This is a fun time to be a Houston sports fan. Football preseason is less than two weeks away, with the Texans hoping to build off of last season's 9-7 finish. (Admittedly, a quarterback would help, but stay with me.) The Rockets just made a trade for what they hope will be the missing piece in point guard Ty Lawson.
And then there's the Astros.
Two years ago, they were a 51-111 dumpster. This season, they got their 51st win on July 19, with more than two months remaining in the season. Two years ago, the team was literally pulling a 0.0 TV rating on some late season games. This season, they just pulled a robust 4.3 for their game with the Red Sox Wednesday night. Two years ago, they were still selling off what remotely valuable Major League parts they still had left (adios, Bud Norris). On Wednesday, they sent a clear message — they've turned the corner, and they're now buyers.
The Astros fired the first salvo of the "trade deadline" season on Wednesday afternoon, trading two minor league prospects to Oakland for starting pitcher and Houston native Scott Kazmir.
The two prospects headed to the A's are right-handed pitcher Daniel Mengden and catcher Jacob Nottingham. Nottingham, 20, hit .326/.383/.558 in 76 games between Houston's two full-season Class A clubs this season and has emerged as one of the better catching prospects in the minor leagues this season. Mengden, 22, has gone 6-2 with a 3.46 ERA in 18 games (14 starts) between two Class A stops this season. He has an 84/26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 1/3 innings, and adds an arm to an A's farm system that needs arms.
So two decent prospects for a frontline starting pitcher. If we can compare across sports, the Kazmir deal for the Astros feels a lot like the Lawson deal for the Rockets in that the Houston team a) filled a massive need and b) didn't have to give up anything that is irreplaceable. The Astros' minor league system is stacked, and one of the reasons you stack it is to make deals like this one.
Since arriving in the big leagues in 2004, Kazmir, 31, has been beyond and back. He was drafted by the Mets in the first round in 2002 and was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in a deadline deal for Victor Zambrano. He had a solid five seasons in Tampa, making the A.L. All Star team twice and helping the Rays to the 2008 World Series. He was traded during the 2009 season to Anaheim, where his career began to spiral downward.
Through a combination of shoulder problems and just flat out losing his mojo, Kazmir bottomed out in 2011 when the Angels waived him with more than $14 million remaining on his deal. In 2012, Kazmir actually pitched for the Sugar Land Skeeters, going 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA. In 2013, he signed a minor league contract with Cleveland and won the fifth starter's job, going 10-9 for his best season since 2009. That all led to a two-year, $22 million deal with Oakland, and in 2014, Kazmir made it all the way back, winning 15 games and appearing in the All-Star Game for a third time.
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This season, Kazmir has gone 5-5 with a stellar 2.38 ERA, including a 0.47 ERA in July. Equally important, he is 4-0 this season against Seattle, Texas and the Angels. The Astros play more than half their remaining games in the division. A rotation of Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Kazmir and Collin McHugh is a dance card you can go to battle with in October.
Furthermore, beyond the 2015 season, it would seem that Kazmir would be a good candidate to re-sign here when his deal is up after this season, what with Houston being his hometown. The two most notable times the Astros have previously made deadline deals — Randy Johnson in 1998 and Carlos Beltran in 2004 — those players flirted with the Astros before signing elsewhere for big money. Kazmir's price tag should be reasonable compared to those of other near-ace pitchers, given his odd career arc.
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was clear on Thursday that there could still be more deals coming. The Astros did little on Wednesday to chip away at their pile of minor league assets if indeed there is more to do. For now, it's fun to be rooting for a team that's a buyer again.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.