The Astros played a game only five years ago that nobody watched. A Monday afternoon game against the Angels drew a television rating of 0.0. They were the fallen franchise that nobody heard crash. Houston lost 92 games that year, which happened to be an improvement over the previous three seasons of 111, 107 and 106 losses.
Just three years later, Houston won the World Series, a credit to the remarkable turnaround engineered by general manager Jeff Luhnow. And Wednesday, just before the clock ran out on the trade deadline, the Astros planted another flag–not another championship, not yet anyway, but a bold statement everybody from the Bronx to Las Vegas could not miss.
By getting pitcher Zack Greinke–the best among more than 70 players who changed teams–Houston declared itself the most nimble, fearless team in baseball.
The Dodgers have the best record. The Yankees have the most resources. The Red Sox have the highest payroll. But everybody is chasing Houston.
The Astros officially announced themselves as an upstart superpower, the team that is running laps around New York, Los Angeles and Boston, the financial superpowers who did nothing of significance at the deadline.
In the past 23 months, the Astros have traded 11 prospects–none of whom were Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley, their two best prospects–to get Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Greinke. To put it another way, the Astros now have three of the eight pitchers with the lowest ERA over the past two seasons–and they acquired all of them in trades.
You want pure stuff? Over the past two seasons, Verlander, Greinke and Cole are 82-38 and rank 1-4-5 in strikeout-to-walk rate.
Behind them the Astros field what is by far the best defense in baseball (they turn 72.2 percent of batted balls into outs) and an offense that has pulled off the biggest trick in modern hitting: it bashes the ball (they are second in the majors in slugging) but still puts the ball in play (second fewest strikeouts).
Oh, and parenthetically, which would be headlines for any other team, the Astros on Wednesday also acquired a Gold Glove catcher (Martin Maldonado), the 2016 American League ERA champion (Aaron Sanchez) and a setup reliever who is punching out one batter per inning and has allowed one home run to a righthanded batter all year (Joe Biagini).
Vegas took note. Oddsmakers moved Houston from 4:1 to win the World Series to 2:1, leapfrogging the Dodgers as the clear favorite.
Other teams can boast about their prospects. The dangerous trend growing in the game is that teams are valuing future seasons more than the present one, even with the possibility of postseason play. General managers become so enamored with the building process that they miss opportunities now. Prospects–or more accurately, the ranking of prospects, as if it’s a real metric–become the unspent coins of the realm.
Give the Astros credit for keeping their eye on player development. But they also realize these are not gems simply to be hoarded. They think big. They packaged three players to get Verlander with seconds to spare before the 2017 waiver deadline, four players to get Cole in January of 2018, and four more for Greinke in the waning minutes of this deadline.
The Yankees wanted Cole in 2018, but they didn’t want to include Miguel Andujar in a deal that also included Clint Frazier. The Astros gave Pittsburgh the better offer and helped Cole transition from the sinkerball pitcher the Pirates love to an absolute four-seam monster, the best strikeout pitcher in the game.
The Yankees and Dodgers missed out on Verlander in 2017 as many teams thought his fastball was declining. But Houston took away his two-seamer, telling him he was doing a favor to hitters by throwing it, and promoted the high spin on his restored four-seamer. He is 35-13 since then with a 2.48 ERA.
Greinke wasn’t an option for the Yankees, not with his limited no-trade option and his disdain for the spotlight. But New York chose not to outbid the Washington Nationals last winter for Patrick Corbin, it didn’t want Dallas Keuchel, it didn’t meet the high asking price on Robbie Ray or Zach Wheeler, and it let Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman get snapped up by fourth-place teams. All this is happening while the Yankees’ rotation is crumbling. As the deadline approached, Yankees manager Aaron Boone showed how little confidence he has in Masahiro Tanaka by pulling him in the fifth inning with a shutout going on 82 pitches.
With trade avenues closed on them now, the Yankees have no choice but to try to navigate October as a bullpen team, a more expensive version of the Brewers. Even if Luis Severino somehow recovers in time to pitch and get stretched out, the Yankees will never have a pitching matchup in their favor in a series against Houston.
For the Dodgers, standing pat means putting faith in Kenley Jansen, the homer-prone closer with the diminished cut fastball. They could have drawn from their stockpile of prospects to pay a high price for Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez, but they chose future years over pushing more chips into this one. It’s a decision that will stick with Los Angeles if its season ends in anything other than a World Series championship for a 31st straight year.
The baseball postseason is a minefield. The Astros didn’t win the championship Wednesday any more than the Phillies did on Dec. 15, 2010, when they signed free agent Cliff Lee to join Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels in the rotation. The Phillies won 103 games but were knocked out in the first round by a St. Louis team with 13 fewer wins.
But Houston emphatically made itself the favorites to win the World Series, and it did so by acting boldly. In a game gone mad over prospects and relief pitchers, the Astros just traded for one of the best starting pitchers in the game for a third consecutive year.