After losing Gerrit Cole in free agency, should the Houston Astros consider trading for another starter or hope that top prospects can step up for a shortened 2020 season?
The 2020 Houston Astros are in a very weird and interesting position in several ways.
They are, whether you like it or not, the defending American League champions. They came within a game of winning their second World Series in three years. Of course that World Series win in 2017 was obtained through some degree of well-documented cheating that led to the ouster of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Lunhow and the loss of several premium draft picks.
Their replacements, Dusty Baker and James Click, now have to guide a team that is at once an entrenched contender and a scandal-laden group going through a time of transition and uncertainty. Add that to the uncertainty we all face this year with COVID-19, and you have a big tangled mess.
Much of Houston’s core group will return if and when baseball comes back in 2020. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker will all be back on offense. While Gerrit Cole left Houston for a record-breaking nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees, the Astros will still have Zack Greinke, the returning Lance McCullers, World Series breakout Jose Urquidy, the versatile Josh James, lefty Framber Valdez and Justin Verlander, who now has plenty of time to rehab after undergoing right groin surgery in March.
Whenever the season begins, Houston is going to be on a shortlist of teams along with New York, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Chicago to represent the A.L. in the Fall (Winter?) Classic. Having said all that, the Astros have a choice to make. Do they push their chips in and deal prospects for a starting pitcher to get them over the top in what’s expected to be a shortened season, or do they stand pat and try to get by with what they have?
One issue is that some of Houston’s chips were already spent last July 31 to obtain Greinke from Arizona. J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin, the Astros’ fourth and fifth-ranked prospects last year according to my former colleagues at MiLB, were traded to the Diamondbacks to not only help Houston compete in 2019 but to perhaps help offset Cole’s potential exit. Despite the Greinke trade, Houston still has its fair share of pitching prospects.
Urquidy, who turned 25 on Friday, is the Astros’ second-ranked prospect in 2020, according to MLB.com. And if you watched last year’s postseason, you know how impactful the Mexican righty can be. He allowed just one earned run over 10 1/3 playoff innings, and threw 5 2/3 scoreless frames in two World Series games against the Nationals, starting one, finishing one and earning one of Houston’s three wins.
Bryan Abreu, Houston’s fifth-ranked prospect, jumped up from Double-A Corpus Christi to make his Major League debut last season and sported a 1.04 ERA in seven appearances. At worst, the 23-year-old could add rotation depth or be traded for a more immediate need. The same can be said for sixth-ranked prospect Cristian Javier, 12th-ranked prospect Brandon Bielak, 27th-ranked prospect Blake Taylor and 25-year-old unranked righty Rogelio Armenteros, who started twice for Houston in 2019.
And then there’s 22-year-old righty starter Forrest Whitley, Houston’s top prospect and MLB.com’s 19th-ranked overall. The 17th overall selection in the 2016 Draft had a 7.99 ERA in 59 2/3 innings across four levels last season, but can be a huge x-factor if he manages to turn things around this season. But a big issue with Whitley and the rest of the prospects listed is that there might be only very little, if any, time for minor league players to develop this season. We’re already a month into where full season leagues would be and six weeks away from when short-season circuits would normally begin.
It’s going to be an awkward season for the Astros, who may not even get to be booed in road ballparks because there may not be road trips and there may not be fans in those seats if games are even played in non-neutral ballparks. But Baker, Click and the rest of the Houston staff should be comforted in knowing that there are prospects to deal for another more proven starting pitcher if they so desire during this year of transition.