Apr 27, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Zack Greinke (23) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Potential Astros starting pitching trade targets
As the injuries to the rotation continue to mount, Houston may have no choice but to explore the trade market at some point this season.
May is certainly not the time to panic in MLB, especially for a team that is not under .500, but a rash of injuries to the starting rotation is certainly cause for some alarm. Luis Garcia is lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, and general manager Dana Brown said before the Astros’ game Sunday that Jose Urquidy is expected to be out until around the All-Star break.
With Lance McCullers Jr. having started the year on the IL and now not expected to return until June, someone has to pitch the innings that Urquidy and Garcia will not be able to for the foreseeable future.
With the cost of acquiring someone like Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani likely to be three universes outside the Astros’ desired range, and likely to have been traded Colorado Rockies starter German Marquez confirming Tuesday he would need Tommy John surgery and miss the remainder of the season, where could the Astros turn in this market?
Realistically, the Astros would not be shopping for a high-impact star starter at this time, more of an innings-eater type with a low cost of acquisition. But if a deal makes sense, Houston has shown they aren’t afraid to pull a trigger. Let’s take a look:
Zack Greinke (Kansas City Royals): Could the Astros turn to an old friend in Zack Greinke? Now 39, pitching for a bad team in KC, could Greinke be revitalized by returning to a playoff team in Houston? Greinke is still a strike-throwing machine, albeit essentially a five-inning pitcher at this point of his career. His strikeout and walk rates are still similar to his 2021 rates with the Astros, but his hit rate and HR rates are notably higher. As someone who pitches to soft contact, perhaps better fielding could also help him in addition to having a chance to get to the postseason versus playing out the string with the second-worst team in the American League, as the Royals are only better than the deliberately noncompeting Oakland A’s. Greinke is currently 1-4 with a 5.25 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, but he threw five shutout innings while allowing only three hits in his last start. His acquisition cost should be very low considering his age and contract. He has an $8.5 million salary and approximately $6 million in reachable incentives. Houston shouldn’t have to give up any kind of actual prospect in the deal, as they provide the Royals with some salary relief.
Paul Blackburn (Oakland A’s): Blackburn is 29 years old and clearly not a part of the A’s rebuild. Finally, given a chance to start regularly last season, Blackburn posted a respectable 4.28 ERA and 1.26 WHIP over 21 starts and 111.1 innings. Blackburn has been sidelined this season so far due to a torn fingernail on his pitching hand and now a blister, but these are not injuries that would cause any concerns going forward. The notoriously cheap Athletics will undoubtedly look to deal him, as they do anyone on their team, they may have to actually pay more than the minimum. He is making $1.9 million this season, with 2023 being his first year being eligible for arbitration. He is a five-inning pitcher going into his second year of arbitration and one of the few players Oakland has it can deal for prospects. Team control helps the A’s; mediocre production helps the Astros. This seems like a deal that could be made for a low-tier minor-league prospect.
Lance Lynn (Chicago White Sox): The ChiSox are already 12 games under .500 and are in serious trouble for their 2023 season, even in a division that could be as weak as the AL Central. Lynn will be 36 in about a week but has been a very solid pitcher the past four seasons, where he has finished top-six in AL Cy Young voting three times. For his career, he sports a 3.60 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, but he is off to a tough start this season. Of concern here is that Lynn pitched in the WBC and is now experiencing a velocity drop. He was throwing his usual 93 during the WBC and did so early in the season in a start against Houston, where he allowed two runs in 5.2 IP. His velocity dropped to 91 mph his next start, and he has gotten roughed up quite a bit since. He did register 10 strikeouts against the Tampa Bay Rays in his last start, going six shutout innings before running out of gas in the seventh and his bullpen just completely imploding. Currently carrying a 6.86 ERA and 1.53 WHIP, a turnaround here seems like a fair bet to take. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is a noted cheapskate and wouldn’t mind dumping the remainder of Lynn’s 18.5 million salary if the ChiSox are toast soon. Lynn has an $18 million team option for 2024 with a $1 million buyout. For now, this projects as a deal that would require a mid-tier prospect to complete, maybe two if his performance rebounds soon.
Jordan Montgomery (St. Louis Cardinals): Seeing the Cardinals 13 games under seems stunning, but there they are. They are already 9 games out of first, and even though it should be expected for the Pittsburgh Pirates to crash back to earth, the Milwaukee Brewers are legit, and the Cubs are much improved. The season could spiral away quickly for the Redbirds, and if it does, the 30-year-old Montgomery could be a trade piece. The highly underrated lefty is a free agent at the end of the season and is only making $10 million. He posted a 3.48 ERA and 1.09 WHIP between the Yankees and Cardinals last season, as St. Louis absolutely stole him in a trade for center fielder Harrison Bader. Montgomery is pitching well again this season, with a 3.29 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. The rental piece of the deal will help hold the cost down, but two mid-tier prospects would likely be required to obtain Montgomery.
Lucas Giolito (Chicago White Sox): Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Sunday that as the White Sox continue to crash and burn, the team is inclined to move starter Lucas Giolito. Giolito, 28, has been saddled with bad luck on an underachieving team, as he’s currently 1-2 with a 3.67 ERA and strong 1.10 WHIP. Giolito is earning $10.4 million in his final year of arbitration and will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Giolito’s value is slightly lowered by the fact he is a free gent at season’s end, but as a pitcher in his prime is likely to be highly pursued and drive a strong return. It would likely require a minimum of two mid-tier prospects, likely at least one top-tier prospect, to land Giolito. Trading for Giolito should also mean being committed to signing him long term. If the Astros know they can lock him into a future contract, it should make it easier to part with better prospects to acquire him. Giolito appears to have returned to his 2019-2021 form that saw him twice finish top-7 in AL Cy Young voting and make an All-Star appearance.
Understand that most deals are unlikely to be consummated until late May or June, as teams are still evaluating their circumstances and the inherent belief that they can get better returns if they wait until the deadline. However, we have seen deals go down in May and June, and the Astros may not be inclined to wait long as they have two huge holes to fill.
J.P. France had a solid debut for Houston Saturday, but was foiled in his attempt to get a win in his first career start by shoddy relief and poor fielding. Brandon Bielak is also on the major league roster, but he has habitually struggled in the starter role. Two more Astros minor leaguers on the 40-man roster, Forrest Whitley and Shawn Dubin, are both dealing with injuries themselves right now.
If the combination of France and Bielak aren’t enough to consistently give quality innings, the trade market is where the team will have to seek assistance.