Going into the 2016 season, the question of "Who is the Astros ace?" had a clear answer -- Dallas Keuchel. The rotation was going to be one of the Astros' strengths, anchored by last year's Cy Young award winner and a cast of starters that ranked 3rd in the AL in FIP. Fans were confident in another strong showing by the team's rotation.
Then April happened.
Dallas Keuchel's velocity fell off. He suddenly had difficulties painting the corners of the strike zone like he usually did. Pitchers have bad months in April, but the issues lingered into May -- Keuchel posted a 6.63 ERA in May. He followed that up with a mediocre June, fans and front office could no longer look to Dallas Keuchel as the Astros' clear ace.
If the 2016's performance didn't worry you enough, there's also the Bill James adage about extreme ground-ball pitchers aging badly. "They're great for two years and then they blow up," James wrote. Yikes. If that doesn't scare you or the team's sabermetrically oriented front office then I don't know what will. Keuchel might be having the worst follow-up season to a Cy Young award ever.
Granted Keuchel is a little young for the performance drop-off that James talks about, so here's hoping that he can beat the trend. He certainly seems to thrive off of proving the doubters wrong, as he has done his whole career. Maybe Brent Strom and the bio mechanical wizards in the front office have an answer. Maybe they don't. Keuchel's downhill slide is no doubt the biggest worry the Astros have to face, and his performance has left a big whole in the team's rotation.
Looking ahead, it seems that the Astros may well be in the market for a new ace. The rotation has been decent this season, and last year's Royals showed us that it is possible to win a World Series without a dominant starter if you have an elite bullpen, which the Astros do. The Royals have been the exception to the rule though, and certainly everyone feels better about their team's chances in October with a lockdown starter to pitch 2 or 3 games in a series.
Perhaps the Astros will inquire about Chris Sale or Julio Teheran. Maybe the A's will listen to offers for Sonny Gray. There are also some options in the farm system in guys like Joe Musgrove, although it's difficult in seeing him become an immediate ace in the next year or two.
The Astros have options, and there will be guys available at the trade deadline.
The question is, are their pitching needs immediate enough that it would be wise to swing a deal now for the best starter available? Or would it be better to wait and see what the farm produces. If everyone is lucky maybe Dallas Keuchel will round back into form and the team's front office won't have to ask itself these questions. Do you still have faith in Dallas Keuchel? What would you do if you were Jeff Luhnow?