HOUSTON — Before battling a team already deflated by the trade deadline, Dusty Baker wondered if such a fate may befall his bunch. Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET still felt forever away, but the Astros had not matched the aggression of two American League West foes — the all-in Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels — forcing Baker to answer whether such inaction is difficult to digest.
“I wouldn’t be human if I said it’s not a little disheartening to see,” Baker said before Monday’s game against the Guardians, “but I’m hoping my team doesn’t get disheartened by that.”
If any animus exists, it is undetectable. Kendall Graveman is very well-liked inside Houston’s clubhouse and his return is welcomed, especially for a bullpen in desperate need of depth. Astros players are curious about other possible targets, but that’s true inside most contending clubhouses across the league.
One outlier sat across the field. The Cleveland Guardians awoke on Monday trailing the Minnesota Twins by a half-game in the miserable American League Central. Their front office responded by trading budding ace Aaron Civale to the Tampa Bay Rays for a prospect first baseman.
Cleveland took the field and seemed content to inch its opponent within a half-game, too. Five of its pitchers teamed to walk nine Houston hitters, throw two wild pitches and hit a batter during a 7-3 win that inched the Astros within a half-game of first place in the American League West for the first time since April 26.
Monday’s formula felt familiar, one Houston hasn’t had for much of the season. Starter J.P. France fired seven superb innings. Yordan Alvarez struck a three-run home run against Guardians reliever Eli Morgan in the sixth inning to resurrect a sputtering — albeit unlucky — Astros offense.
“We’re calm here,” Alvarez said through an interpreter. “I think we know we have faith in the team we have here and if we get some reinforcements, obviously we’re going to be happy for that, but we have faith in this team.”
Closer Ryan Pressly procured the final three outs after Ryne Stanek loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth inning and put the tying run on deck, reinforcing the premise that Houston needs to acquire another high-leverage reliever before Tuesday’s deadline.
Sources told The Athletic on Monday night, however, that Houston has shifted its focus from the bullpen back to starting pitching. The team remains engaged with the New York Mets about a reunion with Justin Verlander, although some enormous hurdles remain and it’s uncertain whether a deal will ever materialize.
A person with knowledge of the team’s plans said Verlander is not the only starter in the crosshairs. Prices for starters are still sky-high in a sellers’ market, putting Houston in a difficult position. The farm system is subpar and first-year general manager Dana Brown is here, in part, to replenish it. He has reiterated in the last few days he does not want to “mortgage” the farm — especially for a rental arm — but the current landscape suggests he may have to part with some prospects he prizes.
Whether it is Verlander, a rental like Michael Lorenzen or Jack Flaherty or someone not publicly known to be available, the Astros are in clear need of a starting pitcher. Pivoting from relievers is the prudent course of action for Brown, who can no longer hide behind his season-long assertion that his team boasted baseball’s lowest ERA.
Since June 5, a span of 48 games, Houston’s starting rotation has a 4.56 ERA. It entered Monday’s game with a 4.90 FIP across the previous 47. Across that span, only six rotations had a higher WHIP than Houston’s 1.37 clip.
Five of them belong to non-contending teams: the Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. The sixth is the Texas Rangers, who acquired Max Scherzer on Saturday and Jordan Montgomery on Sunday in hopes of lowering it. A response from Houston feels necessary.
Though his emergence continues to be one of the best stories of Houston’s season, nothing France did on Monday removes the uncertainty shrouding this injury-ravaged rotation. Nor does José Urquidy’s impending return from a three-month absence, even if Brown and Baker talk as if it’s some trade from within. It will give Houston an extra body — important given Brown’s desire to expand to a six-man rotation — but Urquidy does not provide many absolutes. He had a 5.20 ERA and surrendered 10.7 hits per nine in the six starts before he injured his shoulder.
On Monday, Urquidy said his minor-league rehab assignment is complete, although he has not been informed when he’ll next pitch. It makes logical sense for the Astros to slot him in during their four-game series against the Yankees this weekend in the Bronx.
Baker hinted that Cristian Javier will start the series opener on Thursday to give him an extra day of rest. The team liked how he responded to the extra day during his last start, when he induced 22 swings and misses across six innings of three-run ball against the Tampa Bay Rays, the type of resurgent outing Houston needed from its struggling right-hander.
Javier has already had to skip a turn in the rotation this season due to arm fatigue. He has received an extra day of rest before each of his last two starts and, given the results, it stands to reason Houston would like to continue the trend. Some scheduled off days in the second half will help, but it’s clear a six-man rotation would benefit Javier and perhaps rookie Hunter Brown, too, as he nears the 120-inning threshold.
Urquidy is built up to around 80 pitches, but did get battered for nine hits and five earned runs during his final minor-league rehab appearance on Sunday with Double-A Corpus Christi.
Results during minor-league rehab assignments are often misleading. Pitch calling, game planning and overall intensity there don’t match major-league settings. Manager Dusty Baker hinted that Urquidy was “working on some things” during his outing on Sunday, but did not elaborate. Upon returning to Minute Maid Park on Monday, Urquidy said he viewed his pitch locations and shapes from the outing and was pleased.
France has offered a rare bit of consistency to Houston’s starting rotation. Ten of his first 15 outings have been quality starts. He worked into the sixth inning during 11 of them, including on Monday, delivering the volume so many of his fellow starters could not.
In nine starts since June 10, France has a 2.50 ERA. He’s thrown at least six innings in eight of them. His emergence has been a revelation, enough to author a dark-horse candidacy for American League Rookie of the Year and cement himself as a rotation mainstay for the remainder of the season.
“I’m just riding a wave right now,” France said after Monday’s outing.
Valdez is scheduled to toe the rubber on Tuesday, perhaps with a chance to pitch his team into first place. He has a 7.00 ERA in his past five starts, another example of the Astros’ vulnerability in the starting rotation. Valdez survived just 3 2/3 innings in his last start. A bounce-back would be heartening.
Will anything before it be even more so?
(Top photo of France: Bob Levey / Getty Images)