Joel Sherman

Joel Sherman


Astros could face excruciating trade deadline questions if brutal start continues

The first few weeks of a season are akin to the opening rounds of a fight, a feeling-out process to see if what we believed was likely to occur, actually does. For example, the White Sox are atrocious while the Orioles’ young positional core is sensational.

What catches the attention is the unanticipated outlier. Three-plus weeks into this season, that is the Astros being bad enough to make me, at minimum, wonder: Could they actually end up sellers in July? No one expected the Mets to be deadline sellers last year, yet there they were trading Justin Verlander to the Astros.

Now, before wondering if Verlander could be traded back to the Mets this year or the Dodgers or the Cubs, forgive a detour to explain why it is still much more likely that the Astros either will be just fine or fine enough to not open a summer bazaar.

USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Start with Verlander, who returned from the IL to the rotation on Friday with six strong innings. The Astros might have Framber Valdez back from his elbow concerns as early as this coming week. Add those two to Christian Javier and breakout performer Ronel Blanco and the Astros might be able to stabilize their rotation — or more, if Hunter Brown can straighten out to help bridge until hoped-for second-half injury returns by Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr.

Going into Verlander’s start, the Astros had played the toughest schedule over the first three weeks, via Powers Rankings Guru, and projected to have the second-easiest schedule over the final five-plus months of the season.

Do we believe that the closing trio of Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly and Josh Hader actually is going to be a liability (combined 7.24 ERA) rather than perhaps the team’s greatest asset?

Sprinkle in pedigree (seven straight ALCS appearances) and does that offer belief that Houston will figure its way out of a 7-14 opening?

Three prominent public standings projection systems are not sending a message to give up on the Astros. Baseball Prospectus (all of these numbers were through Friday) at 66.5 percent and Fangraphs at 44.2 percent still calculated the Astros to have the best chance to win the AL West, not to mention 9.4 and 8.0 percent chance, respectively, to win the World Series, which in both cases were second-best to the Yankees in the AL.

Baseball Reference was the most pessimistic, projecting the Astros to finish third with a 17.4 percent division title chance. But, even at 7-14, their World Series odds (2.8 percent) were viewed better than the 14-6 Yankees (1.1 percent).

The disparate projections should reverberate how large a grain of salt to trust any of the systems. But ultimately these are dispassionate calculations warning not to abandon the Astros.

For even good teams have bad 20-game-ish stretches. The 2023 Rangers, for example, went 5-16 from Aug. 16 to Sept. 8 to tumble from leading the AL West by 3 ¹/₂ games to third place, three back. They still went on to win the World Series.

The 2021 Braves began 30-35 and won it all. The 2019 Nationals opened 19-31 and a few knuckleheads wrote wondering if Washington would make walk-year ace Max Scherzer available. Washington won the World Series. Oh yeah, I was one of those knuckleheads.

So this was a long way to say I mostly learned my lesson. I recognize how much time there is between now and the July 30 trade deadline. Teams have to play eight subsets of 20 games, and as a reminder, just in the state of Pennsylvania last year, the Pirates were 13-7 through 20 games and hinting at a breakout campaign while the Phillies were 8-12 and we were wondering if their run to the 2022 NL title was a mirage.

Justin Verlander made his season debut against the Nationals on Friday. Getty Images

But the Cardinals also were 8-12, yet because of their pedigree (no losing seasons since 2007, playoff appearances in 10 of the previous 14 years), it was perceived generally as a stumble. Instead, they were en route to finishing last, which included (among other items) a trade to Texas of Jordan Montgomery, who was so vital in the Rangers beating the Astros in the ALCS.

The Astros will not concede easily, if at all. Not with three wild cards in each league. Not with by far a franchise record payroll of more than $250 million for luxury tax purposes. Not with owner Jim Crane impulse buying Hader for five years at $95 million to try to extend the good times.

Here comes the but …

But what if these are the 2024 Astros in the way that the three weeks revealed the 2023 Cardinals? Does pragmatism have to set in? Crane’s competitiveness has compelled Houston to empty its farm system to add, among others, Verlander. The Astros have been successful in signing favorable long-term contracts with Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Javier, but have failed to date with Alex Bregman, who is in his walk year, and Valdez and Kyle Tucker, who are free after next season. If Houston believes those players are unsignable, would it have to consider moving them? How about Verlander and Pressly, who both have 2025 options — Verlander’s at $35 million (with the Mets paying half) if he reaches 140 innings?

Justin Verlander AP

And that is before pondering the nuclear scenario — do the Astros reach a point in which it is so evident this run is over and a total rebuild is needed that they should try to replicate Washington’s Juan Soto trade to San Diego with Yordan Alvarez, who has four years at $93 million left after this seasons and is in his prime as one of the best hitters in the world?

That feels very far off. Even if Houston concedes this year and becomes sellers, my guess is it would do so intending to clear enough salary and add enough prospects to build around Alvarez and try to get right back to winning in 2025.

But Verlander started Friday against Washington in a reprise of the 2019 World Series won by the Soto-fueled Nationals, who you remember began that year 19-31. The Nationals have MLB’s worst record since. Patrick Corbin and Victor Robles, central to all that losing, are the only champion Nationals who remain. Soto was traded with 2 ¹/₂ years left until free agency, which would have felt impossible not long before that.

Nothing lasts forever.