Assessing Astros' trade needs as baseball's best team faces high cost of title dreams

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Wednesday June 21st, 2017

At 48-24, the Houston Astros have won twice as many games as they've lost, they have a 12-game lead in the AL West that is the biggest in baseball and they are so sure they have a World Series-capable team that they will add not one but two pitchers before the July 31 trading deadline. That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s analogous to the 2016 Cubs, who entered last July with an 11-game lead in the NL Central and left with Aroldis Chapman, causing president Theo Epstein to issue his famous reasoning, “If not now, when?”

Like the ’16 Cubs, the ’17 Astros are salting away the division in midseason and have never won a World Series in our lifetimes—in fact, they've never won one—a confluence of fortunes that emboldens them. Merely making the playoffs is nothing but a participation medal at this point. They need to invest in winning the last game of the year, which means they will have to make trades, as Chicago did, that will hurt.

The fertile Houston farm system must be tapped next month to fill the two obvious holes on what otherwise is a complete team: a starting pitcher and a lefthanded reliever.

In a perfect world—and in an indication of how high they’re shooting—the Astros would love to add Mets ace Jacob deGrom, but there is no indication New York would even consider moving their one reliable starter who still has three years of arbitration control. The usual rumored pitchers for sale—and it’s all rumors; substantive talks don’t really take place until next month—all give Houston pause. The A's Sonny Gray has been inconsistent, the Pirates' Gerrit Cole isn’t the same strikeout pitcher, and the White Sox' Jose Quintana carries a 5.07 ERA, which is more of a P.R. problem because the Astros know his stuff and his peripherals indicate he’s much closer to his usual elite reliability.

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In general, Houston wants a pitcher who can start one of the first three games of a postseason series—joining lefthander Dallas Keuchel and righty Lance McCullers, if not pitching in front of them—and a lefthanded specialist, like the Padres' Brad Hand, who can be dropped into a big spot in the playoffs to face lefthanded hitters or, for instance, turn around Cleveland’s switch-hitters.

The Astros prefer to keep their major league core intact, which means uber-reliever Chris Devenski isn’t going anywhere. The club probably will have to dip into its top four prospects, pitchers Francis Martes and David Paulino and outfielders Kyle Tucker and Derek Fisher. Tucker was recently promoted to Double A, while Martes, Paulino and Fisher, in coincidental cameos, are on the big league roster because of openings caused by injuries.

That Martes and Paulino are chips that can help Houston win the World Series may be the culmination to an amazing scouting story.

In 2013, two seasons after the Astros lost 106 games, one season after they lost 107 games and the year they would lose 111 more, Kevin Goldstein, who had been on the job as a scouting director for only a matter of months, brought an idea to general manager Jeff Luhnow about what to do with the team’s pro scouting plans.

The idea went something like this: “We’re not going to be good in the immediate future, so why should we be scouting major league players and even Triple A players the way everybody does it? Let’s devote our resources to seeing players further down the ladder. Let’s go to the back fields. Let’s own the back fields.”

On one of those back fields in Lakeland, Fla., in the spring of 2013, Houston’s pro scouts noticed a tall, skinny teenage righthander in the Detroit system. Four months later, as the trade deadline neared, Dave Dombrowski, then the Tigers’ president, was looking to add a reliever for the stretch run. He called Luhnow and asked for veteran Jose Veras. Luhnow remembered the kid from the back fields of Lakeland and asked Dombrowski about David Paulino in return.

“I don’t know,” Dombrowski said. “I’ll have to check with my people. I’ll call you back.”

A bit later, Dombrowski called back Luhnow.

“I’m sorry. You’re not going to like what I have to tell you,” Dombrowski said.

“What’s that?”

“He’s having Tommy John surgery.”

“I know,” Luhnow said matter-of-factly. His scouts already had the intelligence on Paulino’s elbow. “That doesn’t matter to us.”

The deal was done. Luhnow traded a journeyman reliever for a 19-year-old kid with a blown-out elbow, one who had pitched only 39 professional innings, was 6'5" and 175 pounds and threw 91 mph. Today Paulino is 6'7", weighs 228 pounds, throws 94 mph with the added deception that comes from having the highest release point in baseball (slightly more than seven feet off the ground) and is in the Houston rotation, having just throttled Boston on Saturday for his first major league win.

