From June 27 through July 24, the Astros managed to go 28 straight days without losing ground to the division-leading Texas Rangers, whittling the Rangers' lead in the American League West from 11 games all the way down to two and a half games.
For nearly a month, it was a bizarro version of what occurred in 2015, when the Astros jumped out to a huge lead in the division and watched it wither away in the second half of the season. The Astros had found their mojo, and it was just a matter of time before they would shoot past the suddenly reeling Rangers in the standings.
Then, in a matter of just a few days, like a person trying to lose weight, the Astros undid the solid month of chipping away at their goal by doing the baseball equivalent of binging for the weekend at Golden Corral — they lost two of three to the Yankees at home and were swept by the Tigers in Detroit. Suddenly, their deficit in the AL West was back up to six games. Bad times.
Well, if that lost weekend of baseball was the blow that stunned the Astros, the Rangers may have landed the knockout blow in the final hours leading up to Monday afternoon's MLB trade deadline.
First, the Rangers managed to beat out a handful of other American League teams (including the Astros) for the services of mostly-DH Carlos Beltran, sending three minor league pitchers, including 2015 first round pick Dillon Tate, to the Yankees for Beltran's services. At his age (39), Beltran's value is in his bat and that's pretty much it, but it's a bat that still has pop, as he has a .890 OPS to go with 22 home runs and 64 RBI.
Yes, Astros fans, I'll go ahead and say it — you won't sound nearly as petty and silly when you boo Beltran this weekend when the Rangers come to Minute Maid for a three-game set.
The Rangers then followed the Beltran deal with a huge chaser, securing the services of Milwaukee All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy and reliever Jeremy Jeffress, sending outfielder Lewis Brinson, right-hander Luis Ortiz and a player to be named later to the Brewers. Lucroy, who just one day earlier had rejected a trade to the Cleveland Indians, is hitting .299 with 13 homers and 50 RBIs. On top of that, he has a very reasonable $5.25 million team option for 2017.
So the Rangers acquired a DH with some pop, an All-Star catcher, and a reliable bullpen arm at the deadline.
Meanwhile, the Astros two moves at the deadline were 1) shipping long reliever Scott Feldman (2.13 ERA since his move to the bullpen in April) to the Blue Jays for minor leaguer Lupe Chavez, and 2) trading reliever Josh Fields to the Dodgers for Cuban minor league infielder/outfielder Yordan Alvarez.
Oddly enough, Feldman only had to walk over to the visitor's clubhouse to join his new team, as the Blue Jays are in town for a four-game series, and to be fair to Luhnow, given the fact that Feldman served up the game-winning run last night, maybe this was all part of an evil Luhnow caper to sabotage Toronto. ("FELDMAN IS THE THIRD MAN!!" screams Tony Schiavone.)
The Rangers' domination of the short term is frustrating enough for Astros fans, but the message the Feldman move sends (again, put Feldman's failure last night aside for a moment), at least on the surface, is some true emotional kindling. Breaking it down, the Astros sent a team they're chasing in the wild card standings a capable arm for a minor leaguer who won't be with the team anytime soon so they could save the remainder of Feldman's 2016 salary (around $2 million).
In short, they helped an opponent in 2016, didn't help themselves in 2016 and saved money. That's disturbing, and while it's not an out-and-out white flag, it carries the same traits. (Again, even if they did beat said pitcher last night.)
That said, the moment of fiscal truth for the Jim Crane regime will come when it's time to spend $20 million to keep one or more of the core nucleus pieces — Springer, Altuve, Correa, Keuchel, McCullers — in place. The signing of Yulieski Gourriel a couple of weeks ago was encouraging, but Monday was a little scary and frustrating.
This is the up-and-down life of being a Houston Astros fan in 2016.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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