Sean Pendergast

The Astros Have a Pair of Aces. Here's How They Can Get a Third

Gerrit Cole is one of a number of young, capable arms that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow should be targeting.
Gerrit Cole is one of a number of young, capable arms that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow should be targeting. Screen grab from YouTube
Over a 162-game regular season, the only Astros team to win 100 games or more was the 1998 team that featured one of the most prolific lineups in all of baseball, with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell in their primes, supplemented by the acquisition of outfielder Moises Alou, who finished in the top five of the NL MVP balloting. They won 102 games, but unfortunately finished the postseason bowing out to the Padres in four games, which is to this day one of the biggest sports disappointments of my life.

That was the most talented Astros team of my baseball-watching lifetime, and the lineup was backed by a pitching staff that had a strong rotation and a hammer to close in Billy Wagner. The rotation was decent heading into the season, but it took a midseason trade with Seattle for further Hall of Famer Randy Johnson to take the team from good to great.

Johnson came in at the trade deadline and went 10-1 down the stretch. He was amazing, he was a rock star and every "Big Unit" start was an event. Alas, again, it didn't end the way we wanted it to, but it was a fun ride.

This 2017 Astros team has a great chance to surpass that 1998 team as the best in franchise history. (Yes, I know the 2005 team made the World Series, but the 1998 team was still the best roster, top to bottom.)  A little more than a third of the way through the regular season, these Astros are on pace to set a record for MLB wins in a season.

It's generally assumed that GM Jeff Luhnow will make a move of his own at the trade deadline, likely for a starting pitcher. There are no Randy Johnsons available this time around, but there is an interesting mix of young, accomplished, cost-effective arms, veteran rentals, and big names whom Luhnow should at least swing for.

If you're looking to put together a "watch list" of pitchers to DVR over the next six or seven weeks, this post is a good starting point. Here we go...

(Upside and contractual) A-LISTERS:

GERRIT COLE, Pittsburgh Pirates
2017 Stats: 3-5, 4.27 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
Best Season: 2015 (19-8, 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, All-Star)
2017 Salary: $3,750,000
Contract Situation: Arbitration 2018, 2019. Free agency 2020.
A former No. 1 overall pick, Cole is two seasons removed from being a 19-game winner. His contractual situation is highly desirable since he is still two seasons away from free agency AFTER this season. He's had a few shaky starts lately — his ERA was 2.84 on May 18 — but at his peak, he would be a fantastic third arm to place with Keuchel and McCullers.

CHRIS ARCHER, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 28
2017 Stats: 4-4, 3.65 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
Best Season: 2015 (12-13, 3.23 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, All-Star)
2017 Salary: $4,750,000
Contract Situation: 2018, $6.25M; 2019, $7.5M; Club Option 2020 and 2021, both $8.25M
Comment: Archer's dominant slider would fit in nicely on the Astros staff, and his contract would fit in nicely over the next four seasons for a solid to above-average third starter. Archer led the league in losses (19) last season, which you actually have to be a pretty decent pitcher to do, because it means your team keeps trotting you out there every five days. His 4.02 ERA last season is probably a better indicator of Archer's performance. Mitigating factor is the fact that Tampa Bay is still hanging out on the margins of postseason possibility, to this point of the season.

JOSE QUINTANA, Chicago White Sox
Age: 28
2017 Stats: 2-7, 5.30 ERA, 1.41 WHIP
Best Season: 2016 (13-12, 3.20 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, All-Star)
2017 Salary: $7,000,000
Contract Situation: 2018, $8.85M; Club Option 2019 and 2020, both $10.5M
Comment: Quintana is a name that's been tied to the Astros before, both in season last year and during this past offseason. If he's trying to make things less taxing on whatever team trades for him, he's doing a good job as his 2017 season has probably diminished his value slightly. He's been bad. His contract is a little pricier than, say, Archer over the next three seasons, but the team can bail after next season, and if Quintana regains his form, then they'd be paying him about what they paid Scott Feldman for three seasons.

SONNY GRAY, Oakland Athletics
Age: 27
2017 Stats: 2-2, 4.57 ERA, 1.21 WHIP
Best Season: 2015 (14-7, 2.73 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, All-Star)
2017 Salary: $3,575,000
Contract Situation: Arbitration 2018, 2019. Free agency 2020.
Comment: Gray is trying to bounce back from an injury-marred 2016 that saw him suffer multiple medical setbacks. A former first-round pick out of Vanderbilt, Gray is an older player for a guy who is still under team control for two more years. Like Cole, Gray provides a potential short-term and long-term solution if he can regain his 2015 form.


