Another trade deadline has come and gone, albeit under the most unusual of circumstances. Combine a raging pandemic, a shortened season, and an expanded field of teams in the postseason, the lack of meaningful action from most clubs wasn’t an utter shock. Outside of a handful of outliers (Padres, Blue Jays, Mariners), the deadline proceeded as expected with numerous teams content to keep their rosters intact.
But for the first time in recent memory, the Astros were downright quiet as a mouse on Christmas Eve during the trade deadline. Like, near radio silence. The only trade acquisition by Houston in the month of August was trading a PTBNL for lefty reliever Brooks Raley from the Reds.
Under normal circumstances, that kind of inactivity would be disconcerting, to put it mildly. While the Astros currently have a top-9 pitching staff by ERA (4.21) and top-14 by fWAR (3.1), it is difficult to maintain any kind of faith in a group with a 4.17 BB/9 heading into September. For context, only the Pirates, Rangers, Red Sox, and Diamondbacks have a walk-per-nine inning ratio higher than the Astros. The combined record of those four clubs in 2020: 48-87 (.355).
The bullpen, in particular, is the key problem for the Astros. After all, 20 pitchers have thrown at least one-third of an inning of relief for Houston in 33 games, which matches the 2019 total in 162 games. This unit has also posted a 5.37 BB/9 that only trails the Mariners who have a 5.76 BB/9. At a certain point it is fair to question on how sustainable a bullpen with a high walk rate can improve upon, or even maintain, its current 4.30 ERA/4.42 FIP. By choosing not to acquire a reliever or two, the Astros are banking on a bunch of rookies and Ryan Pressly. I’m sorry, but I can’t express much optimism, if any, for that plan. It is easy to envision a couple of nightmare scenarios when facing the equivalent of a Yankees or Twins lineup in the postseason with a slew of rookie relievers forced into high leverage situations.
All of that said, inactivity on the trade front in 2020 wasn’t necessarily a terrible thing. For one, the farm system is not nearly at the same strength as it was back in 2017. Or 2018. Heck, even 2019. Trading for Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke within a two-year window would certainly drain any farm system rather quickly. We’re starting to experience the ramifications of going all in for the 2017 through 2019 seasons. Plus, with one more year of zero first- or second-round draft picks, general manager James Click may be a tad reluctant to trade even more minor league talent in the most bizarre of seasons.
Secondly, when reasonably healthy, the Astros don’t have a lot of needs to address. Jose Urquidy is scheduled to be back soon along with Alex Bregman. The hope is for Verlander to rejoin the rotation at some point this month or ready for the postseason. Plus, Jose Altuve and George Springer are due for some regression, which is a good thing in this case. Click is essentially hoping that the club’s top players get healthy and start “clicking”. And, no, I don’t apologize for the bad pun.
Again, I think the Astros would’ve been wise to acquire a reliever or two to help ease the burden off of the rookies and Pressly. But this year’s trade market was likely limited as most clubs who would consider trading a decent reliever for a prospect or two didn’t as they are still in the mix for the postseason themselves. Thanks, Rob Manfred, and your decision to inexplicably increase the number of teams to qualify for the postseason.
If you don’t take anything from this rambling of post-trade deadline thoughts, just remember for the first time since 2015, the Astros didn’t consummate a trade with the Blue Jays. The end of an era, in my opinion.