Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow finds himself in an unfamiliar position this trade season, as he’s now in the driver’s seat of a club that’s looking to buy, writes Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle. Drellich spoke to both Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch about the club’s roster and the needs they face entering the July 31 trade deadline.
Per Drellich, starting pitching remains a priority, and the team is likely focused on adding a front-line starting pitcher. Luhnow specifically mentioned a desire to strengthen a potential playoff rotation. “I still think if we are fortunate enough to make the playoffs, having a pitcher that can pitch in those first few games of the playoffs will make a difference,” the GM said. He’s made similar remarks in the past, but the stated importance of strengthening the front of his rotation with the trade deadline so near is nevertheless notable. (Of course, I wouldn’t think that Luhnow and the Astros would shy away from adding a fourth or fifth starter type either.) Manager A.J. Hinch also weighed in on the need for a pitcher: “You always feel like an extra pitcher or two would be ideal, and some of that is out of just strengthening a strength, and some of it is not really knowing what’s in store moving forward on a couple different spots on our team.”
Drellich writes that there’s little indication of serious interest in Cole Hamels, but Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija remain names of interest to the Astros. Houston faces competition in acquiring either free-agent-to-be, with a source telling Drellich that other teams vying for Cueto include the Blue Jays, Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and possibly the Royals. Many have speculated that it could be difficult for Luhnow to strike a deal with former colleague Walt Jocketty — the two “butted heads” while working together in St. Louis, Drellich notes — but multiple sources indicated to Drellich that previous transgressions between the two won’t impact the Astros’ chances so long as they make the best offer.
Regarding possible trade chips on the Padres, Drellich feels that Tyson Ross could be too expensive to pry away due to his remaining club control (through 2017), but Andrew Cashner’s one-and-a-half years of control are a more reasonable target. Ultimately, however, he notes that the Astros are expected to land a pure half-season rental.
One potential area of need that hasn’t received much focus for Houston is first base. Luhnow was candid in pointing out that Chris Carter’s production “hasn’t been there” and “it’s frustrating because we know what he’s capable of doing.” Luhnow, though, adds that Carter’s production in 2014 was particularly potent in the second half. The GM doesn’t specifically state it, but it seems like the club may entertain an upgrade at first base if Carter and Jon Singleton stumble out of the gates in the second half. “He hasn’t achieved it yet, and I’m not sure we can wait all year for something to come if it’s not coming,” said Luhnow of Carter’s production. “I believe he will get off to a quick start after the break and give us the production we need.” Drellich adds that Luis Valbuena has been taking grounders at first and could see some time there when Jed Lowrie is healthy.
Adam Lind and Adam LaRoche are oft-speculated first base trade candidates, though Drellich also wonders about a possible match with Yonder Alonso, who doesn’t hit for much power but also rarely strikes out and has a connection to Hinch, who previously worked in the San Diego front office. Michael Morse and Ryan Howard represent more expensive options that, of course, haven’t lived up to their respective contracts.
Houston certainly has the prospects to deal in order to facilitate a trade for a big name, and Drellich, interestingly, writes that the club may be more willing to move right-hander Mark Appel than top outfield prospect Brett Phillips. (Phillips ranked 21st on Baseball America’s midseason Top 50 prospects list, while Appel was 39th.)
The current iteration of the Astros’ front office is indeed in somewhat uncharted water, and they’re currently being challenged by a surging Angels club that moved into first place on the final day of the first half. As things currently stand, the Astros and Twins — perhaps the two most surprising clubs in baseball — would square off in the Wild Card playoff if the season ended today. Based on comments from Luhnow and reported information from Drellich (whose full article should absolutely be read in its entirety), it doesn’t seem like the Astros will take a passive approach and hope that the eventual returns of Lowrie, George Springer and Scott Feldman will be enough to propel them to a division title.