12:27pm: Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reports (via Twitter) that the Astros have had talks with the Pirates about a trade that would send Cole to Houston. Young outfielder Derek Fisher’s name has come up in negotiations, though Passan notes that the Pirates “almost certainly would need Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley” to headline the deal.
The 24-year-old Fisher entered the 2017 season as a well-regarded outfield prospect and elevated his status with a .318/.384/.583 batting line in 384 Triple-A plate appearances. That led to Fisher’s first MLB promotion, though he struggled to a .212/.307/.356 slash in a small sample of 166 PAs with Houston.
Tucker and Whitley, by most accounts, two of the top prospects in Houston’s system (if not the two very best). Each is a former first-round pick, with Tucker going fifth overall in 2015 and Whitley being tabbed with the 17th selection in the 2016 draft. Both reached Double-A in 2017 despite being four to five years younger than the league average in the Texas League. Whitley displayed some of the most intriguing strikeout numbers of any starter in the minors, while Tucker posted a composite .874 OPS between Class-A Advanced and Double-A.
11:25am: The Astros have been connected to Yu Darvish at various points throughout the offseason, and owner Jim Crane confirmed to reporters today that his club is in the market for a top-shelf pitching addition (Twitter links, with video, from MLB.com’s Alyson Footer). Crane didn’t suggest that his front office is zeroed in on one particular target, instead suggesting that an upgrade could come either via free agency or trade.
“[General manager] Jeff [Luhnow] and his team are actively pursuing a high-end starter,” said Crane. “We don’t have anything done yet, and it may not come to be, but we’re constantly looking to improve the team. … We’re always trying to upgrade the team, so it would have to be a significant upgrade. We’re happy where we’re at. I’ve been told that on paper we have the best team in baseball, but paper doesn’t win titles.”
Darvish has been the most prominently mentioned name in connection with the Astros, though the free-agent market also features Jake Arrieta while the trade market could bear names such as Gerrit Cole and Chris Archer (among other, potentially yet unforeseen candidates).
Houston, of course, already boasts a stacked starting rotation. Justin Verlander looked arguably better than ever following an Aug. 31 trade from Detroit to Houston, and he’ll return to front a rotation that includes 2015 AL Cy Young Winner Dallas Keuchel, high-upside young righty Lance McCullers, and 2017 breakout stars Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. The ’Stros also have veteran Collin McHugh on hand as a solid back-of-the-rotation option and a number of high-end prospects waiting in the upper minors (including Francis Martes and David Paulino, each of whom has already made his MLB debut).
However, the Astros could also be on the verge of losing Keuchel and Morton to free agency, as each has just one year of team control remaining. While the development of Martes and/or Paulino could lead to the emergence of some internal replacements, Houston could very well see Verlander depart after the 2019 season. As such, adding a top-end starter right now would not only give the Astros an even more formidable collection of starters, it’d also serve as insurance against the possibility of losing arguably their top three starters over the course of the next two years (although Cole, it should be noted, only comes with two years of team control himself).