Astros address ‘high priority’ with Kendall Graveman, but what about starting pitching?


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HOUSTON — Ten years ago, Dana Brown became bullish on a college senior who saved the Toronto Blue Jays some bonus pool money. Kendall Graveman got a $5,000 signing bonus before the team dispatched its eighth-round pick to an A-ball affiliate after the 2013 draft.

Then a special assistant to Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos, Brown scouted the sinkerballer during a brief minor-league career. Graveman made just 27 starts before the Blue Jays promoted him to the major leagues in 2014, an aggressive decision to commence a circuitous journey.

Brown allowed it to come full circle on Friday. In the first meaningful move of his first trade deadline as a general manager, Brown acquired Graveman from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for former first-round pick Korey Lee, a catcher blocked at the major-league level amid rookie Yainer Diaz’s breakout season.  Sending Lee to Chicago cemented Diaz as the heir apparent to veteran Martín Maldonado, who is scheduled to enter free agency following this season. On Friday, Brown called Diaz “the front-line guy for next year.”

Graveman’s arrival will afford depth to a bullpen in desperate need of it while lessening one of Brown’s winter priorities. Houston is scheduled to lose both Ryne Stanek and Phil Maton to free agency this winter. Veteran setup man Hector Neris holds an $8.5 million player option for 2024 that he could decline, too.

Graveman has one year remaining on the three-year, $24 million deal he signed after the 2021 season, keeping him with the Astros through the 2024 season alongside two-time All-Star closer Ryan Pressly.

“That’s one of the points that made him more attractive,” Brown said on Friday. “To try to go out and get a free agent next year for one year would be very difficult. We’re excited that he had the extra year and he’s a competitor and we know what he’s all about. We’re going to be able to use him a lot next year, too.”

The deal delivered two reunions: one between Brown and Graveman and another for Graveman and the Astros, who also acquired him from Seattle during the 2021 trade deadline. That familiarity mattered to Brown, who described Friday’s trade as if it solved the club’s most glaring concern — a shift from some recent comments that suggested adding a starter to the team’s injury-ravaged rotation may be more pressing.

“We’re still talking about starting pitching. If there’s somebody that wows us and if we can get a decent deal done, that would be great,” Brown said. “Although it’s not as high a priority as the bullpen was because our bullpen was really taxed and had been used a lot.”

All four of Houston’s high-leverage relievers entered Friday’s game with at least 46 appearances. Bryan Abreu had 49 — six shy of his career-high and tied with two others for the most in baseball this season. Graveman made 45 appearances of his own with the White Sox, but his mere presence will afford manager Dusty Baker more choices late in games.

“He has an outstanding track record in the playoffs for us in 2021,” Baker said. “He can close on certain days whenever Pressly (is down), can help us out in setup situations, high-leverage situations to give some of our guys a much-needed rest. We just hope we get the same Graveman we got before.”

For some of this season, Chicago did not see that version. Though he has a 3.48 ERA and 1.205 WHIP, Graveman boasts the highest walk rate of his career and the lowest ground-ball rate, somewhat concerning for a pitcher who thrives on a turbo sinker to generate ground-ball contact.

Opponents are hitting just .208 against Graveman — his lowest mark since 2021 — but his .241 batting average on balls in play is more than 50 points lower than his career mark, suggesting some fortune has favored him across an otherwise frustrating season on the South Side.

Still, Graveman did author a 16 1/3-inning scoreless streak across 16 appearances from May 3 through June 9. He yielded just two earned runs in 11 postseason innings during the Astros’ 2021 playoff run, too. At his best, the 32-year-old right-hander is everything the Astros coveted during their deadline search for bullpen help.

Brown said the two teams had been in discussions “for a few days” and acknowledged the White Sox “may have had some type of a timeline” to finish the deal. Chicago has traded five pitchers in the past three days, including starter Lance Lynn and reliever Joe Kelly to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday afternoon. News of Houston’s deal for Graveman broke about an hour after that one.

Framber Valdez’s July ERA is 7.29 after posting sub-3.00 ERAs in April, May and June. (Logan Riely / Getty Images)

In theory, Lynn profiled as the type of starter Houston still needs — a veteran innings-eater to slot between some overachieving rookies and ace Framber Valdez. As recently as Tuesday, Brown seemed bullish on the idea.

Brown seemed to shift his thinking on Friday, acknowledging the sky-high prices for starters and demand from almost all other buyers in the market. Brown does not boast the prospect capital to win a bidding war against any of them, though he brought up the team’s major-league outfield surplus as a solution.

Brown did not rule out adding another starter, but did not sound like someone on the precipice of finding one. Perhaps he remained coy to not show his hand in a competitive market, but not adding to Houston’s rotation would be a gamble. Recent struggles by both Valdez and Cristian Javier and the relative inexperience of J.P. France, Brandon Bielak and Hunter Brown only reinforce it.

Valdez has a 5.91 ERA in his past six starts. Neither France nor Bielak has thrown a pitch in a consequential September game, much less the postseason. Javier has already missed a turn in the rotation due to arm fatigue and hasn’t looked like the same pitcher who started two combined no-hitters last season. José Urquidy should return after one more minor-league rehab start, but he surrendered 10.7 hits per nine innings and had a 1.554 WHIP in his first six starts of this season.

“The prices are always going to be high for starting pitching. If we can land something that makes sense and we don’t have to mortgage the farm, we may be in business on doing that,” Brown said. “But right now, with (José) Urquidy coming back soon, we feel really good about our rotation. Our top four guys are really good, (Brandon) Bielak’s been solid and holding it down and getting Urquidy back, we feel like this is a really good rotation.”

(Top photo of Kendall Graveman: Brandon Sloter / Image Of Sport / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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