The Astros lost 8-5 to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night. Though it was their seventh loss in ten games, there's not that much to worry about. Every team slumps. And with a double-digit division lead with just under 50 games left in the season, the Astros are about as close of a lock to the playoffs as there is — except for maybe the Dodgers, who are on track for one of the winningest seasons in history.
But there was some worrisome news that night in Chicago. Dallas Keuchel, making his third start since coming off the disabled list for the second time this season, got beat up good. He lasted just four innings, and surrendered eight runs on ten hits. It was not a pretty outing, and it’s coming to that part of the season where the bullpen, which has been a bit overused this season, could use the break that normally comes from the team ace being on the mound.
And Wednesday night Collin McHugh, making his fourth start of the season, was beat up by the White Sox almost as badly as Keuchel, lasting just 5 1/3 innings while surrendering nine hits and seven runs as the Astros lost a second straight game to the team with the worst record in the American League.
And don’t forget about Lance McCullers, who is on his second DL stint of the season. McCullers was dominating early in the season, but looked bad between his injury stints. It also needs to be said that for as electric as McCullers can be when he is healthy, he is rarely healthy. Which means that the three guys the Astros are depending on leading the pitching staff in the playoffs are in really bad shape at the moment.
The trade deadline for the Astros was a dud. They were reportedly in on several deals, including a trade with the Orioles that would have brought perhaps the game’s best closer, Zach Britton, to the Astros before the Orioles pulled out at the last minute. The Yankees and the Dodgers swooped and took the supposed best starting pitchers on the market — Sonny Gray going from Oakland to New York and Yu Darvish going from the Rangers to the Dodgers.
There were many people who were disappointed by the Astros' lack of action (the Astros pulled off one deal, acquiring Francisco Liriano from Toronto and putting him in the bullpen). Among those disappointed were fans, Jim Crane, Jeff Luhnow and Dallas Keuchel.
But there is still a chance for the Astros. There’s still an ace pitcher on the market, Justin Verlander, one of the league's pre-eminent starters over the past decade. Verlander is a former AL MVP and Cy Young winner. He has a lot of playoff experience. He’s also got a big contract with two years left, is getting older and is not quite as dominant as he once was. But for those who think Verlander might have lost it, here’s his line from last night: eight innings, one hit, no runs and six strikeouts, and he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
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Verlander won’t come cheap. There’s that big contract the Astros need to pick up, and the team would probably have to part with some of the talent the team has been stacking up in the minors.
There’s this idea going around among Astros fans that prospects are too important to be sacrificed for what is likely only a short-term fix, and these people love to throw around the name of Jeff Bagwell for why a team should never trade prospects when making a postseason push — those people forget that Bagwell was seen as a no-power third baseman in the Boston farm system when the Red Sox were sure that Wade Boggs was going to be around forever. These same fans also note that the Astros farm system was irreparably harmed by the trading of prospects for Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran — these fans also forget that Drayton McLane neglected the farm system, lost draft picks because of free agent signings, made some really bad draft picks, and often just didn’t sign picks.
Prospects do not always pan out. How did Brett Wallace and Jon Singleton turn out for the Astros? And if Jeff Luhnow is the genius that people claim he is, and if the farm system is as stacked as everybody says it is, then it stands to reason that the Astros could part with a few prospects and not lose a step (that’s one of the reasons for building a deep, deep farm system). And as Grant Brisbee noted the other day, the Astros can likely afford to pay Verlander pretty easily with the team owing just $56.7 million in guaranteed salary next season and $23.9 million guaranteed in 2019.
The Astros are going to make the playoffs and score a lot of runs. But the rotation is a mess, and even if Keuchel, McCullers and McHugh are healthy, it is not a playoff rotation that can stack up against those of the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Rays and Royals, the teams the Astros would likely face. If just making the playoffs is good enough, then maybe the Astros can stand pat and do nothing, but if the Tigers are really willing to trade Verlander, then the Astros really should be doing everything possible to add him to the starting rotation.