Unless you’re a Delta Quadrant citizen, you know that the Houston Astros aren’t just a little bit ahead of their rebuilding schedule, they’re so thick in the thick of this year’s pennant races that you could afford to talk about them in such terms as, “What they need most right now is a starting pitcher who belongs in the front end.” And if the Oakland Athletics were willing to part with one, the Astros weren’t leery about dealing for him Thursday.
Scott Kazmir’s renaissance has brought him home. (He’s native to Houston.) And it didn’t cost the Astros more than a pair of A-level prospects who weren’t even considered among the Astros’ top prospects even if they’re both considered to have some future major league upside. Even if Kazmir proves a rental, he’s a rental the Astros could afford and who could—could—help mean a trip to the postseason.
Credit general manager Jeff Luhnow with magnificent timing, too. The Astros finished a set with the Boston Red Sox as they pulled off the Kazmir deal, facing a weekend with the Kansas City Royals and an early week to come with the Los Angeles Angels. Kazmir was scheduled to start for the A’s against the Toronto Blue Jays the same day the Astros wrapped it up with the Red Sox. And right now, coming to the end of a two-year deal that saw him re-establish himself as a front-end starter, Kazmir may be at his highest value.
Maybe the Astros can or can’t entice him to think about staying aboard when free agency time arrives this fall. Right now, he’s huge for them.
Kazmir is in the American League’s top five in earned run average. Houston ace Dallas Kuechel leads the league in ERA, ERA+, and WHIP, not to mention leading the Show in innings pitched. Behind him were Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, and Vince Velasquez. McHugh is suited best as a number three man; McCullers and Velasquez are young guns who might have caused a little alarm down the stretch in terms of work load.
Until now the question seemed to be whether the Astros could stay the course with one ace and a small pack of kids behind him. Now the question is whether they can stay there and hit the postseason now that they’ve bagged a viable number two man to take some of the pressure off those kids. Nobody’s willing to bet against it just yet, pending Kazmir’s first few starts for his hometown team. He could prove a very valuable rental.
Kazmir’s arrival and experience puts McHugh where he belongs and relieves pressure on McCullers and Velasquez as they continue to build themselves. And, it puts the Astros in a delicious position with the Royals and Angels looming. Now, they can think of sending Kazmir out to face both the Royals (if they start him Saturday night) and the Angels (on regular rest if they want him for the final game of the set). They can also think of another move or two before next week’s non-waiver trade deadline.
A few analysts see the Kazmir deal as a sign that Oakland general manager Billy Beane is all but ready to concede the season. They may have had the American League’s worst record for much of the season thus far but they did manage to crawl out of the AL West basement and put up a 30-22 record since late May that’s third to the Angels and the New York Yankees since the same point.
But in Kazmir’s fellow pending free agents Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard the A’s have a couple of more useful trade chips who might prove more attractive in that regard than the possibility that the A’s might have set themselves up for a shot at a second AL wild card. (At this writing, the A’s are five behind the Minnesota Twins for that slot—the same Twins from whom the A’s took a set last weekend.)
What did Beane get for his number two starter behind Sonny Gray? In catcher Jacob Nottingham, he gets a power hitter who also has a strong throwing arm but needs work on such things as working behind the plate to block and frame pitches and working game plans with his pitchers. In pitcher Daniel Mengden, he gets a potential middle-of-the-rotation man with four good, executable pitches, the best of which seem now to be his breaking pitches. They’re both at least two years away from major league readiness but despite their low prospect rankings they do have upside enough.
The A’s aren’t the only ones who’ve begun a likely sell-off. The Milwaukee Brewers sent veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez to the Pittburgh Pirates, the team that reared him in the first place, for minor league pitcher Yhonathan Barrios. With regular third baseman Josh Harrison on the disabled list the Pirates can’t be hurt by a little veteran experience even if Ramirez isn’t quite the same player he once was.
But he’s also not the immature kid the Pirates once shipped to the Chicago Cubs, either. Ramirez has long since become a player considered a solid clubhouse presence and, having announced previously that this would be his final major league season, he could be just that kind of influence with the Pirates in terrific position for another postseason trip.
Something unthinkable when Ramirez first came up with the Pirates in 1998, and for times enough when Kazmir was growing up in Houston.