JASON VARGAS, Kansas City Royals
2017 Stats: 7-3, 2.08 ERA, 1.10 WHIP
Best Season: He's having it right now (but previously it was in Seattle in 2012 — 14-11, 3.85 ERA, 1.18 WHIP)
2017 Salary: $8,000,000
Contract Situation: Free agent after this season
Comment: Vargas is pitching way above his career mean this season, and that's fine. I think the Royals know the deal. He might be the easiest of all these to procure — a true rental, a ten-year veteran who's overachieving this season. He wouldn't be pricey, but on the aggregate, he probably blends in with the Mortons and McHughs of the world. If you're not giving up anything of real substance, could be a nice add for rotation depth.

JEREMY HELLICKSON, Philadelphia Phillies
Age: 30
2017 Stats: 5-3, 4.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Best Season: 2011 (13-10, 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, AL Rookie of the Year)
2017 Salary: $17,200,000
Contract Situation: Free agent after this season
Comment: Contractually, Hellickson is a more expensive version of Vargas, as the Astros would be on the hook for a few months' worth of a $17 million nut. A 7.73 ERA over his last three starts is a little disturbing. This is a last resort, where you're giving up some minor league scraps. (Sidebar — if Ed Wade were the Astros GM, a deal with the Phillies would be a lock. Of course, if Ed Wade were the Astros GM, the Astros aren't the best team in baseball.)

DEREK HOLLAND, Chicago White Sox
2017 Stats: 4-5, 3.43 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
Best Season: 2013 (10-9, 3.42 ERA, 1.29 WHIP)
2017 Salary: $6,000,000
Contract Situation: Free agent after this season
Comment: As rental as rental gets, I wouldn't mind seeing the Astros get Holland just because he seems to have a really good sense of humor. I mean, his Twitter handle is @Dutch_Over45, and he made this video with the great Ryan Dempster...


JOHNNY CUETO, San Francisco Giants
2017 Stats: 5-5, 4.38 ERA, 1.24 WHIP
Best Season: 2014 (20-9, 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP)
2017 Salary: $21,000,000
Contract Situation: Player options, each season 2018-2021, $21M each year; Club option 2022, $22M.
Comment: The good news? Cueto is less than a year removed from going 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA, and three seasons removed from a runner-up Cy Young season in Cincinnati. The ace-level Cueto is probably in there somewhere in a good situation. The bad news? Cueto has, by Astros standards, an absurdly expensive and player-friendly deal that takes him through his mid-30s. And I would guess it gets hairy for the Giants to commit to picking up part of the tab because the contract is essentially year to year. Cueto is an interesting name to kick around, but it's probably too costly on the money and player front.

MADISON BUMGARNER, San Francisco Giants
2017 Stats: 0-3, 3.00 ERA, 1.07 WHIP (currently on DL)
Best Season: 2015 (18-9, 2.93 ERA, 1.01 WHIP); 4-time All-Star ('13-'16)
2017 Salary: $11,500,000
Contract Situation: Club options, 2018 and 2019, $12M each season (w/ certain performance based escalators)
Comment: Bumgarner is currently dealing with a shoulder injury he suffered on a dirt bike, so he might not be the smartest tool in the shed. That said, he is a four-time All-Star in his prime on a pretty team-friendly contract. Actually, VERY team-friendly for an ace. Also, Bumgarner is a fantastic postseason performer, highlighted by an NLCS and World Series MVP in 2014. Assuming Bumgarner can pass a physical, this would be a HUGE swing by Luhnow, likely an "empty the chamber" package of minor league talent necessary, but you'd have a top three of Keuchel, McCullers and Bumgarner for at least this season and next season, and longer if they sign Keuchel to an extension. Almost certainly not happening, but hell, as long as you're making a call about Cueto...

Age: 34
2017 Stats: 4-4, 4.63 ERA, 1,46 WHIP
Best Season: Hard to top 2011, Cy Young and MVP winner, but he's had plenty of good seasons
2017 Salary: $28,000,000
Contract Situation: 2018, $28M; 2019, $28M; 2020, vests at $22M if top five Cy Young in 2019
Comment: We start by saying Verlander has a no-trade clause, so he will decide whether or not he leaves Detroit. That said, the Tigers have been pretty open about the pending roster rebuild that needs to take place. Verlander has scuffled this season, and he's 34, but he is just months removed from finishing up a season in which he went 16-9 with a near 1.00 WHIP. I'd tread lightly on the package I'd give up if I were Luhnow, and the Tigers would undoubtedly have to pick up a decent chunk of Verlander's deal, but again, it's a conversation worth having just to see if the Tigers are thinking about this.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast