Astros should target bullpen help at deadline

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04: Manager A.J. Hinch #14 of the Houston Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow talk during batting practice at Minute Maid Park on April 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04: Manager A.J. Hinch #14 of the Houston Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow talk during batting practice at Minute Maid Park on April 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

With prices for starting pitchers sky-high, should the Astros instead focus on upgrading the bullpen?

As the calendar moves closer to July 31, the trade market continues to take shape. The Astros are known to be in the market for pitching, with starting pitching seemingly a priority. But is that the best course of action?

The first big domino to fall was the Jose Quintana trade. The Cubs gave up two top prospects in the deal, including the No. 5 prospect in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law. The White Sox got a bounty for a guy who is having a poor season by his standards.

For the Astros to have acquired Quintana, it likely would have taken their two best prospects — outfielder Kyle Tucker and pitcher Forrest Whitley. That’s a high price to pay for a No. Three starter, even with the extra seasons of team control he comes with.

The best remaining starter on the market, Oakland’s Sonny Gray, likely won’t come any cheaper. Multiple teams are in need of rotation help so that the bidding will be fierce. Gray is a good pitcher, but he’s not worth giving up Tucker and Whitley.

The only way I would consider giving up Tucker and Whitley would be in a deal for a bona fide ace, and there aren’t any of those likely to be available. Names like Jacob deGrom and Michael Fulmer have been floated, but it’s unlikely those guys are moved.

GM Jeff Luhnow could overpay for Gray, but remember the team’s recent history. Luhnow swung deadline deals for Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez in 2015, neither of which worked out well. He’s waiting out the market this time, and the market doesn’t look favorable for those seeking starting pitching.

The ‘Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Instead, the best way to proceed might be to bolster the team’s relief corps. Recall how the Cleveland Indians made their 2016 World Series run behind Corey Kluber and an incredible bullpen. The Astros, with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, could set themselves up similarly for October.

Right now, the team has three reliable bullpen arms — Chris Devenski, Will Harris, and Ken Giles. The rest of them just give me heartburn. So if the starting pitching market is too tough, maybe adding two more guys to the late-inning mix is the way to go.

Undoubtedly, one of these additions should be a left-hander. The Padres’ Brad Hand and the Tigers’ Justin Wilson are two such guys who are available. Zach Britton of the Orioles could be the Astros’ version of Andrew Miller, with the added benefit of keeping him away from the Dodgers.

Some right-handers are also available, including Baltimore’s Brad Brach, the Mets’ Addison Reed, and Miami’s David Phelps. Other names may pop up in the rumor mill over the next two weeks as well.

The Astros may be forced to give up one top prospect in a deal for a top reliever like Britton, but they won’t have to give up both. In the right deals, they can assemble the deepest, strongest bullpen in the majors without sacrificing all of their top young talents. Luhnow is more than capable of pulling it off.

Building for October

In that scenario, games in October will be shortened. The Astros can win with five solid innings from Brad Peacock, Mike Fiers, Collin McHugh or Charlie Morton because the bullpen will be so deep. With a healthy Keuchel and McCullers in the rotation, the pitching staff will be in great shape, and the offense is good enough to carry this team.

Next: Astros need to target Sonny Gray with A’s in rebuild mode

It’s a delicate line to walk when you want to win now without mortgaging the future. For Luhnow, walking that line may mean making shrewd alternative moves as opposed to simply outbidding other teams for Gray. Both the 2017 Astros and the 2021 Astros will be better off for it.

***Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference***