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Inside Baseball | Astros cautious ways will hurt October chances

Jon Heyman

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CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 09: Houston Astros starting pitcher Collin McHugh (31) hands Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch (14) the ball after being relieved during the game between the Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox on August 9, 2017 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)
Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire

Justin Verlander has cleared waivers, so that means the Houston Astros have plenty of time to figure out a trade for him, right? Maybe not. Someone involved in those brief recent talks between the Detroit Tigers and Astros said that between Verlander’s contract and the prospects, the teams just couldn’t work it out.

So that’s apparently it. He said it like that, talk’s in the past tense, and it’s not coming back (though Verlander is technically still eligible to be dealt, and Verlander is now dealing, as he did Wednesday night in shutting down the Pirates).

The Astros were actually one of a few teams that checked in on Verlander after he cleared waivers, but it was a brief conversation with them, even after the Tigers were said to have bent a little from their stance not to pay down more than this season ($10 million of the $65 million or so to go). “It never got close,” said one person familiar with those talks, who went on to speculate that it’s a deal to be done in wintertime, if it can be done at all. (That person actually thought Verlander’s more likely than not to begin next season with the Tigers, too.)

One rival GM says he would have claimed Verlander if he were in Houston’s position, forcing Detroit’s hand. But that would not be the move of a conservative organization, like Houston’s. (While Detroit almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to just let Verlander go just like that due to P.R. considerations, it’s possible such a claim could have pushed them toward a trade, including prospects and money.)

Give the Astros credit for putting themselves in this position in the first place, of course. But folks wonder why they aren’t doing more, including people inside their own clubhouse. Ace Dallas Keuchel’s rather measured comments of disappointment were “just the tip of the iceberg,” in terms of employee feelings about the non-action, Astros-connected people say.

The Astros have been the best team in the AL this year, and on paper look like a favorite to reach the World Series. But one rival exec predicts, “They’re not going to get far, not with the starting pitching the way it is. They’re not going to like the matchups,” come October.

“I don’t see how they get through three series,” says another rival executive.

From here, too, the rotation top is talented but young and more fragile than that of other contenders. It’s also a young team and lineup, so it should be able to afford to trade some position-player prospects, who may not be needed anyway.

But the Astros are more risk averse than perhaps anyone else when it comes to trading prospects. They just don’t want to take that chance, it seems.

As with most cases this summer, in Verlander talks the Astros made basically off limits their biggest prospects – Forrest Whitley, Frances Martes, Kyle Tucker, Derek Fisher (though he’s up in the majors and would have to clear waivers to be traded now), Franklin Perez and presumably Yordan Alvarez. But as someone with the Tigers put it, “You’re trading an icon, you’ve got to get something back.”

The Astros are really terrific, due partly to their plan of conservatism and conservation. They didn’t spend in the beginning, so they were awful, allowing them to use high draft choices and stockpile young players in the early days of the slotting system, when being the worst brought quite a windfall in terms of draft pool money. And now they aren’t spending their best prospects. They only occasionally have traded real prospects – the Carlos Gomez and Ken Giles trades were exceptions (the Gomez deal was a mistake, in retrospect) – and that’s generally paid off, as they’ve drafted and developed well.

HOUSTON, TX - JULY 31: Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow walks down the stairs during batting practice prior to a MLB game between the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays at Minute Maid Park, Monday, July 31, 2017. (Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire)

HOUSTON, TX – JULY 31: Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow walks down the stairs during batting practice prior to a MLB game between the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays at Minute Maid Park, Monday, July 31, 2017. (Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire)

But you have to wonder whether their conservative style may wind up haunting them this year. Though some recent bullpen struggles and a fragile rotation top has to bring concern, they basically stood pat at the deadline, failing to land a single impact arm (their only trade was for Francisco Liriano, a struggling starter they are using in the pen).

Their lack of movement caused them to make a lot of post-deadline “loser” lists, including here (which they surely don’t care about), and triggered an outcry in their clubhouse, where Keuchel said “disappointment would be an understatement” (which they may not care all that much about, either). People around the team say they will get someone in the waiver trading period, though almost surely not someone of the stature of a Zach Britton, the Orioles star they thought they had acquired before the deadline.

The Orioles canceled that trade, and while Astros owner Jim Crane suggested in a Houston radio interview that the order came from his Orioles counterpart (though Crane didn’t mention the team or owner, we know they had an agreement for a Britton trade), other sources suggest that at least one Astros player going to Baltimore didn’t pass Baltimore’s notoriously rigorous medical standard. Angelos has only sold once in his reign (2000, when the Orioles traded Will Clark and several others) and even Orioles people can’t swear he would have gone through a trade for Britton even if the Astros players all had passed the medical inspection (they admit Angelos wasn’t exactly anxious to trade Britton; one Orioles person said the day before the deadline he figured there was a 25 percent chance they’d hold onto Britton, and ultimately they did).