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Twelve months after finding a hidden gem in Paulino, the Astros pulled a similar heist.

The Marlins reached the 2014 trade deadline one game under .500 and 4 ½ games out of the wild card. They foolishly thought they were good enough to be a postseason team, so, after making calls on ace starters David Price, Jon Lester and John Lackey, they asked Luhnow for pitcher Jarred Cosart. The Astros were 22 ½ games out. They were a willing seller, and a deal was reached.

The trade news reports all mentioned infielder Colin Moran and outfielder Jake Marisnick as the key pieces going back to Houston. Nobody said much about the 18-year-old kid included in the deal, Francis Martes, whom the Astros first noticed on a back field in spring training and asked for as a throw-in in the trade. Martes owned a 5.18 ERA in rookie ball. But the kid who was throwing 90 when the Marlins signed him a few weeks before his 17th birthday had hit 97 mph by the time of the trade.

Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Now Martes is Houston’s top prospect, with a breaking ball, a feel for changing speeds and a competitive fire that inspire comparisons to the Giants' Johnny Cueto. And Marisnick has developed surprising power while showing the elite defensive skills Houston knew it was getting.

With Keuchel, McCullers, Collin McHugh and Charlie Morton all injured (and all should be back before the All-Star break, though Houston, because of its big lead, is debating whether to extend Keuchel’s rest from a sore neck until after the break), Paulino and Martes are holding down two spots in the rotation.

The sloppy version of the Astros’ rebuild blueprint is that they “tanked” to get high draft picks. That ignores how they blew not one but two number one picks (pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken, neither of whom are still in their system), as well as how their current roster has only five homegrown drafted players (Keuchel, McCullers, shortstop Carlos Correa, third baseman Alex Bregman and outfielder George Springer), how they succeeded on a pro scouting level (Martes, Paulino, Marisnick and McHugh) and how they expanded their analytical-based plan to add veteran leadership (DH Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Josh Reddick).

“What gets overlooked is this team is a case of young guys growing up,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “[Second baseman Jose] Altuve, Correa, Springer . . . these guys have been part of three winning teams now. They’re all grown up, and people lose sight of that because of the veteran guys we added. And those guys do deserve credit.

“Reddick is the one guy who doesn’t get enough credit. Beltran is like a royal. He’s so regal. He gives you that presence. McCann is the lovable guy who’s so funny and always so happy. Everybody wants to be around him.

“Reddick is the red ass. He’s the guy who’s going to make everybody sit up straight and play the game right. He’s on George all the time if George lets up at all.”

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More practically, the veterans give the added lefthanded pop the team needed and have helped change the team’s offensive profile for the better. The Astros had bought into the idea that strikeouts are just another way of making an out. Over the previous five years they ranked every year among the three worst teams in baseball at making contact.

In losing a five-game ALDS in 2015 to Kansas City, for instance, they struck out 58 times to the Royals’ 36.

Last year, they carried too many stat darlings who simply gave them too many empty at-bats in between their damage. Jason Castro, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and A.J. Reed took 1,599 plate appearances, and fanned in 30% of them. All of them are gone.

These days the Astros are the best team in baseball at making contact, a stunning turnaround that positions them much better for a deep October run against the premier pitching of the postseason. When Houston batters get to two strikes, for instance, the dugout comes alive with exhortations to extend the at-bat further.

Houston has the best record in baseball because it is a dynamic, athletic team with a loose, confident vibe, attributes that have carried the Astros through pitching injuries. But to win the World Series, not just the meaningless “best record in baseball” title, the Astros know they need a premier starting pitcher and a lefthanded reliever. After years of building their farm system and trading veterans for young assets, the 'Stros will have to step out of their comfort zone and give up premier young talent.

Last year the Cubs won Game 7 of the World Series by getting the last seven outs from three pitchers who were not even on their big league roster at this time last year: Chapman, who cost them prospect Gleyber Torres in a deal with the Yankees; Carl Edwards, who was promoted from the minors June 22; and Mike Montgomery, another key July trade acquisition who cost the Cubs a prospect (Dan Vogelbach went back to Seattle).

Yes, it will hurt Houston to shoot high. But the time for bargain shopping is over. The Astros already know the question they face next month, and it is the same question the Cubs faced last July: If not now, when?

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