about Francisco Liriano, a pitcher who had a 5.88 ERA in Toronto and was demoted to the bullpen. And guess where the Astros used him? In the bullpen. And he is actually WORSE now (10.80 ERA in 3 games).
After the deadline, it led to Dallas Keuchel saying:
"I mean, I'm not going to lie, disappointment is a little bit of an understatement. I feel like a bunch of teams really bolstered their rosters for the long haul and for a huge playoff push, and us just kind of staying pat was really disappointing to myself."
Maybe not saying it to the media was the BEST of decisions by Keuchel, but I can completely empathize with Keuchel. I bet most fans in Houston feel that way too. You're at the deadline and thinking one more arm in the rotation and you are a near-lock for the World Series. And that happened.
Of course the defense is "well, we do not want to lose our top prospects and we have a lot of good ones." I get it that you don't want to trade maybe a piece that could be a franchise player like Kyle Tucker. But you have to take that risk and go get that piece that could net you with a late October parade downtown. And honestly, I don't see Detroit running and asking for Tucker when it came to Verlander (Derek Fisher perhaps, though given the Tigers trades lately, they'd probably take Freudis Nova and yes, another shortstop straight up), but Houston HAS to be willing to make a move that could give them a world championship.
I am reminded of the 1998 Atlanta Braves when it came to the Astros inability to get that needed arm. For those who remember, the Braves were in the heart of their 14-year divisional title run and had a stout offense with Chipper Jones, Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, Andruw Jones while the rotation was still the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz group in their heyday and even Denny Neagle got in on the fun. They dominated the relatively weak NL East then and the division was over by the deadline, even with the Mets being competitive. However, there was one thing the Braves needed major help on: bullpen. Mark Wohlers fell apart and the Braves relied on Kerry Ligtenberg to close. Good, but a question mark come postseason. However, the rumor persisted that right before the deadline, the Braves had an offer to get Randy Johnson to Atlanta. And all it would have costed them to pay the Mariners would be Bruce Chen and George Lombard (my guess Millwood would have also been in that trade too). The Braves backed down. And the winner of the Randy Johnson sweepstakes? THE HOUSTON ASTROS.
Houston sent Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen to Seattle (later John Halama). Garcia and Guillen ended up having great careers, but Johnson distanced the Astros away from the NL Central, where that year they had to distance themselves from a team who had a hitter with 73 HR's and another team with a hitter with 66 HR. Yes, they lost to San Diego in the NLDS, but the Padres did something clever on Atlanta while helping them out. Since the Braves didn't cough up the prospects the Mariners wanted for Johnson (who the Braves wanted to use for the closer situation), they stood pat. As the waiver trades started to happen, the Braves hoped they could get a closer for cheap and the guy that would probably come up was Randy Myers. Myers struggled in Toronto that year but compared to Wohlers was lights out and he had October experience including a World Series MVP to his resume. San Diego, leading the NL West, but nowhere near having a better record than the Astros or Braves, claimed Myers, and made a trade with Toronto for cheap, thus keeping Atlanta from getting their man and possibly locking down the NL. Yes, Myers didn't do anything with the Padres, but it stung the Braves (and maybe the Astros) from getting him.
But the Braves inactivity at the deadline that year costed them and that was one of their best years in that run. After that bit of "standing pat" I honestly believe the Braves were never the same again. They lost to San Diego in the NLCS that year (ironic isn't it?) and were bounced out in 4 of the next 6 years in the NLDS. Granted, they made it, but if winning a world championship meant a few of those years had to be rebuilds, I think most Braves fans would be equally happy. And as for Chen & Lombard, Chen had a long MLB career, but I wouldn't call it great by any means, or even good and Lombard was later traded to the Tigers for Kris Keller. Who? Exactly!
And right now if you go to the North Side of Chicago and ask any Cubs fan if they regret trading Gleyber Torres in a package for Aroldis Chapman, they would laugh and say they were there when the Cubs won the World Series. If it means by 2021 the Cubs are back to losing 90, not many will be overly bothered when they see that 2016 World Series banner flying above Wrigley Field. Will the Dodgers fans cry if Willie Calhoun becomes a stud in Texas if the Dodgers win the championship and Darvish was a key reason? Will the Yankees get bothered if Dustin Fowler becomes an All-Star in Oakland down the road if it means the Yankees won it all this year? Nobody will care as they can say they were kings of the hill in the baseball world and see the banners fly (cue the John Parr reference) in their home ballpark.
Bottom line is that ALL championship teams have to take risks in order to win. We see it over and over. The Cubs did it last year with Chapman. The Royals did it in 2015 with Cueto. The Giants have done it and the Red Sox have done it time after time. Houston needed to take a risk at the deadline like they did in 1998 for Randy Johnson and 2004 with Carlos Beltran. And they didn't. And they are paying for it right now as the Astros are 2-8 since the deadline and Keuchel has not gotten it turned around and look a bit lost out there. And now teams in the AL are gaining ground on them.
Maybe the Astros still pull a deal in the waiver deadline and maybe for Verlander, or another high profile pitcher, but of course it is not as easy. But Houston's front office will have to decide if they want to take that risk that possibly nets them that first world championship in H-Town.
It is something they have to consider now. Or else this season filled with such promise will fall by the wayside in October.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat