It’s helpful every once in a while to remind oneself the Houston Astros were a fourth-place team five years ago, a fifth-place team six years ago and a sixth-place team when that was last possible, which it isn’t anymore, though the Baltimore Orioles remain game in their efforts.
It’s helpful because this is not that team, nor perhaps even that vision, when the simple version of the plan was to choose expertly in the draft and smartly among international free agents and have the whole thing grow up into something presentable and prosperous.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the clock bled toward the trade deadline in the Central time zone, the Astros acquired veteran Zack Greinke, the 35-year-old right-hander who stopped aging five or six years ago. Payable to the Arizona Diamondbacks were four minor leaguers, three among the Astros’ top five prospects and another in their top 25. That’s from a farm system healthy in spite of what will soon be a fifth consecutive winning season, even a third consecutive 100 plus-win season, and that feeds a starting rotation of Justin Verlander (acquired two summers ago for three minor leaguers), Gerrit Cole (acquired two winters ago for four players), Wade Miley (signed on the cheap in late January when the free-agent market backed up on nearly everyone) and now Greinke.
The sell-offs, tear-downs, rebuilds and returns to relevance that have grown so popular, in other words, are not intended to be a lifestyle, a forever home, a shady place to stand when the heat comes. The Astros have had their share of missteps. The science is not perfect. Sometimes No. 1 picks go home. Sometimes Dr. James Andrews comes calling. Sometimes Benintendi makes the catch.
But, all things considered, from 111 whoopings in a single season to some distant trade deadline when a healthy organization with the best record in the American League has the money, the prospects and the courage to stand Zack Greinke alongside Verlander and Cole and get after it again, that’s a proud run. That’s what a baseball franchise ought to be, what it ought to look like, and what it ought to sell to its public every night.
The Greinke addition is likely to reverse at least some of the lingering suspicions the Yankees, and not the Astros, are the team most likely to draw the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The Astros were the Yankees’ equal as it was, in part because the Yankees have yet to field the roster they’d envisioned in March, but also because the Astros had a clear advantage in their starting rotation. So, while the Yankees seemed to age faster than the calendar in that rotation, and while their injured list remained hopelessly dotted with game-changers, the Astros traded on the depth of their farm system, the fact they do not play in New York (Greinke’s no-trade clause was specific in that regard) and an urgency perhaps fueled by the knowledge a team like theirs -- like anyone’s -- may not and cannot stand still. Cole can be a free agent this winter, just as Dallas Keuchel was last winter. And it seems the Astros determined two more years of Greinke at $70 million (minus the Diamondbacks’ kick-in) might be a better deal than whatever financial corner the Yankees and others would push them into during Cole’s coming free agency.
Then, as it turned out, a market that promised only a little and largely delivered, saw the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers add a couple of utility players and a left-handed reliever at the deadline. The Yankees added an A-ball lefty, the Minnesota Twins added a couple of relievers, and the Boston Red Sox added Andrew Cashner nearly three weeks ago. The San Francisco Giants largely straddled the deadline. The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves attempted to rebuild parts of their bullpens.
The Mets acquired a starting pitcher -- Marcus Stroman -- for two minor leaguers, considered moving Noah Syndergaard before removing him from the market 12 hours before the market closed, did actually trade away Jason Vargas, and will take that jump shot in the wind that is the second wild card. What remains in New York are the broader questions about why Syndergaard has been just OK for so long, why Zack Wheeler has not developed further and why Edwin Diaz has gone from must-watch to hide-your-eyes. For the moment, they are set up to make something of the next couple months, starting from five back in the wild-card race and buried in the NL East. Stroman is scheduled to debut Saturday in Pittsburgh.
The Reds, under similar circumstances, chose the less-traveled path of all-ins gone wrong, which was to continue down the same path wielding the same dull machete. Good for them, too. Following an offseason notable for their additions of Sonny Gray, Yasiel Puig, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp, followed by a regular-season notable for its dearth of offensive energy, the Reds up and traded for Trevor Bauer. In the best scenario, they get 45 starts and a relevant season (2020) out of Bauer. In the worst, they deal Bauer away for the next phase of their rebuild next June.
Meantime, baseball leaned back and eyed clubs such as the Giants, who never seemed all the way committed to or unmoved by the trade deadline. The Astros were said to have had engaged the Giants on soon-to-be-free-agent Madison Bumgarner, and likely trawled the Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Mike Minor and Robbie Ray waters, even Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman before that, and ultimately went bolder than any of them.
They had, after all, come back from all those terrible times with all those terrible teams. They’d won a World Series and felt, probably, they’d left at least another out there. They’d become among the favorites again. They’d fallen in with a good group of men who seemed to enjoy playing and living together. They were, like a lot of teams out there, a pitcher short, at least. The Yankees, for one. The Dodgers, for another. The Red Sox, Twins, Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland A’s, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. All of them and more. It was, however, again the Astros who breathed deep and made the play. Like they did with Verlander. Like they did with Cole.
They hadn’t gone through all that terrible stuff to, you know, stand in a shady place when the heat came. They haven’t been so good for so long they couldn’t remember the alternative. So the Astros came to win the deadline first and then whatever came after that.
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