The best team in baseball has a problem.
Every team in baseball has at least one problem. For the Houston Astros, who enter Thursday’s action 29-12 with a commanding lead in the American League West, that problem is the back of their rotation.
They’ve got a top-5 offense, an excellent bullpen anchored by fireman Chris Devenski, and in Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, the best current 1-2 top of the rotation punch in the American League. Again, they’ve won 29 games out of 41. To the extent that their problems are affecting the team right now, they’re only doing so on the margins.
Nevertheless, every team can get better, and the places the Astros want to get better in — should the offense falter, or the bullpen struggle, or they lose one of their top two pitchers for any length of time — the back of the rotation would be a place they’d like to have strength to fall back upon. And right now, that’s an issue.
Offseason signing Charlie Morton, he of the oft-GIF’d 97-99 mph fastball on the black, has never managed to translate that into more than league-average results in terms of runs prevented on the mound, while Joe Musgrove, filling in for the injured Collin McHugh, and Mike Fiers have been utterly replaceable as the fourth and fifth starters.
Fiers is the big concern, owning a 5.75 ERA through 36 innings. He has allowed 16 home runs in only seven appearances while also walking 15. That combination shows an admirable dedication to missing his spots.
So Fiers has to go. But even with Fiers gone and McHugh healthy (which won’t be until mid- to late June at the earliest), Musgrove is an unappealing fifth starter. He’s better-suited for spot starts and as a long man out of the bullpen.
The Astros might want to make a move now to secure rotation help. The earlier they buy, the longer they get the player, and while they might have to overwhelm teams at this point to get a top-of-the-rotation starter, they have the distinct advantage of also not getting into a bidding war at the trade deadline.
FanRag Sports’ own Jon Heyman listed some possible trade targets in his notes from around the league this week. Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates figures prominently, but as Heyman notes, while trading for Cole — a guy who had a legit ace coming-out party in 2015 before being hobbled by injuries last year — would check basically every box the Astros could dream about, there’s little incentive for Pittsburgh to get a deal done.
He has two more years to free agency, and the Pirates aren’t so bad that they actively have to blow it up to get things done. Also, there are so many teams tanking right now that Pittsburgh might want to wait a year or two for the Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves to get this out of their system before making a full-on run to the bottom. But if Pittsburgh does want to blow it all up, Houston’s got the pieces to make it worth their while.
The Chicago White Sox’s Jose Quintana is now something of a concern for teams looking to trade for him. He should be the most attractive pitcher on the market, but he has been unable to control the strike zone. A slow start is one thing, but when you’re at 50 innings and your walk rate is almost twice your career average, it’s understandable if teams want to wait and make sure there’s not some underlying issue to be concerned about, mental or physical.
The big draw for Quintana, after all, is you have him for a couple more years after this one. If for some reason he’s now a 4 BB/9 pitcher, that’s suddenly a liability. Quintana probably isn’t moving until the deadline, just to give him a chance to rebuild value. Two of his last three starts were pretty decent, including an excellent eight-inning outing against the Kansas City Royals on May 2, so perhaps he’s turning the corner.
The White Sox pitcher of the moment is Derek Holland. He has changed his approach to nibble a bit more, which has seen a corresponding increase in bad contact but also in walks. It’s dubious as to whether that’s sustainable and he’s another guy that should wait until the deadline for a look — this time for the buyer’s benefit rather than the seller’s.
Minnesota’s Ervin Santana is probably out of the running because the Twins are actually winning games right now. If something like a young core is coming together around Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Robbie Grossman and Jose Berrios, then they’ll likely want to ride this year out and see what they can get for him in the offseason.
Alex Cobb, however, could check the boxes. The Rays are a team that’s both unsentimental enough and sufficiently committed to unconventional thinking to trade a guy before the deadline. While Cobb has had fragility issues, he’s also a guy who doesn’t walk a lot of batters and induces bad contact, two things that play well in front of Houston’s excellent team defense. He’s a free agent after this season, but that just lowers his asking price.
While landing an ace or near-ace of the Quintana or Cole mold would be nice to dream about all the Astros really need is a solid guy to take a back of the rotation spot. Cobb can do that, and if he doesn’t, he won’t hang over the Astros’ heads after the end of the season.
Again, it’s not the biggest need in the world; it’s the best team in baseball trying to get better. Good teams stay good by getting better, and the Astros can improve.