The Houston Astros did not make any trades at the deadline despite links to bullpen reinforcements. And that was the right move for this year.
When it comes to the trade deadline, the grass is always greener in the other fan base’s yard. Fans always fawn over what moves a division rival did to “win-now” and ask why their franchise does not do those things. (Sorry, Seattle Mariners fans.) For the last couple of years, the Houston Astros have been that team who makes the big splashes at the deadline, acquiring guys like Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly and Zack Greinke. However, this year, James Click opted to stay put, much to the chagrin of many Astros fans, who spent most of Monday on the twitter-verse complaining about Click and his “minimalist” approach.
Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s added All-Star Tommy La Stella and got another solid starting pitcher in Mike Minor. The Toronto Blue Jays added Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker and Ross Stripling to support their mammoth young lineup. And the San Diego Padres went all in for a title run, grabbing a No. 1 or 2 starter (Mike Clevinger), a bona fide stud closer (Trevor Rosenthal), a middle-of-the-order bat (Mitch Moreland) and catching reinforcements with Aaron Nola and Jason Castro.
I sympathize with my fellow fans. It is always frustrating when other contenders bulk up their roster and your team does not, especially when some of those teams are in your division. Personally, I was hoping Houston could get someone like Robbie Ray. I would have loved to see Ray go to the Brent Strom school of pitching and potentially be used as a back-of-rotation, middle inning shutdown guy, much like how Patrick Corbin was used with Washington last year.
However, if you take a step back and look at the Astros’ situation at the trade deadline, a team who has made the World Series two out of the last three years, not doing anything was the right play for this ball club. Here’s why James Click did the right thing by not doing anything:
A Win-Now and Win-Later Decision
Houston has made some big trades the past few years to ensure these deep playoff runs, and doing that has ultimately cost the farm. In the early 2010s, Houston had the best minor league system. Recently, however, Bleacher Report had them as the 19th best farm system during this year’s spring training. This drop doesn’t happen overnight. This happens when you have Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez, Framber Valdez and Jose Urquidy graduate to the bigs and find success. This also happens when you trade your prospects a la carte for three future hall-of-fame pitchers in Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Greinke. Eventually, you run out of prospects. The depleted farm system needs time to draft and grow again.
I would also argue that the offseason is more important for the front office than a deadline during an abbreviated season. Houston has five key players and $52 million coming off the books, and James Click will have to reconfigure the roster to extend this championship window. If Click had decided to give up more prospect talent to acquire some players on Monday that we don’t know will stick around long-term, it could have been disastrous.
Acquiring Health as an Upgrade
The Astros have been held back most of the season due to a plethora of injuries. If you look at the career WAR for guys who have missed significant time – Verlander, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Roberto Osuna, George Springer, Michael Brantley – it’s frankly baffling that Houston is four games above .500. It sure does help to play in the AL West this year.
Pitching has been the upgrade needed all season, but the young bullpen and Brent Strom’s genius have been able to keep things afloat. They may not have acquired new pitchers, but what the Astros have acquired is good news. Per reports, Verlander is nearing a return and Urquidy is on schedule to make his season debut over Labor Day. Verlander’s return would give Houston that 1-2 Verlander-Greinke punch that they’ve missed all year. Urquidy, who was lights out during the 2019 playoffs, can be plugged in as Houston’s 4th or 5th starter and could fill in as a solid middle relief inning-eater during the playoffs. In addition, Houston could get Brad Peacock, Josh James and Chris Devenski back in time for October. Getting these pitchers back will balance out the bullpen and provide reliable arms for the playoff push. And it won’t cost the team any prospects. Whoopee!
Trade History Lessons from 2015
Sometimes we seem to have short memories and think every trade the Astros do is electric. Yes, Verlander and Greinke have worked out wonderfully, but not all deadline trades pan out. Remember 2015?
Houston was on the rise and was finally prime to go after the World Series title, similar to the situation San Diego is in this year. Jeff Luhnow was ready to strike big, and he did so with two deadline deals.
The first deal turned out to be painful. Houston went out and acquired then-All-Star Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers in exchange for four prospects. The result? Gomez underwhelmed in Houston the next few years, to the point that they DFA’d him in 2016. Fiers, despite tossing a great no-hitter for the Astros, saw his ERA erode gradually until he was eventually left off the 2017 postseason roster. He went on to revitalize his career in Detroit and Oakland, and oh, he became the infamous snitch who ratted out the Astros in the sign-stealing scandal. Ouch.
But that’s not the worst part of the trade. Do you remember one of the prospects Houston gave up? Josh Hader. Yes, two-time All-Star, 2.69 ERA, 16 strikeouts per 9 innings, shutdown closer Josh Hader. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Houston could really use him right now, don’t you think?
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The other trade worth examining from 2015 happened a week earlier: Scott Kazmir. The Astros acquired the Houston native from the A’s for two prospects. At the time, Kazmir was throwing a 2.38 ERA for Oakland and the trade looked like a slam-dunk for the playoff-bound Astros. However, as we all know, that was not the case with Kazmir. Injuries mounted, his velocity fell off a cliff, and he pitched a clunker against Kansas City in the playoffs. Ultimately, Houston decided not to retain his services that winter, and he left in free agency for Los Angeles. The Astros lost two prospects (Daniel Mengden, Jacob Nottingham) to the A’s that found use for, either through play or through further trades. Overall, this trade was not disastrous, but it did not improve the team like many expected.
The point is that deadline trades for contenders usually end up one of three ways: It’s a huge win (Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, 1998 Randy Johnson, 2004 Carlos Beltran), it’s a complete disaster (Carlos Gomez-Mike Fiers) or it doesn’t make much of an impact (Scott Kazmir). Of course, none of those outcomes are predictable, and that’s the hard part.
If you are the Houston Astros, with a championship window closing and a weaker-than-usual farm system, engaging in these trades has to be an almost guaranteed win. Otherwise, you give up more assets for players that ultimately do not push you to the top. And none of those guarantee upgrade players were available. So, if the asking price is too high for solid players like Robbie Ray and Trevor Rosenthal, then you turn and walk out the door. As Click says, “You don’t make a trade just to make a trade.”
Houston didn’t make a splash at the trade deadline like Oakland, San Diego and Toronto. So what? They didn’t need to. The Astros are already in the pool at the contender party, even with a banged-up roster. It’s a safe and logical decision. Now it’s up the players to prove it to be the right one.