The Astros tried to rework the deal, and the Orioles rebuffed the new attempts, leading to Crane’s conclusion. The Indians also were “in deep” on Britton, and the Dodgers were in the mix as well, but neither of those teams got to the finish line, either. While GM Dan Duquette has a history of deal-making (Pedro Martinez twice, and the famed Jason Varitek-Derek Lowe deal; this year Tim Beckham came late in a deal to Baltimore), the reality is that between the Orioles doctor and the owner, it probably isn’t easy to make a major deadline deal with them, especially when they’re in that middle ground between buyer and seller. “If you’re dealing with the Orioles, you better have a backup plan,” one rival GM said.

Well, now the Astros will try to enact some backup plans. But the question is: how hard will they try?

The Orioles have somehow worked their way into the AL Wild Card race in the 10 days since the deadline, so Britton’s out (not that he could clear waivers, anyway). And so is Brad Hand, who’d never get to the Astros on waivers, with his superior season and $1-million salary. (And for the record, one interested GM said that among the lefty relievers, Jerry Blevins was claimed, while Hand and Britton presumably would not.)

For those reasons, plus two more years of control (not one, like Britton), a case could be made Hand was almost as valuable as Brittan. Though, as in other cases, the Astros weren’t exactly aggressive in pursuing Hand, either. They made clear that Tucker and Whitley were off limits in those talks, then rebuffed the Padres’ first effort to land Fisher, and later tries to land Perez or Alvarez, seemingly reasonable requests for a pitcher who made the All-Star team, makes next to nothing and has two years to go.

While Verlander seems extremely unlikely at this point, it’s also possible Jeff Samardzija, an innings eat who’d help, could also clear waivers. The problem there is the Astros are a team Samardzija can block via his no-trade list. But there aren’t a lot of chances to add a playoff-worthy starter left presumably.

The Astros also tried for Justin Wilson, though apparently not very hard. None of their very top prospects were offered in that deal, either, and word is that the package from the Cubs including third baseman Jeimer Candelario was “by far” the best deal on the table.

Another rival GM said the Astros kept trying to make A.J. Reed, who’s DHing some in Triple-A, or Colin Moran, a third baseman who’s solid but lacks power, as the centerpiece of trades for impact pieces. That just wasn’t going to happen.

The Astros, who long suspected the Rangers would be less than anxious to send Yu Darvish in-state and in-division, it turns out didn’t try very hard at all for Darvish, either, causing the Rangers, who determined a couple days before the deadline they needed to deal Darvish, to send him to the Dodgers, and turning them from a strong World Series favorite into a prohibitive one. The Dodgers’ offer, once again, was said be “easily” the best one to be had. Yet, one rival exec wonders why Houston didn’t grab Darvish.

“They could have beaten what the Dodgers offer easily without touching their top four guys,” one rival exec said. “He should be an Astro.”

The Astros never seemed to be in on Sonny Gray (they weren’t about to trade three of their best prospects!), and didn’t land Tony Watson (they may have been preoccupied with Britton at that point), either, and in the end were left with only Liriano, a talented lefty who’s been misfiring a lot this year. Kind of like the Astros did at the deadline.

Inside Baseball AL Notes

Inside Baseball NL Notes

Jon Heyman is an MLB Insider for FanRag Sports, featuring breaking news, information and his Inside Baseball column, which appears on FanRagSports.com every Thursday. Heyman also has been an insider at MLB Network since the channel launched in 2009 and is a regular contributor to WFAN in New York, where he appears weekly on the Joe and Evan Show and previously appeared on the Mike and the Mad Dog Show. He also appears on WSCR in Chicago, WBZ-FM in Boston and the Petros and Money Show on Fox in Los Angeles. Heyman comes to FanRag Sports from CBSSports.com, where he worked for five years and wrote the popular Inside Baseball notes column. Before going to CBS, Heyman worked for five years at Sports Illustrated and SI.com, where he was a senior writer and started an Inside Baseball Column. Heyman worked for 16 years at Newsday in New York, where he was the Yankees beat writer, a baseball columnist and finally a general sports columnist. Heyman started his career at the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch, then moved to the Los Angeles Copley Newspapers (Torrance Daily Breeze and Santa Monica Outlook) before going to Newsday. Heyman at one time also served as a national baseball writer for The Sporting News. Heyman is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The Santa Fe, N.M. native grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on Long Island.

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