Don’t allow the recent slump to throw you off. If the Astros were to keep winning games at their season pace, then by next Wednesday they’d have more wins than they did in all of 2013. By Thursday, a week later, they’d have more wins than they did in 2012, and by that Saturday, they’d have more wins than they did in 2011. By the penultimate day of August, they’d have more wins than they did a season ago. And then there would be 31 games left. The speed with which we adjust our expectations means there are people who are disappointed by how the Astros closed out the first half, but this has been a great season, a blessing of a season, a season of competitive baseball that even recently would’ve been almost impossible to imagine. For the Houston Astros, 2015 has been wonderful.
Which comes with the upside: unexpected success. Everybody loves unexpected success. It’s good for the players, it’s good for the coaches, it’s good for the fans, and it’s good for the organization. But this also comes with a challenge: figure out how to navigate the rest of the month. The Astros might’ve expected 2015 to be another year of building. Now they’re in position to trade from the long-term to try to improve the short-term. The Astros will be perhaps the most interesting team to watch in the days and weeks ahead, because if they wanted, they could be awful aggressive.
I have a poll for you. I should put it here, before I introduce any biases:
Those are the options. I suppose I left out the “sell” option, but all that would do is collect trolls in one place. I don’t want to collect them at all. So those are the reasonable options.
There are arguments for each. The Astros could elect to do pretty much nothing. They could go big, pulling off a blockbuster. Or they could compromise somewhere in the middle. We have time, so let’s run through the different potential courses of action.
The majority of the regular season is complete, and the Astros have a good record. That already makes them likely to finish with a pretty good record. By our projections, the Astros will finish about two games behind the Angels in the West, but they’ll still make the playoffs by a three-game margin. Their playoff odds are 54%. There’s also another tab, based on season-to-date numbers instead of projections. By that page, the Astros are on course to end up tied with the Angels, and they’d make the playoffs by a two-game margin. Their playoff odds are 63%. So at the moment, it’s more likely than not that the Astros are playing after game 162.
And that might be enough. That might be a good enough goal, since there’s no predicting the postseason. The Astros organization is working with a long-term plan, and within a long-term plan, there’s little reason to get too focused on short-term improvements. Why get too invested in 2015? Why not just allow it to play out? Billy Beane probably wishes in retrospect that he would’ve stood pat last summer. Midseason trades can accomplish only so much, and this year in particular seems to be a heavy seller’s market. Which means pieces would cost more than usual, more resources, more prospects. For what? A potential extra win or two? An incrementally better chance at the World Series? The season already looks like it’s going to be successful. Why not be responsible and try to make sure the next few seasons are also successful? Cycles should be about multiple seasons.
Do something little
By and large, it’s been a successful 91 games. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for tweaks, especially given that other teams will probably be active. Lance McCullers is going to have his innings managed, and it’s unclear how he might hold up. It’s also unclear how Vincent Velasquez might hold up, and there’s no such thing as having too many decent arms in the bullpen. Maybe it would make sense to have a better lefty than Jon Singleton flipping between first base and DH. Set your sights on a third-tier starter or a role player, and while you’re not getting much, you’re also not losing much. You’re plugging a hole or two, and even in a seller’s market, only so much could be demanded for a limited rental. Everybody loves, and hates, a compromise.
Do something big
The Astros have been listed among the current frontrunners for Johnny Cueto. It’s no secret they’re looking for an arm, and behind Cueto, you find Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir, among a few others. Let’s focus on Cueto, who’s about to become a free agent, and who’s due something like $5 million through the rest of the year. From here on out, one could reasonably project Cueto to be worth about 2.5 wins. To the Astros’ rotation, he’d be worth nearly two wins over what’s in there currently. Almost a two-win improvement, with Cueto. That eliminates the gap between the Astros and the Angels in the projected standings. It puts the Astros ahead of the Angels in the standings using season-to-date numbers. It greatly solidifies the Astros’ playoff chances, and it greatly improves their chances of avoiding the wild-card play-in. If any team is ever in a good position to trade for this kind of starting pitcher, it’s a team like the Astros.
You know why prices go up in July? In part it’s about the certainty of opportunity. By now, teams know more or less where they stand. The Astros plan to be competitive for a while, but a difference between the future and now is that now is fully known. This is a definite opportunity for the Astros to make a playoff run. There are no such guarantees about 2016 or 2017. Things happen. If the Astros pass up this opportunity, they could regret it. It might actually be the best chance they get, and what teams and fans want are titles.
It does look like a seller’s market. Maybe the Zack Greinke price isn’t enough to grab Cueto. But he is still a short-term rental, so the Reds couldn’t rob the Astros blind. The Astros could get the Reds’ attention by dangling, say, Mark Appel, Brett Phillips, and Max Stassi. And though other teams will be in the mix, that package could at least get the Astros most of the way there. Maybe the Reds are bigger fans of Domingo Santana. Maybe they’re bigger fans of Velasquez. The Astros could conceivably also look for something bigger and try to package Cueto with Jay Bruce. In that way they’d address both the rotation and the lineup, and while it would come at a cost, one could argue the whole point of a strong system is to allow for trades like this.
And the Astros have such a reservoir of young talent that no trade could drain it. Reduce it, but not drain it. The goal isn’t to maximize the level of young talent; the goal is to go deep in the playoffs. The Astros could do that in 2015, and it’s worth noting that if they don’t trade for Cueto, another American League contender probably would. Which would make the Astros’ odds lower. Every contending team wants to get better, and the Astros have the resources to get arguably the most better. (Samardzija would be a slightly cheaper backup plan.) (Kazmir would be cheaper still, and worse.)
Which all means this could be a hell of a half of a month. We’ll learn a little something about the Astros’ priorities. If the goal is to be a decent team every season, with a shot at seeing October, the Astros would have themselves a conservative deadline. If the goal is a World Series, though? Maybe they have a shot in 2016. They definitely have a shot in 2015. In baseball, any opportunity might be too good an opportunity to pass up.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.